Tour de Miyazaki: Princess Mononoke
Released: 1997 (Japan), 1999 (United States)
Brief Synopsis: A young man, cursed with a mysterious affliction that gives him superhuman strength but will ultimately kill him, gets tangled up in a struggle between humanity and nature, but can’t figure out which side to choose.
Themes: In most “environmental” movies, any human who is not on the side of nature is portrayed negatively. Here, Miyazaki’s environmentalist message is much more nuanced, as he is aware that humans have a stake in this planet as well and deserve some advancements. Our first introduction to San, alias Princess Mononoke, is pretty negative, as she tries to kill multiple people in cold blood, including protagonist Ashitaka. On the other hand, many of the people she attacks have shown to be dangerous and have indicated that they want to expand an iron foundry into the woods in which San and her wolf family live. The movie is careful to show that there is good and evil in everyone. If we can look past our differences, we will thrive, but if we succumb to our flaws and hatred, all that will result is violence and death.
Animation: All of the films before Princess Mononoke were extremely beautiful and had some sense of realism alongside the fantasy, but the animation quality in this film is notably improved over Porco Rosso. The world seems much more detailed and many of the characters are presented with realistic marks of imperfection, offsetting their otherwise beautiful design. This is most apparent in the boars, especially Okkoto; we see the gunk in his enormous eyes and all the wrinkles on his face. Much of the film takes place in forests, and the trees, grass, moss, and water all look nothing short of phenomenal.
Sub vs. Dub: I prefer the Japanese over the English, but unlike Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the English definitely has its merits. The English voice cast is good overall, and it accurately captures the overall themes of the film, but I feel that it leaves out some interesting story elements. You won’t be lost watching the film in English, but the dub tries westernize some elements of the film. Also, Jigo has a line toward the end of the English version that reminds me a lot of this Penny Arcade cartoon.
Verdict: Although it’s nearly impossible to rank these films, as even the “worst” Miyazaki film is still a great film and they each have different things to love, Princess Mononoke is probably my favorite Miyazaki film. It has an epic scope with a nuanced story, incredible visuals, and lots of moral ambiguity. There are lead characters and people who do questionable things, but it’s hard not to sympathize with most people in the film (except maybe Jigo). It’s definitely not for kids, and is without a doubt the bloodiest, scariest, most complex of Miyazaki’s films. But the scares and gore are never gratuitous; they always serve a story purpose and go toward making the film the masterpiece that it is.