Princess Mononoke is a period drama set in the late Muromachi period (approximately 1337 to 1573) of Japan, but with fantasy elements. The story follows the young Emishi warrior Ashitaka's involvement in the struggle between the supernatural guardians of a forest and the humans who consume its resources. The term "Mononoke" (物の怪 or もののけ?) is not a name, but a general term in the Japanese language for a spirit or monster; a closer rendering of the title into English would be "The Mononoke Princess" or "The Spirit Princess".
Princess Mononoke was first released in Japan on July 12, 1997, and in the United States on October 29, 1999. It was the first Studio Ghibli film to be a major hit outside of Japan and began Ghibli's worldwide attention.
In Muromachi period Japan, an Emishi village is attacked by a demon (祟り神 tatari-gami?). The last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, kills the demon before it reaches the village, but not before its corruption curses his right arm. The curse gives him superhuman fighting ability, but will eventually kill him. The demon is revealed to be a boar god, Nago, corrupted by an iron ball lodged in his body. The village's wise woman (Oracle in the original dub) tells Ashitaka that he may find a cure in the western lands Nago came from under exile.
Heading west, Ashitaka meets Jigo (Jiko-bō in the original dub), a wandering monk, who tells Ashitaka that he might find help from the Great Forest Spirit (Deer God (シシ神 Shishi-gami?)), a Kirin-like creature by day and a giant Nightwalker by night. Nearby, a convoy returning to Irontown (たたら場 Tataraba?), led by Lady Eboshi, is attacked by a wolf clan led by the wolf-goddess Moro. Riding one of the wolves is San, a human girl. Later, Ashitaka discovers two injured Irontown men, and sees San and the wolf clan; he greets them, but they ignore him and leave. He carries the injured through the forest, where he encounters many kodama (木魂?), and glimpses the Forest Spirit.
In Irontown, Ashitaka learns Eboshi has built the town by clear-cutting forests to reclaim ironsand and produce iron, leading to conflict with the forest gods. The town is a refuge for social outcasts, including former brothel workers and lepers, whom Eboshi employs to manufacture firearms to defend against the gods. Ashitaka also learns Eboshi is responsible for turning Nago into the demon. Eboshi explains that San, whom she calls Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫 Mononoke-hime?), was raised by the wolves as one of their own, and has a deep hatred for humankind.
Soon after, San infiltrates Irontown to kill Eboshi, but Ashitaka intervenes, knocking them both unconscious. As he leaves the town carrying San, he is shot by a villager, and falls unconscious while heading for the forest. San awakens and is about to kill the dying Ashitaka, but hesitates when he tells her that she is beautiful. She takes him to the forest, and decides to trust him after the mighty Forest Spirit saves his life. San soon begins to develop romantic feelings for Ashitaka.
Meanwhile, a large clan of boars, led by the blind boar-god Okkoto (Okkotonushi) attack Irontown to save the forest. Eboshi prepares for battle and sets out to kill the Forest Spirit. Jigo, revealed to be a mercenary, intends to give the god's head to the Emperor of Japan in return for protection from local daimyo lords. According to legend, the severed head of the Forest Spirit can grant immortality and longevity.
In the battle, Okkoto is corrupted by multiple gunshot wounds. Disguising themselves in boars' skins, Jigo's men trick the rampaging Okkoto into leading them to the Forest Spirit. San desperately tries to stop him, but is swept up in the corruption consuming his body. Ashitaka attempts to save her, but is also swallowed up into the corruption, until Moro attacks the fully corrupted Okkoto, and appeals to Ashitaka to use his love for San to save her, which he does. However, Ashitaka's infection is accelerated and San is also infected. Eboshi beheads the Forest Spirit during its transformation into the Night-walker; corruption pours from its body, killing any living being it touches as it searches for its head, which Jigo has taken with him. The forest begins to decay while kodama fall from the trees and dissolve on the ground. Moro, dying from injuries sustained in the battle, uses the last of her strength to bite off Eboshi's right arm. After bandaging Eboshi and convincing San to help him get the Forest Spirit's head back, Ashitaka and San follow Jigo to near Irontown, where they manage to return the god's head. Restored, the Forest Spirit falls into the lake, healing the land, and cures Ashitaka and San of the curse.
