Film Review: Princess Mononoke

Can anyone explain to me why Princess Mononoke is titled “Princess Mononoke”? She’s not the protagonist of its story, she’s not even a very memorable character, and most of the time she is referred to by her mother wolf’s nickname for her, “San”, not “Mononoke” and definitely not “Princess”. What, precisely, is the deal here?

OK, now that I have gotten that out of my system, maybe I can write a better critique.

Princess Mononoke was released in 1997. By the end of my high school years (1999, I don’t mind dating myself) it had made its way to the shelves of my local video store, right next to Akira and the Ghost in the Shell movie. It will therefore be ever marked in my mind as one of those anime features used by mainstream culture to desperately assert that mainstream culture is hip, relevant, and “in the know” about geekdom. “I like anime! I’ve watched Princess Mononoke!” No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. That would be like me trying to assert that I’m good with computers just because a long time ago an ex-boyfriend gave me a laptop with Linux on it and I used it for awhile. Except that analogy breaks down when you consider that Linux is a worthwhile operating system, whereas Princess Mononoke is not a worthwhile film.

Gasp! Did I just actually type that? But… but… it was put out by Studio Ghibli! And in 2004 a documentary was released called Princess Mononoke: Making of a Masterpiece, so it’s gotta be a masterpiece! Right?

Not a worthwhile film, my friends. Remember, Studio Ghibli connects back to Disney. When I want talking animals and heavy-handed morality, I can always watch Lion King or Pocahantas, and also have fun with some rousing musical numbers. I don’t need to pretend I’m earning geek cred. Princess Mononoke is paint-by-numbers. Allow me to explain in detail…

Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)

San and Eboshi go womano a womano.
San and Eboshi go womano a womano.

As I watched Princess Mononoke with adult eyes, it was clear to me that in creating its plot, the writers had cribbed from Joseph Campbell’s work on myths and had structured the film to follow the Hero’s Journey, complete with all twelve stages, almost completely by the book. The only element they fiddled with was the film’s denouement. The Hero’s Journey traditionally ends with a return to the “ordinary world” explored in the first stage, the one that the Hero is forced to leave. The Hero of Princess Mononoke is definitely Prince Ashitaka, and he never goes home to his village after completing his quest and receiving the deer god’s blessing to lift Nago’s curse, instead opting to live near to San’s forest with the humans who are already making plans to repopulate the decimated ironworks. The artistic choice to end the story this way troubled me, and I commented on it to my husband as we were watching it: “Why would he stick around there? The curse has been lifted, why doesn’t he go home?” My husband responded, “Presumably so he can see her,” referring to San/Princess Mononoke. And my response was that she was not worth it, he could find a partner back at his home village who would be much better for him.

The Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure that has stood the test of time. It has been used in many films that are honored treasures of Western cinema, such as The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. But the fact that Princess Mononoke‘s writers knew how to read and were capable of structuring their work around Campbell’s bullet points does not automatically make what they came up with a masterpiece. It is possible to have every single important element of visual design memorized, compose a still life so that all of those elements are employed in excellent proportions, and still come up with a crappy painting if you don’t have mastery of technique.

Another way of putting this is to point out that a poorly-written story about nuclear war can leave your audience cold, where a well-written story about failing a spelling test can leave them weeping.

Characters

It's sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn't talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don't talk.
It’s sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn’t talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don’t talk.

I did not care about the characters in Princess Mononoke.

Let me repeat for emphasis: I DID NOT CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM.

Don’t get me wrong, Prince Ashitaka was a decent guy. I liked how he did his best to solve problems with words instead of violence; it was cool that he tried to reason with a demon that looked like it was made of Thread from the Dragonriders of Pern books, and it was also cool that Ashitaka was deeply affected when his cursed right arm caused the deaths of enemy redshirts, instead of writing them off as acceptable casualties. But Ashitaka is almost too good of a person to be cared about. He comes across as a cardboard cutout. It’s the same reason that the heroine of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett, not Melanie; the same reason that the heroine of Little Women is Jo, not Beth. When the protagonist displays foibles and weakness, the audience cares about them more.

As for the other characters… San irritated me as the Noble Savage. I didn’t understand why Ashitaka fell for her; he claims she’s beautiful, but the brothel women at the ironworks looked more beautiful to me. Speaking of the brothel women, their idol worship of Eboshi, as well as that of the lepers, also irritated me. Eboshi was obviously capitalizing on their marginalized position in society to put them in her debt so that they would not dispute being put to ethically questionable ends. If Eboshi really wanted to help them, she could have fought to improve their standing in society in many different ways without exploiting them. It kind of reminds me of arguing that the Hoarders TV show is doing something good because it helps its subjects get treatment afterwards. If you really want to help hoarders, don’t put their condition on display as entertainment to the mainstream while you’re doing it.

