The Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season continues with the 1997 film that many hail as its finest achievement – and it’s easy to understand where that reputation comes from. This superb production, inspired by Japanese mythology, has an epic look and feel that almost seems to transcend the format for which it has been created; indeed, it doesn’t feel an overstatement to claim that some of the battle scenes pictured here rival those of the master director, Akira Kurosawa. Praise indeed.
Princess Mononoke is the story of young warrior, Ashitaka (voiced by Yoji Matsuka), who, when defending his village from an attack by a gigantic possessed wild boar (a truly astonishing creation), finds himself stricken by a dark curse which will eventually claim his life. Taking the advice of a wise woman in his village, he rides into the West in search of the God of the Forest, who, the woman assures him, is the only creature powerful enough to lift the affliction that has claimed him. He sets out, riding his faithful red elk Yakul. On route to his destination, he encounters San (Yuriko Ishida, the Princess of the title), a feral young woman who has been adopted by the pack of wolves she was originally sacrificed to and who now bears a deep enmity for all humans.
Ashitaka travels on and arrives at a huge iron works, presided over by the powerful Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka), a seemingly benign dictator who nonetheless uses muskets to enforce her rule over her rivals and the creatures that dwell in the surrounding forest, which she believes are constantly plotting to usurp her authority. She views the ancient Forest God as a potential threat and is prepared to go to ruthless lengths to ensure that she remains dominant – even if it means conquering this ancient creature with sheer force of weapons…
There’s a powerful environmental story here and also a comment on mankind’s insatiable lust for power. The film unleashes a series of powerful set pieces, each more jaw-dropping than the last and I love the fact that it effortlessly avoids the pat happy ending that would surely have ensued if this were a Disney project. I love the fact that Mononoke features strong, powerful women and that it is so reverent of Japan’s myths and legends. But mostly I am just awed by the incredible animation, the shimmering, transcendent beauty that seems to seep from every frame. Animation is always a labour of love and it’s rarely been more evident than it here here.
It’s interesting to note that every Ghibli films we’ve seen, so far, has been quite different from it’s predecessor – this one features scenes of violent conflict that are a million miles away from the charm and whimsy of something like My Neighbor Totoro – but, if I have to choose one film that stands above the rest, Princess Mononoke is certainly a strong contender for the title.
It’s absolutely stunning.