It is a shame that some people look down on animated films as less than their live-action cousins. In the United States, they usually make the animation style of storytelling with children as the target audience and something hidden for the parents that will go over the children’s head. In contrast, Japan’s animation sets the bar with what they can accomplish regarding storytelling. Princess Mononoke is an example of an animated film that has universal themes with simple and profound messages moviegoers of all ages can enjoy that. The film would not work as well if they did it any other way. Animation gives Hayao Miyazaki the freedom to tell the story without the limitations of CGI and live actors.
For those unfamiliar with this 1997 film, Princess Mononoke is about Prince Ashitaka’s (Billy Crudup) journey to find a curse he caught from a demon boar that entered his village. They instruct Ashitaka to go to the West, where the boar came from “to see with eyes unclouded with hate” to hopefully find a way to lift the curse. We learn with Ashitaka that the demon is a nameless god of hate. He turned evil when he shot, the “lump of iron” killed it. With no personified villain, hatred is the villain and what motivates the characters and is in the background pushing the narrative forward.
After the demon touched Ashitaka on his arm, it marks his skin black. The arm causes him physical pain but also gives him strength. Once he is around hatred, his arm tries to control the rest of the body. There are several moments of the film that show the hatred growing and cause him to grow stronger. He rides passed another town; his arm shoots an arrow at men that are attacking the village. The way he fights the men attacking the village, they exclaim that he fights like a demon. In another scene, his arm bends a guard sword that threatens to not allow him to leave the town.
Hayao Miyazaki does an excellent job of rounding out the characters we spend time with throughout the film. All the characters have strong aspects of love in addition to their immense hatred. All the characters, except for Ashitaka, are blinded by their own interests. I also appreciate that he leaves Ashitaka as neutral, caring for San (Claire Danes) and also caring for Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and Iron Town residents. He has no personal connection to the forest or the town and can see why both sides are valid ones. Ashitaka also rejects fighting for any side of the conflict because fighting will only cause more hatred.
Jingo (Billy Bob Thornton) isn’t good or evil, he is just driven by his potential reward from the Emperor. Along the way, he uses hunters, his own men. He manipulates Lady Eboshi on his quest for the Forest Spirit’s head. Lady Eboshi is a caring person. She paid a lot of money to purchase the ladies who work for her from brothels. She is also empathetic, letting the lepers live in her town and make guns for her. With that loving nature is also a ruthless ruler, killing gods and destroying nature to collect iron for her factory.
Moro (Gillian Anderson) raised San as a member of the wolf tribe. As a member of the wolf tribe, she is sympathetic to the side of nature rather than industrialization. She is brave, independent, courageous, and protective. San is also stubborn, short-tempered, and misanthropic. She has dedicated her life to keeping the humans out of the forest.
San’s adopted mother, Moro, is an intelligent, strong, and caring mother. She would do anything to protect San, her forest home, and the forest spirit. Her deep hatred for humans, yet despite that hatred, genuinely cares for San and treats her as her own. Her monologue to Ashitaka speaks volumes to her love and hate, “The trees cry out as they die, but you cannot hear them. I lie here. I listen to the pain of the forest and feel the ache of the bullet in my chest, and I dream of the day I will finally crunch that gun woman’s head in my jaws.”
There is hatred, and everyone’s fault is that they do not wish to learn to live peacefully around each other. San tries to kill Lady Eboshi; in return, Lady Eboshi and her Iron town warriors are trying to kill San. Lady Eboshi kills gods and animals that get in her way. The animals of the forest try to kill to stop her. The Samari try to take over Iron town by killing the residents. Lady Eboshi explains the fighting strategy against the boar tribe. The animals are stupid when they are mad, so they deliberately make the animals livid as part of their plan to win the battle.
The ending is the most truthful ending they could have gone with. There is no happily ever after, no one wins. The forest spirit gets his headshot off by Lady Eboshi and falls on top of Iron town, destroying the town as it dies. Ashitaka has his curse lifted by the forest spirit as it dies. Regardless of the connection between Ashitaka and San, they do not end up together.
San cannot see herself ever forgiving the humans and wishes to stay in the forest. Ashitaka wants to live with San in the forest but sees that Iron town needs help rebuilding and promises that he will visit her in the forest. Hidden in the story is the lesson to have love conquer the evil capable in all of us. Also, we don’t always end up with whom we love. Despite these truths, we can learn to be content with our lives and do good and help others.