tek's rating: ¾

Princess Mononoke (PG-13)
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Caution: spoilers.

This is a Studio Ghibli film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, which was released in Japan in 1997, and was a huge success. It received a limited theatrical release in the U.S. in 1999, and that was the first time in my life I'd ever lived near a theater that would possibly play such a movie. So of course I was excited by the prospect of seeing it on the big screen. There was a local paper that listed movie showtimes, in the various theaters scattered around the area where I was living at the time, though only one theater was playing it. I remember looking up when it would be playing, and planning to see it... and when I went to the theater, I found that the movie's run had ended the previous week. So I was pretty annoyed at the paper for giving me the wrong info. I probably could have seen it while it was still playing, if I hadn't thought it was going to be there another week. Well, anyway... here it is, 2012, more than a decade later, and I've finally gotten the DVD... I'm watching it on a Friday night, having ordered it last Friday, when The Secret World of Arrietty opened... but not around here. (I'm living far, far away from where I was in 1999; there aren't a lot of theaters around here, you can't get to any of them without a car- which I don't have- and of course they don't screen Ghibli films.) Ah, DVDs... it's nice to have a way to ease the pain of living in such a remote area. And it's nice to know there are still plenty of old Miyazaki films I've yet to see....

Well, being a Ghibli film, of course the animation is great, and the score is awesome, and the story is magical. I'd also say it's probably the darkest Ghibli film I've ever seen (though some that I haven't seen yet may be darker). Anyway, according to Wikipedia, it's set in the Muromachi period (which ran from about 1336 to 1573). I'm not sure exactly when it's set within that period, but according to characters in the film, it has been 500 years since the emperor defeated the Emishi people; I'm not sure which emperor, but I suppose that defeat must have happened during the Heian period. Anyway, the film starts with a young man named Ashitaka, who is apparently both a warrior and a prince among his people, fending off an attack on his village by a giant boar (which was covered in some kind of weird, wriggly things). He managed to stop the boar, but his right arm was wounded, and infected (or more precisely, cursed). We soon learn that his people are the last surviving pocket of the Emishi, while apparently everyone else in Japan thinks the Emishi no longer exist. An old wise woman of his village tells Ashitaka that an iron ball found in the body of the boar had caused it great pain and madness, turning it into a demon. And the curse it had placed on his arm would eventually spread throughout his whole body, and kill him. Anyway, the iron ball had apparently been used against the boar by some people from far west of the village. And now Ashitaka has to travel to the land the boar had been driven from, to "see what he can see with eyes unclouded by hate," and possibly find a way to lift the curse. But he'll never be able to return home.

His little sister Kaya gives him a "crystal dagger" (actually, more like a spearhead) to remember her by, and then he rides off on Yakul, his... uh, I dunno, it looked like a gazelle or something (it's called a "red elk" in the film, but I don't think its horns looked anything like elk antlers). Anyway, he eventually comes to a village where some samurai are apparently attacking innocent people, and he tries to stop them... and something strange happens with his cursed arm, giving him unexpected strength (which leads to his doing much greater harm with his arrows than should be possible; the samurais' deaths are surprisingly graphic). Soon after that, he is befriended by a wandering monk named Jigo, who proves helpful. Anyway, based on information from Jigo, he continues traveling west, seeking out the spirit of the forest.

There's a scene of a group of people, led by Lady Eboshi and a man named Gonza (who seems to be Eboshi's second in command, though he gets no respect from anyone). The group is attacked by wolves, who they fight off with firearms, but a couple men are knocked off the mountain path they're on, and after the battle, Eboshi leaves them behind, thinking them dead. Later, Ashitaka finds the injured men (one of whom is named Kohroku), and helps them get home, traveling through a forest which supposedly no one has ever made it through alive. They're guided by tiny forest spirits called kodama, which Kohroku fears, though Ashitaka knows they mean no harm. Once they reach their settlement, Iron Town, they're greeted by villagers who are glad to see the two men still alive (including Kohroku's wife, Toki, though she engages in some playful nagging of her husband). Later, Ashitaka talks with Lady Eboshi, and learns that she has helped many people who were outcasts and such, though her kindness clearly only extends to humans. There's conflict between the people of Iron Town and the gods and spirits of the forest, since the people had to clear away part of the forest in order to dig up iron under the mountain. But the spirits keep trying to regrow the forest. So Eboshi wants to kill the spirit of the forest, as she did the boar god that had cursed Ashitaka, using the rifles they make in Iron Town. She says with the spirit of the forest dead, all the animal gods would become simple beasts again, and Princess Mononoke would become human. ("Mononoke" means spirit. The girl the villagers call by this name is someone Ashitaka had seen earlier, riding a wolf.) Eboshi says the wolves stole the girl's soul. She also says the blood of the forest's spirit could cure some of her people, and possibly even Ashitaka's curse.

