Sunday, January 6, 2013

Princess Mononoke (1997) - A Trip into Japanese Mythology

Princess Mononoke: Being Raised By Wolves Ain't So Bad

Original Japanese poster Princess Mononoke 1997
"Princess Mononoke" (1997).
"Princess Mononoke" (1997), directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, is an animation classic that relates a story of demons and monsters. It is set during the late Muromachi era (the middle ages, when most Western fantasies are set) in Japanese history, but really exists outside of historical reference points as pure fantasy.

This is a fairy tale of supernatural beings fighting against humans who invade their territory to strip the forest's resources, so there are many aspects relevant to our own time. "Princess Mononoke" is Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki at their very best, which is quite good indeed.

Ashitaka Princess Mononoke 1997
Prince Ashitaka.
A demon attacks an Emishi village, which is defended by a prince, Ashitaka. The demon, a boar god corrupted by an iron ball in its body, curses Ashitaka, who gains superhuman strength and abilities as a result, but who also eventually will die from the powers. Ashitaka seeks advice from the local oracle, who tells him that a cure may exist far away, in a western town. Ashitaka sets out, and along the way, he meets Jiko-bō, an itinerant monk. Jiko-bō ("Jigo" in the English translation) says that the Deer God, or Forest Spirit, may be able to help him.

San Princess Mononoke 1997
Nearby, in Iron Town, a wolf pack led by the wolf-goddess Moro attacks. San, a human girl, rides one of the wolves. Ashitaka finds two injured Iron Town men and San with the wolf pack, but the wolves all ignore him and leave. He helps the wounded as best he can and sees the Forest Spirit.

Deer Spirit Princess Mononoke 1997
The Forest Spirit.
Back in Iron Town, Ashitaka meets Lady Eboshi, who founded the town by cutting down the local forests in order to mine iron ore. The forest gods are unhappy with her incursion, and the town is full of outcasts such as lepers who make weapons for Eboshi to use against the forest gods. It was Eboshi and her weapons who turned the boar god into a demon, leading to Ashitaka's own predicament. San, Eboshi explains, is also known as Princess Mononoke (which roughly means "angry spirit") and was raised by the wolves with which she rides, determined, like the wolves, to wipe out all people.

Lady Eboshi Princess Mononoke 1997
Lady Eboshi.
Princess Mononoke slips into Iron Town in order to assassinate Eboshi, but Ashitaka stops her and knocks her cold. Ashitaka carries the unconscious Princess Mononoke back out into the forest, but on the way, he is shot by a villager and wounded. Princess Mononoke awakens and, not realizing what has happened, decides to kill Ashitaka, but he prevents that by praising her beauty. Princess Mononoke then takes Ashitaka out into the forest, where the Forest Spirit cures him.

San attacking Princess Mononoke 1997
San the assassin.
The battle between demons and humans comes to a head, with the wolf pack and boars planning to attack Iron Town. Eboshi decides to try and kill the Forest Spirit first. Jiko-bō encourages her because he intends to give the head of the Forest Spirit to the Emperor in exchange for protection from the local warlords. The severed head of the Forest Spirit, it is said, will make the owner immortal.

San and wolves Princess Mononoke 1997
San and her pack.
The boar-god is shot by the villagers, and Jiko-bō then has the men disguise themselves in its skins in order to get the other boar to take them back to the Forest Spirit. Princess Mononoke tries to stop them but is unsuccessful. Eboshi and the villagers finally reach the Forest Spirit, who at the last moment transforms into the form of giant, and confusion reigns as Eboshi battles the Forest Spirit, with only one clear winner possible.

San on her wolf.
The characters are very well-drawn in this exciting tale. Ashitaka is young and determined, but he is not the standard sword-waving hero of animation. Lady Eboshi is a strong ruler, but a little too narrow-minded about what she wants and her means of obtaining it. She is willing to place her own and her comrades' lives at stake in order to fulfill her dream of a prosperous town. She is an atypical heroine because she champions commerce and development at the expense of ecology and harmony with nature - or, in other words, she is the greedy capitalist pig of the story.

