It is late in the Mouromachi Era; a Giant Demon Boar suddenly charges and attacks a nearby village, where the last Emishi Prince Ashitaka lives. He is able to defeat the Giant Boar but his arm was struck and has developed a cursed wound, which would eventually kill him and turn him into a demon himself. Left with this possible fate, Ashitaka leaves the village and heads west to find a cure.
After finding two survivors, he arrives at a large town in the mountains called Iron Town, which clear forests to dig and produce charcoal and iron. The leader of the Town, Lady Eboshi, and her army are at war with the creatures of the forest, with one of her biggest enemies being a Shishigami which takes the resemblance of a deer and a group of large wolves which includes a woman named San, who people call the Wolf Girl or the Princess Mononoke.
Ashitaka and San need the power of the forest and the Shishigami to stay alive or the world around them could be filled with death, and Ashitaka could never be cured from his curse.
The history of this film is actually longer and more in-depth than what people normally think of this film, but I’ll give the brief run-down. Miyazaki had an early concept for a film titled “Mononoke Hime”, a literal Romanised Japanese name of Princess Mononoke, drawn back in 1981. The story was about a young girl who was forced to marry a Mononoke, aka a spirit, by her father. It was pitched in 1982 along with Nausicaa and Laputa, but was rejected for being an original idea. It was then pitched as the next film after the release of Nausicaa, but Laputa was eventually decided as the next film. The story of Princess Mononoke was completely rewritten and it is believed early version became a manga Miyazaki wrote called the Journey of Shuna, first released in 1983, which was also seen as an influence for Nausicaa. Over the next 8 years, Miyazaki continuously changed the story and the characters drastically, but finally got his final story after visiting the Yakushima Island. However, at the time for deciding his next film, he was stuck between both Princess Mononoke, which the storyboards were unfinished, and Boro the Caterpillar, a kid’s film about the life of a tiny caterpillar and its large adventures. Producer Toshio Suzuki advised him to do Princess Mononoke, as it might be the last action film he could make. So on August 1994, production began, and because the storyboards weren’t finished until months before the planned premiere, along with the amount of work put forward, the film was released on July of 1997 in Japan.
For Studio Ghibli standards, the animation is outstanding, with smooth and realistic character movements, perfectly animated action sequences and great focus on detail. At the time, Princess Mononoke was the most expensive Japanese animated feature as well as the longest, a record the film kept until the release of Steamboy by Otomo. To speed up production some of the scenes had Computer Generated animations and artwork created and added within the traditionally animated stuff, and it blends in so well it’s very difficult to point out what was actually digitally animated.
The art style is also brilliant, showing several blends of green, brown, blue and red with some great character designs to go, seeing how this came out in the same year as Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series that had great animation for its time, this film would easily be considered a masterpiece and stands well with more recent anime feature films.
The music is great; however it’s not much a hit and miss, but a homerun and bunt. Some of the tracks are really beautiful, striking and very memorable, and go really well with the scenes they are in, but other tracks aren’t that great in comparison. The main theme written by Joe Hisaishi is clearly the best track in the entire film and the singer Yoshikazu Mera adds to the brilliance this track has. The English version is worse by comparison but it’s easily listenable, but people hate on it anyway. Despite this, I still think it’s forgivable at least.
The voice acting the Japanese version is great like other Studio Ghibli films, but I still firmly believe it doesn’t hold a torch compared to Pom Poko. Most of the actors put a lot of emotion and definitely put effort into their character. I find Ashitaka kind of bland but Yoji Matsuda isn’t as bad as his English portrayal done by Billy Crudup.
Then we get to the main criticism of this film, the English cast. I agree that this is one of the dullest, but not the worst, casts I’ve seen in a Ghibli film. This was Disney’s first effort to try and bring interest for Studio Ghibli across the general western audience, after securing the theatrical and video rights to all of Ghibli’s theatrical releases, and had a cast full of award winning actors but they had to choose the wrong award winning actors and my general first impression of most of the voices were dull and bland, leaving almost no impression.
The story in Princess Mononoke is probably the hardest one I will ever write about in a review for two reasons. The first reason is that this is a very well loved film with a large fan base and was the film that helped Japanese Animation gain recognition among the western theatrical film demographic, so criticising it too much is wrong, and I like the film as much as anyone else who has seen it. The second reason is that it is difficult for me to find why it is so good, because the only spoiler warning I’m giving you in this review is that the most basic plot summary is that bad guys fight nature, San and Ashitaka work with nature to fight back, and because they did: nature wins, the bad guys give up and the environment is back to normal. In its most basic form, it’s like all the environmental films that bore me. But why don’t I dislike the story of Mononoke like I do with the story of Avatar?
I think the reason is because once you look into it further, it’s not as standard as one would first glance. One reason is that the main focus for most of the characters, the Shishigami, is not the god or spirit that people expect, it gives and takes lives from people, and it doesn’t care about other beings, and it doesn’t need any dialogue to show this. But like I said before, it’s very difficult for me to say. Really, if you look at a preview and are impressed at what you see, then you have absolutely no reason to pass on it, because you’ll walk away feeling satisfied or grateful for watching an animated masterpiece.
Princess Mononoke is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. Journey of Shuna, also known as Shuna’s Voyage, the manga that was believed to be the influence for Mononoke has not been released to Western audiences but has been fan translated and could be easily found online.