“Princess Mononoke”: a simple concept with complex layers

5/5 *****

“Princess Mononoke” (1997), directed by Hayao Miyazaki, is a film produced by the Japanese animation studio, Studio Ghibli. The film is about a prince named Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda), who becomes cursed by a demon while trying to protect his village. He travels west to try and find a cure, where he becomes caught in the middle of a war between Iron Town, led by Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka) and the gods of the nearby forest, led by a girl named San (Yuriko Ishida). The film is absolutely beautiful from start to finish, with incredible animation, amazing characters and impactful music. 

To start off, the film’s characters are incredible. Each and every one is written to be complex and well rounded, making them act and feel like real life people. Ashitaka struggles to be the peacemaker and stay neutral between the two sides of the conflict, meanwhile San struggles to accept the fact that she is a human. The most interesting character, however, is the film’s antagonist, Lady Eboshi. At first, Eboshi is portrayed as a power hungry woman who just wants to enrich her town with the resources of the forest by killing the forest god. However, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that Eboshi is trying to help the people in her town. Early on, the audience and Ashitaka learn that Eboshi saves prostitutes from brothels and cares for those who have leprosy. It is then revealed that the only reason Eboshi is setting out to kill the forest god is because she is repaying a deal to Jigo, a mercenary who gave her riflemen to help her fight off the samurai of Lord Asano. While what Lady Eboshi is doing is not right, her reasons behind what she is doing is understandable, for she is trying to protect her town. 

Going past the film’s amazing characters, the film’s core themes of respecting the environment and the effects of hatred are extremely powerful. The film shows the environment as what it is, a complex ecosystem of living creatures who are trying to survive. The humans of the film just want to burn the forests down, kill the forest gods and expand, meanwhile the forest wants to destroy all the humans and reclaim the part of the forest that was lost. Ashitaka, between the two extremes, fights to make both sides see each other and co-exist in peace, which ties into the film’s theme about hate. Ashitaka’s curse at the start of the film was inflicted by a boar god who was shot by Eboshi and consumed by his hatred towards humans. Ashitaka’s soul will be ripped apart and he will die as a result, and the process quickens when he experiences fear and anger. Ashitaka, while trying to find the forest god to lift the curse, promotes peace between the two sides so that he can end the cycle of hatred that cursed him. 

Impressively, on top of the film’s great characters and intense, deep themes, the film gives the audience time to breathe and be immersed in the film’s beauty. Sprinkled throughout the film there are beautiful scenes where minimal action on–screen lets the audience focus on the wonderful musical score of Joe Hisaishi. Scenes like this gives the audience a chance to process all that has happened, as well as to understand the film’s message of seeing the beauty that life has to offer, even during dark times.  

Overall, while the film is simple in concept – a cursed prince going on a quest to lift a curse – the execution is far from simple. The film is a complex dive into the cycle of hatred, the importance of nature, the intricacies of war and humanity and the beauty of life all brilliantly packed into a film of two hours and thirteen minutes.