Eboshi also irritated me as a one-dimensional villain. For about two seconds during the denouement it seemed she might have learned something from how her story played out, but literally the next sentence to come out of her mouth crushed that hope. And Jigo, the Emperor’s emissary, doesn’t even display those two seconds of potential. The talking wolves, apes, and boars were all right as characters, I suppose, except for the fact that I couldn’t get over the fact that they were talking in the same language as the humans they claimed to hate. I wanted them to either stay silent or communicate in a spirit language that would have sounded dramatically different from Japanese. And that didn’t happen. So really the only characters that didn’t irritate me were Ashitaka, whom I still didn’t care about for reasons elucidated in the last paragraph, and the animal characters that did not talk (Yakul the faithful red elk, and the slightly creepy kodama that twist their heads on their necks to make clicking sounds). Hardly the makings of a masterpiece.

Themes

Don't mess with the deer god.
Don’t mess with the deer god.

The central theme of Princess Mononoke is a question that is posed by Ashitaka more than once, in conversation with different characters: Is there a way for humans to live in harmony with nature? Ashitaka never gets a straight answer when he asks this question. Either the scene cuts away immediately after he asks it, or his conversation partner moves on to another conversation point as if he never asked it. Since the script writers chose not to give an explicit answer to the question in dialogue, the audience is left to search for implicit answers in the narrative and artistic choices. The overwhelming answer provided by these implicit means is No. There is only one character in the entire story who tries to create harmony between the humans and the forest spirits that personify nature: Ashitaka himself, and the village elders who send him on his quest at the start of the film acknowledge that he is the last hope of their dying people. The forest spirits and humans in conflict that Ashitaka encounters on his quest and attempts to mediate between end the film just as locked in that struggle as they were when Ashitaka found them. San, the character that the audience instinctively turns to in order to complete Ashitaka’s attempts to form a bridge, wants no part in the role of peacemaker. The human who represents the Big Picture interacting with the film’s events, Jigo, is not touched by those events in any way, and gives every indication of being ready to perpetuate the war against nature in other forums. No harmony to be found.

What a depressing theme! I’m reminded of the small boy in The Princess Bride who asks his grandfather, when given reason to believe that the villain of the book is going to win, “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this for?” The best way to have avoided this phenomenon would have been to structure the story so that San returned to Ashitaka’s original village with him, replete with knowledge on how to revitalize the village so that its people could continue to pass on the reasoned and balanced approach that Ashitaka learned there. To do this there might have needed to be a flash forward to a later stage of the denouement, because San would probably not have been willing to leave her forest initially, but I think eventually she could have come around. Giving the viewer a little hope goes a long way.

In conclusion, I don’t think Princess Mononoke deserves classic status and I wonder if the main reason it has gotten the attention that it has, was having a good publicity campaign and plenty of hype when it was released. Enough hype to get it into the collections of every mainstream movie rental company that needed to have something to fling in the direction of anime-hungry geeks, to keep them at bay. You want good anime? Check out some of the series that are out there, like Speed Grapher, Basilisk or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.

5 thoughts on “Film Review: Princess Mononoke

  1. Mononoke-Hime is an interesting film. I really like it…but I’m about to qualify it by making one of the strangest comparisons to come out of my already-strange mouth.

    I like it for similar reasons to the open and undying love I have for Zoolander.

    That’s right, I love Zoolander and I’m not afraid to admit it. I didn’t love it the first time. The FIRST time, the only reason I stayed through the whole thing was that there were door prizes given out at the end (the college I was attending at the time was having a community night. I DID walk out of the first Scary Movie afterwards, because I was tired and it didn’t succeed at landing shotgun-humor blasts on my funnybone. Later, I came to tolerate it, as I had seen more of the movies it was parodying). The strange thing was, as time wore on, I started remembering random moments from the movie at the most inopportune times (“Yoogooglies!” “Mer-MAN, dad! Mer-MAN!” “What is this, a school for ANTS?””) and had to watch it again…and again, and again, and again, as context started filling in for me and I actually understood the characters as more than the celery for the movie’s peanut-butter.

