Princess Mononoke (1997)
I have thought about it for the last few days, and I can confidently say that director Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature Princess Mononoke is one of the craziest damn things I have ever seen.
As it turns out, Princess Mononoke is a much more spiritual, philosophical and randomly horrific experience than I ever anticipated from its nondescript title. In the animated action fantasy, young Ashitaka is banished from his village after his is contaminated by a rampaging boar-god covered in a demonic rot. On his journey Ashitaka soon encounters Lady Eboshi, the leader of a mining colony hell-bent on killing the animal gods of the sacred forest. Lady Eboshi’s incursions into the forest are opposed by two white wolf-gods and the human girl they raised as their own daughter, San. From there the hero-quest gets increasingly more hallucinatory, as the secrets of the forest reveal a race of unnervingly featureless tree sprites and the multi-antlered forest spirit which transforms into the unfathomable Night Walker after sunset.
Although he is known as Japan’s master of magical fantasy, when it comes to animation technique Hayao Miyazaki is respectably old school. It took over 144,000 hand-painted transparent cels to create the two-hour plus storyline of Princess Mononoke. With this and subsequent features like Spirited Away (2001), Ponyo (2008) and The Wind Rises (2013) Miyazaki continues to show admirable restraint in the use of digital special effects and computer generated images.
At the time of it’s premiere, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was the most expensive anime movie ever made with a budget in excess of two billion yen, or 23.5 million in US dollars. During its run in theatres, Princess Mononoke broke Japanese box office records and became that country’s highest-grossing film of all time. But Princess Mononoke didn’t hold the title for very long, as James Cameron’s Titanic was released later that same year.
In North America, Princess Mononoke was distributed through Miramax after undergoing an English language adaptation by New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman. Miramax’s English language version features performances by Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson and Keith David. Film Critic Roger Ebert considered Princess Mononoke amongst the best films of 1999 and it was recently ranked 28th in The 100 Best Animated Movies published in New York’s Time Out Magazine.
Princess Mononoke contains some similar mythological elements to Miyazaki’s second feature Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1986); an peaceful population gets drawn into a larger conflict, a destructive ancient power on the verge of re-awakening and an emphasis on the overall grossness of bugs. Both title characters of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke are determined heroines fighting to restore balance between humanity and the environment.
The box office success of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind allowed Miyazaki and fellow animator Isao Takahata to team with producer Toshio Suzuki in the formation of Studio Ghibli. At Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki has directed some of Japan’s highest grossing features including My Neighbour Totoro (1988), Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Porco Rosso (1992) and Spirited Away (2001) which won several international awards including the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.