Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 environmental fable, is set in a mythologised fourteenth century Japan.
Ashitaka, a young prince, battles and kills, Nago, a wild boar demon that is threatening his village. In its death throes, the boar wounds Ashitaka’s arm. An iron pellet is found deep within Nago’s remains—this injury turned the boar into a frenzied demon. The village oracle knows Ashitaka’s wound is cursed and will eventually kill him. If he is to have any chance of being cured, he must journey west to the deer god’s forest.
In the far west, Ashitaka assists two men by a river, ox-drivers in a trading caravan, who have been injured in a battle with the huge and fearsome wolf goddess, Moro. While tending to these men, Ashitaka glimpses San across the river. San is the savage Princess Mononoke (possessed princess) of the title. Her face is smeared with Moro’s blood which she has been sucking from a gunshot wound the she-wolf received during the battle. San is clad in fur and bones. She was abandoned as a baby girl and adopted by Moro and her pack.
Ashitaka escorts the two ox-drivers safely to their home, a fortified foundry and weapons factory ruled by Lady Eboshi. The forest around the fortress is in ruins due to iron mining and the factory’s industrial activities. Lady Eboshi is a pragmatist who believes progress can provide her people with a better future. She is also a humanitarian who employs ex-brothel workers, lepers and other outcasts. But to fulfil her vision, she ruthlessly destroys the forest and is a sworn enemy of its gods and guardian spirits. She, herself, shot the she-wolf Moro in the earlier skirmish. And it was she who wounded the giant boar, Nago, who then became the vengeful rampaging demon that wounded and cursed Ashitaka.
San hates humans. The human world abandoned her and is now wreaking havoc on her adoptive wolf-mother’s forest home. She enters the fortress and makes an unsuccessful attempt to kill Lady Eboshi. Ashitaka is shot by one of the women workers as he aids San’s escape back into the forest. San then helps Ashitaka by taking him to the deer god. The god heals Ashitaka’s gunshot wound but does not remove the festering scar of Nago’s curse.
An all out battle between nature and humans ensues. Lady Eboshi decapitates the deer god with a shot from her rifle. Without his head, the life-affirming deer god is transformed into a baleful, doom-dealing death god. The earth cracks open, trees topple, the forest spirits are defeated. In a last ditch attempt to avert complete apocalypse, San joins forces with Ashitaka to give the severed head back to the god. The world turns green again. Nature heals itself.
Ashitaka, now freed from the boar’s curse, stays to help a penitent Lady Eboshi rebuild her devastated community. Still unforgiving of the human race, San remains in the forest and will not come to live with Ashitaka in the settlement.
The gods have dwindled in power. San believes the deer god has not survived after all. But Ashitaka feels that the spirit of life can never die. The tale ends in a kind of draw. Neither nature nor humanity emerges victorious or unscathed.
Princess Mononoke’s rich, glowing animation propels a powerful narrative populated by vivid characters grappling with relationships with themselves, others, power, progress, nature and spirit. It challenges two myths—that of the Japanese living in harmony with nature, and that of Japanese women being long-suffering and passive. All the female characters, major and minor, are independent and self-assured. Lady Eboshi cares for the sick and underprivileged but is equally an iron miner, arms manufacturer and military commander. Moro, the she-wolf, is wise and brave but is also a ferocious killer. San, the heroine, has moments of softness, but is single-minded, violent and driven by a desire for revenge against the human world.
The film’s landscapes are depicted in a palette dominated by resonant greens and browns, with occasional shafts of radiance. The forest is shown as a place of magical and spiritual renewal. The foundry is portrayed realistically and not demonised as a dark, satanic mill. Dynamic action sequences contrast with scenes of natural beauty. The musical score ranges from epic to wistful. Pounding taiko drums heighten the excitement in some battle scenes.
This is not a children’s cartoon. It is a spirited, complex and sometimes dark and violent tale whose hero and heroine, forever incompatible and unable to live happily ever after, come to see things as they are and so probably will go on to make the best of their lives—in the end, simply agreeing that they will ‘visit each other sometimes’ in their respective worlds.
Princess Mononoke is entertaining, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging. Miyazaki, through his wonderful writing and direction, creates an elegy for a lost, mythical Japan, one where the human and natural worlds lost their harmony. He doesn’t gloss over death, loss and violence or ignore the reality that the fallout from evildoings can sometimes be contained but cannot always be negated.
One of the most successful Japanese films ever made (animation or live action), Princess Mononokehas attracted audiences of all ages all over the world. For the 1999 English version, Neil Gaiman was commissioned to write the screenplay and voice actors included Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Minnie Driver and Billy Bob Thornton. The English version is identical in visual content to the Japanese language original.