In Western animated features, the concept of environmentalism isn’t new. Anyone who grew up in the 90’s with FernGully and Captain Planet can attest to this. On the surface, Princess Mononoke appears to fall in the same vein. It does deal with humans and nature dueling for power, however, instead of a good (nature) vs. evil (humans, capitalists, take your pick) binary, Princess Mononoke is full of moral ambiguities and complexities. With stunning animation from the renowned Studio Ghibli, Princess Mononoke is considered director Hayao Miyazaki’s magnum opus.
Taking place during the Muromachi period (1300s-1500s), the films begins with Ashitaka, the prince of the dwindling Emishi tribe, who lives outside the Emperor’s rule in Japan. A boar, corrupted by an iron bullet, infiltrates their home, and though he is defeated, he leaves a curse on Ashitaka, causing him to leave his village in search of a cure. What he finds instead is a deep conflict between Lady Eboshi and her people of Iron Town and the divine forest and its inhabitants, the wolf goddess Moro and her human adopted daughter San. Eboshi’s industrial efforts would be quite easy to demonize were it not for the fact she rescued women from brothels and men affected by leprosy. Iron Town became a second chance for these outcasted people, making them sympathetic, despite their greed and pettiness. The figures of nature on the other hand are also not easy to pin down, as they are also monstrous and fearsome in their own right. Instead of a battle between good and evil, these figures instead are battling for survival, each side living in the only way they know how, creating conflict. Ashitaka comes into this conflict as a peacemaker, while trying to heal his own curse as well.
Part of the majesty of the film comes from its artistic rendering, particularly of the landscapes. Fields and forests are ornate with detail and an earthy feel, making the film feel all the more real. Director Hayao Miyazaki and the animators at Studio Ghibli are masters of animation, subtly and beautifully illustrating land, its people, and the conflict residing in between. Moreover, the kind of mythical action that occurs in Princess Mononoke would be nearly impossible to pull off well in live action. Part of the strength of animation as an art form is that anything is possible. There are no physical limitations to a story in animation, and Princess Mononoke proves this well, creating an environmental epic that both amazes us and challenges us to explore.
- Jacqueline Ristola