    With Mononoke-Hime (and I’m not just referring to it in Japanese to prove nerd cred, I have a point which I’ll make soon, I swear), the journey was similar. Not quite the destination, unlike Castle of Cagliostro, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, even Ponyo and Totoro, I don’t have the urge to re-watch it frequently (though I do sometimes). I didn’t enjoy it the first time, because to me, all the references and the metaphors were completely lost. I was unfamiliar with non-pop-culture-samurai Japanese culture, and this movie relies and thrives on that familiarity. While Spirited Away may be Studio Ghibli’s most spiritual film, and Howl’s Moving Castle may be its most emotionally rewarding film, and My Neighbor Totoro may be its most uplifting film (and Castle of Cagliostro is a mad romp that I love with all my heart), Mononoke-Hime is the studio’s most CULTURAL film, and suffers because of it, especially due to the advertising (It’s anime! Like a fantasy Star Wars! With a female protagonist! And talking animals!).

    See, “Mononoke” is often used interchangeably with other Japanese words for “Monster” or “Spirit”, like “Youkai”, “Mamono”, and “Ayakashi”, but specifically, it refers to vengeful spirits of a variety of types (more subdivisions than I’m going to go into here), as well as the “henge”, or humans possessed and/or changed by spiritual interference. The suffix “-hime” means Princess, yes, and it can be translated as “Princess Monster” or “Princess Ghost”, but it can also be translated as “Princess OF THE Monsters”, “Princess OF THE Ghosts”. Or, perhaps, “Princess of the Changed” – the one who names her, raises her, cares honestly for her is a wolf, a species extinct (and almost mythical) in Japan since 1905, one of the two species being extinct since 1889…itself a cultural reference.

    Lady Eboshi? Her act is to be one-dimensional. Her name is that of a traditional hat, first worn to indicate that a man had passed his coming-of-age trials, then morphing into a traditional Shinto priestly vestment…and then being further corrupted into the traditional headwear of a sumo judge, calling back to the images of priestly respectability and accountability to add gravity to two heavily-muscled mostly-naked men grunting and slapping at each other in a ring of rice. She DOESN’T care about the women, but pretending to care gives her that image of respectability, much like an ornate priestly hat worn by the judge of a sumo match.

    In fact, most if not all the names, places, spirits, and events in the movie have a deeper meaning, some revealed by Miyazaki, some by possible inference (it’s entirely possible that we might be reading too much into it, but Japan’s culture is one of strong intertextuality, even more so than modern American “art cinema”, rivalled mainly by people like the redoubtable Ingmar Bergman – Bergman arguably wins the “Quality” side of the match, but The Arts Of Japan win the “Quantity” side). This is not a movie “for” American audiences. This is a movie “for” Japan, “about” Japan. The struggle between the rapid modernization of the nation, not just post-WWII but ever since Commodore Perry “opened” Japan to the west and the long-standing traditions dating back easily 10 times America’s 250+ year history that have found themselves clashing in the face of modern culture, sometimes mutating, sometimes perishing, this is a strong struggle. If I could wax poetic, it could be argued that Mononoke-Hime is a movie for the soul of Japan, from the perspective of the “native outsider”, the people who don’t belong, watching as past and future collide and there’s no telling what will survive, what will crumble, and what will mutate into new and unrecognizable forms.

    And I didn’t realize this until 4 years later, in 2001, when I was actually studying comparative religions as part of a personal quest for lost faith, and we started covering Shinto and Pure-Land Buddhism, and everything just clicked. I actually ran out of the class. I remember very clearly the next day, being excused by the teacher because I explained to him “I had to watch Princess Mononoke, I had to KNOW” (and we went out for sushi and philosophy afterwards, and it was enlightening).

    And then, like Schindler’s List, like The Seventh Seal, like The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly, like so many films where I suddenly GOT IT, where I was overcome…I was moved, I came to rest changed, and I felt no need to revisit it. That sudden “knowing” never really came back. I am not Japanese. I’m not the model of “My American Generation”, but despite some small time abroad, I am American through and through (and somewhat Swedish, and somewhat Greek) and I do not understand the film on a fundamental level, I don’t grok it, I comprehend intellectually but it is basically not FOR me.

    And unlike the films mentioned above, some of which I own, some of which I no longer own, and unlike other anime I’ve watched over time, and unlike even other Ghibli films, I sold Mononoke-Hime after one viewing, with no regrets. I’ve never asked myself “wouldn’t it be nice if I could see it…”, I’ve never had the urge to revisit. I won’t turn it down if someone is watching, it’s not BAD, I understand it…

    but it’s not FOR me. And it may never be, even though the American landscape is starting to churn faster and faster, and I start to feel like the clicking of my old Sony Walkman echoes the click-click-click as a Kodama turns its head curiously.