Although she tells Ashitaka how much he means to her, San still can't forgive humans for their actions and decides to remain in the forest. Ashitaka chooses to help rebuild Irontown, but tells San he will occasionally visit her in the forest. In gratitude to Ashitaka's efforts to save the people of Irontown, Eboshi vows to rebuild a better town and Jigo decides to give up as he "can't win against fools." Meanwhile, as the forest begins to grow back, a single kodama can be seen walking out of the brush and rattles its head.
|Characters||Original Cast||English Dub Cast|
|Ashitaka||Yōji Matsuda||Billy Crudup|
|San||Yuriko Ishida||Claire Danes|
|Lady Eboshi||Yūko Tanaka||Minnie Driver|
|Jiko-bō||Kaoru Kobayashi||Billy Bob Thornton|
|Kohroku||Masahiko Nishimura||John DeMita|
|Moro||Akihiro Miwa||Gillian Anderson|
|Hii-sama||Mitsuko Mori||Debi Derryberry|
|Okkoto-nushi||Hisaya Morishige||Keith David|
In the late 1970s, Miyazaki drew sketches of a film about a princess living in the woods with a beast. Miyazaki began writing the film's plotline and drew the initial storyboards for the film in August 1994. He had difficulties adapting his early ideas and visualisations, because elements had already been used in My Neighbor Totoro and because of societal changes since the creation of the original sketches and image boards. This writer's block prompted him to accept a request for the creation of the On Your Mark promotional music video for the Chage and Aska song of the same title. According to Toshio Suzuki, the diversion allowed Miyazaki to return for a fresh start on the creation of Princess Mononoke. In April 1995, supervising animator Masashi Ando devised the character designs from Miyazaki's storyboard. In May 1995, Miyazaki drew the initial storyboards. That same month, Miyazaki and Ando went to the ancient forests of Yakushima, of Kyushu, an inspiration for the landscape of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and the mountains of Shirakami-Sanchi in northern Honshu for location scouting along with a group of art directors, background artists and digital animators for three days. Animation production commenced in July 1995. Miyazaki personally oversaw each of the 144,000 cels in the film, and is estimated to have redrawn parts of 80,000 of them. The final storyboards of the film's ending were finished only months before the Japanese premiere date.
Inspired by John Ford, an Irish-American director best known for his Westerns, Miyazaki created Iron Town as a "tight-knit frontier town" and populated it with "characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films." He made the characters "yearning, ambitious and tough." Miyazaki did not want to create an accurate history of Medieval Japan, and wanted to "portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization." The landscapes appearing in the film were inspired by Yakushima. Despite being set during the Muromachi period, the actual time period of Princess Mononoke depicts a "symbolic neverwhen clash of three proto-Japanese races (the Jomon, Yamato and Emishi)."
Princess Mononoke was produced with an estimated budget of ¥2.35 billion (approximately US$23.5 million). It was mostly hand-drawn, but incorporates some use of computer animation during five minutes of footage throughout the film. The computer animated parts are designed to blend in and support the traditional cel animation, and are mainly used in images consisting of a mixture of computer generated graphics and traditional drawing. A further 10 minutes uses digital paint, a technique used in all subsequent Studio Ghibli films. Most of the film is colored with traditional paint, based on the color schemes designed by Miyazaki and Michiyo Yasuda. However, producers agreed on the installation of computers to successfully complete the film prior to the Japanese premiere date.
Two titles were originally considered for the film. One, ultimately chosen, has been translated into English as Princess Mononoke. The other title can be translated into English as either The Story of Ashitaka or The Legend of Ashitaka. In a Tokyo Broadcasting System program, televised on November 26, 2013, Toshio Suzuki mentioned that Hayao Miyazaki had preferred The Legend of Ashitaka as the title while Suzuki himself favoured Princess Mononoke. Suzuki also mentioned that Miyazaki had created a new kanji to write his preferred title.
A central theme of Princess Mononoke is the environment. The film centers on the adventure of Ashitaka as he journeys to the west to undo a mortal curse inflicted upon him by Naga, a boar turned into a demon by Eboshi. Michelle J. Smith and Elizabeth Parsons said that the film "makes heroes of outsiders in all identity politics categories and blurs the stereotypes that usually define such characters". In the case of the Deer God's destruction of the forest and Tataraba, Smith and Parsons said that the "supernatural forces of destruction are unleashed by humans greedily consuming natural resources". They also characterized Eboshi as a business-woman who has a desire to make money at the expense of the forest, and also cite Eboshi's intention to destroy the forest to mine the mountain "embodies environmentalist evil".
Two other themes found in the plot of Princess Mononoke are sexuality and disability. Michelle Jarman, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Wyoming, and Eunjung Kim, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the disabled and gendered sexual bodies were partially used as a transition from the feudal era to a hegemony that "embraces modern social systems, such as industralization, gendered division of labor, institutionalization of people with diseases, and militarization of men and women." They likened Lady Eboshi to a monarch. Kim and Jarman suggested that Eboshi's disregard of ancient laws and curses towards prostitutes and lepers was an enlightenment reasoning and her exploit of using disability furthered her modernist viewpoints.
