As a genre, animated movies are by and large treated with kid gloves, often being dismissed based on their cartoony aesthetic and place in the multiplex cycle. Films like Princess Mononoke shatter this frequent preconception. Hayao Miyazaki’s stunning and meditative epic illustrates that the genre can be a canvas for exploring complex themes and depicting the world in ways that not only awe us, but also enlighten us too.
Princess Mononoke tells the story of a young prince- Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda). After fending off and sustaining injuries at the hands of a cursed boar, the prince goes in search of a cure. His travels take him to a distant land in the East, where he finds himself in the middle of a bitter feud between industrialist- Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka) and the title character- (frequently referred to as San throughout the film) who is a ferocious human warrior that was raised by wolves.
Rather then being a standard fairy tale about the ills of man in taking down the natural world, Mononoke is instead a potent parable about Japan dealing with its post war trauma. On the one hand is the industrial response whereby Lady Eboshi believes that arming and conquering will make her little corner of the world (Iron Town) much more powerful.
In this way, Iron Town is a stand-in for Japan insofar as becoming more like its enemy in developing weapons that will bring catastrophic ruin to generations of people (in this case animals). Then you have the various factions of the forest (wolves, boars, apes) who believe in retaining their small corner of the world thorough whatever means possible. This is representative of Japan licking its wounds by attempting to hold on to its identity amid the growing escalation of continual warfare.
This aspect is thrown into even starker clarity with some of the characters in the margins such as the leper and priest. Their cynicism about the cursed nature of the world (resulting from war and anger) and what it’s done to the land is akin to a mournful Greek chorus for Japan’s malaise after the Second World War.
Aside from this central metaphor coursing through the film’s veins, Princess Mononoke is also an excellent example of a Russian doll set plot. As the movie goes on, the initial ideas of good and evil are slowly unravelled as factions and motives are revealed. But this also embodied in the central plot involving Ashitaka’s attempts to get through to San. At first he sees a primal person whose seething hatred and attempts to get revenge are all consuming. But deep down he sees someone whose humanity and life does not have to perish in the pursuit of vengeance. This central relationship is touching and heartfelt.
Visually, the film is an interesting mixture of Western and Japanese imagery. There’s a clear homage to John Ford and Sergio Leone with the design of Iron Town insofar as being a place that could have existed in any of their Western pictures. But the film’s most arresting imagery are the ones where nature is being in a sense corrupted. One example is the initial image of the demonic Boar, which is quite striking, particularly the pulsating and gooey black substance revealing the creature. It calls to mind the work of H.R. Giger filtered through depictions of the Symbiote from Marvel Comics.
With an enchanting score, stunning painted background vistas and breathtaking point of view shots, Princess Mononoke is a beauty to behold in terms of animated features. It sometimes suffers from bombarding the viewer, but in its best moments it’s a spirited adventure for the mind and senses.