After a demon bursts from the forest and curses Ashitaka, a young and quiet warrior, he must leave his village to track the demon’s origin. His journey takes him far to the west where humans are waging a war against the spirits of a nearby forest. Ashitaka tries desperately to keep the peace, but with so many divided loyalties and the complication of a vengeful human girl (who was adopted by a wolf-god as a baby), he finds himself increasingly powerless to stop a mistake that will have far-reaching consequences.
Princess Mononoke (1997) – Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Length: 134 minutes
Starring: (English Language Dub) Billy Crudup / Claire Danes / Minnie Driver
Genre: Animated, Fantasy
‘Princess Mononoke’ stands alone in the Studio Ghibli collection in that it is clearly aimed at a more mature audience. Although ‘Princess Mononoke’ knows when to pull its punches so as to never descend into violence for the sake of violence, this is a movie about a bitter war of attrition. Ashitaka finds himself at ‘Iron Town’, a mining settlement run by the ruthless and yet charitable Lady Eboshi. The people are depicted as good and friendly, but under constant guard due to stronger forces trying to take away their livelihood. However, the cost of human expansion is the destruction of nature and Iron Town’s existence has angered the ancient gods and spirits that live in the nearby forest. Ape gods slink with quiet fury. Wolf gods hunt and kill the human supply lines. Boar gods raise armies to fight back.
Although true of all Studio Ghibli films, it is still worth saying that ‘Princess Mononoke’ is stunning to look at. Although some small elements of CGI are incorporated, this movie is a triumph of traditional animation. Joe Hisaishi’s score swells with huge gravitas, imbuing the movie with a powerfully traditional identity.
The movie explores the themes of whether human development is actually sustainable, if it is possible to keep respect for the old ways in a changing world, and whether stoicism is a position that can possibly succeed while in the midst of clashing motivations. It doesn’t present any answers, but then perhaps that’s the beauty of the movie. By not trying to solve everything, it is free to simply populate its mystical world with very real characters. Despite the heavy Japanese mythology that runs thick in ‘Princess Mononoke’, it is these characters that give the movie such soul. However this is definitely an action packed experience aimed at an older audience and as such we would advise strong parental caution for any child under the age of 12.
IS ‘PRINCESS MONONOKE’ SUITABLE FOR CHILDREN?
There is no doubt about it; ‘Princess Mononoke’ is violent. For a similar western comparison we would cite the notorious ‘Watership Down’. The movie features constant battles and clashes between various elements. Ashitaka himself is an expert bowman. However, due to the malevolence of the curse that is slowly consuming him there are times when he gains inhuman strength. This means that when he does let his arrows fly they do a lot more damage than would otherwise be expected. There are several moments of enemies having arms or heads severed due to the force of Ashitaka’s arrows. The context is important as Ashitaka never shows enjoyment at his new found power – indeed he is completely shocked at first. There are other moments when such strong injuries occur and although the blood doesn’t gush out and these moments aren’t done with gore in mind, they are frequently scattered throughout the movie to the extent where avoiding them is difficult. For comparison sake, we would liken these moments to the same level as the battle scenes in a movie like ‘The Hobbit’ although as this movie is animated, the injuries have less of a realistic impact.
Notwithstanding the limb removing power of Ashitaka’s arrows, this movie features a lot of blood, although the majority of it does not come from the human characters. It is the huge animal gods that populate the forest who tend to receive the most injuries. When we are first introduced to San (the eponymous ‘Princess Mononoke’) she is tending to a wound in her adoptive wolf-god mother by sucking out the blood and spitting it out in long jets. Later in the film the animal spirits gather their numbers to fight against the humans and although much of the battle is later told through flashback, it features a large number of fighters perishing in fire. The gods themselves are violent and vengeful. They have been pushed by the ever-expanding humans and they have murderous revenge on their minds. The wolves’ dialogue is littered with graphic threats such as growling, ‘want me to crunch his face off?’ San in particular is obsessed with trying to kill the chief of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi. She is so driven by vengeance that she is willing to kill Ashitaka when he gets in her way. At one point Ashitaka is severely wounded and blood pours out of him for several minutes. The rest of the violence is fairly prevalent throughout this movie and cannot really be avoided.
Another slightly more adult area present is the subtle sexual references. They are very mild, but certainly exist. The population of Iron Town is mostly women and we are told that Lady Eboshi took these women from brothels and put them to work. The women are all fiercely independent, loyal and work hard physical labour in stoking the fires that keeps the iron ore process working. However, they also swoon somewhat over Ashitaka and once or twice comment on having to be careful that their kimonos don’t come open (as they are naked underneath). Some of the men make dismissive remarks about ‘that kind of woman’ working. Similarly, one of the women states that, ‘…men don’t bother us, unless we want them too!’ All these things we highlight pass quickly and aren’t dwelt upon. The implications may even pass under the radar of some children, but nevertheless they are there. That said, there is no putting these women down! They are shown to be protective of their husbands and grateful for being given freedom and independence by Lady Eboshi.
