As Japan moves from medieval times and into the modern world, teenage prince Ashitaka saves his village from attack by a demon, a giant boar rampaging through the forest, afflicted by a curse. Ashitaka is scarred on his right arm in the fierce battle, and is advised that the evil wound will eventually spread, until he becomes so consumed with hatred, he’ll die.
Metal found in the boar is believed to be the source of his curse, so Ashitaka heads to the land where the material came from, seeking a cure. Riding out on a loyal red elk, he comes across samurai massacring a village, and discovers that when he experiences rage, his cursed arm becomes imbued with superhuman strength. Ashitaka fires his arrows with such speed and accuracy that he severs the arms of one samurai, and decapitates another.
He meets a fortune hunting monk, Jigo, who seems ambivalent to Ashitaka’s problems. “These days, there are angry ghosts all around us. Dead from wars, sickness, starvation, and nobody cares.” He tells the prince that he might be able to find answers in Irontown.
A wagon train headed to Irontown is attacked by a giant wolf, Moro, her cubs, and a teenage girl, Princess Mononoke. The humans are equipped with gunpowder, and under the steady leadership of Lady Eboshi, repel the wolves. Ashitaka rescues two men thrown from a cliff in the attack, and with the help of tree spirits, is led through the forest to Irontown.
Lady Eboshi explains to Ashitaka that a war is brewing between the humans, who need to mine the mountain, and the forest spirits, who are angered at the destruction of their habitat. Eboshi was the one who shot the giant boar. Ashitaka considers killing her for this, but is struck by the fact that Eboshi has welcomed lepers and prostitutes into her community, which needs to mine the mountain in order to survive.
Under cover of darkness, Mononoke infiltrates Irontown and engages Lady Eboshi in a duel. Ashitaka falls in love Mononoke, and while he shares her concern for the forest, also sympathizes with the hard working people of Irontown. He sees both Mononoke and Eboshi as blinded by their hatred for each other and wants to find a way to stop them from fighting. Ashitaka is not successful, and a war erupts that threatens the fate of the entire planet.
Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke was a blockbuster in Japan, replacing E.T. as the biggest grossing film in the country’s history. Miramax purchased the U.S. distribution rights and wanted to cut the 134 minute film for time and for a PG rating. Miyazaki refused, and while Miramax did employ a cast of A-list stars to lend their voices to the English language version, it was released in few theaters in 1999.
The breadth of the universe created by Miyazaki surpasses any Disney or Pixar film, or Star Wars, in terms of its scope and imagination. The film opens spectacularly, with ominous narration, fantastic music, and gorgeous animation, as our hero speeds through stone trenches on an elk, climbs a watchtower and combats a monster that slithers out of the forest with his bow and arrow.
I was reminded of The Hobbit here, with its hero leaving home for a journey across strange lands, encountering deadly beasts, and a war between man and the supernatural. The characters are even more involving than Tolkien’s. Ashitaka is earnest and plain, but Mononoke and Eboshi have complexity and strong motivation. Their duel is the peak of the film, and nothing that comes after it can measure up in terms of compelling drama.
Imagine if Tolkien had forgotten about Frodo, or getting the one ring to Mount Doom, and focused the climax of Return of the King on the issue of deforestation. This is the last half hour of Princess Mononoke, and instead of inspiring the imagination, Miyazaki just dulls it. His ecological message resonates just fine, and shouldn’t have been delivered at the expense of the story or characters.
The animation is excelsior, and there are glimpses of greatness: Ashitaka taking on samurai, Mononoke and Eboshi clashing swords, an army of giant boar attacking Irontown. But the movie turns out like the Great Spirit of the Forest, a slow meditation on the ecology. Miramax opened the film in thirteen theaters in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, and based on its tepid reception there, did not release it wide across the U.S.
Audiences in Japan were more comfortable with the pace, and the film is considered a classic there. Neil Gaiman seamlessly adapted the screenplay into English, while Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Keith David, Billy Bob Thornton (as Jigo) and Gillian Anderson (as Moro) lent their voices to the English language version, the most talented cast ever recorded for a Studio Ghibli film.