Princess Mononoke (1997)


“There’s a demon inside you. It’s inside of both of you” – Ashitaka


“These days, there are angry ghosts all around us – dead from wars, sickness, starvation – and nobody cares. So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” – Jigo

This review is going to be the death of me. I started writing it before Totoro, and I still can’t get it right. This is my third time starting it. By the time I post it, who knows how much of the original review will still be standing. 

 Why am I putting so much time and effort into this review? Because I LOVE this movie. I respect this movie. It is perfect. It was such an important movie to Miyazaki, and it was his self-proclaimed masterpiece (he was actually planning to retire in 1997 after this movie – thank goodness he didn’t!). You can see the love, detail, and time that went into this movie. I’m taking so much time on this review because I want to do this movie justice; it deserves that. Even then, I’m afraid what I have to say won’t be enough. 

 Mononoke is Miyazaki’s environmental epic masterpiece. This movie did what Nausicaa couldn’t. It took all his ideas that he had spent years exploring and turned it into an amazing movie with beautiful animation, complex characters, messages that aren’t completely in your face, and a plot that is as complex and beautiful as everything in it. 

 Before I discuss the plot, I want to explain a bit of historical context, because it is actually important in this movie. You can still watch it without knowing these things, but knowing a bit of Japan history adds to the realness of this movie and might help you understand motivations of some of the characters a bit more completely. This movie is set in feudal japan (the Muromachi period to be exact: 1337-1573; probably near the beginning) at a time when the emperor was beginning to have an influence over the people, industry was taking over, and the native tribes of Japan were being integrated into the general population or hunted to extinction. Although this stuff is mentioned in the movie, you’d have to be at least knowledgeable in Japanese history to recognize the names and the time frames people are talking about.

 Very simply put, this movie centers around our protagonist, Ashitaka, as he tries to undo a curse that has been put on him by one of the Boar Gods (turned Demon) of the old forests. To do this, he must travel to the old forest to the west, where the Boar God (named Nago) was “infected” and plea to the forest spirit to lift his curse before it destroys his body and his soul. Once he travels there, he finds himself in the middle of a raging feud between an industrial settlement called Irontown and the old Gods of the forest and their human “child” San. He finds himself straddling both sides, all the while attempting to rid himself of the curse that is slowly taking over his body. The hatred between the two sides rises into a full on battle, and there’s a plot to kill the forest spirit and bring his head back to the Emperor. 

 The plot, for the most part, seems pretty straight forward, and to a point, it is. But at the same time, it’s extremely complicated, because there are all these characters, and each of these characters wants something so badly. There’s more going on then the stuff in the big central plot, but to be honest if I explained EVERYTHING this review would be so incredibly long. I could explain every little part of the plot, and the plot itself would last about three pages. I would love to do that, but it detracts from what this movie is really about.

 I will say this only once: This is NOT a children’s movie. This is very much an adult movie. It’s bloody, violent, deep, and as a kid, you wouldn’t understand much of it. The first time I saw this movie I was a teenager, and I still didn’t quite “get” it. I pick more out of it every time I watch it, and I love it the more I watch it. 

 I’m going to start by talking about our characters. This movie has no shortage of extremely deep, complex, intriguing characters. What I find the most interesting in this movie from Miyazaki’s others is that while there are arguably villains and “good guys,” the line between them is very fine. In the beginning of the movie, you go “oh ok, I know what’s gonna happen – she’s going to be our villain.” and it’s true… to a point. As the movie progresses, you realize that everyone is a villain and everyone at the same time is not. Miyazaki managed to paint humanity realistically instead of ideally. They’re just all people trying to survive: pushed to the brinks to do what they have to do to stay alive. Every character in this movie has good qualities and bad – even our “villain.” So here we go. This is going to be fun.

