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What's the big deal?
Princess Mononoke is an epic animated fantasy film initially released in 1997 and was written and directed by the widely respected Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli, the film depicts an alternative vision of Japan's history and sees a warrior embark on a perilous journey to distant lands to rid himself of a deadly curse. In the process, he unwittingly finds himself caught in a conflict between the forest gods and the industrious humans using the forest's natural resources. The Japanese voice cast features Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi and veteran actor and drag queen Akihiro Miwa. The film eventually received a limited release outside of Japan in 1999 courtesy of Disney and Miramax where the film's success helped establish Studio Ghibli as one of the greatest and most respected animation studios in the world. Since its release, the film has earned more than $159 million worldwide and is widely recognised by critics as one of the best animated feature films of all time.
What's it about?
In medieval Japan, a remote village is attacked by a rabid demon possessing the body of a giant boar. Ashitaka, the last prince of his Emishi people, defeats the demon in battle but is sorely injured after his arm is caught by one of the creature's dark tendrils. According to the village wise woman, the curse will eventually kill Ashitaka although it will also give him supreme strength. They discover that the boar that attacked them was the boar god Nago who came from the distant lands to the west and that the source of corruption was a small iron ball found in the body. Rather than face his impending death, Ashitaka begins a journey into the west in the hopes of lifting the curse upon him.
On his travels, Ashitaka meets a wandering monk called Jigo who tells him that his only hope may lie with the Great Forest Spirit - a reclusive deer-like creature by day but a terrifying 'nightwalker' once the sun sets. Eventually, Ashitaka arrives in the community of Irontown ruled by the benevolent Lady Eboshi which has been stripping the forest of its natural resources and relies on weapons of metal and gunpowder. Standing up to her is the wolf-goddess Moro and her adopted human daughter San, determined to end Eboshi's destruction of the forest. As he finds himself drawn into the conflict between man and nature, Ashitaka's curse begins to slowly take over...
Trailer (English version)
|Actor (Japanese cast)||Role|
Hayao Miyazaki *
Release Date (UK)
19th October, 2001
Adventure, Animation, Fantasy
What's to like?
Even if you are accustomed to the beautiful, hand-drawn animation seen in Studio Ghibli films (and if you aren't, you should be), Princess Mononoke stands out as a picture of exceptional quality. From gorgeous scenery to detailed characters full of life, it is easy to see how accomplished Miyazaki and his army of illustrators have become since the charming My Neighbour Totoro barely a decade earlier. Amid the stunning visions of life and death in ancient Japan are creatures and monsters of such originality that their appearance is initially unsettling, so alien are they to our formulaic imaginations. A film like this could only come from the mind of Miyazaki who once again provides such a rich and deep setting to reinforce his pro-environment rhetoric although it's worth noting that the screenplay, in a masterstroke, is more nuanced than that. It poses questions of both its characters and the audience, wondering how important it is that nature and humanity must coexist for the benefit of both.
The film also feels more grown-up than much of Ghibli's output. The film contains scenes of almost shocking violence with decapitations and limbs getting hacked off in battle, although these are thankfully brief. What I love best about these films is how organic and believable the characters are and this is also true of Princess Mononoke with child-like protagonists discovering the cruelty and harsh reality of the wider world around them. Even minor characters such as Kohroku's wife Toki not just provides some humour into the film but also still feel fully fleshed out in their own right, as though they have their own stories to tell amid such a chaotic backdrop. But this is such an imaginative world that it would be impossible to make in a live-action film and you can only watch a film like this and admire it for its scope, inventiveness and sheer beauty.
- The film was intended to be Miyazaki's swansong which may explain why the man himself is said to have worked on more than 80'000 individual cels out of the 144'000 used in the film. At the time of its release, it was the second longest animated film in history (it's now the fourth) and the most expensive animated film of all time. After the film's success, Miyazaki reversed his decision to retire and continued making films for many years afterwards.
