#7 Princess Mononoke
(1997, Hayao Miyazaki)
“She is neither human nor wolf”
Hayao Miyazaki has earned himself the reputation of being the Japanese Walt Disney. The reasoning behind this is both Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli and Disney produce absolutely gorgeously animated productions, setting incredibly high standards for animation. There is a flaw to this comparison though. Miyazaki movies have a depth that many Disney movies tend to lack, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Princess Mononoke.
Set in a fantasy version of ancient Japan, the film follows Ashitaka, prince of a small hidden tribe. A demon comes to his village one day, and in fighting it off, he becomes cursed. This leads him to leave to seek out where the demon came from in hope of finding a cure. This leads to him getting caught up in the conflict between the humans of industrial Iron Town and the spirits of the forest they’re slowly destroying. There is also the appearance of San, a human girl raised by the wolves of the forest, and the mystery surrounding her.
Many of Miyazaki’s movies feature a strong environmentalist message, and Mononoke is perhaps the most blatant, consisting mostly of a war between humanity and nature. But unlike many other animated movies about the importance of the conservation of nature that were so prevalent in the 90s, this has great depth, choosing not to present humanity as fundamentally evil, just misguided. By contrast, the forest spirits, representing nature, are not innocent and helpless. They’re innocent in the fact they were attacked, but at the same time, they are often presented as fairly savage and quick to pass judgement on humanity as a whole based on the actions of a few.
One key scene that demonstrates the ambiguity of good and evil in the movie comes through Ashitaka’s introduction to Iron Town and its leader, Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is presented as a stern businesswoman who will stop at nothing to destroy the forest to enable her to mine its resources much more effectively, but at the same time, she’s shown as being very kind and charitable to her fellow humans. She has taken in lepers, bandaged their wounds, and found a purpose for them. She has freed prostitutes from a life of servitude and given them important work to do. All her workers are treated with respect and rewarded accordingly. This character trait changes her from a one-dimensional villain into a much more realistic character, and it contributes to the effectiveness of the movie as a whole.
Characterisations aside, the story is fascinating. Taking elements from Japanese history and applying Miyazaki’s glorious fantasy, the movie is an epic. There is a whole invented mythology hidden away within the movie, and the plot could have easily become bogged down in defining this fantastic world. However, Miyazaki chooses to stick to basics, making it all simple to grasp as the story progresses.
Of course, this being a Ghibli movie, the animation is superb. There is a great attention to detail, from the visual representation of the demon curse to the realism of the wolves of the forest. The character designs are visually striking and memorable. And the backdrops to all of this are truly works of art in their own right. Every frame of the movie has been lovingly crafted, and everything flows smoothly.
One criticism that can be levelled at the movie is the presence of mild gore, which tends to crop up unexpectedly, particularly if you’re used to Miyazaki’s more child-friendly efforts. There are scenes of decapitation and dismemberment, and characters get noticeably bloody during battles. While it’s not too realistic (and certainly, anime has seen much more graphic bloodshed in the past), it’s slightly jarring at times, particularly if you were expecting this movie to be suitable for young children due to the art style. It’s not. This is a very dark movie.
But it’s a minor criticism, since it works within the overall plot. Otherwise, Mononoke is certainly one of the finest animated movies ever made, effectively blending fantasy elements in a realistic, believable way, and presenting it beautifully. Definitely a recommendation for any fan of animation.
Starring Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yuko Tanada & Kaoru Kobayashi
Dub starring Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup & Gillian Anderson
Written by Hayao Miyazaki
Produced by Toshio Suzuki
Music by Joe Hisaishi
Cinematography by Atsushi Okui
Edited by Takeshi Seyama
Favourite Scene: The aforementioned scene where we’re introduced to the residents of Iron Town, just because of how much it changes the villain into a fully-rounded character
Scene That Bugged Me: Any scene featuring random decapitations. I’m not averse to these kinds of scenes, they just seem to pop up out of nowhere unexpectedly. I just never expect it of Miyazaki
Watch it if: You feel Ferngully was too black and white on environmental issues and you want something a little grittier and objective
Avoid it if: You think Ferngully is the best movie ever made
Originally posted on Blogspot on Tuesday 25th October 2011