 Our protagonist, as I mentioned before, is Ashitaka. He is the last prince of the Emishi people, a tribe that will eventually die out. He rides a red deer named Yakul, and when the God turned Demon Boar Nago attacks his village, he attempts to calm it first before he will kill it. He speaks throughout the movie with respect for the forest and for the Gods, but at the same time, when he is in irontown, he does not judge those that are there (except maybe their leader Lady Eboshi – we’ll talk about her next). I must admit that he does act selfishly during the film, but it’s understandable – he’s trying to rid himself of a curse that will kill him. He is hesitant to involve himself in either side of the feud, instead attempting to do what he came there to do: “See with eyes unclouded with hate.” As the movie progresses, it’s even a sort of running conundrum with the other characters, as they typically remark “just what side is he on anyway?” Ashitaka is on no one’s side. he’s on his own. He’s doing what he can to survive, and doing what he can to attempt to teach others about hate while trying to get the curse lifted. In the english version he’s voiced by Billy Crudup, who I think does an amazing job. He delivers every line with anguish and conviction. By the end of the movie he’s tired, and it easily comes through. He’s great, and the character is great and very interesting.

 Next I want to talk about Lady Eboshi and Irontown. Lady Eboshi is the woman who runs irontown, a place where they produce the iron balls for guns, canons, and construct rifles and other things. It’s a place of forward thinking industry and progress. When we first meet her, as i mentioned before, you go “oh ok, she’s our villain.” She is confident and full of herself, and you could see her being a bit crazy. but… is she the villain? most people who watch this movie might say yes, she is, even when all is said and done. But I don’t. Here’s why: sure, she is destroying the forest. Yes, she shoots at the Gods. But to be fair, they typically attack first. She is part of the way Japan is moving – toward industry. In her mind, the forest and the old Gods that live within it are no longer a part of her life. to her, they’re not even “real.” Instead, they’re just giant talking animals that try everything in their lives to destroy what she’s trying to do and hurt her people.

 Lady Eboshi is a tough woman. She takes a hit and keeps on fighting. She’s willing to sacrifice some in Irontown for the safety of the masses. In lots of ways she is very unforgiving and could easily be seen as a villain. But at the same time, the people of Irontown LOVE her – she has rescued women out of the brothels and lepers to come and work for her. She is respectful to them, and has a good sense of camaraderie with those in her town, despite the fact they are working for her. Her men and women would do anything to protect her. She is, in fact, a good person. Again, she is just trying to survive. She is trying to do her job, and in her mind, full scale war against the forest is the only way she can see to do that. Hatred has entered her heart when it comes to the forest and the Gods. Instead of trying to work together to find a solution, she sees that as a lost cause, and she is apt to destroy them.

 So yes, that may not be the best way to handle the situation, but in a lot of ways, you can’t blame her. The forest Gods are unforgiving as well, and many times they attack unprovoked to protect their forest. There are many forest Gods we see in this movie. We see Nago, the demon Boar in the beginning. We see much of Moro, the wolf God, and her pups. We see the ancient Boar God Okkoto and his “children,” although they are much smaller and lack the ability to speak. Just like the Emishi people, they are dying out, growing smaller and stupider, as Okkoto puts it. We see the Gorillas, although they are not involved as the Boar and the Wolves are. They, like Eboshi and Ashitaka, are just trying to survive. A threat has come upon their forest, and they are acting to protect it. Okkoto acts as the completely insane one – his heart is set on revenge and he believes the only way to get over this is by killing all the humans. Moro, on the other hand, is a bit more reserved, and she is smarter. She despises the humans as well, but knows full fledged war won’t get her what she wants. Part of this might stem from the fact that early in the movie she gets shot and carries an iron ball in her shoulder (this is also what was pulled from Nago). She knows she is not for this world, and almost refuses to get involved. Her pups, on the other hand, get involved. A big part of that, though, has to do with San.

