Princess Mononoke: A World Without Villains

Throughout the past two decades, Studio Ghibli has helped to define the very standard of animated films, largely due to its co-founder and perhaps most prolific in-house filmmaker, Hayao Miyazaki. Beginning with 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro, the animation auteur introduced internationally audiences to his painstakingly-detailed form of traditional hand-drawn animation techniques, blended with narratives comprising timeless, classic Japanese folklore with universal morals that touched upon current events and modern concerns. With his 1997 offering, Princess Mononoke, this brilliant and fantastical formula was not altered, save for one crucial element—as Miyazaki had been credited with creating lush animated feature films that, although geared at young children, were beautiful and innovative enough to entertain even adults, with Princess Mononoke, the filmmaker deliberately offer up an adult-oriented “family” film, ripe with action, decidedly excessive violence, and an ambiguous approach to good-versus-evil perspective. But with this film, was Miyazaki attempting to attract new generations to into the Studio Ghibli demographic, or was this unprecedented storytelling approach part of the film’s artistry? More than two decades later, modern YouTube commentators offer their opinions on where Princess Mononoke belongs in the Studio Ghibli canon. In his reassessment of the film, YouTuber Chris Stuckmann weighed-in that Princess Mononoke’s design and animation was, indeed, reason enough to embrace the film, stating:

I feel like whenever I review a Studio Ghibli movie, I’m always going to pinpoint one specific thing, but there’s no escaping it—the animation is fucking brilliant. This is one of the best Ghibli movies there is. This film came out in 1997 in Japan and was revolutionary for hand-drawn animation … when you actually think about the fact that people sat there with pencils and pens, and they painted these hand-drawn cells and they animated them to interact with each other, and they got the grit underneath their fingernails and they wipe sweat from their brown—and you real think about that, the animation in this film becomes all the more impressive…

As is largely usual, most film commentators were unanimous regarding the innovation and craftsmanship of the movie’s animation, as Studio Ghibli’s signature preference of traditional hand-drawn techniques in favor of cheaper, faster CGI methods are, perhaps, unique to most animation studios. However, this tale of an exiled prince in 14th century Japan, whose serendipitous introduction to a feral princess amid a fantastical war of the forest spirits against the warlike villagers of nearby Irontown, led by the morally ambiguous Lady Eboshi, presented the filmmakers with little option but to incorporate a certain level of violence and environmentally-conscious in order to properly tell the tale. To some commentators and filmmakers, this challenge proved visibly tricky. YouTuber Steve Reviews stated:

I’m not going to lie—when I first saw this plot unfold, I did begin to roll my eyes, thinking it would be the classic message of ‘human bad, nature good,’ [which] you know, we’ve seen a hundred times. But to my surprise, it actually goes a lot deeper than that and gives you the perspective of both parties of why they’re doing what they’re doing.

However, YouTubers such as those at All That Film, saw a good balance between the themes of the film and decidedly more-adult approach to its presentation, adding:

Miyazaki has shown this balance of being able to find both [good and evil] in all types of life … Lady Eboshi wasn’t a ‘bad’ character—she just went about accomplishing her goals in the wrong way. Lady Eboshi saves young women from brothels and gives them rewarding work. Although she gets too caught up in trying to kill the forest spirit, she eventually turns the corner, realizing her mistakes.

YouTuber Chris Stuckmann also saw Miyazaki’s delicate balance of violence and socially conscious pro-environment, anti-war messages handled in a good way narrative way. In his own reassessment of Princess Mononoke, Stuckmann added:

What’s even more impressive about this movie is that Miyazaki rarely ever helms action sequences. Most of his films are very children-friendly; this film has a lot of gore and a lot of action scenes. And what I took away from it … is how masterful the editing is. Miyazaki’s timing is so on-point with the editing in this film to maximize visual awe at what we’re looking at—and that’s something he captures wonderfully in this movie.

