Ghibli fans are like a loving mother, they would never pick a favourite. All are equal in their eyes, each different, each unique, each loved. Yet, there seems to be this vocal minority rising-up that challenge this view. Some declare that actually, there is one that tips the scales. One that is darker, more mature, and more intense, while still remaining completely Ghibli – that one, is Princess Mononoke.
Now, to be fair, they could have a point, after all this is a tale of war and sacrifice. There are full-blown battles here and many lives at stake.
We follow Ashitaka, a warrior who is protecting his villiage from a demon-like-monster. In doing so he is cursed and has to venture to the forests to the west. Quickly he is caught in the middle of a war between humans, led by Lady Eboshi, and the forest, with Princess Mononoke.
Yet, this fully retains what makes a Ghibli film – Ghibli. This is a grand, sweeping adventure and remains the studios most epic story to date. The surprising truth is that while the stakes are higher, the characters remain utterly believable; they are as compelling as they are entertaining to watch. Everyone here is enriched by the ambiguity the narrative has provided them. This is by far some of Hayao Miyazaki’s (writer and director) strongest writing.
Miyazaki’s distinctive style is some of his strongest here, with each character, each creature feeling wholly unique and instantly recognisable. But it isn’t just the characters, the landscapes and vistas of the world he has created are breath-taking and detailed, vast and mysterious. Everything feels so lived in and alive, bursting with life – which makes the violence all the more shocking and upsetting.
The impact of this film can still be felt today. With its release back in 1997, it was an enormous hit in the Western World – still being one of the highest grossing Japanese animations to date.
As with all films from this legendary studio, the film is as fresh-feeling today as it was nearly 25 years ago – a testament to the dedication and love of the craft Miyazaki and everyone else at Studio Ghibli put into their films. With its level of nuance and ambiguity, the maturity and confidence in its interpersonal character storytelling and impact as a piece of genre-fiction, Princess Mononoke is one of the greats. Period.