Princess Mononoke is arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s largest film by scale since 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and it is also his second greatest achievement as a director. There aren’t many animators who bring so much life to their worlds quite like how Hayao Miyazaki does it, but for every bit as imaginative as these movies can get, the impressiveness of how immersive these films are is reflected beautifully through their real-world parallels. In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki finds himself taking upon a very complex moral standing through a war being waged between nature and humanity – and every moment of it is as beautiful as one could ever hope for it to be.
This film takes place during the Muromachi period in Japan, starting off fittingly with the prince Ashitaka fighting off a demon. When the demon is defeated, Ashitaka’s right arm is cursed, which later sets him off on another adventure in order to find out the root of nature’s upset. This is where his journey causes him to cross paths with San, a peculiar woman raised by wolves with a resentment for humanity and Lady Eboshi, an idealistic village leader who seeks to destroy the forest by consuming its resources. In establishing a middle ground through the character of Ashitaka, Miyazaki never shies away from the conflicting morals at play – being the pacifist he is, but it also makes for one of his most thoughtful works to date.
Miyazaki has always been a highly humanistic filmmaker, a recurring theme from most of his work. Even as he creates what easily is his most violent film to date, Princess Mononoke might also be his most highly pacifistic work too. There’s never a moment in Princess Mononoke where Hayao Miyazaki ever looks upon its characters beliefs with a sense of resentment, but the film’s strengths come clear when one comes to consider what Miyazaki shows through the grand scheme of things. At the core of Princess Mononoke, you have a film that embraces nature more than anything as Miyazaki beautifully illustrates the worlds inhabited by humans and animals alike, but it never looks at its characters within broad strokes in order to invite a more thoughtful commentary.
There’s no defined “villain” per se in Princess Mononoke (if anyone were to come close, then it would be Lady Eboshi), but thisalso makes the central conflict of the film all the more thoughtful. With Miyazaki’s primary focus being the long-lasting effects of the characters’ actions in the long run, Princess Mononoke turns a familiar dynamic into a highly captivating journey, exploring how humankind continually finds itself corrupted by its distorted desires at the expense of the world they inhabit. Miyazaki approaches this in a very nuanced manner, with Eboshi still remaining an honourable “villain” of sorts, whilst remaining sympathetic towards San and her resentment of humanity’s continuing eradication of nature – and thus, her own home and those she loves most.
As expected for the course of a Hayao Miyazaki movie, it is incredibly beautiful, but it also stands as one of his finest technical achievements to date. Every moment of this film truly feels epic, in order to capture the scope of what Miyazaki captures within this story, but most importantly, it’s always enthralling to watch. Whether it be smaller, more intimate moments in which Miyazaki encourages his audiences to reflect upon the actions of his characters and the parallels that can be made with a contemporary reality, or the beautifully detailed battle sequences (possibly among the best ever put on film), there’s always something that catches the eye in Princess Mononoke. Simply calling this movie spectacular would only be covering one level of this film’s greatest successes, but every aspect from the visuals to Joe Hisaishi’s music only adds up to create something all the more astonishing. The stakes have never been nearly as high in a Miyazaki film since Nauiscaä of the Valley of the Wind, and Miyazaki delivers on every count, building up tension from the start all the way to the end.
Princess Mononoke may not be my favourite of Miyazaki’s films, but it more than just earned the reputation it has established for itself over the years. It’s not like many other animated films that I’ve ever seen, being able to capture an epic feel that could only be rivaled by films like Lawrence of Arabia or Seven Samurai, whilst feeling every bit as intimate in its smaller moments. But as far as Miyazaki’s pacifist beliefs can go, no other film in his body of work captures that better than Princess Mononoke does, even while it may be his most violent film thus far. This isn’t simply a war between man and nature, but a war to reclaim what once was stolen by the outsiders. There aren’t many films that address such issues with the same thoughtfulness that Miyazaki incorporates, whether they be animated or live action – and it adds up to make Princess Mononoke one among the most gorgeous, and greatest films of its kind.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Toho.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Starring Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Akihiro Miwa, Mitsuko Mori, Hisaya Morishige, Sumi Shimamoto (original Japanese version)
Starring Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett Smith, John DeMita, John DiMaggio, Debi Derryberry, Gillian Anderson, Keith David (Disney dub)
Release Date: July 12, 1997
Running Time: 133 minutes