The Princess Mononoke*

Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: 
Mononoke Hime
Miyazaki Hayao
Release Date: 
July 12, 1997

Production Company: Tokuma Shoten, Nihon Television, Dentsu, Studio Ghibli
Release: 12 July 1997
Length: 135 min.
Format: 35 mm; 1:1.85
Color: Color


    Director: Miyazaki Hayao
    Executive Producer: Tokuma Yasuyoshi
    Producers: Ujiie Saiichiro, Narita Yutaka, Suzuki Toshio
    Screenplay: Miyazaki Hayao
    Original Story: Miyazaki Hayao
    Animation Director: Ando Masashi
    Photography: Okui Atsushi
    Music: Hisaishi Jo
    Art Directors: Yamamoto Fumi, Kuroda So, Tanaka Naoya, Takeshige Yoji, Oga Kazuo


    Ashitaka: Matsuda Yoji
    San: Ishida Yuriko
    Eboshi: Tanaka Yuko
    Gonza: Kamijo Tsunehiko
    Jiko-bo: Kobayashi Kaoru
    Hii-sama: Mori Mitsuko
    Koroku: Nishimura Masahiko
    Moro no Kimi: Miwa Akihiro
    Okkotonushi: Morishige Hisaya
    Toki: Shimamoto Sumi

A Spirited Battle for Nature

It is testimony to the importance of animation in the Japanese film world that the most successful filmmaker in any genre in the last thirteen years - both financially and critically - has without a doubt been Miyazaki Hayao. His epic tales of chivalry and the powers of nature, speaking to generations young and old, have consistently topped the box office charts while simultaneously expanding the horizons of animation and earning him a worldwide following.

Now that he is hinting at retiring, The Princess Mononoke, his much-awaited first directorial effort since the 1992 Porco Rosso (“Kurenai no buta”), arrives to marvellously encapsulate his brilliant career, through not without revealing one or two signs of aging.

The mythic story clearly returns to familiar Miyazaki territory. In an age long ago, when everything in nature still bore its own “spirit,” the young Ashitaka is forced to leave his northern birthplace after a wild boar, somehow transformed into a demon of revenge, attacks his village and leaves the young man suffering with a mysterious wound.

Hoping for a cure, he sets out south and west in search of the legendary all-powerful Shishigami (lion-like god) until he happens upon a village that is brutally mining the hillsides for iron. That rape of nature has earned the rath of Moro, the Wolf Spirit of the mountains, who attacks the village repeatedly along with San, a human girl who can communicate with the nature spirits and thus earns the name Princess Mononoke (literally, “sprits of things”).

Ashitaka urges peace between San and the village chieftaness, Eboshi, but his efforts are thwarted by even greater powers bent on killing the Shishigami and transforming nature into mere objects of use for humankind. What enfolds is a battle over the future of nature itself.

That Princess Mononoke does not necessarily end on a happy note brings this film in line with other Miyazaki’s works, from the masterful Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (“Kaze no tani no Naushika,” 1984) to the decidedly pessimistic Pom Poko (“Heisei tanuki gassen ponpoko,” 1994, produced by Miyazaki and directed by his Studio Ghibli partner, Takahata Isao) that plea for humanity to live in harmony with nature.

Helping to ground this environmentalism is a compelling animistic world-view, also found in the delightful My Neighor Totoro (“Tonari no Totoro,” 1988), not far removed from Japanese Shinto beliefs. Unlike some of Miyazaki’s more mythical creations, Mononoke is most definitely rooted in Japan and its culture.

But Japan - that is, the land of Yamato - does not come off very well in the movie. Ashitaka’s northern people resemble the Ainu and the ultimately good Eboshi an Izumo leader while the bad guys are most definitely played by the samurai-clad agents of the Yamato emperor. This kind of multiculturalist valorization of defeated ethnicities resonates with both the film’s political correctness–especially in the women-led society of Eboshi’s village–and Miyazaki’s nostalgic longing for an irretrievable past.

Yet as both nostalgia and myth, Mononoke remains, as with much of Miyazaki’s works, temporally and geographically ambiguous, speaking more to universal than local concerns. Thus may explain his popularity abroad and why Disney has opted to distribute this and other Studio Ghibli films in the U.S.

The Princess Mononoke does stray at times from the center of Miyazaki path. It most notably lacks the thrilling flying scenes that have dominated so much of the director’s works, replacing them with exciting but short digitally-produced shots of motion through space, such as of Ashitaka’s arrow zooming towards its target. That the arrow usually ends up lopping off an arm or head emphasizes that this is not a children’s movie.

But any Miyazaki afficianado will see Mononoke and notice much he or she has seen before. The story of Ashitaka’s journey and struggle with San reminds one of the classic Prince of the Sun (“Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken,” 1968) directed by Takahata and drawn by Miyazaki. The structure of character relations and some of the design also closely resemble that of Nausicaa. There are none too few shots that we have seen before.

At best, one can say that The Princess Mononoke is a powerful compilation of Miyazaki’s world, a cumulative statement of his moral and filmic concerns; at worse, that the director may be losing his originality in his old age. But it either case, the creations of the cultural icon Miyazaki have certainly begun to function on the level of myth: No matter how many times we see them, they never cease to entertain and teach us.

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 10 July 1997, p. 9.

Copyright 1997: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow