Originally published on July 12, 2017
PRINCESS MONONOKE: A film so highly admired and so beautifully animated, and with a story so boldly told, that it’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since this Hayao Miyazaki masterpiece was originally released. Two full decades and yet despite many animated films being done entirely on the computer nowadays, this film still looks and feels like it had been released to the world just yesterday.
This is one of the films where had it been under the direction of mostly anyone else, PRINCESS MONONOKE really could have turned out to be a much more predictable and polarizing film. You have the sides already drawn, there’s a character that could easily pass as being the antagonist, and it could have been easy to make the ending all tied up in a neat bow.
Thankfully it was Miyazaki leading the way, for apart from being his most violent film, it’s also one of his more complex films. No one is mere black and white, for everyone is various shades of gray. Lady Eboshi, despite wanting to take out the Forest Spirit for the mere purpose of land development, also cares for those suffering from leprosy and gives jobs to women who originally worked in brothels. San, despite being a human, has a deep hatred for the humans invading the forest she was raised in. Ashitaka does not pledge his allegiance to any side, as he makes the effort to help them both by the third act of the film.
Even the ending takes a different path away from the “happily ever after” one would otherwise expect out of such a film. Irontown is destroyed, the Forest Spirit is deceased, Lady Eboshi lost an arm, and with the exception of Ashitaka, San’s opinion about humans remains unchanged. There is, in its place, an indication that hope will prevail for a better future, and for a film as layered as PRINCESS MONONOKE, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Miyazaki once said how PRINCESS MONONOKE is one of those films where one should see it multiple times in order to get a full-on understanding of it, and as someone who has seen it many times since their first viewing as a teenager, I have to agree. The film also holds up another point that he makes in the documentary, THE KINGDOM OF DREAMS AND MADNESS: “You don’t depict fate, you depict will, even if fate exists.” Out of all the films he has made throughout his career, PRINCESS MONONOKE definitely hits the mark on that real well.
Many people have fallen in love with this film in the 20 years since its release. I hope that future film lovers who discover it see the same brilliance in it in the decades to come.