Miyazaki has nothing positive to say about war. Despite some admirable acts of bravery from certain characters, he also shows fields of corpses, soldiers being slaughtered en masse by guns and bombs, decapitations, dismemberment, and innocent civilians being massacred by marauding soldiers.
— TV Tropes
I am a fan of Hayao Miyazaki's work, but for some reason, I never got around to seeing this movie. There were two reasons. First, I have a resistance to anything popular because that often means it's dumb. Most people don't like things that challenge them or make them think, so if I hear that most people like something, I tend to ignore that thing. I know that's a prejudice, and it's not true for a lot of movies and anime, but I do have my reasons for thinking like that. Secondly, I had little interest in this movie because I heard it was about an environmentalist message. I thought, I've already seen this movie, it was called Fern Gully. And, it sucked. Oh great, another preachy movie about "save the forest".
But this movie showed me how a movie could work that message in without being stupid or a bad movie. Take notes, people who made Avatar and The Lorax! (The recenter Lorax, the older cartoon was better.)
Even though it's called Princess Mononoke, and we do see her later, she is not the main character. The main character is Ashitaka, prince of a small village of indigenous folk in the Muromachi period (15th-16th centuries) in Japan. A huge boar rampages out of the forest and attacks his village one day, covered in purple maggot-like things that have made him act like a monster. Ashitaka kills this boar, but is injured in the fight. The village's medicine woman tells him he is cursed and the wound will overtake his body and soul, and eventually kill him. There is no way to fight this destiny, she says. But she sends him out of the village on a journey west to find and deal with the source of the evil that struck the boar.
Ashitaka comes through an enchanted forest and finds near that a town where bellows churn night and day making iron weapons. The woman in charge of the village, lady Eboshi, is manufacturing guns and aims to kill the forest creatures in order to expand her operations and make money. She does show compassion for humans, taking in lepers and ex-prostitutes to give them jobs and a decent place to live. But she has no empathy for animals or forest spirits, and aims to kill the protective spirit of the animals, the Forest God itself.
Princess Mononoke shows up and Ashitaka meets her when she attacks the town. Her real name is San, "Princess Mononoke" is a name the villagers call her. She was raised by wolf spirits in the forest, and tries to kill Eboshi in revenge for shooting her adoptive mother, a supreme wolf god. She fails, but Ashitaka intervenes to protect her from being killed and they leave the village together.
Eboshi takes the men away from the village to kill an army of attacking boars, while she goes by herself on an expedition into the forest to kill the Forest God. She believes that the blood of the Forest God will cure the lepers, and killing it will enable her to expand her town and make it prosperous.
Ashitaka and the wolves and San set out to save the forest and protect the animals from Eboshi's ambition. How will they get all the carnage and bloodshed to stop? Will they be able to forge a new peace between the humans and the creatures of the magical forest?
This movie has quite the host of memorable characters. One interesting thing is that this show is about evenly mixed in terms of human and animal spirit characters Including:
- Ashitaka: Our protagonist and viewpoint character. Although, the interesting thing is when he travels out to figure out what happened to the boar, he realizes that it's not about him. He gets caught up in the middle of a conflict he wants to stop as an outsider.
- Nago: The boar spirit-beast who became possessed by evil and went on a destructive rampage, killed by Ashitaka. He's the reason for Ashitaka's injury and quest.
- San (aka Princess Mononoke): A girl who was raised by the great wolf goddess as her third child (San means 'three'). She hates humans and sees herself as a wolf, because that's how she was raised. She's fighting the people of Iron Town because they keep trying to destroy her forest and fellow yōkai.
- Lady Eboshi: Arguably the main antagonist, although she isn't completely selfish and arrogant. She simply wants her town to grow and prosper, and the forest spirits are in her way and, as TV Tropes put it, "inconveniently willing to fight to the death".
- Jigo: Kind of a secondary antagonist, he's sort of like the Petyr Baelish here, brokering deals between important people for his own personal gain. So again, he's not super evil, he just thinks the forest-dwelling spirits are in the way.
- Moro: The big wolf spirit, she is leader of all wolves and mother to two (unnamed) wolves and adoptive mother to San. She acts as a representative of the wolves to other animal tribes like the apes and boars. She was wounded by Lady Eboshi's weapons like Nago was. She is able to survive longer with said wound for unclear reasons, but she accepts the fact that this evil will eventually kill her.
- Okkoto: The leader of the boars, who are represented in the show as a Proud Warrior Race, willing to take a last stand against humanity even if it means they will all be killed. Moro, as the voice of wisdom, tries to talk them out of it.
- The Forest God: Interestingly, although it's arguably the Big Good, it never actually speaks, and doesn't do a whole lot in terms of getting directly involved in the conflict. An interesting thing about it is its dual nature as a god representing both life and death. It has two completely different forms in the day and night, to represent this duality. Lady Eboshi wants to kill it, so that the other forest spirits will leave the area, allowing her to expand her town unimpeded by them. She also wants to use its blood to heal the town's lepers, and personal glory/pride is also part of her motivation.
Themes and Ideas
This film is rife with fodder for contemplation and discussion. Major themes in the movie include:
- Conflict: This movie is not as much of an environmentalist movie as I would say it's a war movie. It's a movie about not only the brutal nature of war, but about how conflicts arise between different groups of people/sentient beings. What's interesting is that this conflict is so morally complicated, with no one except maybe Ashitaka being considered wholly good, and no one is entirely evil or driven by evil motivations alone. It's much more like the way conflict arises in the real world.
- War: As the quote at the top of this page says, Miyazaki spares the audience nothing in terms of the brutality of war. Quite unlike in any other Studio Ghibli film, you will see people and animals getting killed in horrific ways and in large numbers. The movie shows how the ambitions and desires of leaders cause the suffering of the people those leaders represent.
- Leadership: Eboshi, Moro, and Okkoto represent the major factions in the conflict. Ashitaka is a prince, but he is young and exiled from his village, but he learns lessons about leadership from the aforementioned characters, about how a leader takes care of and represents the interest of his or her people. San is also learning leadership, as the wolf goddess Moro's daughter.
- Environment: Pretty expected for a Studio Ghibli movie. Like I said, hearing that this was about saving a forest from evil, greedy humans, I thought the movie was going to be preachy and therefore sucky. I was wrong, and this is a way of handling this theme with refreshing maturity and depth.
This movie is not what I expected, because it's probably the most mature and graphically violent Studio Ghibli movie. I was expecting it to be more kid-friendly when I watched it with my 10-year-old sister. I think if you're going to watch it with kids, you just should know that it's very violent. However, my sister, even though she was horrified by the violent parts, still said she liked the movie. I think it's good for older kids and young teens, because it deals with coming-of-age themes and how to handle conflict.
I like it because it's a movie that defends nature without idealizing it. What I didn't like primarily about The Lorax, for example, was that everything in nature in that world was cute and harmless. Real-life nature, on the other hand, has scary things. Even peaceful lakes can suddenly kill with toxic algae blooms. The forest spirits are not innocent victims who can only passively look on in horror as the humans destroy their homes, they're warriors, and they will kill humans if they think it necessary for their own protection. This goes back to what I said about the conflict not being black and white; the forest spirits are powerful and attack innocent humans to stop human encroachment, and the humans are not totally evil, in fact most of them are just trying to survive and work.
So Princess Mononoke is able to do what many films try to do and fail, which is put out a message about the importance of peace and protecting nature, but without dumbing the conflict down to a simple "man bad, nature good" way of thinking. So it's a very realistic movie, considering that it's full of spirit-creatures. I think everyone should enjoy this film, especially if they're looking for something more mature, more evolved, than many films like it.