Ghibli Month | Princess Mononoke (1997)

Synopsis : In the late Muramachi period, the harmony that humans, animals and gods have enjoyed begins to crumble. The protagonist, young Ashitaka – infected by an animal attack, seeks a cure from the Forest Spirit. In his travels, he sees humans ravaging the earth, bringing down the wrath of wolf god Moro and her daughter Princess Mononoke. His attempts to broker peace between her and the humans brings only conflict.

Princess Mononoke is a return to the grander scope of Miyazaki’s earliest films. Mononoke has a lot of similarities to Nausicaä , not just thematically, but structurally and in terms of character and setting. The movie treads familiar ground, yet is more sophisticated. The excesses of Nausicaä have been trimmed to create a stronger story, the characters are more complex, and the mood is quieter and solemn, imbuing itself with the mysticism of gods and magic.

Princess Mononoke is not, in fact, about Princess Mononoke. Mononoke is one of many elements in a multi-faceted story that revolves around Ashitaka, the cursed prince. Ashitaka is a unique protagonist within Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Whereas his previous heroes were energetic, with large personalities, Ashitaka is stoic, withdrawn from other characters and the audience. This runs the risk of his character feeling a little distant and too perfect in his unwavering resolve. But his character works well in tandem with the others (Mononoke included), whose viewpoints he observes and debates throughout the film.

The standout here is Lady Eboshi, the movie’s other icon. She’s a real lady-of-war, making no attempt to hide her ambition or pragmatism even as she sacrifices members of her clan for her greater goal. Miyazaki never decides how the audience should see her. I personally admired her fairness and good intentions, but her stubbornness and pride also made her frustrating. There are no truly good characters in the film. All of them are wise and foolish, evoke sympathy and frustration. None of them make things easy for Ashitaka. That’s why I have mixed feelings on his characterisation. Amongst such a morally complex cast, his relative simplicity felt misplaced. But that’s the point. Ashitaka has to be misplaced in order to see the world ‘unclouded by hate’. He had to be truly good and pure in a world full of cynics.

Miyazaki steeps the world of Mononoke in a great sense of mysticism. He sets the story in medieval Japan, old enough to feel prehistoric and near savage. Very little about the world is explicitly explained – it speaks for itself in the details, displaying Miyazaki’s insane ability to organically construct a setting. The spirits feel truly alien, rooted in an internal logic that is both simplistic and convoluted. They feel truly mystical, with some of the strangest and most captivating designs I’ve ever seen in art.

Miyazaki likes chaos. He likes it when animation brings the grandest, most impossible actions to life in the most expressive way possible. Princess Mononoke is the most restrained I’ve ever seen him. And through it, he delivers a mesmerising story that refines his favourite themes and visual quirks to an excellent finish.

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