I had an oddly intense debate with myself as to where to put this one. It was an anime, so surely it would be better off in the Saturday slot. But it’s a movie, so… wouldn’t it be better off in the Monday slot? In the end, I decided two things. One: it didn’t matter. Two: I didn’t have anything else I wanted to talk about anime-wise at the moment. So… here we are.
Buckle up, by the way. Because this is gonna be a long one.
Studio Ghibli is known for cranking out masterpiece after masterpiece. Among all of those, two of them pop up over and over again, at least in my life. The first is Spirited Away, because of course. And the second is this one, Princess Mononoke. Whenever I talk to someone new about Ghibli, one of the first things I hear is “Dude, have you seen Mononoke?”
To which I respond “Tell you what. You go watch Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, and I’ll go watch Mononoke for you.” I’ll fail to mention that I’ve already seen this movie several times.
Princess Mononoke truly is one of the greatest anime films ever made. Not just because of its beautiful animation and score, although those certainly help it out quite a bit; we’ll get to that later. It’s the story, which explores complex themes and characters with nuance and grace. It’s a truly incredible movie that deserves its good reputation.
The question is: where do we start? Well, I think there’s only one answer for that.
Story: Man VS Nature
*Deep breath* Alright. There is a lot to talk about here. And I don’t intend to leave any stone unturned. So… get a bookmark ready if you’ve got places to be today.
Princess Mononoke stars Ashitaka, the last prince of the Emishi people. When his village is attacked by a demonic boar, Ashitaka strikes it down, but gains a terrible curse upon his right arm in the process. Turns out, that demon was once the boar god Nago, who transformed because of an iron ball trapped in his body. Now, Ashitaka, under the wisdom of the village elder, must forever leave his home, travel west, and find a cure for the curse that will eventually take his life.
His travels take him to Irontown, a town led by Lady Eboshi, which is frequently attacked by wolves. Among these wolves is the wolf god Moro and San, a human girl who has forsaken her humanity and taken up arms to defend the forest and its guardian, the Great Forest Spirit. Caught in this conflict, Ashitaka struggles to find a solution that will bring peace to both sides without bloodshed. But his efforts may very well be in vain.
On a base level, this movie’s narrative is spectacular. The characters are diverse and interesting, playing off of each other super well. The conflict is simple but engaging, building up to one of the most tense and dramatic finales I’ve ever seen in an animated movie. The ending is satisfying, yet open-ended, giving the audience plenty to think about.
Not that it needed to. The rest of the movie already gave plenty to reflect on.
The greatest thing this movie does with its conflict is create ambiguity. No one said is painted as ‘the bad guys’ or ‘the good guys’. We spend more than enough time with each to learn how they work and to empathise with them. We know that the conflict isn’t as simple as some of the characters believe it to be. That puts us well in Ashitaka’s shoes; we wonder, just as he does, if there really is a way to end the battle between them peacefully, to change them both for the better and get them to coexist.
This is why Lady Eboshi is my favorite character. She’s not some mustache-twirling villain who wants to burn the forest down to make money. Nor is she some blood-thirsty conqueror who wants to rule the world. Yes, she makes the weapons and tears down the forest to get at the iron she needs to do so. But she also provides a safe haven for women without homes and provides work for cripples who wouldn’t otherwise be able to survive. She’s honorable, honest, even kind! In any other story, she’d be the hero!
The Great Forest Spirit is similarly interesting. When it’s introduced, it’s easy to get the idea that the day time version is gentle and benevolent while its other form, the Nightwalker, is deadly and cruel. But as we see later, it’s a bit more complex than that. The Spirit isn’t just good by day, bad by night. The day form can straight-up choose to kill those that worship it if it decides that’s what needs to be done. You can even see it in its walk; sometimes, flowers rise and bloom with each stop, others, they wither and die. This ambiguity gives the Spirit an air of mystery and intrigue whenever it’s on screen. You never know what it will do whenever it’s on-screen!
The major themes of the story work well into that ambiguity as well. Simply put, it’s nature VS progress. It explores how the advancement of technology can affect the world in both positive and negative ways. We see how it helps humanity thrive while it brings death and destruction to those living in the forest. It brings us back to that central question: can these two differing sides, that seem to conflict by their very natures, truly coexist?
The writing in this movie is absolutely fantastic. I could go on and on. But this article is long enough already, and I still need to talk about the presentation. Which is what some people may call a transition.
Presentation: where do I even begin?
Saying that Ghibli movies have amazing animation really won’t ever do them the justice they deserve. The fact of the matter is, these movies are downright iconic in terms of their visuals. They are the pinnacle of Japanese animation.
Yet, even with all that pressure pushed atop it, Princess Mononoke is somehow even better. Is that an entirely subjective statement? Yes. But I’m sticking with it.
This movie is smooth, colorful, and otherwise just downright beautiful. Every single motion, whether it be the simple stride of a character’s walk, the path of an arrow, or a man’s decapitation (I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that Disney localized this movie back in the 90s, when they were at their most child-friendly), is so damn smooth and fluid! It just looks incredible in motion!
The environments are also wonderfully distinct! Irontown is drawn mostly with dark colors and reds while the forests are dark with a more greenish color pallet. Not only do they stand out beautifully from each other, but it also adds a beautiful, subtle similarity between the two. While they are distinctly different, there are a few little similarities between the two, which, again, play well into the themes and story of the movie.
And the attention to detail! My God, I can only imagine how long it took to draw all this! From the subtle glimmer of metals and crystals to the most minute motions of a character’s clothes in the wind, this movie doesn’t leave a single bit of it untouched! It’s this devotion that makes this movie so immersive on a visual front!
Then, of course, there’s the music. This soundtrack is downright gorgeous! Whether it be a little tune sung by the characters or a beautiful orchestral piece put on in the background, each piece fits the world, characters, and story perfectly! It’s just as beautiful as the animation it was made to accompany!
Unfortunately, I do have one little criticism: the voice acting. Normally, Ghibli movies have pretty decent English dubs; I usually watch the movie subbed first, then dubbed to get the full visual experience. But for whatever reason, the Mononoke dub got on my nerves. It felt like the voice actors didn’t fully understand what they were saying or what their character was about. They’re not hilariously awful, they’re just… kinda meh.
Luckily, you can still watch the movie with subtitles, so this isn’t much of a complaint. In fact, in the face of all that this movie does well, it really doesn’t matter at all.
Ghibli’s reputation is legendary. They’ve earned that reputation time and time again with so many classic movies. My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, all of them are masterpieces. But the one I’ll always come back to, the one I feel is a true, nigh flawless piece of animated cinema.
Although it will never conquer the spot in my heart that Nausicaa possesses. Seriously, not nearly enough people have watched that damn movie.
Let’s be honest: you’ve already watched this movie. You’ve probably seen it more times than I have. But if you somehow haven’t, then you already know what I’m about to say: fix that. Watch Princess Mononoke. It is one of the most beautiful, lovingly crafted movies ever made. It is a true masterpiece.
I don’t have anything witty to wrap this up with. Just go watch this movie. Like, right now. I’m serious. Get back to me after you do. I can wait.
In fact, I think I’ll go watch it again myself. Scratch that ‘get back to me’ thing.