Hayao Miyazaki, the animation legend who brought to you such awesome films as Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, strikes again with this eco-friendly tale about the struggle between man, animal, and god within a deep, dark Japanese forest.
Prince Ashitaka (voice of Billy Crudup) of the Emishi, stricken with a curse foisted upon him by a rampaging wild boar that was possessed by a demon, heads west upon his trusty golden elk Yakul to find a cure. He’s also out to possibly save his people, as the appearance of the demonic boar portends grave consequences for the village – the gods and demons are reclaiming the forest.
Ashitaka attempts to buy some food in a neighboring town with a gold nugget, but the shopkeepers do not quite believe that the nugget is a valid form of currency. Our fair prince is saved from further embarrassment by a monk named Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers his assistance to Ashitaka. Ashitaka learns from Jigo of a town called (in the English version, anyway) Iron Town, since they mine iron. Jigo also mentions that the forest gods still dwell around Iron Town, a fact that is certainly not lost on Ashitaka. He heads out the next morning.
Meanwhile, a long column of men and oxen, carrying rice back to Iron Town to feed the denizens, is attacked by two giant wolves – one of whom bears a masked girl. Leading the men is Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who orders her men to fire their brand-new muskets at the wolves. The wolves are driven off, but their mama, named Moro (Gillian Anderson) soon arrives and lays everyone to waste. Half of Lady Eboshi’s men fall off the mountainside.
Further down the mountain, Ashitaka hears the battle above and comes across two men in the river. He pulls them out (one unconscious, the other with a broken arm) and carries them both through the ancient forest to Iron Town. On the way to Iron Town, Ashitaka encounters the wolves and the girl by the river side. The girl is San, the Princess Mononoke, i.e., the Angry Princess. Why is she so angry? Because Lady Eboshi has been killing all of the animals, which has been causing the forest to fall into disrepair and has angered the forest gods. She kind of has good reason to be mad.
The reception at Iron Town is mixed, as many distrust the newcomer Ashitaka. Ashitaka learns that everyone in the village helps mine the iron, with the women operating the mighty bellows themselves. Lady Eboshi also explains that San really has it in for her (because of the forest damage Eboshi’s caused) and that when the Forest Spirit himself is dead, San will become human (although to the viewer she looks perfectly human as it is). San, raised by wolves, is not on board with this eventuality.
All of which leads to everyone fighting everyone, with mass destruction guaranteed. Iron Town is under siege by Lord Asano and his samurai, who wish to control the iron ore. The Iron Town citizens are left to defend themselves against Asano while Eboshi and Jigo the monk seek out the Forest Spirit; Jigo has a letter from the Emperor himself that guarantees a large sum of money if Jigo can bring the Forest Spirit’s head to the Emperor (who believes it will grant him immortality). Then there are an entire tribe of huge wild boars who want to avenge the death of one of their own – the boar that wound up cursing Ashitaka to kick all of this off – as well taken on the humans for being humans. Oh, and apes who also want to kill the humans, particularly Ashitaka, whom they want to eat so they can gain his strength.
There’s plenty of action, in other words. In fact, the violence is a bit more explicit than you might expect in an animated film. When Ashitaka is first dealing with his curse, he fires an arrow at a soldier who is attacking him; the arrow cuts the man’s arm clean off. Ashitaka doesn’t know his own strength, it would seem. There’s also a fair amount of blood, and a couple of particularly icky scenes: one in which San removes a bullet from Moro by sucking out the blood and spitting it out and another in which San helps Ashitaka eat by first chewing beef jerky and then passing it to him by mouth (he’s very weak, you see). I understand, but eww.
Princess Mononoke has plenty of strong-willed characters, and many of them are female: San, Lady Eboshi, and Moro, plus Ashitaka and Jigo. The Forest Spirit is a wonder to behold, too, appearing to be part human, part ape, part deer, and probably parts of lots of other animals as well. And the visuals are about what I expected from the maestro Miyazaki, although I think they weren’t quite as well developed as they were in some of his other works, like the earlier Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. And it’s also possible that there are just too many characters and plot lines and conflicts in Princess Mononoke to easily track. But overall, this is an unquestionable triumph of animation.