I grew up watching my fair share of Japanese animated programmes. Back in the day, we lumped everything animated, regardless of the country of origin, under the umbrella of ‘cartoon’, whereas now the proper term for Japanese animation is ‘anime’. I watched Transformers (don’t ask me which one!), Astro Boy and the original Ultraman – my boys were gobsmacked when I told them that!
When my boys started venturing from Western cartoons to anime, I was amazed at the amount and variety on offer. It was fun watching different shows with them as they were growing up. Nowadays, they watch mainly on their own, and occasionally, I’ll watch some series and films with them.
They’ve watched more Studio Ghibli films than I have, but of the ones I’ve seen, my favourite is ‘Princess Mononoke’. The film is set in medieval Japan, during the Muromachi period to be exact, which fell roughly between 1336 and 1573. This was the time firearms were being introduced to Japan. The film is basically about the natural world being threatened by new, technological developments. In this world, it is accepted that animal gods and trees spirits are part of the fabric of nature.
The story centres around the prince of a clan, Ashitaka, whose remote village is attacked by a boar god overwhelmed by a deadly curse. While trying to stop the maddened boar, Ashitaka is, himself, inflicted with the curse. The wise woman of the village deciphers the reason for the boar god’s behaviour – he’d been driven mad by an iron bullet.
Ashitaka has no choice but to leave his village and his people to find the source of the bullet and, hopefully, a cure for the curse before it kills him. His quest brings him to a mystical forest, watched over by a benevolent Forest Spirit. He also comes into contact with San, a human raised by Moro, the wolf goddess. San is Princess Mononoke (Spirit Princess). Close to the forest is a human settlement, Irontown, led by, surprisingly, a woman, the Lady Eboshi. It is in Irontown that Ashitaka finds the source of the iron bullet and finds himself caught in a battle between man’s industrial innovations and the magical balance of nature.
That’s the basic plot of the film. And here are 5 reasons why I love it so much:
Life is mirrored in the plot, in that it’s full of moral ambiguity. Unlike most animated series and films out there, there is no clear-cut villain in ‘Princess Mononoke’; in fact, I’d venture to say the same of all Studio Ghibli productions.
If you go into this film thinking you already know who you’re going to be rooting for, you may find yourself having a change of heart.
The Lady Eboshi seems to be the main antagonist, determined to keep moving in the direction of ‘technology’ and new innovations and woe to any who stand in her way. She’s not in awe of the animal gods, viewing them as nothing more than adversaries she has to fight and defeat. But when it comes to her people in Irontown, she treats them well and cares for those whom society has cast out.
As the eponymous princess, San isn’t a shining example of the calm gentleness of nature. Her blinkered hatred of humans is what drives her to keep fighting Eboshi and her people.
The characters. There are no redundant characters; every single one is interesting in their own right, even the minor, nameless ones. A few words, facial expressions and body language is all that’s needed to convey enough of a person’s character, so you have their measure in minutes.
I love the way the animal gods are portrayed. The main ones we see are Moro, the wolf goddess, and the boar god, Lord Okkoto. As for the tree spirit… Let’s just say he blew my mind! I’m dying to say more about them but don’t want to venture into spoiler-territory.
I have to mention Ashitaka’s companion and mount, Yakul, a red elk. His loyalty and love for Ashitaka is a pleasure to watch, and Ashitaka’s care for him is plain to see.
Strong females. Don’t make the mistake of thinking there are any damsels in distress here just because the word ‘princess’ is in the title. San’s first appearance shows her with blood smeared on her face. The first time she sees Ashitaka, she basically tells him to get lost.
The Lady Eboshi is a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners type yet retains her femininity. The women in Irontown have more ‘balls’ than the men and, even though they continuously make fun of them, they don’t hate men; they love their husbands but happily speak their minds, thanks to Eboshi’s equal treatment of all.
Romance, more specifically the lack of thereof. We have a young couple – San and Ashitaka – who are attracted to one another, though Ashitaka’s attraction to San is more obvious but, at no point, are we distracted with a ‘getting to know you so we can be in love’ side-plot. It makes a refreshing change not to have a neat, tied-up-in-a-bow romance.
The art and music; a real feast for the senses. The animation is mainly hand-drawn with some CGI. Bear in mind this was in the 1990s; CGI was nowhere near what it is now. Some might say it looks simplistic, but that’s part of the charm. In my opinion, it makes it easier to get lost in the story. As for the music, it doesn’t intrude. Each part complements the setting, be it Ashitaka’s village, the landscape he passes through on his travels, Irontown, and the forest. There are moments where there is no music, no sound except what is actually happening in the story. That ratchets up the tension more than any piece of music.
Have you had the pleasure of watching ‘Princess Mononoke’? What do you think of it? Do you like Studio Ghibli films; do you have a favourite?
(Images from ‘Mononoke himé’ Wiki)