Growing up with the works of Hayao Miyazaki brings me fond memories of childhood. Where My Neighbor Totoro would put me at ease with joy and comfort, Porco Rosso would thrill me by its uniquely quirky ways. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle? Their exploration of worlds beyond us captivated me. And then there was Princess Mononoke — quite a different beast altogether.
Watching it for the first time in secondary school, I was taken aback by the sheer violent intensity of the demonic attack that sets in from the very opening frames. I expected the violence to relent, but the tone permeates the rest of the film as so much of it revolves around this preoccupation with the destructive forces that drive it. It was a formative experience to see what was ostensibly presented to me as a “children’s film” be so unbridled in its depiction of hate and violence; and one I am grateful for as part of my journey in experiencing film at its full potential.
Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece, though perhaps a pricklier one to appreciate, but that makes it all the more rewarding. The young prince of the Emishi people, Ashitaka, is our entry point into this word. Stricken by a wound that infects his body, borne from an attack by a demonised boar-god who invades his village, he must seek a cure in the West from the spirits of the forest.
As he ventures out into the wider world, stunning landscapes of nature welcome us, with the magical touches of the adorable little forest sprites Ashitaka passes on his way, evoking the likes of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The writhing snake-like skin of the infected boar seen in the opening sequence feels all part of the same world — one of natural beauty but also a horrific degradation at its core. And what seems initially to be a dissonance, proves to be a masterstroke: we witness the ways in which human interference in nature tears it apart and manifests itself into the grotesque imagery we have seen, the hellish monstrosities and demons embodied in hateful form.
The conflict that Ashitaka soon finds himself caught in between involves San, a young woman living in the forest, raised by wolves and determined to protect them and the sanctity of her home from Lady Eboshi, the leader of the neighbouring Irontown, who wishes to destroy it altogether. Here, the underlying rot surfaces unravels beyond boar skin, as the loathing and violence driving humanity and nature apart appears.
Miyazaki allows us to revel in the beauty of nature; the quiet moments we get to spend with Ashitaka and San, whom he develops a growing bond with, in the tranquillity of the forest are potent, making the scenes where they get torn apart even more devastating. The visceral impact of these shifts are amplified by Joe Hisaishi’s beautiful score which conveys the grandeur of the mystical, the haunting chaos of it falling apart, and the sombre reflections on how it all went so wrong.
Roger Ebert describes the complexities of the narrative best as, “Not a simplistic tale of good and evil, but the story of how humans, forest animals and nature gods all fight for their share of the new emerging order.” In turn, Miyazaki isn’t content to have the humans simply be the baddies. Eboshi’s village provides sanctuary for societal outcasts — sex workers, lepers — and she shows great care and affection for their welfare. Yet her desire to provide for them leads her down the route of seeking to eradicate the forest and take part in the weapons trade, to which Ashitaka indignantly asks, “How much more pain and hatred do you think we need?”
There’s a fascination surrounding Eboshi being both a compassionate leader to her people and a destructive influence on the natural world. There are also the characters of the wolf and boar clans in the forest, most notably the wolf god Momo who raised San as an orphan child, who are unfriendly, intimidating presences, often seen as posing a threat to Ashitaka. But we see that their defensiveness and hate for humans stems from a long rooted history of oppression; they are simply trying to protect their home by whatever means necessary. This conflict builds to some stunning sequences, each so visceral in their animation and the conflicting emotions, with Ashitaka as our pacifist focal point — entering as a neutral party looking for a cure to his disease.
Though Ashitaka starts off as the protagonist, it is San, the titular “Princess Mononoke,” who presents the most dynamic and complicated figure and one of Miyazaki’s greatest creations. A firebrand warrior princess who finds herself caught between two worlds, where every choice she must make weighs heavily upon her spirit.
The film begins with Ashitaka’s journey to seek help from the Great Forest Spirit, but in the end it becomes just as much about San. Her fatalistic embrace of the forest as her home, defending it at any cost, conflicting with her newfound connection with Ashitaka forces San into some difficult choices.
Princess Mononoke confronts the viewer with some tricky questions and no obvious answers. The debate between development and growth versus preservation, and whether we can ever achieve a true balance between nature and humanity. It’s a challenging film, which is inherently its brilliance.