Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) is an Anime film made by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki in 1997. It is a masterpiece of film-making and is one of the very last major animated movies made by hand-drawn cel animation. The mastery of movement and detail in this film is amazing, and is a fine example of this highly evolved Japanese art. It is available in Japanese with English subtitles, as well as an adapted English voice-over.
In the traditional form of hand-drawn animation (now viewed as too expensive and slow compared to CG), drawings are made on transparent cels and over-laid on each other before being recorded. For instance if a character is moving, it will remain on one cel which is laid on top of the stagnant background. This way the character can be moved without redrawing the background again and again. Special cameras are used to shoot these cels and the movement is controlled by meticulous calculations, the drawing technique of the animators, and machines that guide the final shoot. Miyazaki himself was a huge part of the two year process of painstaking animation that the film underwent and he personally corrected or redrew more than 80,000 of the film’s 144,000 animation cels.
The story of the film takes place in Japan somewhere in the fourteenth century and includes a mixture of references from various Japanese periods. In the story Miyazaki also incorporates Japanese mythology: Spirit-gods, enchanted forests and talking animals are commonplace as we see the world through the eyes of the people of that time. To them, mystic spirits embodied everything, and rather than being “supernatural”, they were an important element in the natural order of things.
Princess Mononoke begins with a young Emishi prince named Ashitaka, who encounters a strange demonic spirit in the form of a possessed, wounded boar. The boar comes out of the forest and attacks Ashitaka’s village, and in his efforts to protect his people, he rides against it on his elk (named Yakul) and ends up killing it. Before dying the enraged demon-god curses Ashitaka, and inflicts a strange wound on his arm.
Upon consulting the village oracle, Ashitaka learns that this curse will eventually kill him, and that in search of a cure, he must travel west from where the boar has come and find out how it was wounded. The only clue they have is a strange black ball of iron that was embedded in the boar’s body, and Ashitaka sets out on a westward journey to discover the source of this trouble and “see with eyes unclouded”.
The scenes depicting this opening action sequence introduce the tone of the film to us immediately, they are incredibly fluid and beautiful, but also contain unabashed gore, and a weird creativity that many of us have come to expect from all things Japanese. For instance the giant boar is frighteningly rendered, and covered in squirming wormlike tendrils that are strengthening and destroying him at the same time. However this gruesome creativity is not meaningless – as Miyazaki explains in the making of the film – these black snake-like growths are made to represent hatred and the boar’s behavior reflects the all-consuming nature of the rage it breeds.
After Ashitaka sets off on his journey, he meets a man named Jigo, who advises him to go to the mountain woods of this western land. This strange forest is occupied with many other animal-spirits, the greatest of which is the mysterious deer-god.
Ashitaka makes his way to the mountains and discovers that there is an iron town here which is located at the edge of the forest. This town is run by Lady Eboshi – who has set up a matriarchal society and aspires to build a great empire. The industrial works of course bring the locals in acrimonious contact with the forest and its wildlife, and they are constantly cutting the trees and battling the creatures inside – chiefly the wolf-gods that ferociously attack their convoys whenever they head into the jungle.
It is one such battle which brings Ashitaka into contact with the village’s soldiers, who he discovers injured by the wolves and left for dead near a river. While he is rescuing them he also sees the giant animals and is surprised to see them accompanied by a fierce young girl. This girl is San, and we soon discover that she is a young human woman who was adopted by the giant wolf goddess Moro. She is known by the villagers as “Princess Mononoke” (Mononoke-hime or Princess of Angry Spirits).
In the Iron Town, Ashitaka learns from Lady Eboshi that they are building guns and bullets with the iron, and that it is one of these iron bullets that she used to shoot the giant boar-god named Nago. These gods are the protectors of the forest, and this is why they attack the towns convoys constantly, battling the destruction of their environment.
Lady Eboshi is no villain however, she is a kind administrator who gives work and hope to the most underprivileged members of society, taking in lepers and prostitutes and reintegrating them into her town. Ashitaka patiently listens to her and speaks to the villagers, learning about their life.
When night falls however, San (the wolf-girl) infiltrates Iron Town to kill Lady Eboshi, but Ashitaka stands in her way and risks his life to carry her away before the villagers can kill her.
This is how he finally makes his way into the forest and has his first contact with the beautiful, strange and mysterious deer-god, the forest spirit which brings life and death and is venerated by all the other creatures and spirits of the jungle.
The stage is set for a great confrontation, the animals are angered at the human-infiltration, the humans are determined to tame the forest, their hunters are aiming to kill the deer-god, and Ashitaka is stuck in the middle of this conflict, trying between the rage of these enemies, to see with eyes unclouded.
Compared to a western animation movie, there are many serious themes depicted in this film. When we delve into this area, we can find that the film is quite a serious commentary on many things –from the obvious message about man’s interaction with his natural environment, right up to complex themes like the sense of abandonment felt by modern youth, and their lonely path to finding solutions without the guidance of their previous generation.
The violence in the film is also Miyazaki’s way of staying true to his own youth and the history of his culture; recalling the jarring images from WWII and horrific earthquakes that filled his personal experience and their textbooks as children. Even though this film was distributed in North America by Disney/Miramax, Miyazaki did not allow any footage to be removed or edited, and the film ran with all its original visuals in-tact.
In Japan, Princess Mononoke holds the title of fifth largest grossing film of all time, falling just below one of the Harry Potter films and Titanic. Amazingly the number one title on that list is also an anime by Hayao Miyazaki called Spirited Away.
Princess Mononoke is an anime film but it is not really a children’s “cartoon”. The film is tells a serious and relevant story that deals with human themes that are both current and eternal. Its script and characters are deep and layered, its music (scored by Joe Hisaishi) is enchanting, and most of all it is a fantastic visual masterpiece made in a style that has now almost faded away, leaving it safely among the greatest hand-animated movies ever made.
Nadir Siddiqui is a photographer, adventure seeker, musician, film-lover and interactive producer at Dawn.com. You can view some of his photography here.
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