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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Anime movie review: Princess Mononoke

Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have created an epic and thematic adventure brimming with exciting action and dazzling visuals. Set aside some time to discover the impressive set of characters and story of this highly acclaimed and beloved movie.

Princess Mononoke is an epic fantasy adventure set in the Muromachi period (around the 15th or 16th century) in Japan. The movie opens with a small village being attacked by an  angry demon whose body is enveloped in a mass of dark slithering entities. The prince of the village, Ashitaka – our hero –  kills the demon in order to save his village, but is injured and cursed by the demon.
The demon turns out to be a boar god, consumed and twisted by hatred originating from an iron ball found inside his body. Ashitaka now sets off to find a means to lift his curse and discover where the iron ball came from.
He comes across a human settlement, Iron Town, and their conflicts with the nearby great forest and the animals, spirits and gods inhabiting it.

Visually, Princess Mononoke shines right off the bat. The design and movement of the demonic boar god is among the most impressive bits of animation I've come across. In addition to the fluid and gorgeous animation, the action is done so well it will immediately pull you in. And we will witness several more sequences of this caliber before the end.
While the dark slithering appearance of the boar god’s manifested hatred is by far the coolest design Studio Ghibli made in this film, everything ‘fantastical’ have wonderful designs. From the adorably odd looks of the tiny Kodama spirits who rattle their heads all through the forest, to the vicious, intimidating and realistic looking wolves, and the dignified yet strangely unsettling deer-like appearance of the spirit of the forest.

The rattling Kodama spirits
Fortunately, it’s beauty and action are merely the outer shell of it’s brilliance. The most impressive aspect of Princess Mononoke is its ability to display each side of every conflict – and how well it all ties in with the movie’s core theme: Man Vs. Nature. We understand what both the people of Iron Town and the inhabitants of the great forest fight for and why. We sympathize and even root for both sides to win. Even Jigo – the main antagonist – is given clear motivation for his actions, not to mention a likable personality.
The only side which Hayao Miyazaki and his crew at Studio Ghibli seem to have no respect for are Lord Asano and the samurai, who throughout the movie attacks both peasants and Iron Town. All we’re given about Asano is the fact that he wants Iron Town for his own, nothing more. We never even get a glimpse of Asano.
When speaking of the characters in Princess Mononoke, it has to be mentioned how great the performances are in the English dub. Best are Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi and Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo. 

All of the major characters have distinct ‘good’ and ‘bad’ facets, creating an intiguing and multilayered cast. All but one, that is; The hero, Ashitaka. He is one of the most perfect heroes you will ever come across. Having nearly unmatched fighting capabilities - which are enhanced even further by his curse - he only takes a life when he feels the situation absolutely demands it, whether it’s the life of a human or animal. He has a near flawless ability to perceive and understand each side of every struggle even if they go against his beliefs, and last but not least, he is very, very polite.
Perfect characters are almost always intolerable to follow in stories. But Ashitaka isn't just tolerable, he is one of the reasons why this story works as well as it does. He is our viewing platform. We observe everything through his perspective and follow his ideals since he is our hero. He is neutral - so we become neutral. If he would have been fighting solely on one side, the film’s ultimate message; man & nature needs to function more cohabitably together, or all will perish - would have differed greatly.

Princess Mononoke’s message is a good one, mainly because it shows that both sides have validity instead of portraying one purely good side against a monstrously evil one. You’d think this would be an apparant take and would be used in most stories with this theme, but no. Stories of this kind tend to view humanity - outside of one or two human main character - as an unrelenting force destroying everything in its path for no other reasons than greed and pure evil.
There are several more themes and real world allegories filling Princess Mononoke, but if I typed them all out this would turn into an in-depth analysis rather than a review, so I'll leave it be.

In the end I'll simply say that Princess Mononoke is the best Studio Ghibli film, the best anime movie, one of the greatest animated movies ever made and a personal favorite of mine. I urge anyone and everyone to watch this movie and see for yourselves what a gem it is.


The good:
Vivid animation and beautiful design
Multilayered and entertaining cast
Filled with thought provoking thematics
Exciting action

The bad:
The man vs. nature message can beat you over the head a bit


  1. I agree with you on a lot of points and I like your writing style. You include a lot of details about the symbolism in the show, which is good. ^^ I personally haven't watched Princess Mononoke in around a decade, so this was a good refresher, and I never noticed the messages it portrayed when I was a young teen. Saying that this is the absolute best anime movie is a bit much in my opinion, but from what I can remember, this was definitely a very good watch.