Anime Reporter sets off towards the Miyazaki-rich land of Studio Ghibli to bring you my take (not take you my bring) on Princess Mononoke, the mythology-rich 1997 anime adventure.
Set during the Muromachi period in Japan (some time from the 14th to 16th century for anyone inexplicably unfamiliar with the finer points of Japanese history), Princess Mononoke follows Ashitaka, the young prince, (yes, prince, we’ll get to the princess, shush now, don’t interrupt), of a people considered long lost. A simple people who respect nature, their world is abruptly disturbed when a colossal beast, covered in vile, dark worms, rampages across their land. Ashitaka, a brave young lad, does his best to defend his home, and discovers that underneath his wormy armour, the creature is a giant hog, a god of the forest.
The beast is finished off, or more accurately, succumbs to its wounds, caused by a large iron ball embedded in its flesh. The creature swears that humans’ doom will come and his words could be seen as well-founded, considering that Ashitaka has received a cursed wound from the god for his trouble. This curse is not only a rather lovely shade of dark sludgy purple, it has the added benefits of giving his arm incredible strength, putting him in serious agony and spelling his impending death. Maybe “benefits” wasn’t the right word.
Ashitaka is given a choice. He can stay with his people and die in hideous pain, or leave his home, forbidden from returning and search for some kind of cure at the mercy of the great forest spirit. It’s a movie, so he picks the option that spells adventure (the second one) and traverses at least one land in search of answers. While doing so, he comes across a town of people who work with iron and who seem to be at war with more than one animal spirit in their locality, including San, a human girl adopted by a giant wolf. This princess of the monsters, (No, her name isn’t Mononoke), hates humans but she could well be the key to Ashataki’s salvation.
Okay, so this is Ghibli we’re talking about here. This means, as I’m sure you well know, that this is one seriously gorgeous film. While it’s 18 years since this first came out, it’s very visually impressive with some splendid (yes, I said splendid and I’m not taking it back.) dark tones and truly lovely painted landscapes. Action is satisfying but it’s the spirits (both great and small) and creatures which manage to steal the spotlight with ease. While a Ghibli classic, this is a little more violent than some of their other fare (á la decapitations and dismemberment, although without a lot of blood on display) and it may be a tad too dark for some particularly young viewers.
If this film has one fault, (and it does, because they can’t all be Spirited Away), it’s that it could benefit from a few moments of humour added in to make things just a little less dreary. Now, this is not at all intended to be a humorous film and I’m sure that the tone was purposefully chosen to represent the historical period of its setting, so I’m certainly not trying to suggest that it should have been a barrel of laughs, but comic relief serves an important function in breaking up scenes and allowing the audience to recover from heavier moments. That said, I’m a big fan of this film and I really can see why its themes (humans vs. nature, tradition vs. “progress”, spirituality vs. pragmatism) and message may have prompted its somewhat grave tone.
Final verdict: Princess Mononoke is well and truly deserving of its status as a much-loved classic, with an important and profound message and enchanting visuals. Just don’t expect a laugh a minute.