Ashitaka, a prince of a hidden mountain village, suffers a strange illness after killing a monstrous wild boar. He sets off to Iron Town to find out what caused the boar to fall into a murderous rage, and possibly to find a cure for his ailment. Ashitaka discovers that in order to sustain her town, Lady Eboshi is ordering her workers to cut down the nearby forest to power their furnaces. This is making the forest spirits angry, and both sides are gearing up for war. Meanwhile, he also meets a human girl, San, who was raised among wolves in the wild. Her unique relationship with the forest spirits is Ashitaka’s only hope of reconciling man and beast.
This film is rather atypical of Miyazaki Hayao’s work. It’s much darker than anything he has done previously, and his usual sense of optimism is toned down slightly. Princess Mononoke is definitely not geared toward the child audience, as it contains several decapitations and dismemberments. The themes involved in the story are also slightly more abstract. Through Ashitaka, Miyazaki makes it clear that war and hatred can not lead to anything constructive. Although there are strong environmentalist overtones as well, they are dulled somewhat by the apparent compromises that had to be made. I wouldn’t call this a cop-out, though; the story is nuanced enough to convey the need for coexistence.
The audience is sympathetic to the human cause, since the forest spirits are seen as the first aggressors. The inhabitants of Iron Town are constantly in danger of attack by wolves, and the only way they can make a living is by extracting iron from the forest. Eventually, Ashitaka spends time with the woodland critters and we begin to see their side of the conflict. This was an inspired decision, as the situation becomes no longer black and white. It also puts the audience in Ashitaka’s shoes, as both sides are built up to be equally likable and equally threatening.
The last act is much too long, featuring one particularly slow scene that is neither suspenseful nor meaningful. Pacing on the whole is uneven, but the middle act is noticeably better than the rest. The violence feels out of place at times, especially when the director isn’t quite sure whether it should be scary or funny. Despite a few imperfections, the story generally maintains a level of intrigue. It can get preachy, but the message is complex and, I feel, worthwhile.
The main character, Ashitaka, embodies the central conflict of the story. He is torn between his love of nature and his compassion for the suffering citizens of Iron Town. He is infected by the hatred of a fallen forest spirit, and it endangers his life. Still, Ashitaka’s sense of duty keeps him going. He’s watchable enough to keep us moving along the film, and the way he struggles to maintain his allegiances is a good way to help us understand his motivations.
When San is introduced, she and Ashitaka get off to a rocky start. After a while, she begins to sympathize with him as she is reminded of her own human nature. Miyazaki downplays the inherent conflict in San’s personality between her upbringing as a wolf and her human nature, but it still plays an important part in defining her. San is very much Ashitaka’s mirror, a girl raised by beasts who comes to understand her humanity. It serves to show a differing perspective, though by the time we fully understand her, Ashitaka has already carried out that role. I think perhaps San is not Miyazaki’s most empowered female character, but she and Ashitaka together make a fine combo.
Lady Eboshi, probably the closest thing to a villain in the film (aside from scores of faceless samurai), is motivated mostly by her sense of caring for her people. Of course, she is the natural opposite of San, and the two clash both physically and verbally. Eboshi could have been written more consistently, as she turns from a benevolent matriarch into a bounty hunter-esque figure toward the end. What we get isn’t bad, but given the consistency of the writing for the others, it is a bit disappointing.
The forest spirits are there to generate conflict, showing that there is no easy solution to their situation. I can appreciate this role, even if they’re not given enough time to do a whole lot more. If I had to complain, I’d say a lot of the dialogue is horribly stilted. Part of it is in the delivery, but none of the words sound natural – not even for the period.
I had the privilege of seeing this in theaters several times, so I can appreciate as well as anyone else the marvelous production here. Miyazaki’s films have always gotten the star treatment, and Princess Mononoke features some inventive action sets and superb scenery. The character designs retain the style of Miyazaki’s previous films, which works a little against the more mature themes of this movie. The animation, too, smacks of a high budget. As far as the audio goes, Princess Mononoke features a suitably grand score, supported by top class sound effects. Combined with the visuals, you feel that Miyazaki pulled of that Lord of the Rings epic feel before Peter Jackson did.
Unfortunately, the English localization isn’t as flattering. Lead actor Billy Crudup is frequently wooden as Ashitaka, and Claire Danes’s San is amateurish. Billy Bob Thornton is overly conspicuous as Jigo, unable to tuck away his anomalous Southern twang. Gillian Anderson and Keith David are laudable in their respective performances, though.