Princess Mononoke is widely regarded as Miyazaki’s greatest work and while I don’t quite share that enthusiasm, I do think it ranks among his best. The film follows the story of Ashitaka, a young prince from a forest village who is infected with a curse after a chance encounter with a demon boar god. He is then sent into the wilderness by the village elders to discover the source of the curse.
This is at once Miyazaki’s most violent film and possibly his most Japanese (except for, maybe, Spirited Away). The amount of severed limbs in this movie is somewhat surprising given the complete lack of real violence in his previous films (the fist fight in Porco Rosso aside, but I really don’t think it should count). At times the violent nature of Princess Mononoke can even feel like pandering. Whereas, in most of his films, Miyazaki seems to shy away from the typical anime-esque tropes of action and violence, here it seems he embraces them full-force, and yet it seems his reasoning was very pure: Miyazaki is using the violence to demonstrate a point.
Here we find Miyazaki speaking the loudest regarding his affinity for nature and the protection of the planet. If the film feels anti-industrialization, that’s because it probably is, and yet this would be an overly-simple reading of the film. The ending involves the rebuilding of a mining city called Irontown, but this time in a respectful and responsible way.
This highlights what is, I think, possibly the major theme of Miyaaki’s work: responsibility. Miyazaki’s films never call for abandoning our way of life, but rather living it in a way which is responsible. Miyazaki never makes the citizens of Irontown villains (the officials are another story), and makes it clear that this is simply their way of life, but he does call them to a new life of environmental responsibility.
But the theme of responsibility in Miyazaki’s films goes much deeper than just the environment. His work focuses on the necessity that we all do our part and do what we have to because we have to do it. This can be seen in most any of his films (Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa, perhaps even in Porco Rosso). Yet I am not convinced blind duty is quite the idea, and yet I am not convinced that it isn’t.
If Princess Mononoke isn’t among my favorite Miyazaki’s its for one clear reason: the talking animals. These are not the cute talking animals of a Disney or Pixar film, by the way, these are rough and gruff beasts, and yet I just find myself wishing they were quiet. The wolves didn’t bother me, but the others did. It just didn’t work for me (or my wife).
Overall, though, I think it’s one of Miyazaki’s most powerful works, and is another reason to be all the more saddened by his official retirement. Miyazaki’s mind and imagination are a world treasure and I wish there were more creative visionaries like him, but I suppose there can only be one.