With the upcoming release of Miyazaki’s 12th (and possibly final) film, How Do You Live?, we at Flixist will be taking a look at Miyazaki’s career over the decades. By going through each of his films starting from the pre-Ghibli days, we’ll see how the man has evolved as an artist and helped shape the landscape of anime for generations to come. This is Miyazaki Marathon!
It has truly been fascinating going through Miyazaki’s films in chronological release order and seeing the slow evolution of his style from mostly attempting to recapture the wonder of childhood to tackling the harsh realities of everyday life. Porco Rosso was the start of this turn, but it still had an air of playfulness to it that could best be described as a summer vacation. It’s not all fun and games and its main character was staunchly against fascism, but the conclusion showed everyone having a good time and coming to realize that they were friends.
Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, is quite the opposite. While it does end on an uplifting note and shows that humanity can prevail through impossible odds when we come together, this film is the catalyst for modern Studio Ghibli productions. Instead of looking back fondly at childhood or attempting to recapture a period that has been lost, Princess Mononoke is the first film under Miyazaki’s care that doesn’t paint any of its characters as morally good or evil, but simply human. There is no real villain other than greed, which can corrupt anyone.
While the film is set within the late Muromachi period of Japanese history, Princess Mononoke isn’t really concerned with being historically accurate. You can tell that Miyazaki was doing his best to pick a particular timeframe that would feel ancient enough while still conveying how the march of progress is causing conflict between humans, animals, and nature. As Miramax detailed for the film’s US release, Miyazaki wanted to “portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization.”
While the humans might be living in primitive huts and villages, they have access to things such as firearms, iron forges, and some machinery. Their desire to spread out and conquer nature is causing a conflict between the animals there, which are losing places to call their own. The forest is also growing ever smaller, taking away the natural beauty that this world has to offer and transitioning into something cold and dead. It’s a bleak premise for a film where these different groups are at war with each other when they only want to exist peacefully on the planet.
Princess Mononoke is told through the perspective of Ashitaka, the last Ainu prince of the Emishi tribe. Having formed an unbreakable bond with his red elk steed Yakul, Ashitaka becomes stricken with a curse while helping his town defend against a demon boar. While his fate is considered sealed, Ashitaka is sent by the village elder on a quest westward to potentially find a cure and even pinpoint the origin of the corruption spreading across the land.
While investigating how this boar became corrupted, the villagers learn he was actually a boar god. His death will upset the natural order of things within the boar tribe, which is bound to cause ripples across the land. Ashitaka also finds an iron ball lodged within the boar’s chest, which raises questions about who could have created such a devastating weapon.
Right from the outset, Princess Mononoke establishes how modernization is starting to distort the very balance of nature. It’s not hard for viewers to figure out that the iron ball found within the boar god is a cannonball. While the motive for shooting this god is unclear, the film is making a point to show how humanity’s progress is destroying the world around it. If humans didn’t have such a strong desire to kill each other, they wouldn’t be causing collateral damage to the animals near them.
As Ashitaka goes on his journey, he runs into a wandering monk that tells him the fable of the Great Forest Spirit. Said to be a deer-like animal in the day and a giant Night Walker at night, the monk states that Ashitaka might find help by seeking him out. As this is going on, Ashitaka and the monk spot in the distance workers from Iron Town herding their oxen home. Led by the fiery Lady Eboshi, the convoy gets attacked by a giant wolf pack. Ashitaka spots a human girl among the wolves but rushes to save some men that fell off the cliff. When making his way down, Ashitaka encounters his girl up close and she tells him to stay out of things. Ashitaka proceeds to save the men and happens to spot the Great Forest Spirit in the distance.
Before all of this happens, Ashitaka encounters some rogue samurai that are attempting to rob a village. While he tries to remain hidden, he eventually needs to draw his bow and the curse corrupting his arm grants him superhuman strength. Without intending to, Ashitaka kills some of the samurai before riding off. He may have a kind heart, but Ashitaka is no saint. It’s one of the many complex elements that Princess Mononoke tackles: no one is perfect. Throughout the course of the film, we encounter many different humans and animals, but none of them are what you’d call heroes or villains. They simply want to live and are willing to kill others to protect their own.
This isn’t a mistake. In a retrospective interview with Empire Online, Miyazaki explained the shift in Princess Mononoke’s tone by saying, “It was a huge risk, totally different from when I was making Kiki. I’d had that experience with Porco Rosso, the war happened (in the former Yugoslavia), and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?”
When Ashitaka eventually arrives in Iron Town, he comes into contact with Lady Eboshi and we’re given a different view of society in this world. Completely anachronistic to the real world, Iron Town acts as a safe haven for the downtrodden, undesirable, and lost. While the men all act as soldiers and do the hunting for the village, the women stay back and create the weapons that are needed to do battle. Eboshi even took pity on the disease and employs them. She wanted to give them purpose in a world that was slowly eating itself from the inside out. Not only that, most of the women working in her care were former sex slaves. She bought their freedom and reconfigured their destinies. While her prospects lie in conquering the forest, she is only doing this to protect those that have been displaced.
