Imbued with a fantastical cynicism only Miyazaki is capable of employing, Princess Mononoke follows valiant young Prince Ashitaka’s efforts to at-first pursue life in the face of certain death. Stricken with a fabled curse that’s essentially hatred incarnate, his preceding felling of a rampaging boar god segues into uncertainly retracing its steps. Rumors of similarly viral calamities hail from the woodlands west of Ashitaka’s homeland, prompting him to race against the clock in an effort play God(s) and live another day. Said objective soon yields many a complication, the mysterious wolf princess San entering the picture to combat a monopolistic iron monger’s desire to exterminate the deity of all deities – the Deer God.
Abridged synopsis aside, Princess Mononoke unashamedly wears its disdain for the human condition on its sleeve. Highlighting our inherently ignorant mindsets as the impetus for large-scale turmoil, a “People suck!” mantra remains effortlessly non-oppressive by way of standard Ghibli trappings. In fantastically holding a mirror up to society’s self-deprecating shortcomings, Miyazaki’s world-building panache accessibly illustrates the perils of intolerance set against the arresting backdrop of folkloric polytheism.
For all of the commentary the film thrusts at viewers, it’s as much an exquisitely-staged fable as anything else. Epic in both scale and scope, Miyazaki familiarly steeps Ashitaka and San’s turmoil in thicker-than-average exposition and historical context to precede the endlessly bleak proceedings. Dialogue and imagery are frequently laced with an affecting lyricism, of which instills but a semblance of hope amid setback after setback. Scenes showcasing the aforementioned Deer God’s soft-spoken but all-powerful capabilities are almost unnerving, an always-friendly expression belying its steadfast duties as the bringer of both life and death.
Thematically rudimentary as it may be, Princess Mononoke is undoubtedly a deservedly lauded triumph for Miyazaki. Transcending the likes of family-oriented fare for more mature commentary on the repercussions of humanity’s unfeigned ignorance, the film is a wondrously rendered collection of often touching narrative poignancy and arresting visual singularity. Exuding an artistic flair that evokes as much emotionality as a bittersweet narrative climax, some of Princess Mononoke‘s ideas and imagery will assuredly withstand the test of time. The Ashitakas of this world are certainly not a dime-a-dozen nowadays, and despite its atypical glumness, this film serves to instill hope – albeit tenuous by way of the animated medium – that unwavering moral compass still exists within the selfless few.