Of course, Ashitaka wants no part of all this hatred. When Mononoke shows up that night to kill Eboshi, he intervenes in their fight, knocking them both unconscious, and leaves the village, carrying Mononoke away, in spite of Gonza and the other villagers' attempt to stop him. When Mononoke wakes up, at first she's angry at Ashitaka, and nearly kills him. But instead she saves his life, taking him into the forest, where the spirit heals a wound he'd received in Iron Town; but not his curse. (The forest spirit, btw, is a kind of stag or something, but with a bunch of horns and a mandrill-like face; by night it turns into something else, called the nightwalker, which is... just immense and bipedal and sort of liquidy... I dunno, I'm sure it reminds me of various things I've seen elsewhere, that were probably inspired by this, I'm guessing.) Anyway... we learn that Mononoke's name is actually San, and she is considered the daughter of a wolf god named Moro. We also learn that there is some conflict between various tribes, including the wolves, and boars (led by Okkoto), and apes. They all want to stop the humans, but they seem to disagree about how to do it. Moro believes it is impossible to win against the humans and their guns, but Okkoto believes that even if that's true, they have to fight the humans anyway.

As if all that wasn't enough, it turns out there's also someone (a daimyo, I imagine) called Lord Asano (who I don't think we ever saw), who commands an army of samurai, and wants to take over Iron Town. So Eboshi's people have to fight off invading humans as well as boars. And we'll also learn that Jigo knows Eboshi, and that he is more than the simple wandering monk that he appeared to be, earlier. (But I don't want to get into all that.) Anyway, San decides to join Okkoto when he and the other boars attack Iron Town. By then, Ashitaka had already left the company of the wolves, though he did give one of them his sister's spearhead/dagger to give to San. Meanwhile, he rides off on Yakul, heading back to Iron Town, still hoping to stop the conflict.

So... I feel like I've already said way too much, but then again there's a ton I haven't said. I won't say how it all ends, of course, but I will call the ending somewhat bittersweet (but more sweet than bitter). Aside from that, I should just reiterate the beauty of the animation and music and emotions. And there are some amusing moments, scattered throughout all the darkness, hate, and violence. And I found pretty much all the characters, human and animal alike, fairly interesting. (Actually, the only character I think that I didn't find that interesting is the forest spirit. I mean, he was interesting to look at, but he never spoke, and it was never really clear what he was thinking.) I should also say the relationship between Ashitaka and San is interesting, complicated, but kind of sweet, if not quite unmistakably romantic in nature. (Anyway, I think San and I have more in common than she and Ashitaka do, since she and I both hate all humans, but sometimes falter in that feeling. Though unlike me, I guess there's only one human she doesn't hate, and that's Ashitaka, so... never mind.)

And... I guess that's about all I can think to say. It's a pretty great film, as Miyazaki's films can't help but be. I'm glad to have finally seen it, and I look forward to watching it again someday. Though I can't help but wonder how much more I might have enjoyed it if I had gotten to see it in a theater....

anime films index

films by Hayao Miyazaki and/or Studio Ghibli

The Castle of Cagliostro * Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind * Castle in the Sky * Grave of the Fireflies * My Neighbor Totoro * Kiki's Delivery Service *
Only Yesterday * Porco Rosso * Pom Poko * Whisper of the Heart * Princess Mononoke * My Neighbors the Yamadas * Spirited Away * The Cat Returns *
Howl's Moving Castle * Tales from Earthsea * Ponyo * The Secret World of Arrietty * From Up on Poppy Hill * The Wind Rises *
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya * When Marnie Was There * Earwig and the Witch

TV: Ocean Waves * Ronja, the Robber's Daughter