A young prince, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), defends his home by killing a giant boar-god that has been corrupted by a monstrous force and turned into a demon, but in the process Ashitaka finds himself infected on his right arm. His only chance at survival is to be exiled from his city – to which he can never return – and seek the Spirit of the Forest and ask for forgiveness. However, when Ashitaka finds the forest, he uncovers a war between a nearby town, led by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and the animals and gods of the forest, led by the wolf-goddess Moro (Gillian Anderson) and her adopted human daughter San (Claire Danes), who is known to the townspeople as Princess Mononoke. In order to achieve the help of the Spirit of the Forest, Ashitaka must help resolve the conflict between the two factions, neither of whom seem to want his help.
This film was nominated for me to watch by Bubbawheat of Flights, Tights and Movie Nights. I’ve always claimed myself to be a fan of animation. Be it hand-drawn, computer-generated or stop-motion, I appreciate it all, and many of my favourite films fall into those categories. However, I’ve never been a huge fan of Studio Ghibli. To be fair, I haven’t seen all of the films produced by the Japanese company. So far I’ve seen Spirited Away, Pom Poko, Howl’s Floating Castle and My Neighbour Totoro, and the only one of those I really loved was Totoro. I didn’t necessariyl have a problem with the others, I just didn’t click with them as much as other people seem to, especially Spirited Away, which seems to be universally loved, but I found difficult to connect with. However, I do need to re-watch it (it’s on all five lists I’m working through) as well as Howl’s Moving Castle and My Neighbour Totoro, and I’ll get to Grave of the Fireflies sometime too, however I’m not looking forward to that one much because of how horribly depressing it sounds.
The issues I have with Ghibli films are very much present within Princess Mononoke, primarily just how much world-building is required to understand what is going on. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but I find there’s far too much mythology happening here for me to get my head around, with giant animal-gods, a forest spirit who becomes a towering beast come nightfall, demons and odd little Pillsbury Dough-boys wearing the mask from Scream. I still have no idea what those weird little things are, but I do know that the way their heads rattled was traumatising. There’s also some side characters whose intentions or positions within the story I never fully understood. Primary amongst these is Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton). I understand that he starts off as a travelling monk who temporarily hitches up with Ashitaka and offers advice for the journey, but when he showed up later, on the side of Lady Eboshi, I didn’t know why, or to what purpose he wanted the head of the Spirit of the Forest. I’ve since read up on it, and maybe I missed some points of exposition in the film, so that’s on me, but I wasn’t a fan of his character’s involvement at all. Also, the climax features an Akira-style blobby mess of destruction, which I didn’t like in that film and wasn’t a fan of here either. It seemed at odds with the rest of the film, and was unsatisfying. If these films had been made live-action in America, but with exactly the same screenplay, I think they’d be ridiculed for being overcomplicated, unintelligible nonsense.
And yet, now I’ve had some time to ponder over the film, I think overall I’d recommend it. For starters the animation is beautiful, even when depicting grotesque imagery. There’s a clear passion and pride from the team at Ghibli to create a masterpiece of artwork in every frame. Granted, some of the character designs were just plain odd, particularly the Spirit of the Forest, which I stand by as being initially sketched by a child in terms of proportion and overall look, before being professionally animated over the top of what was presumably in crayon. I understand that it’s a composite of various other creatures – stag, eagle, antelope, bear, goat, antler crab and gibbon, by the looks of things – but it just didn’t look majestic enough to be deemed the Spirit of the Forest.
The voicework was all great too. I’m normally a proponent of watching subtitled versions of foreign language films, but knowing that Ghibli have processed their dubbing through John Lasseter, and used recognisable, professional actors to do so. As well as those mentioned already the likes of Keith David, Jada Pinkett-Smith and John DiMaggio all crop up in supporting roles, and there’s not a weak link amongst them. Billy Bob Thornton could be the standout though, despite being my least favourite character overall, but that’s more based on his involvement within the plot rather than his actual character design and performance.
There are some terrific battle sequences, which show off the animation beautifully. Whether it’s between Ashitaka and the demon boar-god, Ashitaka decapitating a guy with an arrow whilst protecting some villagers being attacked or the third act battle scenes, there was a great deal more gore here than expected from a film that, on paper, sounded perfect for children. I’m by no means now a Ghibli convert – I’ll wait until I’ve reviewed those other four films to decide – but this is a mark slightly more in the pro column than the con.
Choose Film 7/10