Full Disclosure: I didn’t initially count myself as a fan of anime. I still don’t, at least not to the extent of many others who have a much greater degree of knowledge about that field of pop culture. However, I have grown to recognize my thorough enjoyment of many of the films and television shows that come out of Japan’s animation industry. Princess Mononoke in particular is one of my favorites and represents a paradigm shift in what I thought was possible in animation. I mentioned in my review of Lawrence of Arabia that I love epic films and Princess Mononoke is a true epic in every sense of the word. This is most likely the reason that I have come to find it so endearing.
This film is the product of Hayao Miyazaki, the most prominent animator behind Studio Ghibli. He is unanimously regarded as Japan’s Walt Disney and I would argue that even Walt Disney didn’t have the ambition and creative potential to make a film as daring and complex as this. The film follows Ashitaka, the prince of a fallen clan in feudal Japan who has become infected by a demon, and must find the source of the demon’s creation in the hope of finding a cure. Thus begins an epic journey to save a forest from complete destruction at the hands of a driven, but not evil woman whose misguided vision of mechanization threatens humanity’s relationship with nature. This may sound a bit kid friendly. I assure you, it is not. The conflicts that arise in this film are gory and violent. The ideas presented are complex and deep, and the animated medium is used in such a way that the film becomes a richly detailed work of art, surpassing the ideas of fun and games that are commonly associated with the genre.
The titular princess is a feral young adult by the name of San, who was raised by the wolf goddess that acts as the protector of the forest. San is essentially a guerilla warrior who attacks the village that threatens the forest with ferocity and immutable will. When Prince Ashitaka sees San for the first time, her mouth smeared with blood, he is smitten. She is not. However, what develops over the course of the story is one of the more beautiful love stories depicted in film. Ashitaka ends up rescuing San from certain doom, becoming mortally wounded in the process. She in turns saves him, and in one of the most emotionally resonant scenes in the film, chews his food for him when he is too weak to do so himself.
This relationship is not superfluous to the plot, as such romances sometimes are. Instead, the love that develops between Ashitaka and San becomes a complex allegory for the way humans and nature interact, and how a healthy relationship between the two is ideal to the survival of both. This allegory is expanded upon throughout the film, especially by showing the negative effects of the human’s war with the gods of the forest, a war with no winners.
One character in particular that deserves mention is Lady Eboshi, the aforementioned “villain” of the film, who proves to be just as complex and heroic as the main characters, albeit in a very different way. She is shown to be a modern woman, a natural leader who sees the necessity of technology to provide an effective defense against the bands of roving samurai that threaten her town’s existence. She takes in misfits like lepers and prostitutes and gives them the opportunity of a new life free from oppression. Her ambitions make her an enemy of the heroes, but she is no more evil than Brutus was in Julius Caesar. Instead, she is a tragic character who further elevates the story beyond a simple fable.
As I said, this film is an epic. This is not just related to the size of the plot. Miyazaki uses grand sweeping views of the land and incredibly detailed artistry to give his animated film a distinctly real and cinematic look. The themes, as noted above, are also universal and complex. Each character is granted a steady and believable arc that either leaves them fuller and more complete than where they started, or lost without hope of redemption. It is a truly huge film that deserves to be named along Lawrence of Arabia and The Godfather as one of the great epics of cinema.