I think I have found my favourite Studio Ghibli movie.
Princess Mononoke tells the story of a young Emihsi prince named Ashitaka and his involvement in the struggle between the gods of a forest and the humans who want to tear it down for its resources.
Much like with Spirited Away, this is not the story I expected going into the movie but I have to say that the surprise was welcome. It’s intense and moving while also being starkly different from the other Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen.
The stand out voice performances are Yōji Matsuda and Yuriko Ishida who voice Ashitaka and San respectively. They bring emotion and cadence to the film and make you feel whatever their characters feel.
Even though I didn’t watch the dubbed version, I have to shout out the English cast, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Tara Strong, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson and Keith David? That is a powerhouse voice cast if I have ever seen one.
Even though I’ve only seen four Studio Ghibli movies, it’s safe to assume that all their films have messages (some more obvious than others). The movies that I have seen so far, make a point to reference human’s connection with spirits and religion. And they focus on our sometimes cantankerous and other times disrespectful relationship with the beings that affect the world around us.
The central theme of this movie has to do with industrialisation and how it affects (and ultimately ruins nature). Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Iron Town continually clears the first even though she is warned that what she is doing is wrong. She is motivated by greed and the need to be better. Think of the phrase “go big or go home”, that gives you a brief insight into her motivations. And her motivations make her a compelling antagonist. She is driven by her own innate desire and is willing to sacrifice those around her to get what she wants, a stark contrast to the protagonists. And even with that, you can tell that she does care about the people of Iron Town.
And speaking of our protagonists, they are fully-fledged out characters with motivations and failings. And because they are written like real people, it endears us to them. You have Ashitaka, somewhat of an anti-hero who has to leave his village and ends up entangled in the story of the movie. He is the audience proxy and because of that, he is easily the most relatable character.
Then you have San, easily the most interesting character in the whole movie. Her attachment to the forest and the spirits that live there comes from personal tragedy and because of that, she sees herself as more like the wolves that raised her than the humans who are trying to destroy her home.
Even the minor characters are interesting. The people in Iron Town come from all walks of life and have different, eclectic backstories. It adds realism to the town and the story.
Another thing that sets this movie apart from its counterparts is its tone. It is a lot more violent than the other movies that I have watched and I like that about it. Each Studio Ghibli movie has a tone that fits in with the central theme of the movie while fitting into the overall type of storytelling that the studio is known for. I will say that the first instance of violence was surprising because I did not expect it.
The animation in this movie is the best of all the Studio Ghibli movies I have seen so far. And I’m not just saying that. According to my research, only 10% of the movie was animated using computers, but the blend between 3d rendering and hand-drawn animation is seamless which gives the film a distinct, visually arresting look. Here is what Hayao Miyazaki had to say about computer-generated animated in regards to the movie.
“Computers are really just an electronic pen or pencil, and I like regular pencils better.”
The scene that stood out was at the beginning when Ashitaka was fighting Nago, a boar god who has been corrupted by a demon. I was lying down on the couch while I watched this scene and I actually sat up so I could see better. The way the characters flowed and with the background and each other is breathtaking. Not just in this scene but in the whole movie.
If you expected me to praise Joe Hisaishi’s score, then you are absolutely correct. The man is a master of his craft, composing scores that transport you to the world of the movie while simultaneously grounding you in reality. Every single Studio Ghibli I have seen has a fantastic score and it is because of this man.
I’m not sure why this movie stood out more to me than the rest but I absolutely loved every minute of this movie. From the story to the art direction and animation, everything just works! Wikipedia described this movie as an epic fantasy film and epic is the right word. From the animation to the story and runtime, everything about this movie is epic.
The Rotten Tomatoes consensus says
With its epic story and breathtaking visuals, Princess Mononoke is a landmark in the world of animation.
And I agree. This movie is special. It is so different from any other animated movie I have watched and it has the rewatchability factor. While I have enjoyed every Studio Ghibli film I have watched, something about this movie clicked with me and because of that I am definitely going to watch it again.
Originally published at https://www.thecinematicaficionado.com on November 19, 2020.