image credit: GKIDS

Review: Princess Mononoke (1999) ****

If you know me at all, you know that giving Princess Mononoke four stars is *weird*. I will five-star movies much worse than this one. And the original movie in Japanese, Mononoke Hime (1997), is absolutely a five star movie! This is a magnificent, compassionate, thoughtful story asking questions about the “versus” part of “man versus nature,” and the mythic scale of this folk fantasy is *so* up my alley.

But tonight I watched Princess Mononoke (1999), the version released in the USA with English-speaking voice actors like Gillian Anderson, Claire Daines, and Minnie Driver.

I think all the English dubs of Studio Ghibli movies I’ve seen have significantly altered the way information is conveyed. I get the sense that more mature animation like Princess Mononoke was confusing to Western markets, who only had a blueprint for mass-marketing kids’ animation, and thus feel compelled to simplify the concepts. It feels painful every time it happens. It’s not quite as bad in Princess Mononoke as Spirited Away, but it does mean the English dubs are distinct unto themselves.

The quality of the dub itself is dodgy. The performers involved are good in other contexts, but the voice work here feels paced badly. I suspect a combination of voice director choices and translation choices are to thank. It often feels like they’re trying to rush a lot of words into a few seconds of animation. Plus, inappropriate inflection abounds, leaving Claire Daines rush-shouting half her lines.

It’s a shame that the American-facing presentation is so unfortunate. Studio Ghibli movies have always felt a bit worse for their handling in the translation.

I have zero complaints or criticisms about the source material. As I grow older, I learn to admire the craftsmanship of Princess Mononoke in all-new ways. It’s visually stunning beyond the scope of one little review to describe. The music is so grand and emotional.

It’s fascinating that I have become radical in my politics in a way that Princess Mononoke challenges. The movie itself is radically ecological, which I would say describes me too. But ultimately, Princess Mononoke isn’t about ecological politics. It’s about how choosing hatred will kill everyone and everything, and the only way to do that is to stop choosing hatred.

By taking the focus away from what is right or wrong behavior from the humans — the hero’s goal is always simply saving lives, choosing life over death — the story can speak to anyone by asking, “Are you driven by hatred?

Ashitaka consistently chooses compassion for individuals I don’t think I’d try to save. It makes me look into my own heart and see places where the thrashing poison of hatred has plenty of room to grow.

The compassionate detail Princess Mononoke provides to the story’s factions has always jumped out at me.

Jigo is probably the worst figure in the movie. He is driven exclusively by greed, and validated by the assumption everyone is as greedy as he is, but he also regards Ashitaka as a friend. He’s out to kill nature for the Emperor’s pleasure, and in return, Jigo will get “everything.” Even when the world is falling down around them, Jigo scrabbles for his greedy goals…and then the movie leaves him shrugging it off when he fails. He’s sort of charming. Obviously he’s not good, at all, but the takeaway is one of someone self-centered but affable.

Lady Eboshi is my favorite of the antagonists. She’s afraid of nothing. You can tell the worst has already happened to her, so she welcomes the vengeance of nature’s curse. What powerful compassion it takes to gather a community of sex workers and lepers and gainfully employ them! Eboshi is the ultimate girl boss, stopping at nothing to accrue power in a system that has crushed them all. But she’s trying to take others with her. She’s trying to give her people a fair shot. You could say Eboshi stands to show the way that shit flows ever-downward in an empire: In order to claim any power in the empire as a woman, leper, sex worker, she has to pass the shit further down the empire’s power chain, which means nature.

I want to call Moro, the mother of the wolves, one of the good guys, but that wouldn’t be fair to the neutrality of Ashitaka’s perspective as narrator. All the nature gods are excellent expressions of the animistic understanding of nature. Nature is not good or bad, but it is full of instincts that can lead to your death. Moro wants the humans dead. Yet she has taken her “ugly, beautiful” human daughter, Mononoke, and treasures her the way she treasures her full-wolf sons. Moro is both a violent protector of the forest and a benevolent mother.

Alongside the Moro clan, we also get to know the boars, led by old Lord Okkoto, and the vicious primate spirits of the forest. And the Spirit of the Forest himself: a deer-like creature who turns into a ghostly giant at night. He doesn’t represent life and death. He is life and death.

Princess Mononoke has a humbling view on human hierarchy. For all that Lady Eboshi and Jigo are ensuring that shit continues flowing downward in their system — to the point of successfully killing the forest spirits — life and death are greater than all of that still.

Hence choosing hatred is choosing death, but the story doesn’t frame that as a failing so much as a maladaptive response to a terrible system that does things like letting samurai murder innocents and extinguishing indigenous tribes.

In a historical context, it makes sense that Princess Mononoke would so neutrally portray the humans’ cruelty against nature, human cruelty against humans, and of greater elemental forces against humans. Like all empires, Japanese empires have been responsible for a lot of harm in their country and elsewhere. Here, Studio Ghibli wants us to remember that these were just humans committing atrocities. People who loved and hurt and were trying to better themselves and had passions and could be your neighbors.

The only way to stop that kind of harm is to stop choosing hate, period, and give it nowhere to grow. It’s beautiful messaging in a beautiful movie that doesn’t flinch back from the tragedy of empire. And if you haven’t seen it before, I recommend watching the version with Japanese subtitles, not the English dub.

(image credit: GKIDS)

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