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)
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.
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.
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.