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Why anime lovers should definitely watch Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke

Ashitaka trying to kill the boar monster (Image via Studio Ghibli)
Ashitaka trying to kill the boar monster (Image via Studio Ghibli)

Studio Ghibli is well-known for their beautiful imagery and majestic soundtracks, as well as their underlying messages. Some of the studio’s most popular films, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle both have poignant themes of self-love, acceptance and growing up, along with the prominent anti-war message in Howl’s Moving Castle.

Just re-watched Spirited Away after Princess Mononoke. Such incredible movies with timeless animation. So easy to see why Studio Ghibli is so talented. Now for Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro.

But another slightly less popular but incredible masterpiece is often overshadowed by the likes of these more ornate movies. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, released in 1997, became the first Studio Ghibli film to get a theatrical release in the US, as well as a Hollywood voice cast for the English dub.

Many fans even go as far as insisting that in terms of the characterization and complexity of the narrative, Princess Mononoke is superior to Spirited Away, which is often known as Miyazaki’s ‘magnum opus.’


What makes Studio Ghibli's Princess Mononoke so good?

Plot and theme

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Like every other Ghibli movie by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke has a prominent theme and an underlying message which adds another dimension to the story. In this case, that theme is environmental in nature, featuring a classic "Man versus Nature" struggle.

The movie has more somber treatment in comparison to the more light-hearted childlike approach that Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away explored.

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A major chunk of the story moves between the perspectives of the people living in Iron Town, and the gods of the surrounding forests. The men strive to cut down trees and clear land required for the village’s primary source of income, which is iron mining.

The gods are against this methodical destruction of their home, and being spirits of the forest, this fills them with hatred towards humans, turning them into vengeful curse-bearing monsters.

"Life is suffering. It is hard. The world is cursed, but still you find reasons to keep living", Osa. #PrincessMononoke #StudioGhibli #Anime https://t.co/WcC5W2TI34

The Ghibli movie refuses to allow viewers the luxury of painting either side as good or bad, establishing them simply as forces of life at odds with each other. By the end of Princess Mononoke, Nature overwhelms Man and takes back what was hers, but it is a sort of rebirth, rather than an end.

The cyclical nature of the story reminds the viewer that there is no definite end to this conflict, there can only be a compromise, or slow destruction of both sides followed by rebuilding of life from scratch.

The romantic subplot of the movie, revolving around Ashitaka and San, is both surreal and tragic. Having been claimed by the forest after being abandoned as a baby, San grows up to be more wolf than human. They are destined to live on two different sides, co-existing but never united.


Characterization

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Environmentalism isn’t the only focus in Princess Mononoke. The concepts of identity and belonging are strongly expressed through the character of San, a human child who was abandoned in the forest and was nurtured by the white Wolf god of the forest, Moro.

San becomes a mouthpiece for Nature herself, showing that it is not unequivocally cruel or kind, but both.

The Iron Town women are brutal 🖤😂"Remember, you can't trust men", Lady Eboshi."Even if you were a woman, you'd still be an idiot", Toki to Gonza 😂#PrincessMononoke #Anime #StudioGhibli https://t.co/l0yRvaIUtH

On the more human side of things in this Ghibli movie, Lady Eboshi proves to be a fascinating character. She comes across as arrogant and ruthless, proudly hunting down gods and running Irontown efficiently, while managing to keep at bay other samurai and feudal lords who keep trying to attack or persuade Lady Eboshi periodically, in hopes of getting their hands on Irontown.

She is also the one who wants the forests gone, which makes her a villain in the eyes of the forest gods.

But as Ashitaka realizes after visiting the village, Eboshi also takes in prostitutes and lepers, letting them live better lives under her care in the town. She is their king and the people of the village show a fierce sense of loyalty towards her.

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Ashitaka himself is a compelling character, with the audience seeing the story unfold through his eyes. The prince gets cursed by a monstrous boar spirit, a god who had been injured by humans and blinded by pain and hatred. After he leaves the village, he takes the advice given by the oracle to heart,

“You must see with eyes unclouded by hate. See the good in that which is evil, and the evil in that which is good. Pledge yourself to neither side, but vow instead to preserve the balance that exists between the two.”

This becomes a central motif, defining his character and all of his actions. Among many Ghibli fans, the quote has become synonymous with the movie itself.


Animation and soundtrack

Finally finished #princessmononoke and wow what a masterpiece https://t.co/gJGCzVad8b

Studio Ghibli’s distinct animation style works wonders for the complex subject matter of Princess Mononoke. The studio does a fantastic job depicting light and shade in a setting full of lush greenery and later on, utter destruction.

Unlike the more childlike art that appears in Miyazaki’s other Studio Ghibli projects, this movie has a more traditional feel, with the character designs being reminiscent of traditional Japanese folklore.

I watched #PrincessMononoke, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki.An exceptionally stunning work of art from #StudioGhibli, which I was unaware of until recently!Thanks to the recommendation of @JohnMcArtsyoutu.be/4OiMOHRDs14 https://t.co/7jgjmqHiYg

Ashitaka’s loyal red elk, Yakul, is also based on the Japanese Sika deer. However, San’s character design was influenced by manga artist Daijiro Moroboshi's work, who popularly drew inspiration from Native American culture.

The music for Ghibli's Princess Mononoke was composed by none other than Joe Hisaishi. The soundtrack for the movie is larger than life and awe-inspiring, extremely fitting for a narrative describing Nature as an awe-inspiring force, and the beauty and strength of human beings living in the midst of it.


The great shame of #PrincessMononoke is that many will never watch it because it is anime.It is a perfect film and, thematically, illustrates both the problems and solutions to political / ideological discourse

Princess Mononoke is the Ghibli movie that comes closest to reality despite still being firmly rooted in ancient fantasy. The treatment and representation of the various groups in conflict with each other shows us a clear picture of the raging battle between civilization and nature in every era.

But the Ghibli movie also includes some glimpses into the history of Japan and the situation in rural provincial villages under the rule of the samurai. San and Ashitaka become the symbols of nature and man coexisting together, as human manifestations of yin and yang.


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Edited by Sijo Samuel Paul
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