San and wolves Princess Mononoke 1997
San pondering her next move.
As with many Disney feature film animation projects (Studio Ghibli is known, to its distaste, as the Disney of Asia"), "Princess Mononoke" was in development for decades. It is primarily hand-drawn animation, with some computer graphics thrown in. Digital paint also is used. Computers were just being introduced for anime, so "Princess Mononoke" was a breakthrough film in Asia. For the English dub, the voice actors are Ashitaka, Billy Crudup; Princess Mononoke, Claire Danes; Lady Eboshi, Minnie Driver; Jiko-bō, Billy Bob Thornton; and the boar god, Keith David, who also narrates.

San Princess Mononoke 1997
San the warrior.
The film plays out as if it were an American Western. Miyazaki always has had a Western orientation, and this easily could have become a tale about a frontier town battling invading native Americans. There is, of course, a distinct Japanese orientation nonetheless which won't be understandable for many Western viewers, but which gives "Princess Mononoke" added depth for domestic Japanese fans. "Princess Mononoke" was a true labor of love for Miyazaki, who personally edited over half of the film's animation cells.

The great success of "Princess Mononoke" in Japan convinced Miyazaki not to retire, and he later did "Spirited Away" and some other works. Miyazaki's attention to detail led to a huge number of different colors - 550 - being used in "Princess Mononoke."

Boar god Princess Mononoke 1997
All bow before the mighty boar-god!
As the plot makes clear, "Princess Mononoke" is all about the environment and the contaminations wrought by man as he invades hitherto pristine wilderness areas. Miyazaki battled to prevent identity stereotypes from obscuring his ecology-laden message, thus making Eboshi a female and the saviors of the forest males. Eboshi, though, is certainly not all bad, as she embraces outsiders from normal society in Iron Town and has a welcoming attitude to people who elsewhere would be shunned. However, Iron Town itself is considered sort of an outcast from the rest of the country, which is ruled by a corrupt government.

forest spirits Princess Mononoke 1997
Forest spirits.
Everybody seemed to love "Princess Mononoke" upon its release, and it was a huge success at the Japanese box office. It hasn't translated well elsewhere, though, perhaps because of the use of heavy Japanese symbolism and mythology which obscures the universality of "Princess Mononoke"'s message. "Princess Mononoke" is a great film, one of the best of 1997 of any genre, even if poorly understood and almost unknown outside of Japan. "Princess Mononoke" is a difficult film to watch for many because what might seem obvious to a Japanese viewer must be interpreted and figured out by someone not familiar with basic Japanese history and myths.

"Princess Mononoke" is not like "My Neighbor Totoro" or Kiki's Delivery Service, i.e., not a simple tale for children, who likely will be put off by the seemingly pointless battle between townspeople and demons and the wavering allegiance of Ashitaka between Eboshi and Princess Mononoke. People who take the time to watch and understand "Princess Mononoke" tend to like it a lot. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time and patience to do that with a little-known anime "classic."

Headless deer spirit Princess Mononoke 1997
The beheaded forest spirit.
"Princess Mononoke" is somewhat of a cultural sensation in Japan, with all sorts of fantasy art depictions of the princess who rides a wolf and so on, so it is worth understanding if you have any interest in modern Japanese culture. Almost every Japanese that you meet will be familiar with the film and probably have their own interpretation. Bear in mind that "Princess Mononoke" is very long, at 2 hours and 14 minutes, and it can take several viewings for Western viewers to get past the Japanese tropes and really appreciate the story. Even then, viewers of the Japanese version will just say that the only "true" version is the one in the original Japanese because of all the alterations ("dumbing down") done in the English dub. In any event, it is well worth the effort to get to know this film, just have a little patience and expect a very different kind of fable.



  1. This movie is sooo good! Not for little kids, but more for 13+

  2. As a fan of Princess Mononoke, I think you'd like Oblivion Island!

    "An animated romp for the young and the young at heart! This internationally acclaimed feature film blends Japanese folklore and storybook charm reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland into an exhilarating tale sure to amaze animation fans of all ages. Sixteen-year-old Haruka is on a mission to find her mirror—a precious childhood gift from her late mother that has disappeared. On her search, she follows a strange fox-like creature to Oblivion Island, a mystical world overflowing with once-cherished items taken from their neglectful owners. Trouble follows Haruka and her new friend Teo at every turn as they contend with the island’s overbearing ruler, who will stop at nothing to use the mirror for his own sinister plan!"