TL;DR – Forest gods and spirits wage war against Iron Town, a village that is mining the resources around it, creating weapons, and destroying nature. The fates of both sides hangs in the balance and will be determined through Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi tribe, seeking to navigate a way to peace.
Review (warning: spoilers)
For all of its animated brilliance, what director and writer Hayao Miyazaki has done is create a world that is a testimony to fantasy story-telling and also raises the philosophical debate between humanity’s desire for technological advancement and its coexistence (or destruction) with the world we are meant to be caretakers of.
Themes around nature and technology run through practically every film Miyazaki has created and it is clear that he is passionate about sending a message on how we treat this little blue dot that we live in and the delicate balance that we hold in its future.
At the same time, his ability to tell such epic and sweeping fantasy and capture the imagination of the movie viewer is second to none. He is the benchmark of not only anime story telling but cinematic story telling in general.
When the Emishi tribe’s village comes under attack by a gigantic, raging demonic boar, Ashitaka intervenes seeking to defend his home and loved ones while also attempting to reason and usher the boar away. You are immediately drawn into his character as Ashitaka does not kill for killing’s sake. He is noble but not prideful. He values all life even one that has been corrupted by fear and hate. This opening scene is breath taking. Ashitaka riding Yakul, his loyal red elk, confronting the demonic boar that leaves a path of devastation and decay in its wake, and finally having no other choice but to use his bow and arrow to kill the boar lest it engulf the village. In the process, Ashitaka’s arm is infected by the curse that has engulfed the boar and later it is revealed that the boar was actually a forest god that received a wound from an iron bullet that slowly infected and poisoned him with hatred and malice and transforming him into a demon.
Thus Ashitaka undertakes a quest to uncover what evil is spreading toward the west. His journey makes him encounter two warring factions – Iron Town led by Lady Eboshi who wishes to usher in an industrial era and the forest gods led by the Wolf goddess, Moro, and a young human girl named San.
Princess Mononoke is nothing short of a masterpiece. At its heart, it speaks of how we destroy all things (including ourselves) when we hate. As Ashitaka seeks to reach a compromise between Iron Town and forest gods, it is clear that only an act of sacrifice will achieve any level of peace.
As an allegorical tale, Princess Mononoke speaks volumes of the issues we confront in society today. Whether it be carbon emissions, use of fossil fuels, global warming, climate change or the political / cultural / racial divide between people, there is much to ponder as to what the characters San, Moro, Lady Eboshi, Jigo (a monk Ashitaka encounters with his own agenda), and Ashitaka himself represents in the film and more broadly the ideas, principles and desires that drive them and how they reflect the real world.
As an epic fantasy, the glorious landscapes, the details of each character and the environments they explore, combined with the ephemeral music and the many layers of plot that explores beliefs, faith, power and human emotions, this movie is a must-see for everyone and not just anime fans.
Arguably, Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s magnum opus. It definitely cries out Miyazaki’s personal beliefs as if he is opening his heart to the masses and pleading for hatred and avarice not to overcome humanity. For me personally, I still think it is Tonari no Totoro but the two films are chalk and cheese in terms of comparison. Tonari no Totoro is a slice-of-life anime while Princess Mononoke is an epic fantasy tale. Many other people will argue other Miyazaki films deserve the title of magnum ops – Spirited Away, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arriety, Porco Rosso to name a few. Miyazaki’s canon of quality works is so varied and large that we are spoilt for choice.
Spoilt is the keyword here. Thank you Miyazaki for the dedication to your craft, your vision in animation, and your heart in storytelling. Thank you.
10 out of 10