(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. For the month of May, we’re taking a deep dive into the lively, humanist wonders of one of animation’s greatest voices, Hayao Miyazaki. Keep up with the rest of May’s Filmmaker of the Month coverage here.)
If you’re familiar only with My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, or even Spirited Away, then Princess Mononoke is going to be a shock to the system. It still has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki: the lush scenery, the magic and mysticism and mythology, a host of fantastical creatures. But the first time you see a man’s head sliced clean off by an arrow, it’s clear this is going to be something a little bit different.
At its core? This is an action film as gripping and enthralling as any blockbuster. There are battle sequences rife with tension, violence that could be considered graphic for its target audience, chase scenes, and beasts far more fearsome than a fluffy catbus.
More specifically, Princess Mononoke is about the relationship between man and nature and how to achieve balance between the pull of industrialization and the need to protect the world around us. We follow young Prince Ashitaka’s journey to cure a curse laid upon him by a demon hell bent on destroying his village. The demon is later revealed to be Nago, the boar god, but an iron ball lodged inside him corrupted him and drove him mad with hate. Ashitaka must leave his home for good in the hopes of curing the curse and understanding what malevolent forces are at work.
If you were trying to boil the film down, to extract the core lesson it wants you to learn, you might come up with some version of industry = bad, environment = good, but that’s not really Miyazaki’s style. His career is built on understanding the myriad complications of being a person in this world, a world with too many layers for a word like “evil” to suffice, and Princess Mononoke reflects that.
Lady Eboshi and the settlement of Irontown are perfect illustrations of this. When Ashitaka finds her and realizes the iron ball that corrupted Nago was from one of Irontown’s guns—guns Lady Eboshi is having them make—the film could cast her squarely as a villain. But it doesn’t.