The movie has several potentially scary parts. Without giving too much away, ‘Princess Mononoke’ deals with the consuming power of hatred and anger. When the animal god creatures succumb to such emotions, they exude a demonic energy portrayed by wriggling black or red tentacles erupting from their flesh. This happens at the beginning of the movie and occurs again during the build up to the finale. The other characters react in fear whenever this occurs.
Lastly we must mention tone. This is a very serious movie. It may be stunning to look at and feature a rich fantasy world that will entrance children of an older age, but it isn’t a light relief kind of movie. Most of the plot involves dark vengeance, fighting for survival and bloody battles. Ashitaka lurches from one crisis to the next in trying to keep the peace and no side is willing to compromise their position. In ‘Princess Mononoke’ the tension is constant and ramps up continuously throughout. That isn’t to call this movie an ordeal. The confident women and rather silly men of Iron Town do provide some comedic moments that help give the movie breathing room, but for the most part this is a movie about the inevitability of oncoming conflict. As such it is better enjoyed by children who are able to last through the violent scenes and drawn out dangerous situations.
CAN I SEE A CLIP?
What makes ‘Princess Mononoke’ a film for older children is not just the violence depicted or the constant motivations of revenge; it’s the fact that there really are no clearly defined good or bad characters. Ashitaka alone is good to a fault in that he tries to help every side out of every situation regardless of the fact that this means he puts himself in harm’s way. However he is (at least initially) operating in the hope that encouraging balance and peace will cure his vengeful curse. Lady Eboshi has no respect for the gods or spirits and actively wishes to destroy them, but she has also rescued dozens of women from brothels and given them jobs and protection. She even takes care of lepers when no-one else would. San is motivated purely by revenge and is blinded to compromise, but when pushed as hard as she is, that is an understandable position. The gods have reached breaking point and negotiation is no longer possible, but this is in response to the disrespect to their power and destruction of their land.
‘Princess Mononoke’ is a very complex and mature movie. Due to its adult and violent themes, we don’t feel that it is suitable for younger children and for older children we would recommend parental supervision. That said, due to the fantastic depth of ‘Princess Mononoke’ we feel that it will most likely be heartily enjoyed by children old enough to appreciate it.
- Violence: 5/5 (the violence is fairly constant, shows arms and heads being severed and is in the context of angry fighting)
- Emotional Distress: 3/5 (many characters find themselves in mortal danger and the tension levels remain high for most of the last third of the movie)
- Fear Factor: 4/5 (the characters overcome by demonic energy are quite frighteningly animated)
- Sexual Content: 1/5 (this is suggested in dialogue and is quite subtle, however the word ‘brothel’ is clearly used more than once and so you may find yourself being asked what a brothel is!)
- Bad Language: 1/5 (one mild use)
- Dialogue: 4/5 (there are constant threats where physical harm is wished upon characters and this is often described using graphic phrasing)
- Other notes: Deals with themes of the destructive influence of hatred, the difficulty of maintaining balance amongst irreconcilable differences, and the healing power of mutual respect.
Words by Mike Record
This epic, animated 1997 fantasy has already made history as the top-grossing domestic feature ever released in Japan, where its combination of mythic themes, mystical forces, and ravishing visuals tapped deeply into cultural identity and contemporary, ecological anxieties. For international animation and anime fans, Princess Mononoke represents an auspicious next step for its revered creator, Hayao Miyazaki (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service), an acknowledged anime pioneer, whose painterly style, vivid character design, and stylized approach to storytelling take ambitious, evolutionary steps here.
Set in medieval Japan, Miyazaki's original story envisions a struggle between nature and man. The march of technology, embodied in the dark iron forges of the ambitious Tatara clan, threatens the natural forces explicit in the benevolent Great God of the Forest and the wide-eyed, spectral spirits he protects. When Ashitaka, a young warrior from a remote, and endangered, village clan, kills a ravenous, boar-like monster, he discovers the beast is in fact an infectious "demon god," transformed by human anger. Ashitaka's quest to solve the beast's fatal curse brings him into the midst of human political intrigues as well as the more crucial battle between man and nature.
Miyazaki's convoluted fable is clearly not the stuff of kiddie matinees, nor is the often graphic violence depicted during the battles that ensue. If some younger viewers (or less attentive older ones) will wish for a diagram to sort out the players, Miyazaki's atmospheric world and its lush visual design are reasons enough to watch. For the English-language version, Miramax assembled an impressive vocal cast including Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup (as Ashitaka), Claire Danes (as San), Minnie Driver (as Lady Eboshi), Billy Bob Thornton, and Jada Pinkett Smith. They bring added nuance to a very different kind of magic kingdom. Recommended for ages 12 and older. --Sam Sutherland