With the relatively recent retirement of Studio Ghibli genius Hayao Miyazaki, I’ve decided to revisit some of his classics. Princess Mononoke (1997) is one of Miyazaki’s most well-known films, famously ranking sixth on Roger Ebert’s top 10 list of 1999 (his review of the film is also required reading). This fantastical animated film focuses on the conflict between humans’ need for resources to develop their civilisation, and the nature that seeks to protect itself. We follow a traditional warrior named Ashitaka as he navigates between these two walks of life.
My favourite thing about this film is that even though there are clearly-written characters with clear intentions, they are morally ambiguous. No one character is good or evil. Even Lady Eboshi, who seeks to exploit the forest for its resources, does so in order for the survival of the people in her care. The titular Princess Mononoke defends her forest, but at what cost to the humans? Warrior Ashitaka works well as a character that is the impartial guide for the moral compass of the film, as he explores each side of the story – the humans who attack the forest, and the forest that defends itself from the humans. There are no distinct ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. This kind of story has a lot more depth than your classic ‘good versus evil’ animated film.
With a film like this, your eyes are always busy. Even in the corners of a shot, there is something engaging to look at. The depiction of the forest and its creatures is a stand-out for me. It is so beautiful yet quirky and whimsical, and can also be very brutal, all at the same time. The folklore elements are stunning – the little forest spirits (kodama) and the giant forest god whose feet sprout flowers where he walks are such a delight to watch. Likewise, the more action-packed scenes are so intense. The fight scenes are also great. They can be very violent (but not gratuitously so), which makes you appreciate the peace and quiet of the forest a lot more. As with any Studio Ghibli film, the music is a perfect accompaniment to the film and is filled with a lot of emotion. Joe Hisaishi’s scores for Miyasaki’s films are always amazing.
The dubbed version is quite good, with a wide array of familiar celebrity voices (Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup, the list goes on). However, I much prefer the subtitled version because that’s just how I prefer to watch foreign language animated films. If you prefer to watch dubbed animated films, then you won’t be disappointed.
Princess Mononoke is the perfect example of an animated film that is accessible for adults. Younger kids might not really understand the moral ambiguity and might be a bit frightened by the supernatural elements and violence, but I think this film could suit viewers of any age from about 12 years old and up. Whilst it could easily have become preachy with its environmental message, ultimately the film’s message is one of balance and respect between humans and nature. With a bittersweet ending, and an overall message that will stick with you, Princess Mononoke is certainly worthy of its acclaim and status as one of Studio Ghibli’s most beloved films.
Watch the trailer here.