Magic takes on dark forms and greed conjures existential threats in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 fantasy epic Princess Mononoke. Whereas past films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service dazzled audiences with magic used for benign whimsy, the enchantment that ripples through the forest in feudal Japan elevates gargantuan gods and corrupts some into monstrous demons. Like Porco Rosso five years before it, Princess Mononoke branches off from roots set in a specific historical era – in this case, the 16th century. And similar to Castle in the Sky, the antagonists in Princess Mononoke seek the acquisition of a fabled artifact in pursuit of conquest. Meanwhile, Miyazaki cranks up the violence to levels not previously seen in his Studio Ghibli output, presenting a sprawling adventure story rife with decapitations, severed limbs and grievously wounded, demon-possessed gods spewing torrents of blood.

Miyazaki wastes no time getting to the supernatural gore, as the Emishi people of the East find their village under siege by a rampaging demon. The tribe’s last prince, Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda), swiftly defeats the creature but discovers that the undulating mass of wormlike protuberances swirling around and within a giant boar god are a physical manifestation of hatred. Spawned from the anguish of a lead slug shot into the boar’s gut, this hate consumed the boar god and rubs off on Ashitaka, leaving him with a discolored arm and a fatal curse to boot. But the demon mark does give him superhuman strength at times, which will ironically serve him well in his pursuit of a cure for the curse by traveling to the West. There, he will find Irontown, a not-too-subtle stand-in for Western industrialism. Irontown is run by the ambitious and ruthless Lady Eboshi (Yūko Tanaka), who razes whole forests in the name of industry and fashions impressive medieval rifles that make her conquest all the bloodier.

Her ravaging of the forest angers both the feudal lord, who sends samurai to thwart her, and the forest gods – giant boars and wolves that lead their packs into combat. It’s the latter that make for the most compelling opponents. The wolf tribe even runs with the human princess, San (Yuriko Ishida) – “Mononoke” isn’t a name, but instead a word for supernatural creatures. When Ashitaka meets mercenary conman Jiko-bō (Kaoru Kobayashi), he learns of the greatest god of them all, a Forest Spirit who leads no army and takes the form of a human-faced deer during daylight and a towering, spectral “nightwalker” under cover of darkness. The well-being of the forest, including its magical, restorative waters, appears tied to this spirit, its health also measured by the prevalence of the tiny, wobbly-headed kodama, who dwell in the trees.

Though Lady Eboshi is pitted as a villain through much of the film, she isn’t entirely treacherous. Her industrial ambition may lead her astray, but she’s reasonable, and by film’s end she sees the error of her ways. When she sets out to capture the head of the Forest Spirit, she does so not for outright greed, but in the hopes that delivering it to the Emperor will grant her protection against the feudal lord’s samurai and protect those who labor in Irontown, outcasts who have found work and a home despite the environmental devastation they create as a byproduct. Again, the parallel to Western capitalism is obvious, here. The fact that Eboshi is not ultimately treated as evil, but rather occluded by blind ambition, speaks to corporations possessing the ability both to benefit society and also to wreak havoc upon it when left unchecked.

Princess Mononoke stands out in Miyazaki’s filmography not only for its sociopolitical commentary and mythic storytelling rooted both in historical and folkloric Japanese culture, but also for its stunning animation. Scenes involving the Forest Spirit, in particular, are a visual marvel, contrasting transcendent beauty with the film’s viler, horrific elements, which use every inch of the film’s PG-13 rating. Its marauding monsters couldn’t be much further from the friendly Totoro, and they make the film unsuitable for young children. The compelling imagery may ultimately have been outdone by the subsequent Spirited Away, but Princess Mononoke serves as landmark in animated film, one that combines the multifaceted aspects of Miyazaki’s storytelling into a cohesive epic crackling with outsized manifestations of humanity’s complicated relationship with the natural world.

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