 San is who this movie is named after. Mononoke-hime in Japanese (the name of the movie) translates literally into “The Spirit Princess.” San is Moro’s adopted human daughter. She’s like the Tarzan of this movie, but doesn’t have any want to think of herself as human. In fact, she despises humans and aligns herself quickly with Okkoto and his tribe of boar. She is like them – she wants nothing more than for the humans to leave her forest alone. She’s stubborn and Naive, feisty and strong. But she too, is blinded by hatred. She wants to personally murder Eboshi, and probably would have had it not been for Ashitaka in their first meeting. At times, she doesn’t know what to feel about him: he’s a human, but he understands the forest, and Yakul trusts him. She at one point tries to kill him but can’t. he’s the connector between her world and the human world, and it can be argued that he makes her more “human” as the movie progresses. not to the point she wants to live in Irontown, but he helps her calm her rage, and by the end of the movie, the two share a deep connection and understanding and is incredibly believable.

 Next I want to talk about Jigo. I would call him a minor character. There are a few more minor characters in Irontown I could mention, but their existence is there to remind us that they adore eboshi, but at the same time learn to respect Ashitaka as well. Jigo is another story. He’s an old monk that Ashitaka first meets on his way to the West. Jigo tells him to go to Irontown. Later, we see him in the forests near irontown and learn that he has been hired by the Emperor to decapitate the spirit of the forest and bring him his head. What kind of symbolism this is – geez, not hard to guess. “Show me that the forest and the native people have been tamed and that industry is supreme!” Yeah. Anyway, needless to say our climax for this movie is when he actually does succeed, and they must deal with the repercussions. Jigo is actually who I would call the villain of this movie. Although he’s not really in it that long, and he’s not really a bad person per se (again, he’s just doing his job), he’s really the only person that you don’t get to know well, and as such he just seems a bit more slimy than the rest. He comes with men dressed in bear and boar suits to trick Okkoto, and they use him to lead them to the sacred pool where the forest spirit lives. I feel like Eboshi would never stoop this low, even though she wishes the Gods gone.

 The forest spirit is the last “character” i’m going to talk about. He’s not a central character, but then again he is. He’s the main God. He’s who Ashitaka pleas to to get rid of his curse (but he doesn’t.) He’s the one who takes life from those who are suffering (such as Moro and Okkoto). He makes the trees grow and the flowers bloom. He is sort of in the background of the entire movie – the ever watchful God who knows not good from bad but just has his own set of rules to live by. Could he have stopped his head getting blown off? Probably. But that’s not what happened. Was it to teach a lesson? Did he know that his demise would mean peace for the others? Who knows. In the movie he’s depicted as a sort of deer like animal with a human-like face and feet of a bird. It’s strange in the english version, and this was one of the most difficult things to translate because this creature is in Japanese mythology. He has a specific name that is hard to translate into english. So instead we got the kinda bland “forest spirit.” Honestly? I think they did a really good job. We get who he is and what he does. We get that he’s important, benevolent, but harsh. 

 Ok. Enough with characters. I want to talk about this curse that Ashitaka has growing upon him. In the movie it manifests itself on him as this strange brown and reddish rash that starts on his hand and spreads until near the end of his movie, where it’s over most of his torso as well. It was a curse spread from Nago, the Boar God, to him in his last words hoping that he would die a horrible death full of hate, much like he did. Here’s the thing about this curse though. When we see Nago first, he’s a demon – he has these red tendrils growing out of him to the point where we can’t even tell he’s a boar. The Emishi people pull an iron ball from the boar, and its believed that this is what caused him to turn into a demon. But here’s the thing: Moro gets shot as well, and we see her eventually fade away into nothingness. She does at one point say that she doesn’t wish to turn into a demon as Nago did. So we never see her grow these tendrils. Okkoto, on the other hand, wounded from the battle, eventually gets these same tendrils. Did he also get shot? We don’t know. He’s injured, but who’s to say it’s from a rifle? It could have been from the bombs. Yet he has these tendrils, just like Nago did.

