“In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony, but as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed. Those that remained were guarded by gigantic beasts who owed their allegiances to the Great Forest Spirit. For those were the days of gods and of demons…”
‘Princess Mononoke’, directed by Hayao Miyazaki in 1997, is a Japanese animated fantasy from Studio Ghibli. Set in medieval Japan, Ashitaka, a heroic prince, defends a village from a demon. In doing so he is infected, but the infection gives him strength. Seeking a cure, the prince heads west and comes to a mining village and then becomes involved in the conflict between woodland gods and the local ironworkers. As with the other Miyazaki movies I’ve seen, ‘Princess Mononoke’ is simultaneously rich with alien, Japanese symbolism, mythology and preoccupations, and yet recognisable in its story telling. The narrative is a combination of the quest of Ashitaka for a cure, and the conflict between tradition and modernity. It is a big movie and lacks the charming simplicity of ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ or the deeply disturbing, almost sexual horror of ‘Spirited Away’, but instead it has a depth of mythology to rival Tolkien in its complexity. I was also reminded, oddly, of Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai movies, ‘Yojimbo’, ‘Sanjuro’ and, most famously, ‘Seven Samurai’, all of which share the same basic tension between the industrial and the traditional, in Kurosawa’s films this is more direct and less fantastical: the hero uses a sword and follows an ancient code, the villain often ends the film drawing a gun. With Kurosawa, this tension is perhaps a metaphor for the fear of the atomic age (see also ‘I Live in Fear’), whilst in ‘Princess Mononoke’ there is clearly a more general environmental concern.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an epic historical fantasy that, at times, is convoluted and difficult to follow, but rewards concentration. Watch in a double bill with ‘My Neighbour Totoro’, because everyone should watch it.