- According to Japanese mythology, all wolves are considered male-voiced regardless of their actual sex. This is why the wolf mother Moro is voiced by a male actor in the Japanese version - Akihiro Miwa. In the English language dub, the voice is provided by X-Files actress Gillian Anderson.
- Having been upset by the western cut of his earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki stormed out of a meeting with then-Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein when he suggested making cuts to Princess Mononoke in order to make the film more marketable to western audiences. Days later, Miyazaki's colleague and producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana sword to Weinstein's office with the words "No cuts" embedded on the blade. Possibly in retaliation for the stunt, the film was released uncut but in a much smaller number of cinemas than originally promised.
What's not to like?
It's worth noting that this film is much darker in tone than other Studio Ghibli films like Kiki's Delivery Service or the aforementioned My Neighbour Totoro so anyone expecting a family-friendly fantasy film in the same vein as those might want to thin twice. Personally, I'd have given the film a 12 rating instead of PG - not just because of the violence but also because of several swears dropped into the dialogue and the apocalyptic atmosphere the film generates. Thematically, the film also feels a little ambitious at times - of course, the usual Miyazaki messages about the environment are in there but so too are messages about gender equality, rights for the disabled, social justice, individualism and conformity. This is heady stuff for what is supposed to be a family-friendly cartoon, something that no Studio Ghibli film should be dismissed as such.
I can remember a conversation I had with a work colleague after I watched Toy Story 3 at the cinema. I was talking about how you genuinely felt for the characters, fearing for them as their apparent doom seemed at hand and the sadness that overwhelmed you when it felt like you were saying goodbye for the last time. She expressed doubt that "a simple cartoon" could evoke such emotions from its audience but she couldn't have been more wrong. All animation has a way of getting under your skin in a way that live-action simply can't and each Studio Ghibli release feels like a wonderfully different experience, a dream-like journey through alien worlds with otherworldly characters. It's the perfect antidote to films we've become used to without realising it. Films with good and evil instead of shades of grey, films with a standard narrative instead of a story with a purpose or meaning. Films like this remind me why I love movies.
Should I watch this?
Without question, this is not just one of the best animated films ever made but also one of the best films - full stop. Princess Mononoke is an astonishing blend of fantasy, parable and beauty that will bowl over viewers new to anime as well as those used to the medium. It's also a testament to the genius of its creator Hayao Miyazaki, an animator who is as visionary and talented as the likes of Walt Disney himself. No wonder many animators now cite Miyazaki as an inspiration, thanks to wonderfully epic pictures like this.
Great For: cinema lovers, Miyazaki's reputation, Japanophiles, Greenpeace activists
Not So Great For: anyone who struggles with subtitles (haven't heard the dubbed version but given the quality of the English language cast, it should be good), people who processes things literally, anyone without Netflix
What else should I watch?
Studio Ghibli have carved themselves a beloved niche in the hearts of animation fans all over the world since they emerged in 1986 with Castle In The Sky. With Miyazaki the driving force behind the studio, they have an enviable back catalogue of films like My Neighbour Totoro, Grave Of The Fireflies, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle. Such is their dominance of anime in Japan that six of the top ten grossing animated films are theirs. As for Miyazaki, he has been in semi-retirement ever since The Wind Rises in 2013 but he is rumoured to return later in 2020 with the much-anticipated How Do You Live?, although no official release date has been confirmed.
I find it sad that, when you compare anime to more western animation, Studio Ghibli don't really have a counterpart. Yes, Disney still produce animated movies when they aren't buying up every intellectual property they can snaffle up but in truth, only Pixar can come close and even then, they have to be in the mood for it. While they still produce box-office busters like Cars or Brave, they can also produce some genuinely groundbreaking cinema. Up is a genuinely heartbreaking adventure with a widowed pensioner literally drifting away from his problems but my all-time favourite is WALL•E, a gloriously uplifting sci-fi adventure that also contains powerful messages about climate change and the dangers of over-consumerism. That such a film was distributed by Disney did strike me as ironic.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox