For many, the general consensus seems to be that Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s best film, this is a sentiment I see both online and in real-life but while I disagree I also find it easy to understand why people feel this way. For me Princess Mononoke is the culmination of all of Miyazaki’s previous works, both in its influences and it’s visual style, as well as his most mature offering so far, this latter reason being my guess why Mononoke has become such a favourite among many. It’s also very interesting to me to see so many parallels with Nausicaä, which you may remember is my favourite Ghibli, to the extent that Miyazaki went to the same forests for inspiration that he did for Nausicaä. But also the environmental theme running through both, the strong female characters in Nausicaä and Mononoke, as well as the presence of conflict between the humans as well as giant mythical creatures. What sets Mononoke aside from the rest of the Ghibli canon is it’s clearly Miyazaki’s most “adult” film with it’s graphic portrayal of war and violence and the unnerving details on the animals.
I think in many ways the animation in this film can be seen as a precursor to Spirited Away in its fluidity and movement away from the heavy use of static animation used previously. While it’s not on the same level as Spirited Away, the technology behind the animation for this film is leaps and bounds ahead of Porco Rosso. You can see how excellent the animation is in scenes like the fight with the Boar God at the start of the film, especially the curse that wraps around Ashitaka’s arm, or even in calmer scenes like the forgery where Ashitaka helps the women fan the furnace, and everytime the Forest Spirit transforms it looks so absolutely stunning. Meanwhile the detailing in the art is simply fantastic, especially the close-ups of the diseased animals which are so wonderfully grotesque. While there is a charm to the older animation in the Early Ghibli films, this film is clearly a turning point from the company utilising the advancements in technology to bring the world to life in a vivid and vibrant way. Similarly the use of colour is superb in this film, even the use of the deep red blood during the fights contrast with the mellow green of the fields and trees. Adding to this, the design of each location makes it feel so unique, with the style and design of each area feeling so unique and full of life in its own way. From the centre of the forest where the Spirit lives, to Wolves’ cave, even to Irontown, each place feels distinct and well thought out. The fact that all the areas stand on their own merit also plays nicely into the themes of the film especially its moral ambiguity regarding the conflict.
Speaking of the themes, one of the films biggest strengths is it’s commitment to its themes. Moving away from Nausicaä’s ideology, this film is much more ambiguous about its morality, all the parties involved, animal gods and humans, are presented as complex creatures. The leader of Irontown, Lady Eboshi, while destroying the forest for her furnace, cares deeply about the people of her village including the lepers that she employs in her own personal garden. Meanwhile San and the Wolves are shown as hyper-violent, feral and willing to kill their way through the human forces in order to secure their forest, something that Miyazaki purposefully leaves up to the audience to decide whether they agree with their point of view or not. The themes of war, violence, industrialisation and nature, all of which are complex in of themselves, are presented with care and nuance but without absolutism, Miyazaki doesn’t make the film stand firmly on any one side. It would be disingenuous to say that certain elements aren’t treated with certainty, for example the idea of hunting is pretty confidently condemned, and the killing of the forest spirit, which leads to catastrophic consequence for all the humans, are a pretty clear indication that Miyazaki is advocating for the preservation of nature and harmony between the two, and there is a definite condemnation of Lady Eboshi’s industrialisation, but the line at which this harmony is to occur is left open. Similarly, there is a very clever parallel between Eboshi, a strong woman who leads a society, and San, a strong woman whose whole identity is rooted in individualism and separation from society. Both are characters that Ashitaka becomes close with, and their eventual clash set against the backdrop of the industrialisation theme creates an interesting dialogue about the need for conformity and individualism in a developing society. But much like in the themes I discussed above, this turmoil between the two is examined and explored but never fully rectified. Miyazaki doesn’t have a clear cut answer about how these two ideologies can live in harmony. Even the ending with Irontown being rebuilt and San returning to the forest, with Ashitaka trying to find a balance between the two, solidifies this idea that there is no clear cut answer, but rather something we are left to consider for ourselves.
While Princess Mononoke isn’t my favourite film and I don’t love it as much as a lot of Ghibli fans that I know, it is undoubtedly an incredibly important film in the Ghibli canon and it’s easy to see why many people consider it their favourite. Miyazaki, already an incredible director at this point, shows real maturity in this film, examining the themes of lost innocence in a completely new way, compared to Porco Rosso, that dealt with similar themes, Princess Mononoke is significantly more adult. Not to spoil the next column, but I think Miyazaki really perfects this theme in the subsequent Spirited Away, bringing together the deep and complex theme of loss of innocence through a film focused at children/young adults, but I think without Mononoke we would never have gotten this growth in Miyazaki’s future directorial efforts.