Continuing on that theme, Stuckmann went so far as to observe that the adult-oriented film was perfectly mature not only in its level of aesthetic elements, but also in the profound philosophical principles behind the filmmaking. He also noted:

Despite the fact that we’re watching a slightly more-mature film than Miyazaki usually helms, there’s still something childlike and beautiful about his vision for this world. Whenever our main character sees the spirit of the forest—this large deer-like creature—you almost get the sense that Miyazaki is showing you a vision of Heaven, and that level of wonderment is maintained throughout this entire film.

At All That Film, the YouTubers agreed on that observation, noting director Miyazaki’s use the modern filmmaking techniques in truly crafting an animated fable not only for all ages, but of a timeless, ageless style. All That Film added:

Princess Mononoke is able to show that same [narrative] power with Ashitaka, who is trying to overcome immense problems with the world, and he just wants to help himself out at the very start of this film, and get rid of this evil that plagues him. And it’s this weight of the story that carries with Ashitaka that I think makes the end feel that much greater. Without this internal conflict and defeats these characters go through, their wins wouldn’t feel as meaningful.

In commenting solely on the moral themes of Princess Mononoke, most YouTubers were divided on the literal representations of the “good-versus-evil” principle, but all agreed that that was, indeed, a prime subject that permeated every element of Miyazaki’s ambitious screenplay. Chris Stuckmann noted:

The main message that I think Miyazaki is trying to get across in this movie is that man is at war with nature and that nature isn’t doing anything about it—yet. But, if nature did and nature fought back, we’d be completely screwed.

YouTuber Steve Reviews agreed on Stuckmann’s observation, but added that the moral ambiguity was meant to make the simple good and evil representations a lesson, of sort, forcing the viewer to look inside themselves to question the origins of both sides in the timeless, moral conflict; in essese, the origin of hatred itself. He stated:

I think the main message this film is going for isn’t ‘humans versus nature,’ but more so trying to fight off anger and hatred and how, if this is consumed, will lead to nothing but senseless destruction and death—just like how throughout this film, Ashitaka is trying to fight against the literal hatred of his curse.

Steve Reviews added that, for a greatly ambitious narrative undertaking, with Princess Mononoke, director Miyazaki was mostly on the mark—with a few, subtle story “misses.” He added:

Now having said all that, I don’t think the story is perfect. There were a couple of negatives I had with it … I didn’t really feel like the curse on Ashitaka’s arm was ever fully realized. Aside from giving him advanced strength, it didn’t really affect the plot all that much. Considering that the film’s message was that you shouldn’t let hatred consume you, I thought him wrestling with his inner demons would have played a much larger role.

YouTuber Movies with Mikey at FilmJoy summed up that sentiment, noting in their own detailed break-down of the film’s common themes:

No villains, only viewpoints … In [Miyazaki’s] mind, evil is a byproduct of many flawed actions and ideals, and even though that evil must be dealt with, the blame does not fall onto the victim … Evil is a concept that is not shunned in the film, but is given a root of existence that is not generally the fault of the being that it happened to.

In a final statement on the value and timelessness of Princess Mononoke, YouTuber Steve reviews found the movie to be nearly perfect in its execution, with his few criticisms far outweighed by Miyazaki’s successful elements. He concluded:

Overall, despite my nit-picks, this is still a fantastic film. It offers a more-mature viewing experience than you’re used to with your typical Studio Ghibli movie, and honestly, I’m actually kind of surprised that it got a PG rating, because there is some pretty graphic imagery in this film … The plot offers depth, the animation is spectacular, and the soundtrack is pure charm.

Chris Stuckmann agreed with that overall positive assessment, going a step further into claiming that with Princess Mononoke, director Miyazaki—and truly Studio Ghibli itself—had transcended the age demographic, crafting a film that will age best with audiences, as when a viewer re-watches the film later in life, there is even more to behold in terms of the movie’s animated beauty and thought-provoking themes. The YouTuber concluded:

This is a brilliant, fantastic animation film. It truly is a remarkable thing to look at. It’s hard sometimes to separate just how visually beautiful this movie is with trying to focus on the story.