Film Review: Princess Mononoke (1997)


Princess Mononoke (1997)
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Stars: Yôji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yûko Tanaka

Runtime: 134 mins

Reviewer: Kyle Rees


We’ve all heard the yarn, of an agent from an advanced, imperial, fascistic society infiltrating a small, aboriginal and libertarian tribe, learning of their heritage and adopting their customs, discovering himself and becoming reborn in the wilderness, often falling in love with an archetypal princess of the group, sympathising with the tribe under persecution of his old empire, and in revelation of the corruption of his society, experiences a change of heart, switching sides to stand against the order he once stood beside – the archetypal turncoat hero. Pocahontas (1995), Dances with Wolves (1990) and Avatar (2009) as prime examples.

The recurrence and success of this paradigm would suggest Western audiences and writers both bear a great fascination and adoration for it, for what churns deep in the very heart and core of artful storytelling, is quintessentially utilised to a most bombastic and potent degree by this tale; it forces the hero into a corner, and thrusts an ultimatum upon him, a catalyst for spiritual transformation. A certain sadomasochism is evoked in watching the protagonist squirm under the monumental gravity of choice, between blood oaths of past realities, and a new existence of liberty and enlightenment. However, in discord with the fairytale codes of primeval storycraft, rather than returning home at the end of the journey, here the hero chooses to remain in the Special World to which he has ventured – at odds with Occidental mythology, but adhering closer to that of the Orient.

Princess MononokeBeyond the repetitious realms of Hollywood cinema, the Japanese animators Studio Ghibli expressed their interpretation of the paradigm with the fantastical historical fiction, Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997). The rudimentary plot is as follows: A cursed prince travels in search of a Forest Spirit, but becoming embroiled in a conflict between an industrial town and the beasts of the wild, he becomes captivated by both ways of life, befriending the town leader and falling in love with a wolf-princess, and endeavours to bring peace between humanity and nature. The narrative corresponds to the Western paradigm, but doesn’t fit quite as neatly.

The protagonist, Ashitaka, rather than a turncoat-hero from the empire, enters the strife as a neutral party, originating as a scion of a peaceful tribe between human civilisation and nature, a village in balanced equilibrium. But the chaos beyond his harmonious home encroaches, in the form of a Boar God consumed by a malicious curse, a monstrous herald, and as Ashitaka slays this beast to save his home, the curse is passed on to him. 

Impelled from his home, a mysterious monk-benefactor Jigo points him in search of the Spirit of the Forest, or Deer God, a deific creature he believes may be capable of lifting the curse, and en route, Ashitaka discovers more of its nature. Having to defend against vicious adversaries in his journey, both human and beast, he finds he is granted brief moments of super-human ability, his arrows taking off the heads of his foes, and despite enduring lethal musket-fire in his back, he still has the strength to lift open a great wooden gate. Despite its self-destructive and demonic threat, the curse thus also serves as a divine gift, bestowing brief moments of god-like might to Ashitaka, as a God might bestow a heavenly weapon upon a chosen hero, offering him power and protection so that he might accomplish his holy mission. It also reflects the savage, destructive nature of both technology and nature, as humans are compelled to wage war and beasts are compelled to hunt, kill and devour one another, Ashitaka unwittingly echoes these attributes, despite his kind and gentle heart, acting as a scrying mirror to the world.

As in the Western tales our protagonist soon comes to infiltrate the warring party and learns of their unique lifestyle, but diverting from the occidental pattern, Ashitaka peers into the essence of both sides of the conflict, sympathising with each side of the rift. In the mining Iron Town, a settlement symbolic of the industrial revolution’s effect upon the Earth, ascending the power and influence of mankind, but causing great hardship and devastation to the delicate eco-system, Ashitaka feels compassion for the inhabitants, the factory workers including women relieved of their duties in brothels, and dreadfully afflicted lepers, empathising with them as a bearer of a curse and an isolated soul. 

Ashitaka’s loyalties lie not exclusively to Iron Town however, for his compassion also encompasses the other side of the spectrum, as his mission drives him to meet the self-proclaimed, titular Princess Mononoke, a wild-hearted girl raised by wolves, San, of whom Lady Eboshi is the sworn enemy. Ashitaka saves San’s life, and in turn, she spares his, the two acquiring an affection for one another. Through San and her family of divine wolves, Ashitaka learns the way of the woods, observing the detriments Iron Town is inflicting upon the wild and the creatures that dwell therein.


Ashitaka is faced with the Herculean trial of ending an existential war, 

While the common Western version of this tale only finds peace when one side of the schism has thwarted or eluded the other, the hero having transformed and changed sides along the way, Princess Mononoke portrays a more reversed,  nuanced outcome. The curse upon Ashitaka is an augur of death, a stroke of mortality, the quality that unites all life, human, plant, and animal. Only the divine Forest Spirit is beyond this omen, for even losing its head, it could not be truly killed. The Deer God stands as a cosmic reminder to mankind, that whatever machinations they manufacture to ascend their existence beyond their primal heritage and become like Gods, they remain no more than beasts themselves, children of the Earth doomed to die. Does this mean humans can never become divine? Why was Ashitaka chosen by the Forest Spirit to bear the curse? 

The very difference between the Western and Eastern philosophy is embodied in this story: The narrative was not constructed to show Ashitaka a different, better way of life, nor for him to experience a spiritual awakening from the outside forces of world, but to realise his own spiritual mastery from within himself. While he was granted power by the curse and aided by mystic beings around him, his true divinity lay inside him all along. He was not chosen by a God so that he might transform and better himself, as a Western turncoat hero, but to demonstrate his inherent greatness, so that both sides of the schism might transform to be more like him. Diverting from the even the most doctrinal laws of storytelling, where the hero must journey to attain self-mastery, Ashitaka already has it – his journey was of realisation, and sharing it with the world.

“The person who masters himself through self-control and discipline is truly undefeatable.” Gautama Buddha.