    1. Sorry, writing this in the throes of a fever caused me to skip a few beats.

      “Japan’s culture is one of strong intertextuality” out to be “Japan’s /artistic and literary/ culture..” and not just a summary judgement. It’s true that it pervades more than just the art and literature, but I was referring to a specific subculture here.

      Correction made, I’m going to try sleeping now.

    2. I lied, I got bitten by a thought right after I posted that. It will be my last lie of the early morning. I’m not claiming this as word-of-gospel, I don’t know if it’s backed up by the creator of by serious professional criticism, but it’s arguable that Mononoke-Hime is a movie that purposefully /apes/ the Hero’s Journey, that deliberately gets it mostly right, to echo the motions of a society being thrust rapidly into a future not of their design, a supposedly sovereign nation being ruled by the demands of a conqueror half a century after that conqueror ceased technically occupying the nation, a nation which unlike Hong Kong did not grow into a new, boisterous identity (which persisted even after it was almost entirely peacefully transitioned back into its parent country) but one which painfully tried to serve two masters, tried to grow into a new world while crippled and hamstrung culturally, clinging to the strictures of the new constitution as much out of misplaced ideals of loyalty and honor as out of fear of atomic fire. Japan is a magical, terrible, heartbreaking place, a flood of contradictions, growing pains, and displacement, where the uncanny valley is a very real thing.

      The hero fails to return to the normal world because he does not understand that he is supposed to do so. The Imperial Servant does not engage to change the status quo because he does not realize it can be changed. The spirits do not speak because the spirits have never spoken. The princess has nothing relatable to her because she does not know it exists. The villainess plays at one and a half dimensions because that is the role she knows, if she steps out of it, she has no place in the world.

      The movie is uncertain and unfinished, because so is the culture it (celebrates? mourns? explains? I don’t know here). It represents a culture that uplifts oppression (Japan venerates the military drama, in books, animation, and other media despite the fact that they proudly crow they have no military, see, they are forbidden, the self-defense force may never be deployed except against invasion or, potentially, Kaiju attack), that recognizes the problems facing it but merely accepts the “order of things” (while reports exaggerate, suicide across all age groups, depression, and other, stranger expressions of mental anguish are epidemic across the country, and several /generations/ later, actions are starting to take shape to curb “the way things are”), that has lost sight of its own Hero’s Journey…a concept strange to the young, eager, energetic America, so enamored of the concept, so enthralled with manifest destiny in its modern form. WE know how things are supposed to turn out, the culture says. This movie is stupid. It makes no sense.

      Of course it doesn’t, for us. But do we make sense to it?

      1. Steve, you are top of the pops. Just when I think I have something figured out, you remind me there are other ways of seeing. I’m not going to change the review I posted yesterday, for two reasons: 1) without providing the thesis, your antithesis just looks like a rant, and the need for synthesis is not evident; 2) Even with the context you have provided, my gut reactions remain the same, and these reviews are not supposed to be the be-all and end-all of film criticism (I’m certainly not qualified to present that), they’re just supposed to be a record of my experiences of the art form. While I know I am of the tribe usually referred to as “American” (though as I’m sure you realize, “America” is TWO CONTINENTS, not one country), I identify much more strongly with the tribe of the artist and the dreamer. I feel qualified to have my own reactions as an artist and a dreamer to material that may not have been intended for my eyes. In other words: while you assert that this film is not for U.S. audiences, clearly it was released internationally, because it’s here, and it’s been here for decades, so I get to view it, and I get to react to it, and I get to talk about those reactions on my blog (and you get to tweak my nose). Once art is set loose on the world, the artist doesn’t really get to dictate who sees it, or in what frame of mind they see it in, and definitely not how they react to it. This is one of the reasons why I have never been attracted to the idea of working in pornography (even in the days when I would have been considered more attractive to the typical U.S. male). I couldn’t stand the idea of making images of those parts of my body available for the sexual consumption of people for whom I had no way to judge character. So I am not going to change the review, but I’m very glad that you posted your response, because now it is available for other readers of this blog who, like me, don’t always think about context.

      2. Oh, the best part is that while I disagree with you on one front, I still agree with you on another! I believe that it IS a worthwhile film…but I’d also give it about 2-3 stars out of 5, because I didn’t /enjoy/ it! Do I contradict myself? Very well, etc etc etc.

        And I think my reflexive choice of identifiers reinforces my point that I am indeed thorougly “Murican” – you’re right, The Americas contain far more than one country, and even the United States has a huge swath of distinct cultures!

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