Princess Mononoke is Hayao Miyazaki’s most accessible picture, which is not to say that it’s commercialized in the slightest. Reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in epic scope, Princess Mononoke steamrolls the expectations of animation and tells a story rich in subplots. This is in no way a children’s film…but then, we’ve come to expect such maturity from Miyazaki, the director of the brilliant Nausicaa and Spirited Away. Ashitaka, a young warrior from the East, is infected with a deadly curse while killing a rampaging cursed boar. Destined to die and forced to leave his village, he travels westwards in hopes of finding a cure. Along the way, he hears of a magical Shishi-gama (Deer God) with legendary healing power and sets off to find its forest. But he quickly becomes caught in the middle of a battle between the animal Gods of the woods, led by a wolf-girl named San (also called Princess Mononoke), and the people of Irontown, a small mining village composed mostly of human outcasts. Trailing along is a small group of opportunistic Samurai who seek the Shishi-gama’s head in a quest for immortality. Ashitaka’s journey becomes multi-pronged as he struggles to bring peace to the war-ridden lands and to combat the stubbornness of the two proud clans.
Everyone in Princess Mononoke is burdened with a conflicted soul. San despises humans for abandoning her as a child and repeatedly assaulting her forest: cutting down trees and disturbing the ecological balance. A ticking time bomb, she thinks only of killing Irontown’s leader, Lady Eboshi, and restoring the forest to its pristine state. San’s fury is not demonic, simply misdirected. Lady Eboshi’s desire to control the forest stems from a fierce love for her village. If destroying the woods will make Irontown more prosperous, so be it. This web of mixed motives is one of Princess Mononoke’s greatest strengths. Not once do we feel that the characters are cardboard cutout villains and their hardships are more powerful as a result. Only Ashitaka is pure and, as he himself says, unclouded. Seeing the virtue in San and Eboshi and their tribes, he selflessly strives to create harmony between them. He puts his life at risk many times. The meaning of his curse broadens to symbolize that blind lust for complete control leads to ruin. Eboshi and San are obstinate leaders and it takes much suffering and bloodshed before they come to realize their errors in judgment. In many ways, Ashitaka represents a crossroad in the life of both Eboshi and San. To at least a certain level, he’s able to soft-spokenly prod them into an understanding of what’s right. Few movies have such clear insight.
Miyazaki’s visuals are unparalleled. A devout environmentalist, Miyazaki paints landscapes that are lush, misty, and mysterious. His imagination creates a haunting sense of nature’s fragility and regal splendor. The colors swirl, forging a rare other worldly sensation. Miyazaki and his artists visited Japan’s ancient forests to research their material for the film and the remarkable authenticity partly stems from that. Joe Hisaishi’s score is poetic. At its core, Princess Mononoke is a shockingly accurate portrayal of the neverending war between humanity and nature. Unlike today’s standard Hollywood fare, there is no manipulative ending or characters bursting into song. Rather, Ashitaka’s journey concludes in a low-key fashion that suggests content but not complete happiness.