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Princess Mononoke | Film Review

Analysis of the movie Princess Mononoke

 A masterpiece from Studio Ghibli production, Princess Mononoke is  a 1997 Sci-Fi fantasy/adventure film that follows a story with mature themes despite being the light bearer of children’s cinema. Directed by Hayao Mizayaki, this film is widely known for its environmental elements and the philosophy of man vs nature, and the conflicting problems of the development of mankind at the cost of nature’s prosperity.

Watch the Trailer of Princess Mononoke Here :

The film is set in the late Muromachi period, filled with fantastical elements to bridge the gap between magic and science. We follow the story of a young and last Emishi prince, who finds himself in the middle of an ongoing struggle between the gods of the forest – who intend to protect their home and land that is forest, and the warriors of an iron town – who wish to prosper by cutting down acres of forest and mining for iron on the same land. Released in 1997 in Japan, and in October 1999 worldwide, this film found an easy way to become a hit across the world for its animation and themes that concern the real world too. The film possesses no true villain, just anti-heroes, ones with morally ambiguous character traits that make them wish for the best of their people and thus, labeling them good for those and only those, which is the essence of every war and conflict in today’s world and is portrayed on the screen with the same responsibility.


Princess Mononoke | Movie Info

  • Director: Hayao Mizayaki

  • Producer: Toshiyo Suzuki

  • Cast: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Akihiro Miwa, Mitsuko Mori, Hisaya Morishige (Japanese version) || Billy Curdup, Billy Bob Thorton, Minnie Driver John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, Jon DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David (English version)

  • Release Date: July 12th, 1997 (Japanese theatrical release)

  • Revenue: 169 million USD (worldwide)


 Princess Mononoke |  Summary & Analysis

The film opens in a lush green Emishi village, where we see the young prince, Ashitaka, fighting a hideous demon who intends to ruin their village. While fighting them, however, Ashitaka is severely injured, somehow inheriting the curse of the demon god where he was touched. The villagers pay their appropriate respect to the dying creature, depicting the weight of the death in the traditional Japanese culture, despite the creature being a demon or a god. As dying, the demon god speaks with hatred for humans, which intrigues the viewers as they are, at present, the eyes uncouth with hatred. “feel my hate and suffer as I have suffered”, the words uttered by the demon are not only full of hatred but also revenge against the mysterious human act that led to this. The mark left due to the curse on the young warrior not only gives with superhuman strength but also shortens his life and promises him a painful and agonizing death. To seek answers and come to peace with this, he must travel to the West and never return to the village to ensure its prosperity. The demon was a boar god, turned due to an infectious iron ball and the immense hatred, which ate up his soul. A similar fate awaits Ashitaka, who will soon enough feel his soul being eaten and taken apart if he does not manage to find a cure for this in the western lands either. Thus, by cutting his hair, he begins a journey whose destination is what he has made his peace with. This act by the character holds an importance in the traditional Japanese culture as it denotes the end of one life and the beginning of another; the same way as Ashitaka, who is already dead for the people he had known all his life and fought for, and is beginning a new journey as a dead man, in hopes of finding a cure for it or if not, make sure no one else is infested with this ugly disease as well. 

On his way, he meets Jigo, an opportunistic monk who tells him about the Forest Spirit and how seeking answers from them will not only give him fruitful results but also maybe find a cure for him. While in search of the same, he has a chance encounter with a wolf clan and a young girl who ask him to leave before going their way. This scene is shot in a neutral eye-level shot, in an attempt to depict the characters without manipulating the viewer’s emotions. Eye-level shots in this film are more standard in this film than other camera angle shits than one might initially think, it is an attempt by the director to attain a much more cinematic look by placing the camera at a shoulder level. 

