Young Prince Ashitaka slays a monstrous Boar god that attacks his village. He is wounded, afflicted with a terrible curse that gives him superhuman strength and accuracy with the bow, but is slowly killing him. On his journey in search of a cure, Ashitaka discovers the Boar god was driven mad by an iron ball in its flesh. The culprits are the good-hearted ironmongers of Fort Tataraba, whose ambitious leader Lady Eboshi wages war against the Animal gods, and their adopted human daughter, San the “monster princess”.
Eboshi isn’t a ruthless supervillain. She shelters lepers and prostitutes and bonds her downtrodden community against the local feudal lord and the animal spirits. For humanity to grow, she believes the forest must die. San, is a fierce eco-warrior, launching guerrilla attacks with her wolf brothers and mother Moro against a humanity they see as ignorant and cruel, a terrifying threat to the forest. Ashitaka sympathises with both factions and, having fallen in love with San, tries to make peace. Meanwhile, the emperor sanctions the assassination of the woodland god, Shishigami, whose blood is reputed to grant immortality. A supernatural vengeance is unleashed upon humanity, and only San and Ashitaka can save the day.
In the mid-eighties, Hayao Miyazaki published a book of conceptual drawings for his forthcoming project Princess Mononoke, a Beauty and the Beast love story where a nobleman’s wide-eyed daughter is forced to marry a mononoke (“beast spirit”) resembling Cat-Bus from My Neighbour Totoro (1988). A decade and a half later, the completed film bore no resemblance to that project in design or storyline, reflecting instead Miyazaki’s own conflicted idealism, his uncertainties over Marxist politics, environmental and social issues. Often inaccurately labelled a “darker” film, this new Princess Mononoke charts its creator’s development away from the utopian idealism of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984) towards a mature, kindly humanism. As such, it’s less dark than pragmatic, daring to explore complex issues from conflicting points of view.
San, Ashitaka, and Lady Eboshi are not “cartoons”, but flawed, believable, engaging characters. Tataraba represents another of Miyazaki’s matriarchal communities, women bonded together through adversity, governing not by strength but tenacious practicality. On the opposite end of the spectrum, San and Moro embody a wild, unfettered femininity. Dauntless defenders of a wounded woodlands, protecting the animal kingdom with a mother’s love. Eboshi and Moro’s conflict is almost an inversion of that between Ripley and the Alien Queen in Aliens (1986). Ashitaka serves as our eyes and ears, yet Miyazaki is too clever a storyteller to stumble with a passive hero. The young prince is temperate wisdom incarnate, a hero with a heart big enough to embrace monsters and men. His actions are driven by love and life, the only forces capable of healing the damaged earth.
Beyond the subtext, Princess Mononoke isn’t some dreary eco-parable along the lines of Ferngully: the Last Rainforest (1992). It’s an exciting fantasy adventure, breathtakingly epic in scope and ambition. It boasts limb-lopping, arrow-whizzing action, rampaging monsters and spectacular vistas populated by talking wolves, Animal gods, forest sprites and supernatural terrors. Samurai clash in battles as vast in scale as anything conjured by Akira Kurosawa. The emperor of Japanese film (who passed away shortly after this film was released) was enthralled by Miyazaki’s masterpiece. Disillusioned by the Japanese New Wave, Kurosawa found more to admire in anime like Space Cruiser Yamato (1977) and Nausicaä. He reputedly considered Mononoke’s box-office success a validation of what he called, Japan’s secret cinema.
Princess Mononoke became Japan’s highest grossing movie. A record it held until James Cameron’s Titanic, although Miyazaki reclaimed his title with Spirited Away (2001) and later, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). Popular across Europe, the film won best picture at the Berlin Film Festival where critics lauded it as a modern polemic, a humanist masterpiece. Sadly, its American release was something of a disaster. Featuring a script rewrite by comic book auteur Neil Gaiman, Miramax assembled a starry cast for their re-dub. Preview audiences, expecting an animated romp, laughed at the stylised violence and American critics dismissed its ambitions outright. One critic writing for the L.A. Times went so far as to declare: “I remain unconvinced anime has anything to do with art.” Five years later, these same critics lavished (justifiable) praise over the Oscar-winning Spirited Away and proclaimed Mononoke “a neglected classic”. So much for contemporary film criticism.
The Miramax dub is an agreeable adaptation. Billy Crudup (one of the most accomplished, yet least heralded actors of modern times) is excellent as Ashitaka, Claire Danes capable as San, but Gillian Anderson isn’t formidable enough for Moro the she-wolf and Billy Bob Thornton’s southern-fried vowels stick out like a sore thumb whilst voicing Jiku, the shifty priest. Towering over everyone is Minnie Driver as multilayered Lady Eboshi. Never mind this is animation, Driver gives one of her gutsiest performances, nailing every line. That said, to best appreciate subtleties in Miyazaki’s script (for example, the young girl whom Ashitaka bids farewell is his fiancée - something the Miramax dub never mentions) you need to see this in the original Japanese.
Set during that fascinating period halfway between myth and historical fact, Princess Mononoke reflects Japan’s past, present and future. Past, in the sense it evokes Japan’s glorious cinematic legacy - both samurai epics and kaiju eiga (“monster movies”). It’s almost the polar opposite of Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) where order was ruptured by chaos. Here love and tolerance restores some semblance of order and hope for the future. Contemporary dilemmas are addressed: ideological conflicts, the high cost of advancing technology, societal malaise (Almost every character is building their own enclave, hiding from reality), and political, environmental and physical corruption. Miyazaki even cites parallels between Ashitaka’s debilitating illness and AIDS (a man-made virus?)
Then there is the future, something Miyazaki looks to with a combination of hard-won pragmatism and fairytale belief. What you see at the film’s close is nothing less than the birth of modern civilisation. What kind of a world will we leave for our children? The conclusion offers no easy answers, but upholds hope. Ashitaka rejects simplistic ideologies in favour living life to its fullest. A life lived to bring hope to another. We call that love.