Princess Mononoke is that rare film that has become more and more relevant as time has passed.
The films made by Japanese director and Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki are regularly considered among the greatest of all animated features, and like Disney classics, their appeal endures. Arthouse theaters regularly hold popular Studio Ghibli revivals, reigniting interest in the films as new generations discover them. In Miyazaki’s storied filmography, one title stands above the rest. First released in 1997, Princess Mononoke is that rare film that has become more and more relevant as time has passed.
The film’s stature of course owes a great deals to Miyazaki’s hallmark visuals, a signature blend of hand-crafted animation and the kind of ostentatious, bewildering design that, as in My Neighbor Totoro, gleefully transforms a cat into public transportation. Some of Miyazaki’s most striking scenes are purposefully over-the-top and frightening in order to mimic the massive, scary depths of childhood imagination. They are also a way of showing off; in addition to being a visionary, Miyazaki is both a showman and a perfectionist. The script for Princess Mononoke features ornate plot twists and well-developed characters that reveal more with each viewing. But most of all, the film’s great theme — the battle between man and nature, the contrast between technology and biology – makes it perhaps even more haunting 20 years after its release.
A culmination of Miyazaki’s art, this mid-career masterpiece is one of the director’s more personal films, the joys and struggles of its characters mirroring his own. The film’s fantasy version of medieval Japan is a world at war, something Miyazaki knew all too well. Born near Tokyo in 1941, he grew up in the shadow of World War II, his family relocated because of immediate danger. His mother was ill and bedridden and his businessman father was preoccupied with work, so Miyazaki spent his childhood days escaping into books, particularly fantasies. He grew up nurturing his imagination and moved to Tokyo in 1963 to work at Toei Animation. Tokyo was at the time a hotbed of student life, rife with cultural shifts, business booms and protests. All of these details are relevant to Princess Mononoke and its themes of illness, greed, war and protest.
Miyazaki’s work often reflected his history and interests, including steampunk (Castle in the Sky), aeronautics (Porco Rosso, The Wind Rises), and lost childhood (Spirited Away Howl’s Moving Castle), a result of his own formative experiences of war and his mother’s illness.
Princess Mononoke feels like the perfect blend of the auteur’s life and art, and perhaps was one of the films that was most successful in bringing the wild scenes in his imagination into full, eye-popping life. Though he had long been an expert in animation, the advancement of CGI allowed Miyazaki to create the large scale and wild, natural movements of the mythical forest creatures he had imagined as a child. This blend of computer and hand-drawn animation worked beautifully in Disney scenes like Beauty and the Beast’s ballroom dance and Aladdin’s Cave of Wonders, but it is integrated almost invisibly here as Miyazaki used technology to create scale, leaving the artistic work to his animators.
Princess Mononoke was released to unanimous critical and commercial success and is widely considered one of the greatest of all animated films, alongside Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away. But its global reach perhaps fell short, too violent to pass for a family friendly American animated feature. But its environmental concerns, which at the time was perhaps a less mainstream concern, could not be more relevant today.
More urgent and universally accessible than it may have been 20 years ago, Princess Mononoke is ripe for reevaluation by long-time fans and more mainstream audiences. Its tale of courageous natural forces taking on brutal industry may perhaps inspire today’s ecological warriors, of any age, to fight, and to hope.