I was thinking about all of the Ghibli films yesterday, and while Spirited Away is my favorite for several reasons, Princess Mononoke has to be my other favorite.
In looking at Hayao Miyazaki’s work, his ability and interests range from grand-scale, mature, fantasy epics in which the theme of man versus nature is the centerpiece to wonderland through the eyes of a child in which the child learns to grow and mature and come into their own as a result of their journey. The latter is fully realized by Spirited Away, while the former attains perfection in Princess Mononoke; they’re two completely different but equally wonderful movies. Honestly, I really do consider these to be his best films— they’re my two favorites— and it’s hard to see how he could possibly outdo either of them, especially given the more lenient work schedule he’s allowed himself as he gets on in age.
With all that said, Princess Mononoke is the last of it’s kind for Ghibli— the last to use hand painted cells; it was also the most expensive animated film in Japanese history, and won best picture in 1998 for Japan’s Academy Awards (this was a very big deal, in the same way Beauty and the Beast’s nomination for best picture in the US in 1991 was a big deal; animated features were just never considered to be contenders in this category, so it really speaks to the greatness of both films to even be nominated, much less win, when the notion was unheard of at the time).
Princess Mononoke is also the spiritual successor to one of Miyazaki’s earliest works, Nausicaa. Whereas I could never get behind the first film on this list because of flaws in both the characterization of the protagonists and the villains as well as the way it approaches the conflict of man versus nature, Princess Mononoke not only fixes all of those elements but also improves upon them in a way that propels it to ‘masterpiece-status’.
Musically, again, Joe Hisashi is a powerhouse composer. Aesthetically, like Spirited Away, I think a lot of the appeal comes not only from Ghibli-quality animation, but because the integration of Japanese elements and mythology just allows for spectacular visuals and characters. The wolves, the pigs, the forest deity— all perf.
The other problem, the conflict of nature versus man. Instead of being an issue of extreme good v. evil, in which Man is bad just because they are and Nature is divinely just and good and victimized because Man is just so evil, Mononoke achieves the balance between the two. Man and Nature are two opposite but neutral entities which inhabit the same space, and as such, inevitably come into conflict. However, both are justified in their arguments against the other, so there is no ‘right’ answer. There isn’t an inherent victor or loser of the conflict; these are two forces of equal magnitude acting in opposite directions. Not only does this make Mononoke a less conventional story, but a more thought-provoking and mature film. This, more than any other Ghibli movie, breaks the stereotype in the West that animated films are meant exclusively for children; not just because it is violent, but the content is so elevated above good and evil, it’s not really suitable for children on any level.
This film just proves that Miyazaki is a master of his medium, can actually write a mature and subtle commentary on conservation and environmentalist themes, and possesses a profound understanding of everything that goes into good storytelling. All of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies are masterpieces, but this one is really is the crowning achievement.