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Princess Mononoke

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Current Rating 7.89/10 | 76 Votes

Hayao Miyazaki’s ecological fable/epic, Princess Mononoke, combines a compelling, complex, multi-character storyline with a rich exploration of Miyazaki’s favorite themes, breathtaking, detailed animation, into a film that, only six years after its American release, fully deserves the status of “masterpiece.” At a cost of $20 million dollars, Princess Mononoke was one of the most expensive and ambitious animated films made in Japan (Katsuhiro Otomo’s recent Steamboy surpassed Princess Mononoke's costs by $2 million dollars). It also ranks as one of the highest grossing films, animation or otherwise, in Japan.

Set during the Muromachi Era (roughly the 14th through the 16th centuries), a period in Japanese history marked by fluid social and cultural hierarchies, Princess Mononoke opens with a rural village under attack from a raging demon-god, Nago. In the battle to defeat the demon-god, Ashitaka, a prince of the vanishing Emishi clan, becomes infected with the demon-god’s rage. In Miyazaki’s mythic world, animal gods are mortal. They can live hundreds of years, can speak (and thus have cultures of their own), but can be mortally wounded. Infected, Ashitaka has little choice, but to follow the village oracle’s advice, go west, and discover the source of the demon-god’s infection. Ashitaka’s journey west leads to an encounter with a group of violent samurais attacking defenseless farmers. His first instinct, to protect the fleeing farmers, leads to violence. The second leg of his journey includes a meeting with Jigo, a monk with a hidden agenda.

Ultimately, the journey west leads to Iron Town (Tataraba in Japanese), a fortress town located at the edge of a great forest. As the name implies, Iron Town’s commercial activities are centered on iron extraction and smelting, including the production of rifles. Iron production, however, requires the continual operation of wood-fed furnaces. As a result, the surrounding forest is gradually being stripped of trees. That destruction, in turn, results in a conflict between Iron Town, representing civilization and community, and the forest gods, nature personified. The autocratic Lady Eboshi leads iron Town, but Lady Eboshi is no ordinary villain. Lady Eboshi has created an inclusive community, partly comprised of former prostitutes (Lady Eboshi has personally purchased their contracts) and lepers. In exchange for their hard work and loyalty, Lady Eboshi offers them a place in the Iron Town community.

Iron Town, however, is opposed by the boar gods, led by the blind, stubborn, Okkotu and the wolf-gods, led by Moro, a 300-year old female god, her two sons, and a human she’s raised as her own, Princess Mononoke. Moro and Princess Mononoke repeatedly attack Iron Town, focusing on the caravans of blue oxen carrying food and other supplies back to Iron Town. Princess Mononoke’s greatest hatred is for Lady Eboshi. The forest itself is personified in the figure of the Great Forest Spirit (Shishi Gami in the Japanese), which appears as an antlered, human-faced stag during the daylight hours, and as the enormous, semi-transparent Nightwalker when the sun goes down. The Great Forest Spirit represents both ends of the life cycle, birth and death.

The levels of conflict are complicated (and muddied) by the addition of political intrigue to the storyline. Jigo appears in Iron Town with a group of riflemen, his purpose clarified thanks to a writ from the sitting emperor, and a group of power-hungry samurais, led by Lord Osono, has designs on Iron Town. The boar-gods, angered by the destruction of the forest, plan an attack on Iron Town. Lady Eboshi has a counterattack of her own planned for the boar-gods and Princess Mononoke. Ashitaka, in his naiveté, must learn the reasons for the underlying conflict, the motivations of the major players, and decide, for himself, where, and with which faction, he stands.

Ashitaka closely resembles Princess Nausicaä, the central character from Miyazaki’s 1984 film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Like Princess Nausicaä, Ashitaka’s story arc takes him from a self-enclosed, rural community into the middle of a conflict between warring factions, some human, and some non-human. Like Princess Nausicaä, Ashitaka’s character arc takes him from embracing the use of violence for positive ends to a mystically charged pacifism. Ashitaka acts as mediator, hoping to obtain peaceful co-existence between humans in Iron Town and the forest gods, but before that, he must renounce violence. In that, however, he is alone, as every other faction has an agenda that necessarily involves the use of violence.

Themes aside, no review of Princess Mononoke is complete without discussing the animation. To his credit, Miyazaki immerses the audience in an unfamiliar, but recognizable past, our own, and shows us a world as complex and morally ambiguous as our own. From the character designs, the use of color, the lush, verdant, mist-filled mountains, to the fully realized medieval world, Miyazaki’s painstaking attention to detail is evident in every frame. Out of 144,00 individual frames or cels utilized in Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki personally supervised more than 80,000 cels. Miyazaki personally checked every frame of "key animation," often changing or correcting the animation to meet his exacting standards. For the first time in his career as an animator, Miyazaki used computer generated imaging for approximately 15 minutes of film (digital painting took approximately 10 minutes of screen time). In any case, the animation in Princess Mononoke is like to remain the gold standard for traditional animation for the foreseeable future (especially as traditional, hand drawn animation continues to be replaced by computer animation).

© Mel Valentin, 28th March, 2005

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