Studio Ghibli is well known for its beautiful visuals and majestic soundtracks, as well as its underlying messages. Some of the studio’s most popular movies, Taken away as if by magic and Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle both have poignant but underlying themes of self-love, acceptance and growth, as well as the anti-war message prominent in Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
But another slightly less popular but incredible masterpiece is often overshadowed by films like these more ornate films. by Hayao Miyazaki Princess Mononokereleased in 1997, became the first Studio Ghibli film to be released theatrically in the United States, as well as a Hollywood voiceover for the English dub.
Many fans even go so far as to insist that in terms of characterization and story complexity, Princess Mononoke is greater than Taken away as if by magicwhich is often referred to as Miyazaki’s “magnum opus”.
What makes Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke so good?
Plot and theme
Like all of Hayao Miyazaki’s other Ghibli films, Princess Mononoke has a dominant theme and an underlying message that adds another dimension to the story. In this case, this theme is environmental in nature, with a classic “Man versus Nature” struggle.
The film has a darker treatment compared to the lighter childish approach that Howl’s Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro Where Taken away as if by magic explored.
Most of the story moves between the perspectives of the people of Iron Town and the gods of the surrounding forests. The men strive to cut down trees and clear the land needed for the village’s main source of income, which is iron mining.
The gods are against this methodical destruction of their home, and being spirits of the forest, it fills them with hatred towards humans, turning them into vengeful curse-bearing monsters.
The Ghibli movie refuses to allow viewers the luxury of painting both sides as good or bad, simply establishing them as forces of life at odds with each other. At the end of Princess MononokeNature overwhelms Man and takes back what was his, but it is a kind of rebirth, rather than an end.
The cyclical nature of the story reminds the viewer that there is no definitive end to this conflict, there can only be a compromise or a slow destruction on both sides followed by a rebuilding of life at start from nothing.
The film’s romantic subplot, which revolves around Ashitaka and San, is both surreal and tragic. Having been claimed by the forest after being abandoned as a baby, San grows up to be more of a wolf than a human. They are destined to live on two different sides, coexisting but never united.
Environmentalism is not the only focus Princess Mononoke. The concepts of identity and belonging are strongly expressed through the character of San, a human child abandoned in the forest and raised by the white wolf god of the forest, Moro.
San becomes a spokesperson for nature itself, showing that she is not unequivocally cruel or kind, but both.
On the more human side of things in this Ghibli movie, Lady Eboshi turns out to be a fascinating character. She comes across as arrogant and ruthless, proudly hunting the gods and ruling Irontown efficiently, while managing to hold off other samurai and feudal lords who keep trying to attack or persuade Lady Eboshi periodically, hoping to put down hand over Irontown.
She is also the one who wants the forests gone, which makes her a villain in the eyes of the forest gods.
But as Ashitaka realizes after visiting the village, Eboshi also takes in prostitutes and lepers, allowing them to live a better life under his care in town. She is their king, and the people of the village show her fierce loyalty.
Ashitaka himself is a compelling character, with audiences seeing the story unfold through his eyes. The prince is cursed after being cursed by a monstrous boar spirit, a god wounded by humans and blinded by pain and hatred. After leaving the village, he takes to heart the advice given by the oracle,
“You must see with eyes not clouded with hate. See the good in what is bad, and the bad in what is good. Don’t commit to either side, but rather swear to uphold the balance that exists between the two.
It becomes a central motif, defining his character and all his actions. Among many Ghibli fans, the quote has become synonymous with the film itself.
Animation and soundtrack
Studio Ghibli’s distinct animation style does wonders for the complex subject matter of Princess Mononoke. The studio does a fantastic job depicting light and shadow in a setting full of lush greenery and later total destruction.
Unlike the more childish art that appeared in Miyazaki’s other Studio Ghibli projects, this film has a more traditional feel, with the character designs reminiscent of traditional Japanese folklore.
Ashitaka’s trusty red elk, Yakul, is also based on the Japanese Sika deer. However, San’s character design was influenced by the work of manga artist Daijiro Moroboshi, who drew heavily from Native American culture.
Ghibli’s music Princess Mononoke was composed by none other than Joe Hisaishi. The film’s soundtrack was larger than life and awe-inspiring, extremely fitting for a narrative portraying nature as an awesome force, and the beauty and strength of the human beings who live there.
Princess Mononoke is the Ghibli movie that comes closest to reality, though it’s still firmly rooted in ancient fantasy. The treatment and depiction of different groups in conflict with each other shows us a clear picture of the battle raging between civilization and nature in every age.
But the Ghibli movie also includes some glimpses of Japanese history and the situation in rural provincial villages during samurai rule. San and Ashitaka become the symbols of nature and man coexisting together, as human manifestations of yin and yang.
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