Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
It feels like it has been awhile since Ghibli has given us a Miyazaki vision. In fact, not since 1992’s Porco Rosso, has a film in the series been helmed by the great master, which feels like far too long for such a draught, even if Isao Takahata has whetted my appetite in the meantime. But with Miyazaki’s return also comes an entry in the Studio Ghibli canon which is legendary, and often considered one of their very best, if not the best, works in the studio’s history. It is also, once again, one of the very few Studio Ghibli films that I had seen prior to embarking on this wonderful journey with Gateway Film Center in Columbus. I think getting a chance to see these films again has been a real treat, giving me a chance to re-evaluate them with an eye which has become accustomed to the strange worlds of Ghibli, as opposed to one so new and fresh to it. I think that makes a difference, which is why I will be so curious to revisit Spirited Away in a few weeks.
The Ghibli canon is filled with remarkable princesses much in contrast to the same princesses of the American Disney Animation Studios. Where Disney often crafts fairytale, feminine princesses, Ghibli often delivers strong, warrior princesses, and Princess Mononoke is no different, although the film really tells the story of a young boy named Ashitaka, who becomes cursed after defending his village from a demon hog who travelled far from the forests to the West. In order to lift the curse, Ashitaka travels to those forests, where he encounters a battle being waged between the forest gods with their human princess San and a mining colony lead by Lady Eboshi. Entering into this war, Ashitaka attempts to strike a balance in order to preserve the forest and save not only his life, but the lives of those involved on both sides of the war.
I think for my money, Princess Mononoke is a masterwork in filmmaking as it pertains to narrative storytelling. I am often drawn to Miyazaki for his lush worlds and fantasy scenarios which he pens, but with Mononoke, I must admit to not being as drawn to the story being told. Perhaps he has always been this masterful of a storyteller, and I have simply been distracted by his ability to craft these intricate worlds which he, and I, love spending time fully immersed in, but with Mononoke, I was not as engaged with the story being told, or the world in which it takes place, but I was still endlessly taken with the craft on display when it came to the attention to detail in this world, and the structuring of the story as it unfolded.
With strong central characters to root for in Ashitaka and San, and even some sympathetic “baddies” in Lady Eboshi and some of the other Iron Town residents, Miyazaki makes sure the viewer is at least invested in the story surrounding the Forest gods and their battle to stay alive and not be overrun by the humans. The film speaks to similar themes as Takahata’s Pom Poko, where the raccoon’s struggled to maintain their forest homeland, but Miyazaki’s version is much more heavy handed, whereas Takahata treated the topic with a certain level of humor which is certainly missing here. However, the balance with which Miyazaki carefully constructs his narrative is extremely impressive, showing a careful depiction of both the Mining Colony and forest dwellers, each with their own motives and rights.
The film starts off with a perfectly paced action sequence, with the appearance of the demon hog, which is indicative of the careful construction throughout by Miyazaki, but the early appearance of the strange demon is also unsettling, which, like other Miyazaki films before it, gives no time for the viewer to settle in to this fantastic world, instead dumping the viewer head first into the world and counting on them to be able to find their way around in it as Miyazaki delivers details throughout to complete the puzzle. I think it is more noticeable here than in his other worlds,however, which shows a great deal of trust in his audience. Ultimately, Princess Mononoke is as solid a piece of evidence that Miyazaki is a master as any of his other films are, but I felt less connected with the story being told, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t endlessly appreciate the way it was delivered, both structurally or visually. I can certainly see why this would be anyone’s favorite of the canon.