After this brief encounter, Ashitaka goes on to help the two warriors who he had a chance to stumble upon, even stopping by a lake to drink water and recharge themselves, where Ashitaka thinks he saw the Great Forest Spirit. The two injured men lead him to Iron Town, where people are fascinated by him and are insisted to stay the night with the Lady of the town, Lady Eboshi, a shrewd businesswoman who sheltered the people seeking refuge and employed them to make a livelihood for themselves. Lady Eboshi, in this film, could be considered the villain. The iron ball that killed Naga, the Boar god who turned into a demon and attacked Ashitaka’s village, was made in the town itself, and upon that, it is evident that her desire to make Iron Town the most prosperous one in the world, she is cutting down the forest and killing hundreds of animals in the process. However, if we look with a closer perspective and “eyes unclouded with hatred”, Lady Eboshi is more of a morally ambiguous character than a villain, who understands the complications of being a human in a world where humans and animals have to co-exist with the nature to lead a peaceful and equal life. But she has her own “poor people” to look after, to make money for them, keep them fed, and maybe find a cure for the sick from what even seemed like a myth. She understands that evil has its layers like an onion, and if one layer is not another, she is the hero on her own. Her sincere apology to Ashitaka for him losing his life due to her actions makes her a likable person, and her unapologetic attitude towards the animals makes her a villain.

Perhaps, the characters in the film all have different layers that need to be peeled and inspected before labeling them as heroes and villains. In these scenes, she also reveals the identity of the wolf girl, San, who was raised by the wolf clan to hate mankind. She is called Princess Mononoke, meaning evil and vengeful spirit in Japanese classical literature and folk religion that were said to do things like possess individuals and make them suffer, cause disease, or even cause death. The same night, when San attacks the village to kill Lady Eboshi, Ashitaka intervenes in the fight between the two and intends to leave with San. Even after being severely injured, he manages to walk away from the town due to the super strength he is given by the curse. San’s plans to kill a weakened Ashitaka off come to a halt when he says that she was beautiful, which confuses her since she had never lived amongst the humans and thus, had never heard the same. She takes him to The Great Forest Spirit who cures his bullet wound at the night but leaves the curse mark behind. On the other hand, due to a series of events, Jigo tells Lady Eboshi about the boars’ plan to attack them and kickstart their idea to kill and have the Great Forest Spirit’s head for the emperor who believes it will provide him immortality, for which he promises to save the town from Lord Asano’s attack and give Jigo a handsome price. 

While away, the town is attacked by the warriors of Lord Asano and the women defend the town with everything they have. Ashitaka informs the same to Lady Eboshi, however, she has annihilated the boars and severely injured the Boar God, Okkoto, who is leading her straight to the lake where Forest Spirit resides. The Great Forest Spirit, the giver, and taker of lives, takes Moro’s and Okkoto’s lives and while they were transforming into the Night Walker, Eboshi decapitates his head with her gun and secured the head with the help of Jigo and his hunters. The blood that oozes out from the severed body kills anything that touches it, which prompts Ashitaka and San to stay deep in the water and then chase Jigo to return the head to the Forest Spirit before it kills everyone around. The chase comes to an end as the head is returned to the Night Walker and San and Ashitaka are cured of their illnesses. The Forest Spirit is dead but washes its form over the land it had corrupted in its rage. The forest begins to regrow and mountains begin to look greener than ever. Even though the Forest Spirit has now left the mountains since it’s no longer their home, Ashitaka believes that the giver and taker of lives can not actually die and still lives amongst them. As the forest begins to regrow, Kodama, a spirit that resides in the forest to signify a healthy and prosperous one in ancient Japanese mythology, is also seen on the screen, affirming Ashitaka’s statement. 

The film not only dabbles with the environmental issues but also brings forth light on the question of man vs nature. Due to the appeal of the timelessness of its core themes, Princess Mononoke has managed to appeal to the conscience of every viewer to answer the questions it has asked throughout the course. Transcending the social and cultural barriers, the film has provoked the thought of nature fighting back against the atrocities of humans, and how human prosperity at the cost of nature is the root cause of every wrong in the world. Ashitaka is the perfect mediator throughout the film as the director uses him to deliver the real message behind the animosity of San and Eboshi, both standing ten feet apart due to their conflicting thoughts and philosophies. This movie was made on a budget of 23 million USD and went on to make more than 169 million USD worldwide, apart from selling hundreds and thousands of DVDs. The director’s voice of keeping the name, Princess Mononoke, even in its English version was proven to be reaping as it gained more interest from the audience. The film won nearly every award it was nominated for and even today is critically acclaimed for its cinematography, production, direction, and animation, as well as its core themes. 





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