Director Hayao Miyazaki has been one of the driving creative forces in turning Studio Ghibli into the biggest Japanese Animation outfit in the world as well as making it one of the top 5 animation outfits in the world, both in creative and box-office terms. Miyazaki is responsible for a number of the studio’s greatest hits including Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Castle in the Sky (1986) and Ponyo (2008).
With Princess Mononoke (1997), Miyazaki gives a folksy fantasy vibe to the film, which abounds with forests, spirits, gods and animals. Oftentimes a combination of one or more of them at the same time. The story follows young Ashitaka, who goes on a journey in attempt to cure a vicious bite he receives from a pig demon in the opening scene of the film. This journey brings him into contact with a range of beings, from the titular Mononoke, to gods and demons in a range of animal forms, to a highly sophisticated mining operation that is destroying the environment around it. Young Ashitaka is an incredibly complex character with conflicts and nuance raging inside him, that the filmmakers do well to present to the audience.
Like all of the other Studio Ghibli films I have seen (admittedly not a whole lot), Princess Mononoke looks stunning. Especially impressive are the forest backgrounds and settings that a vast majority of action takes place in front of. They are beautifully detailed, not always going for spot-on realism, but always creatively interpreting these amazing places. The animation is not entirely perfect, perhaps slightly showing its age. Some of the movements of the animals are a little clunky for example. I believe that this was the first Ghibli film to incorporate computerised animation for some of the work, so there may be some teething problems in that regard. But to be honest, to even complain about these slight imperfections in the look of the film really is nitpicking because the design and execution of the vast majority of the animation is brilliant. The soaring, orchestral soundtrack is brilliant throughout, enhancing the fantastical feel to the film as well as the emotions of the characters inhabiting it.
The core thematic concerns of the film are still stunningly relevant today, 15 years after the release of the film. Actually they are probably more pertinent today then they were when the film was released. Chief amongst them is ecological degradation. An early scene sees the demon pig god go on a destructive rampage through pristine forests. The exploitation of the environment by mining, definitely a hot-button issue here in Australia at the moment, is also examined with much of the action taking place in and around an iron mine. These scenes see huge swathes of forestland being culled in order to mine the iron. This pillage of the earth is what leads to the boar god’s rampage through the forest that opens the film. Indeed, the chief miner Lady Eboshi is really just representative of all that is wrong with the world. She exploits those less fortunate and is developing super dangerous high powered weaponry which will bring widespread warfare to the land. The film is not just about destruction of the environment, but more a comment on the breakdown in the relationship between humanity and the environment that it exists in (including our relationship with non-human animals). Where there was once respect and co-existence, now there is merely exploitation and pillage. But the film also pokes fun at the notion that people must take up one side of an ideological debate on the environment, rather suggesting that the true path is rarely black and white.
It was interesting that this film reminded me of plenty of others. The early parts of Ashitaka’s journey had a vibe similar to that of the Lord of the Rings films. I also felt that in parts, the act of watching and enjoying the film was similar to the way in which one enjoys Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). It is best to just let the film wash over you, taking it in, without being preoccupied by the detail of plot and character at all times. Princess Mononoke is a grand animated fantasy epic, full of dense animal based mythology that reveals its charms beautifully. It is an intricate film, full of friendship and a wonderful mix of very human and more spiritual explorations. Whilst occasionally slow, is rarely short of totally engaging.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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