Nature, humanity, spirituality, and their often mysterious yet vital connections – these are all reoccurring themes within the cinematic works of writer and director Hayao Miyazaki. And few of his films are as heavily focused on these powerful ideas as Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki’s 1997 Japanese animated epic Princess Mononoke (or Mononoke-hime in the Japanese Hepburn romanization) is a tale of the war between man and nature in Muromachi Japan. One that is given literal form in the film’s battle between an industrializing colony of humans and the forest spirits and animals who are being directly impacted by man’s often violent progress. Two humans, Ashitaka, a prince of the Emishi tribe seeking a cure to a demonic curse, and San, a young woman raised by wolves and spiteful toward humanity, are the only hope to break the cycle of violence and bring peace between these two opposing yet interdependent halves of life.
The beauty of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s long list of highly influential animated films is that they can shift from large scale to small, grounded to fantastical, offbeat to classically told, while always remaining poignantly human and thematically resonant. On its 20th anniversary, Princess Mononoke remains a staggering work of artistic and philosophical beauty rendered in stunning, violent masterstrokes.
While it’s clear that Miyazaki is largely invested in the wellbeing and future of nature in both this and many of his other films, he is not without sympathy toward the plight and needs of the human side of the conflict. Like most of Miyazaki’s films, Princess Mononoke lacks a true villain. Rather, each of its characters grapples with a far murkier morality that comes from dealing with a new emerging balance between man and nature’s needs for survival. Without a clear cut villain, Princess Mononoke avoids being a morality tale or a chastisement of industrialization. Rather, it becomes a call for greater understanding and a willingness to work with the needs of both man and the natural world.
These ideas are painted on a massive canvas that feels as epic and iconic as any fantasy story given life in film, television, or novels. From wild battles between humans and nature to quiet journeys across gorgeous landscapes, Miyazaki makes sure that Princess Mononoke feels like a sprawling adventure while never losing an intimate focus on its central characters. Rather than smash audiences with loud and brash storytelling techniques, the film most often feels quiet and understated. In doing so, Miyazaki forms an emotional intimacy that is often absent from stories that can be properly described as epics.
Like every Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke is filled to the brim with gorgeous visuals, all done with handdrawn animation personally supervised by Miyazaki himself and small amounts of CGI used for demonic flesh flourishes. And nature is largely the focus of this beauty, with sprawling forests, gleaming lakes, and fantastically rendered creatures (special shout out to the red elk Yakul) being given the vast majority of the film’s lingering, expressive shots. It’s all scored by the great Joe Hisaishi, whose resonant themes give pulsing life and an epic sweep to every scene. It’s stunning, stellar work that leaves a permanent impression on anyone taken with Princess Mononoke.
Throughout Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki makes it clear that all life has its roots within the mystical origins of nature. Though man may have removed itself through innovation and burgeoning technology, there remains a calling to connect with nature, even though many refuse to hear it. Just as crucially, the representatives of the forest (like Moro the wolf goddess and Okkoto-nushi the boar god) are driven toward hate and violence that could turn them into demons when they refuse to recognize the equality and needs of humanity.
Both good and evil lay within man and animal, and each character’s actions push them toward accepting and acting out on either extreme. For man, ignorance and apathy toward both nature and fellow man lead to corrupting violence. For animal, anger and pride cause strife and burning hatred that lead to the creation of demons that infect both the land and other living beings. These two cycles are interlinked, with one leading to the other in a never-ending cycle. The morality of Princess Mononoke calls out to the cycle’s participants to stop their destructive ways in order to break the cycle, create peace, and bring a balance that flourishes on both sides.
The contradictory nature of humanity that can be both caring for other humans yet spiteful toward nature is crystalized within the character of Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is first seen as a cold and efficient master, leading the citizens of Iron Town in their efforts to conquer nature and assert their unquestioning dominance over the area. However, protagonist Ashitaka soon discovers that Eboshi employs many women who were former prostitutes in order to get them out of the exploitative life and takes special care of lepers who would otherwise be cast out by society. Eboshi cares greatly for those shunned by society and she herself is revolutionary in her time, casting aside the authority of the Emperor and male leaders in order to pursue her own dreams and the good of others. But her refusal to accept the ideas of others other than herself leads her to deny the sovereignty of nature and its representatives.
That sovereignty is personified within the mysterious Forest Spirit. By day, the Forest Spirit walks among the creatures as a silent and oddly benevolent Kirin creature. By night, he towers over the forest as a massive, translucent Daidarabotchi. Filled with immense power, the Forest Spirit is nonetheless a peaceful and neutral presence in nature, whose few actions largely come in the form of healing. However, an act of violence committed against the Forest Spirit transforms it into a rampaging monster that destroys anything that comes into contact with it. Transformed by man’s unthinking, disrespectful violence, peaceful nature is turned into a horrifying agent of destruction until it is restored and honored by the balance-bringing duo of San and Ashitaka.
The Forest Spirit’s destructive transformation is the ultimate representation of Miyazaki’s commentary on the connection between man and nature. Although nature may outnumber and surround humanity, man is powerful enough to throw nature completely out of balance. Once done, both nature and man suffer greatly as a consequence of such unthinking actions.
Like nature itself, there is something utterly awe-inspiring about Princess Mononoke. It’s not just its enrapturing art or its majestic score. It’s not just its painfully human characters or commanding use of both story and theme. It’s in the way that every single piece seems like an inextricable part of a whole, a whole that simultaneously knocks you over with its power and seeps into your heart with its gentle nature. It’s the skill of Miyazaki. It’s the power of nature. It’s pure art given vivid life that transcends both time and culture. That’s Princess Mononoke.