Hayao Miyazaki is a legend.
I don’t exaggerate this in the least– no other man has done more for anime’s credibility in the past few decades quite like him. The medium overall still gets a bad rep, but when Miyazaki makes something? You can bet that s**t becomes respectable. That’s exactly the kind of human touch he brings to every project he’s on, especially after the runaway success of 2001’s Spirited Away. Yet before he would make that one, he made Princess Mononoke, his darkest, most gripping adventure to date.
Miramax, its American distributor, assembled a big-name cast at the time for their English dub. I remember back when this first aired stateside; I was just a kid who knew he was in for some hardcore stuff, and lord, every moment blew my mind. Just recently, it had its 20th anniversary re-release in theatres and I knew I had to revisit it.
Set in medieval Japan, a young prince Ashitaki (Billy Crudup) is cursed by a mark when he stops a berserk boar god from attacking his village. Now banished, he sets out to trace the origins behind that strange attack and find a cure to this curse before it consumes him. Along the way, he reaches Irontown, a human settlement led by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) who wants nothing more than to kill the Great Forest Spirit so nothing can get in the way of her land mining. This angers the Forest Gods to no end and soon prompts them to fight back. At the forefront of this battle is San (Claire Danes), a fierce warrior who was raised by wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson) to hate humans. But that starts to change when she first runs into Ashitaki and, before they know it, the two have to learn and look past their differences if they want to stop the warring sides from leading each other to oblivion.
Now, this could’ve all been handled real black and white, but I got to give the film props for taking the higher road and choosing to show every side with their own moral shades of grey. Lady Eboshi looks out for her people, but she’s arrogant in her pursuit for more power. Ashitaki comes across a shady monk named Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) who jumps back and forth on whichever side suits him the most. Okkoto (Keith David) is a boar god so proud that he’s willing to risk everything just as long as it’s in a blaze of glory. Ultimately, once the dust settles, it’s as much a movie about learning to live with each other as it is protecting the environment. This was also the point where we kick-started the tradition of actually having a solid English cast for every new Miyazaki movie.
The production value on everything is still unmatched. Miyazaki and his team at Studio Ghibli always prided themselves on high standards; but he was on a roll back then, expanding his scope’s boundaries like never before. The fight scenes are all expertly choreographed; the violence is visceral and the shot dynamics never fail to impress. Composer and long-time collaborator Joe Hisaishi shines as well; the opening titles’ sweeping score makes it clear this will be a fantasy epic for the ages. It only stays consistent from there, closing things out on a yearning, hopeful note.
There’s so much going on here that the story sometimes fights just to keep up, which might be the only knock against it for some. But overall though, this is a spellbinding epic with great characters, visuals and pathos. Miyazaki has recently come out of retirement yet again to announce a new project in the works, and yet it’s Princess Mononoke that might always stand as my personal favorite. If you’ve been aching for an excuse to revisit this old classic, here it is. If you’ve still never seen it, like I said: be prepared to have your mind blown.
Princess Mononoke (1997) Written and Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki. Starring: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, John DiMaggio.
9 out of 10