A demonic curse leads the young prince Ashitaka (Yōji Matsuda) to San (Yuriko Ishida) AKA Princess Mononoke; a raised-by-wolves eco-warrior and a princess in name only, like Leia or Eugenie.
The war between civilisation and nature may be a tale as old as humankind, but seldom told with such a magical and harmonious voice. The epic fantasy story plays out rather like an anime version of Avatar (not to be confused with the anime called Avatar) with a comparable degree of visual supremacy but deeper levels of nuance missing from James Cameron’s film. Master storyteller Hayao Miyazaki resists simplistic roles of good and evil, putting clear thought into every beautiful, hand-drawn frame.
This 1997 Studio Ghibli classic sets a high-watermark for animation, combining traditional Japanese design with twinkling, explosive psychedelia to create one of the best-looking animated features ever made. Miyazaki uses the medium to do things that simply wouldn’t be possible in live-action cinema, while his attention to detail remains unparalleled in animation and beyond.
The characterisation is equally well drawn, with a depth to the characters that goes further than a lot of anime. Many of them (particularly San and the majestic white wolves) appear to have souls; that is, life behind the eyes. So convincing is the overall execution that San’s wolf-mother Moro (Akihiro Miwa) gets away with speaking; not an easy effect to pull off in a serious film, as evidenced by Scarlett Johansson’s voice coming out of a photorealistic snake in The Jungle Book. Or from Scarlett Johansson’s actual face for that matter.
Miyazaki populates the film with his usual smattering of pantheistic nature gods, once again demonstrating a deep concern for the environment that roots his films to the planet even when his soaring flights of fancy appear to take us worlds away. Here he artfully and convincingly contends that nature is god, and as Nietzche would say, we have killed him. Or rather we’re killing it by means of hunting, war and deforestation. Then Miyazaki adds his signature feminist twist on the (wo)man-versus-nature idea, by making it women who lead the village, care for the sick and kick the men’s arses.
Dazzlingly convincing, surprisingly gory and beautifully designed with music to match, this is a masterclass in world-building and pacing. It builds to a mind-blowing climax reminiscent of Akira 10 years earlier (that’s how insanely ahead of its time Akira was) only instead of bamboozling us to the point that we forget our surroundings, Princess Mononoke helps us understand them.