Day Sixteen: Mononoke Hime (MotM 2017)

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It’s about time. After nearly falling asleep with Spirited Away and only bordering the line of magical entertainment with Kiki’s Delivery Service, Studio Ghibli has finally managed to crack open my world of imagination with Mononoke Hime, or Princess Mononoke. What it lacks in subtlety and good vibes it more than makes up for in an exciting and sobering atmosphere. If I may describe it in popular video game terms, this is the Twilight Princess of Ghibli’s library.

Right off the bat, there’s a notable lack of depth with the characters and the narrative. Some may consider it cliché, and they’d probably be justified for it. It’s a relatively straightforward story of blurring good and evil, with a heavy focus on environmentalism and a Man vs. Spirituality angle coming in about halfway through. It’s not something that will win awards for its writing, nor is it something that will blow the minds of anyone who’s read any story ever. While Studio Ghibli isn’t typically noted for amazing stories, after seeing spirited Away, I leave with the hindsight that Princess Mononoke could’ve done more.

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Still, the film survives through its grim outer shell. It was around the time the male lead decapitated a man with a single shot from his bow and arrow that I perked up in my seat. This is the kind of imagery one can expect. Slicing, dicing, bloodshed, and oozing, demonic tentacles. There’s nothing wrong with being family-friendly or magical through means of naivety and whimsy, but something about Ghibli’s use of animation and the “epicness” of narrative grandeur feels so much better under Mononoke‘s direction. A clear focus, the quest to dissolve it, and finding all new conflict along the way has a way of making things more interesting without relying on the depth of the overall story. In a sense, my Legend of Zelda reference describes this film in more ways than one, as the magic of adventure is very much present throughout.

Someone on Twitter predicted I wouldn’t like the characters in this film (You know who you are). Looking at them objectively, they’re not entirely round, but not entirely flat. Development flatlines for most upon their initial introduction, though some have a different side revealed through interaction with others. Had I needed to grade it, it would probably be in a ‘C’ range, with characters doing what they have to do to keep things interesting, but not enough to make them impactful or memorable long-term. No characters stand out from one another, though the male and female lead have a natural chemistry based on one discovering more about the humanity she has that she constantly rejects. The male lead… well, his only admission is that he finds the female lead “beautiful.” Men, am I right?

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Comparisons to other Ghibli films aside, Princess Mononoke on its own has more depth to it than, say, epics told by word-of-mouth. Environmentalism is present quite a bit, with attitudes toward the forest (which translates to most of nature) directly relating to a character’s personality and ambitions. Some, such as the female lead and her wolf family, hold the forest and its spiritual beings to high esteem, warding off all who dare to encroach. The Ironmakers, a group of workers directly under an ambitious female leader, are more practical, seeing the forest and its spirits as roadblocks to their desires. This could almost be seen as a new-look Manifest Destiny, a slogan used by olden settlers as an excuse to expand the United States as far as possible for their means of power and productivity. The groundworks of a decisive divide linger in the background, reinforced by the repetition of characters accusing the male lead of choosing sides. Said male lead, try as he might to be neutral, ends up favoring one side more than another, which suits his role in the argument.

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An issue I have with the sort of “gray” approach the film tries to have is that it eventually settles to one side. The ending creates an ambiguous happy ending for all those involved, immediately after facing the wrath of going against one particular “side” of the argument at hand. One can pass this off as a teaching of moral lessons, but at what point does a moral become an opinion? Environmentalism isn’t necessarily a clear-cut evil aspect along the lines of rape or murder. Just to reiterate, it’s not that it promotes environmentalism, but that it takes a fictional setting and works it into a moral message that isn’t entirely accepted and promotes it as “the right or wrong choice.”

On the discussion of endings, Mononoke’s ending felt somewhat anticlimactic. It’s one thing to have all the conflict go away, it’s another to have it all literally dissolve on top of the characters. And such little time to think over everything that happened! The final resolution comes to fruition and then the movie ends after a couple lines from the surviving cast. What a minimalist way to rush the end. I would’ve expected something a little more insightful, something that felt as though it simmered the ingredients to bring them to a thorough state. It felt more like flipping pancakes.

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It’s by and large my favorite Ghibli film thus far. How ironic that a viewer who normally indulges in symbolism and subtext wrapped in flamboyant characters could find such amusement with a relatively tame story with semi-flat characters. I suppose it’s the type of simplicity that works when all other aspects are competent enough to work, with a strong emphasis on the way its presented. Needless to say, Princess Mononoke has amazing animation and design. Personally, I think it’s the best movement-wise of all the Ghibli films I’ve seen. The perfect wrapping for a film that entertains more than it impresses, but has enough vitality to make up for it.

Final Score: 8/10

The rating for this title and all others can be found on MyAnimeList.

For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!