Within the last decade, Studio Ghibli has become a brand known by people worldwide. While most people often qualify Spirited Away as Ghibli’s most accessible, popular, and well-rounded movie, and I do agree with a lot of that, I would have to argue that Princess Mononoke is the most technically perfect Ghibli movie to date. The story is compelling from beginning to end, the animation and music are breathtaking, and the characters are heartfelt and developed throughout. There is no other way to say it, Princess Mononoke is an epic.
The movie follows Prince Ashitaka of the Emishi clan struggling to rid himself of the recently deceased boar god’s curse. His journey lands him in the middle of a conflict between the warring Irontown and nearby gods of the forest. In Irontown, he meets Lady Eboshi, the strict but kind ruler of the village, who gives jobs and respect to her people equally, no matter their gender or physical condition. She is stuck in a battle with the gods of the forest and the titular character, San, the Princess Mononoke (or Princess of Spirits). It’s an age old battle between urbanization and the importance of the environment, but neither side knows what an ending to this war could cost…
I don’t want to give away too much of the story because, although it is a simple premise, it is executed perfectly with the usual Miyazaki touch and is immediately compelling. Every stop on Ashitaka’s journey feels worthwhile and is never boring. One scene of the story effortlessly bleeds into the next with the subtlety and precision that one expects from a Ghibli masterpiece, and that’s what that is, a masterpiece. Critics have called Princess Mononoke the ‘Star Wars of animation,’ and I would have to agree with that assessment. Epic, eternal, and oh so memorable.
For those who may be less familiar with the works of Miyazaki, he often tends to including some recurring thematic elements in his work, and they are very present here. First, and most obvious, is the environmental theme. Miyazaki works hard not to villainize either side of the conflict, the industrious Irontown vs. the untouched forest, but throughout the course of the movie, it would not be difficult for the viewer to see that it is the humans who are damaging nature much more severely and quickly than the other way around. However, that is not to say that nature is completely defenceless either. Nature is not afraid to strike back to protect itself, and when it does… well, I’d rather not say, but you can be sure that it does so with incredible force. A not so subtle message to respect nature before dire consequences occur, it remains still so very important to this day.
Secondly, Miyazaki tends to pack his movies with strong female characters, which, if you know anything about the patriarchal nature of Japan, is surprising and impressive. Princess Mononoke is no exception as many see Lady Eboshi and San as the most compelling and memorable characters from the film. Both of these two women fight for the protection of the only family the know and have, whilst trying to create a better future for their home as well. They are not cruel, they are not manipulative, and they are certainly not weak. They fight for their convictions, no matter what the cost might be. Is that always smart? No, but if their plan backfires, they are strong enough to pick back up and start again. Yes, Ashitaka may technically be the ‘main character’ of the film, but he is not the most important one. While he seeks a cure for himself only, Lady Eboshi and San fight for their lives and everyone in them. These two women are some of my favourite characters in any movie ever.
What is there to say about the music and animation of Princess Mononoke? It is a Ghibli movie. So that means it is incredibly polished, memorable, and influential. This is certainly one of the most violent movies in the Ghibli canon, so there is some ugly blood and dismemberment to be seen throughout the movie, but for the most part, it is a gorgeous movie with lush fields and forests, incredibly detailed human and animal designs, and a mystical flair that should not be missed. The score, composed by longtime Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, is, in my opinion, the best of any Ghibli movie. Ever. For those who have seen a handful of Ghibli movies, you know this is a high bar and I have to say that Princess Mononoke clears it with ease. I get chills every time I hear the main, sweeping orchestral theme and the moments where almost everything is lost… the score never fails to bring a tear to my eye. It is phenomenal, plain and simple.
At the end, there is really only one thing left to say: watch it. If you are reading this review or are a regular to this site, there is a good chance that you have already seen Princess Mononoke. So then watch it again. For me, Princess Mononoke is a movie that I revisit annually. I love getting swept up in the story, characters and themes while being carried along by the flawless animation and the truly incomparable music. Spirited Away might be the most well-known Studio Ghibli movie, but for me Princess Mononoke is truly the best.
Edited by: Hannah Wilkes