Ashitaka describes the girl he saw with the wolves to Lady Eboshi and we finally learn the mysterious backstory. That girl is a lost child named San who was taken in by the wolves when her family abandoned her. Due to this abandonment, San has fostered a deep hatred for humanity and wants Lady Eboshi’s head. Ashitaka doesn’t believe she is a lost cause, though, and his ability to see the good in everything forms the central arc of this film.
When San infiltrates Iron Town to assault Eboshi, Ashitaka subdues her and Eboshi and walks out of the village. He gets shot by a villager, but the curse within his body gives him the strength to carry on. Later on, San awakens and finds Ashitaka bleeding out. She goes in for the kill, but it caught off-guard when Ashitaka describes her as beautiful. San then puts Ashitaka’s fate into the hands of the Forest Spirit, who heals his wound by cannot remove the curse. This turn of events causes San to accept Ashitaka and work with him to figure out how to save her tribe.
One of the most interesting elements of San’s character is how she rejects her humanity and fails to see that humanity can bond with the world around it. While the wolves have taken her in and raised her as a wild creature, she is puzzled by Ashitaka and Yakul’s relationship. On the surface, Yakul is a work animal that Ashitaka uses for selfish reasons. When Ashitaka is lying within the pool before the Forest Spirit, San “frees” him of his reins and states he can move about this world unrestricted. Instead of scurrying off, he stays by Ashitaka’s side. It’s a decisive moment that shows how the power of kindness can bridge gaps that even language cannot.
Princess Mononoke is littered with moments like this, too. In stark contrast to Miyazaki’s past films, most of the meat here is contained within the subtext. If you look at just the plot, Princess Mononoke is a fairly straightforward film. Ashitaka goes on the typical hero’s journey and comes out the other end with a new perspective. At times, events can feel almost like they are happening due to circumstance rather than being driven by any kind of logic. When you look beyond the surface, though, Princess Mononoke shows how much control Miyazaki has over his craft.
Even looking at just the technical side, this film is magnificent. Princess Mononoke would mark the first time that Studio Ghibli incorporated 3D rendering alongside traditional animation and it blends so seamlessly. Roughly 10 minutes of footage uses some CGI, but it enhances elements already drawn by Ghibli’s artists. Miyazaki personally oversaw all 144,000 cels of the film and is estimated to have touched up 80,000 of them. That attention to detail turns Princess Mononoke into the most stunning Ghibli production up to this point.
Getting back to the story, as the film progresses, Ashitaka winds up aiding almost everyone at one point or another. He helps his own village from an attack, sides with Iron Town to repel San, works with San to stop Lady Eboshi, and even attempts to stop the boars from moving forward with their attack plan. What you can say is that Ashitaka is a people pleaser and he spreads himself too thin. His intentions are noble and you root for him to succeed, but he ultimately has to walk away from certain conflicts.
In the final climactic battle, Ashitaka prioritizes saving San over anything else and this leads to Eboshi decapitating the Forest Spirit. As is to be expected, the world then starts to become engulfed in a black sludge that immediately kills everything it touches. At this point, Ashitaka and San know that their best chance at saving everyone is to sacrifice themselves to retrieve the Forest Spirit’s head and return it to him. In the one time that Princess Mononoke isn’t overwhelmingly oppressive, the duo succeeds and manages to reverse the damage that the sludge has done.
What you can take from all of this is the power of cooperation. Once Ashitaka and San put aside whatever squabbles they might have, the two are able to achieve a peace that was always within grasp. As the Forest Spirit regains his strength, he’s even able to fully cure all of the diseased people of Iron Town (which also cures Ashitaka) and restore parts of the forest that had been ravaged by humanity’s industrialization. It is most certainly a fairy tale ending and something that is a little unrealistic, but that isn’t the point. We as a society can achieve great things when we put down the sword -or gun, in America’s case- and lend each other a helping hand.
I probably don’t need to tell you how influential Princess Mononoke would become. In the years since its original release, critics and fans have praised the movie as Miyazaki’s magnum opus. In 2001, Japanese magazine Animage ranked the film as the 47th-best anime production of all time. Empire listed it as the 488th greatest film. James Cameron even based parts of his Avatar series on Princess Mononoke, claiming the ecosystem of Pandora was inspired by the movie. Even to this day, Princess Mononoke can be seen in popular media. The upcoming Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom sees its protagonist afflicted with some disease that necessitates his arm be replaced.
It’s nearly impossible to refute that Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece. For my money, though, I don’t believe this is the best production Miyazaki would undertake. Next time, Jesse Lab will be taking a look at Spirited Away, a film widely considered to be one of the best films of the 21st century.