 Ready for what I (and possibly the rest of everyone?) thinks? It’s hatred. it manifests as those tendrils if you let the hatred overcome you. At one point, Ashitaka’s rash manifests into ghost tendrils, and he remarks “See? this is where the path of hatred has led us!” It happens at a time when he’s fed up with everyone and lets the hatred overcome him. It’s seriously cool. The mythos and rules and everything are so deeply rooted in this movie that it somehow intuitively makes sense, even if you watch this movie and go “wait, so what was that again?” 

 I DO want to talk about the dub, because it is widely held not only to be the best of the Miyazaki dubs, but possibly the best dub ever done. As I’ve mentioned in some other reviews, sometimes when a movie is taken out of its original context, some of the meaning of the movie is lost in translation. This movie (and I have seen the Japanese version of this movie as well) is as close to Miyazaki’s original intent as it possibly could be. It’s a testament to the respect that Miramax and Neil Gaiman gave to this movie. I know I’ve talked about Neil Gaiman on here before, but he is such an amazing fantasy writer, and he takes his subject so seriously that I can’t imagine anyone better to have written this movie. He made sure the lessons, context, and feel of the movie stayed the same. It’s truly amazing. It’s also an interesting thing to point out that this IS a miramax film, not a Disney one. There’s an interesting reason…

 Miramax, at the time (dunno if it still is) was owned by Disney. They have the rights to all of Miyazaki’s movies, and in 1997 when they got this movie, they attempted to edit it down, taking some of the more violent parts out (namely, the parts where Ashitaka’s cursed arm makes him superhuman, literally shooting the arms and heads off of people). Miyazaki would not have this, and told them if they couldn’t release it in its entirety, they shouldn’t release it at all (I don’t actually know if this was what was said, but I imagine something like that going down.). To compromise, Disney shuffled it to Miramax, it’s more adult movie oriented studio. They left the parts in, released it, and I believe it did okay here. it definitely wasn’t as big of a hit in the US as it was in Japan, where it was nominated for the equivalent of a Japanese Oscar (it was kinda a big deal there to for animation to be nominated, much like Beauty and the Beast when it was nominated here). 

 On the animation side, this movie is beautiful. this was the last cell drawn animated movie for Miyazaki (at least for a while), and it shows. It’s not as fluid as some of his later movies, but it is oh so incredibly beautiful. It’s watching movies like this that make me miss hand drawn animation. But then I revel in the fact that Studio Ghibli is still doing them. the details are beautiful, the landscapes are vast. It feels as if you are actually part of a real world, as opposed to being in a “movie world.” Like this would actually be places you could go. I have to mention the music too, because it is incredibly epic. I’ve only bought a handful of instrumental music from movies, and this is one. It’s beautiful, epic, and helps the movie convey the emotions it does so well through other means. 

 I could literally go on and on about this movie. I could show you clips of things I love, or discuss how well Miyazaki tied in the ideas of anti-war and environmentalism. But Honestly? I feel as if this is good enough. If anyone is interested, this video review of Princess Mononoke, I feel, is pretty thorough. I watched this and it honestly made me think more about the movie. It didn’t necessarily change what i thought about it (actually it made me realize I’m not the only one who thinks all the stuff I just wrote), but It’s very good. It’s long, but worth the watch if you’re a fan.

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 It touches on a lot of the same things I talked about, but goes a bit more into depth as well as giving you a look at the movie. You can tell she loves this movie as much as I do, and honestly I can say that of a lot of people. This is one of my island movies. (as in – if you were stranded on an island and could only take 5 movies, what would they be?) It may be my favorite movie of all time. It’s long and serious, but as soon as I finish watching it, i want to turn around and watch it again. Writing this review almost a month after I watched it makes me want to watch it again. Watch it and find out for yourself why this movie has such avid fans.

 I give Princess Mononoke (big surprise here..) a 5 out of 5. I really can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s perfect and flawless. And that cannot be said of many movies.

 What I find interesting is this isn’t the movie that made Americans fall in love with Miyazaki. That’s next.

 Up Next: Spirited Away (2001)


2 thoughts on “Princess Mononoke (1997)

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