Dan Jolin of Empire said that a potential theme could be that of lost innocence. Miyazaki attributes this to his experience of making his previous film, Porco Rosso, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which he cites as an example of mankind never learning, making it difficult for him to go back to making a film such as Kiki's Delivery Service, where he has been quoted as saying "It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we're happy?"
The film was extremely successful in Japan and with both anime fans and arthouse moviegoers in English-speaking countries. Miramax Films, a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, purchased the film's distribution rights for North America. Miyazaki met with Harvey Weinstein, Miramax's chairman; Weinstein demanded that edits should be made to Princess Mononoke. In response, Toshio Suzuki sent Weinstein a katana with a message stating "No cuts."
The English dub of Princess Mononoke is a translation with some adaptation by fantasy author Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman. The main changes from the Japanese version are to provide a cultural context for phrases and actions which those outside of Asia may not be familiar with. Such alterations include references to mythology and specific names for groups, such as Jibashiri and Shishigami, that appear in the Japanese version, which are changed to more general terms, such as Mercenary and Forest Spirit, in the English version. The rationale for such changes is that the majority of non-Japanese viewers would not understand the mythological references and that the English language simply has no words for the Jibashiri, Shishigami and other terms.
Miramax chose to put a large sum of money into creating the English dub of Princess Mononoke with famous actors and actresses, yet when they released it in theatres there was little or no advertising and it was given a very limited run, showing in only a few theatres and for a very short time. Disney later complained about the fact that the movie did not do well at the box office. In September 2000, the film was announced for release on DVD in North America exclusively with the English dub. In response to fans' requests to add the Japanese track as well as threats of poor sales, Miramax hired translators for the Japanese version. This plan delayed the DVD release back by almost three months, but it sold well when it was finally released.
Princess Mononoke was the highest-grossing Japanese film of 1997, earning ¥11.3 billion in distribution receipts. It became the highest grossing film in Japan until it was surpassed by Titanic several months later. The film earned a domestic total of ¥14,518,798,588.39 ($148,000,000.)
It was the top-selling anime in the United States in January 2001, but despite this the film did not fare as well financially in the country when released in December 1997. It grossed $2,298,191 for the first eight weeks. Although it showed more strength worldwide where it earned a total of $11 million with a total of ¥14,487,325,138 ($159,375,308).
In Japan, the film was released on VHS on July 26, 1998. A LaserDisc edition was also released by Tokuma Japan Communications on the same day. The film was released on DVD on November 21, 2001 with bonus extras added, including the international versions of the film as well as the storyboards.
In July 2000, Buena Vista Home Entertainment announced plans to release the film on VHS and DVD in North America on August 29. Initially, the DVD version of Princess Mononoke did not include the Japanese-language track at the request of Buena Vista's Japan division, citing concerns that "a foreign-released DVD containing the Japanese language track will allow for the importation of such a DVD to Japan, which could seriously hurt the local sales of a future release of the [film]". The fansite Nausicaa.net organized an email campaign for fans to include the Japanese language track, while DVD Talk began an online petition to retain the Japanese language track. The DVD release of Princess Mononoke was delayed as a result. Buena Vista Home Entertainment released the DVD on July 2000 with bonus extras added, including a trailer and a documentary with interviews from the film's English voice actors. The film was released on Blu-ray disc in Japan on December 4, 2013.
Princess Mononoke received extremely positive reviews from film critics. As of March 2014, the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 93% approval rating based on 101 reviews, with an average rating of 7.9/10. It offers the consensus: "With its epic story and breathtaking visuals, Princess Mononoke is a landmark in the world of animation." On Metacritic, the film achieved an average score of 76 out of 100 based on 29 reviews, signifying "generally favorable reviews."
The Daily Yomiuri's Aaron Gerow called the film a "powerful compilation of [Hayao] Miyazaki's world, a cumulative statement of his moral and filmic concerns." Leonard Klady of Variety said that Princess Mononoke "is not only more sharply drawn, it has an extremely complex and adult script" and the film "has the soul of a romantic epic, and its lush tones, elegant score by Joe Hisaishi and full-blooded characterizations give it the sweep of cinema's most grand canvases." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called Princess Mononoke "a great achievement and a wonderful experience, and one of the best films of the year." Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly called the film "a windswept pinnacle of its art" and that it "has the effect of making the average Disney film look like just another toy story." However, Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post stated that the film "is as spectacular as it is dense and as dense as it is colorful and as colorful as it is meaningless and as meaningless as it is long. And it's very long." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said that the film "brings a very different sensibility to animation, a medium [Miyazaki] views as completely suitable for straight dramatic narrative and serious themes."
Roger Ebert placed Princess Mononoke sixth on his top ten movies of 1999. It ranked 488th on Empire's list of the 500 greatest films. Terry Gilliam ranked the film 26th on Time Out's 50 greatest animated films. It is also number 26 on Total Film's 50 animated movie ranking.