Princess Mononoke is a true gem from the Studio Ghibli collection, released this week on Blu-ray in the wake of its mastermind Hayao Miyazak’s career (or rather, in the wake of his retirement). A huge turning point for the studio, it not only became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history for a while, but was also the moment that Studio Ghibli became an internationally recognised brand, given the film’s global success and its appearance in the States just as Disney’s second renaissance glories were set to fade once again. Critics and audiences alike were swept away by its beautiful, innovative animation, but it remained painfully relevant over the following years due to increased panic regarding climate change and the oil crisis, particularly in America where George Bush would go on to commission oil exploration in the national parks originally dedicated to preserving the landscape.
The film centres on the issues of deforestation and industrialisation, as the ruthlessly profit-hungry Lady Eboshi drives her workforce through glorious woodlands (all illustrations based on location shooting), tearing down trees and slaughtering any obstructive wildlife. Donning a kindly veneer, she enlists the help of prostitutes and lepers (i.e. cheap labour), all of whom hold beliefs extraneous to the greedy demeanour of their employer, instead embodying the film’s core message: Why bother fighting when you can be busy living?
Eboshi’s opponents are the animals she so coolly sideswipes, a.k.a. the gods of the forest, notably boars, apes and wolves. The latter have raised the eponymous princess as one of their own; she is now known as San, and forms one half of a wonderful romance with the accursed protagonist Ashitaka. She occupies a strange position within the animal kingdom, a place where humans have come to be rebuked due to their destructive tendencies, and as tensions rise due to Eboshi’s crusade, her identity is called into doubt. Terminally infected by the spirit of a demon, Ashitaka straddles the gulf between these two parties, highlighting not the differences between them but their similarities, to which he is key in purporting the movie’s environmentalist attitude.
But more than preaching for the good of the world’s greenery, Princess Mononoke is a strongly communal (and highly feminist) adventure, in which its characters are asked to surrender their drives for personal gains and instead come together to work towards the greater good, be it returning priceless heads to Forest Spirits or aiding the humans who have so selfishly ruined your home. Across a moving, intricately textured story with twisting, altering loyalties, Mononoke digs its claws into the viewer’s heartstrings and doesn’t let up once over the course of its soaring 134 minutes of gorgeously animated glory. It’s high-calibre entertainment with a universally poignant message; easily the Blu-ray release of choice this week.
Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and features the vocal talent of Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yuko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masashiko Nishimura, Akihiro Miwa, Mitsuko More and Hisaya Morishige. It lasts for 134 minutes and is a production of Studio Ghibli. Distributed in the UK by Studiocanal. Originally released in 1997.