Cult Movie Column: Princess Mononoke WEB ONLY PLEASE

See that guy getting his arms shot off all over again

Feature by Keir Hind | 15 Jun 2006
Hayao Miyazaki, the director of this film, is one of the leading lights in Japanese and world animation. He intended to retire after he finished 'Princess Mononoke' because he felt it was his masterwork. He has since returned to making animated films, but this film may well be his best in any case.

'Princess Mononoke' is an epic which features elements from mythology, starting with one young warrior, Ashitaka, on a quest to find a cure for the cursed wound he was given while killing an enraged giant boar. The boar is subsequently found to have had an iron bullet inside of it, which drove it to violence. When Ashitaka's journey takes him towards a forest where the spirit of a deer god may be able to heal him, it also takes him towards 'Irontown', a place just outside the forest which turns out to have made the bullet that caused the trouble in the first place. The scene is then set for a conflict between the humans who need to cut down the forest to mine for iron, and the intelligent animals that live in the forest. Coming between all this is Princess Mononoke (which translates roughly to 'Spirit Princess') who was raised by Wolves and despises other humans… until, to complicate things further, she meets Ashitaka.

The film is set in the period when basic industry started to affect the environment in Japan, and primitive guns had started to be made. Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' is set in a similar time - of the seven, four die from gunshots – but this film is more explicit in its use of plot to show how the world is changing. Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke are both caught between sides, and their personal actions greatly affect the larger story. The film is very craftily plotted, and repeated viewings allow a greater appreciation of the epic nature of this story and reveal numerous hidden depths. Plus you'll get to see that guy getting his arms shot off all over again; and the forest creatures with the rattly heads again; and the panoramic battle scenes again, and so on.

This is to say that it's not just the plot that you'll watch or rewatch this film for – the animation is absolutely superb, detailed but easy on the eye just as the plot is detailed but easily followed. Miyazaki is not afraid of intricacy – the film often has sections where you appear at first to be watching still frames, but realise that there is movement there. This impressive device actually helps an audience appreciate Miyazaki's attention to detail. His degree of personal involvement led him to personally alter around eighty thousand animation cells, and it paid off – This was for a time the highest grossing film ever in Japan. And by rights it should be as well known here too - so try and get your mits on a copy as soon as you can.
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, whose son is now directing 'Tales of Earthsea' for Studio Ghibli, interestingly enough.