By Madison Otten
“To see with eyes unclouded by hate” is the premise of Hayao Miyazaki’s second highest grossing film, Princess Mononoke, a 1997 animated Japanese film that has been subbed and dubbed for US viewers. This movie won 13 awards and 6 nominations, including the Japanese Academy Prize for Picture of the Year and a nomination for the Annie Awards, for it’s brilliant storytelling, exciting soundtrack, and beautiful animation.
Studio Ghibli is often known for its light hearted and child friendly movies like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo. This film was one of Studio Ghibli’s most mature and gritty works, being rated PG-13, that pandered to teens and adults in a story set during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573) of Japan.
Miyazaki explored the cycle of hatred and its inevitable tragedy within this movie and beautifully orchestrated a three-act structure.
Hatred in this fantasy world manifests itself as writhing, maggot-like creatures that cover the body. They feed off anger and fear and turn the host into a mindless force of destruction, a demon who scorches the land. It’s the catalyst that begins our adventure by consuming a god.
Prince Ashitaka, our main protagonist, is cursed when defending his sister and village from a boar god turned demon. He is banished from his village and is tasked with discovering the origin of the demon and perhaps lift his curse. In doing so, Ashitaka is then dragged into a long-running conflict in the West.
In the West, Iron Town is run by the ambitious yet compassionate Lady Eboshi, who has waged war against the spirits of the forest. While Eboshi can be cruel and cunning, she takes in lepers and buys up contracts of women within brothels and puts them to work smelting mined ore into iron.
The conflict between humans and the spirits of the forest began when miners were assaulted by the local boar tribe, but the boars only attacked when the humans began cutting down trees and tearing up the mountain to get to the iron. The guardian of the forest was then shot by Lady Eboshi, who had come to the miners’ aid. Ever since that day, Moro of the wolf tribe and her pups have been assaulting Eboshi’s men. Eboshi returned in kind with killing animals and cutting down more trees.
On the other side of the trees, Moro and her adopted human daughter San have been fighting nonstop to protect their home, the spirits who reside there, and the Spirit of the Forest. The Spirit is also the god of life and death. The wolf, ape, and boar tribes are all doing their best to survive in a time when man no longer fear gods and instead seeks destructive industrialization.
The back and forth trade of revenge escalates the fighting to fever pitch. Ashitaka is forced to become the bridge between the conflict and to try and stop the fighting before it destroys them all.
This movie has a lot going on all at once. The second act feels like it drags on a bit in between the fast-paced action and dialogue-heavy scenes, not to mention a shoehorned romantic subplot that doesn’t affect the story in any serious way.
This movie succeeds in making it feel like the characters are actual people with history, differing personal beliefs, and morals. In all of Miyazaki’s movies there is no real villain; everyone is flawed and contains a bit of good and bad in them. Eboshi may be waging war with the forest, but she takes in those who have been cast out by society and gives them a purpose. Moro may be disdainful of humans, but she raised an abandoned human child alongside her pups out of the kindness of her heart.
Miyazaki’s strengths have always been with character depth and development, but in this movie he struggled with keeping the pacing even. I found my attention wandering a bit in places and wishing to get back to the action, but the third act finished the movie strong. It’s hard to find good animated movies that have a strong story, exciting action, and good characters. This movie is a real gem for movie and story lovers. Out of five stars, I give this movie a 4.5.