Released in 1997, Princess Mononoke is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s foremost directorial works. It is a historical fantasy which covers many of the recurring themes of Miyazaki’s other projects like pacifism and environmentalism. It also fits into that category of Ghibli films that are surprisingly adult. It is rated PG, but as you can see from the image above it does depict a surprising amount of blood. It should also be pointed out that “Mononoke” is not the name of a character, but a general term for any spirit or monster. The title character is a princess of spirits.
Set in medieval Japan (the “Muromachi Period”, 14th-16th century), the story begins when a village is attacked by a demon, formerly a “Boar god”. A prince, Ashitaka, slays the beast, but receives a life-threatening injury in the process. Thus Ashitaka leaves his village and travels west to find a cure. During the trip he is forced to defend himself in fight. During the struggle he discovers that his injured limb becomes stronger in battle, with his arrow severing people’s arms and heads. Ashitaka learns that he might be able to get help from the “Deer god”.
Meanwhile, the people of a nearby settlement called Irontown are battling the local wildlife, especially wolves, as the people continue to mine the local area for iron which they are using to turn into firearms. Some people are injured in a wolf attack, but a “Wolf god” is shot in the battle. Later, Ashitaka finds some injured victims and helps them. While doing so, Ashitaka meets the wolves, and a young girl who was raised by them called San. San tells them all to leave the forest. Ashitaka takes the injured victims to Irontown, but while there he discovers that the ruler of the town, a woman called Eboshi, was responsible for turning the Boar god into a demon by shooting it, and later plans to kill the Deer god, sending the head of it to the Emperor of Japan. Ashitaka therefore plans to stop Eboshi, and also show to San that humans can be good too.
Arguably the most notable feature of Princess Mononoke is the violent nature of the film. As stated, this may be a children’s film, but there are not that many movies aimed at kids that feature people being decapitated, their arms being cut off by arrows, and a tonne of blood. In one scene San is seen cleaning the Wolf god’s wound by sucking the blood out it. Various wounded gods are seen bleeding profusely. It is hard to think of another film aimed at children that is so violent. There is Pom Poko (No. 41), also in the Ghibli canon. It too is connected to environmentalism and features violence, but is not as bloody (although it does feature people being crushed to death by giant raccoon-dog testicles).
Comparing Princess Mononoke to other movies, I would argue that it is closer to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (No. 38), one of Miyazaki’s earlier films. It does feature a lot of the same ideas. The only main difference being that Mononoke is set in the past and Nausicaä in the future, albeit a post-apocalyptic one.
There is an interesting British connection relating to Princess Mononoke as well. Namely that the translation of the dubbed English-language version of the film was by Neil Gaiman. He made some changes to make the film easier to understand for western audiences, such as removing some of the more obscure terms used to describe Japanese mythological creatures. These changes do not spoil the end translation too badly, although some would claim that the original Japanese subtitled version will always be superior.
If you do not mind the amount of blood, Princess Mononoke makes for an exciting watch.
Princess Mononoke is released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Studio Canal.