Might as well just come out and say it: this is one of my all-time favorite pieces of art, so yes bias. It is my favorite to show to people who think that animation is just garbage to feed to kids (I am disgusted by the notion that it is alright to feed garbage to kids, but that is an essay for another time), or an excuse for horny drunken frat boys to misbehave, but I digress.
In his review of the movie Rodger Ebert describes this movie as proof of animation’s ability to capture the essence of reality that live action film cannot, and I agree. Other critics have noticed that with many Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki films, like Spirited Away, it is easy to map them. The places that compose many an animated film are often beautiful and engaging, but not engrossing. You never get lost. Not so with this movie. It is impossible to map the depth and complexity that is the Sacred Forests and surrounding Iron Age Japan, and no shot seems to contain the exact same piece of ecosystem. To put it bluntly this film is really, really, amazingly pretty, and it should be. It is the most expensive hand drawn animated film ever made, but spectacle alone is not what nets a film the Japanese Oscar for best picture, nor is it what makes the film remembered, praised, lauded, and used to introduce others to animation a decade after it was made. Even if this film had the poorest of dirt poor budgets, provided the plot remained intact, I would still count it among my favorite works of art crafted my human hands.
There seems to be this knee jerk gag reflex in a lot of people for stories with overtly pro-environment and anti-war messages, or anything with an even remotely political stance to it. In one way, and I might add, in one way alone, I can understand this. Sometimes artists with deep compassion or righteous indignation can get too caught up in their passions and just end up being preachy over awe-inspiring. Hayao Miyazaki for all of his great works like this film and others is not even immune to this (see the film Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind), and for that matter, neither am I (not that I make movies). Princess Mononoke is the case where that does not happen. Instead we have something incredible.
The plot, in the shortest form I can muster, is thus: Ashitaka, the last prince of the genocided Emishi people (think: Native Americans) is cursed by a dying boar god while defending his village from it. The curse is thus that he will decay away into madness and then death as the infection spreads across his body. Acts of war and aggression make the curse spread faster. In order to preserve the legacy of his people and save his life, Ashitaka heads west to find a way to lift his curse, following the only clue he has: an iron bullet lodged in the boar’s body. In the West he finds a world a war.
It is not one war but many: the emperor versus the samurai for control of the land, mercenary monks siding with the highest bidder, the boar gods versus all humanity for daring to expand into their domain: the Sacred Forest, the ape gods who side with none but do battle with all, and then there are the wars centered around Irontown. It is here that the Sacred Forest, the realm of the animal gods, is plundered and mined most severely to create the modern weapons of war for the emperor, however it is also only here that those ruined by the feudal patriarchies of both emperor and samurai can find autonomy and respect under the leadership and compassion of the Lady Eboshi. The okami (god wolves) of the Sacred Forest, unfortunately, do not take kindly to these exploited humans exploiting their home, and neither does human women raised by them: San the Princess Mononoke. This adds yet another war to all this: the guerilla war between Irontown, the okami and their princess, and Irontown was already at war with the Samurai lords, angered at losing their sex slaves exploitable leper labor. Eventually some of the various factions of civilized humanity (the monks under the emperor’s employ and Irontown) and the god-beasts of nature (all the boar god, San and some of the okami) begin to coalesce for a final total war over control the God of the Sacred Forest itself, something Ashitaka comes to see will not end with anyone’s greater good being achieved.
Though in the end, Miayazaki sides with those beings that compose the rest of nature in this conflict, no one, and I mean no one, nor any faction in this story is evil. No one is doing what they are doing because. The greater good and sacrifice are central here and it makes a story where animals can communicate with humans ring all the more true than many a live action film where they do not. It may be hard to swallow, because it gets said time and time again, but one of this film’s themes is how the sacrifice of others without the sacrifice of self, achieves little. This is especially true if this sacrifice comes in the form of any sort of war, big or small, personal or grandiose, because we never truly know the value and integrity of those we label as the other that is okay to sacrifice. Ecology unfortunately just does operate on the notion of the other. Nature is not really biased towards anyone or anything, a fact that all of our characters, human or otherwise, have to learn when they challenge the Nature incarnate that is the God of the Sacred forest, a being of immense awe, but also terror beyond even what direwolves and great boars or guns and steel can produce.
I have not even begun to talk about all that there is to this film. It is also a love story between war-weary, compassionate Ashitaka and belligerent yet honorable San. Their love is pivotal to stopping yet another tragedy from ending with the stage littered with corpses, but it is also one that is allowed to be more mature and real than most. Unlike many other productions where expressions of intimacy happen because fan service; there is none of that here, because such actions would not make sense given what is happening to our protagonists. They are also permitted not to have to live together in order for their relationship to have happiness to its conclusion. If I have not stated it frankly enough so far, most of these comparisons to film tropes that I am making never occurred to me when watching and liking this film, only when I came to put why I liked it into words for others to understand completely did they ever occur to me.
I should also like to take a moment to thank the people who made this movie as good as they did. Thank you Studio Ghibli and Miayzaki and keep up the constant good work that makes even Pixar jealous. Thank you Disney and Miramax for not changing a single frame of footage in adaption, also I give a big thanks to you all for convincing Neil Gaiman (yes, the fairy tale expert and author of Sandman and Coralline) to translate the script. I also give thanks to both the English cast (Claire Daines, Minnie Diver, Billy-Bob Thornton, John DiMaggio, Billy Crudup, Jada Plinket-Smith, Keith David, and Gillian Anderson), as well as Japanese cast. Last but never least, thanks to all the animators and musicians who made this story look as epic as it sounds. I am sure there are flaws somewhere to be found here, but I am not the person to do it.