Jake’s review published on Letterboxd:
Sometimes there are no easy answers.
Princess Mononoke is a film that examines humanity’s relationship with nature in a way we often don’t really see. The human characters are all well-rounded people with clear, identifiable, and logical reasons for what they do. Nature, under the context of this being fantasy, is personified through gods, monsters, and demons, all of which have their own varying agendas and levels of hostility. Nature is often portrayed as a stagnant, untouchable force in most pieces of media, and humans of course are those who poison and/or destroy it, so choosing to show these forces as having active narrative agency not only lends this story to being much more of a sharply drawn conflict between all sides, but it casts these conflicts in a much smarter light. Are the humans in the story more to blame for the destruction of the earth and the death of the gods? Undoubtedly, but they aren’t simply Moustache twirling villains who are driven by greed. Lady Iboshi, even though she can be seen as the antagonist, does what she does so her people can live fulfilled lives. She establishes a society of gender equality, gives purpose to the sickly, creates an industry that thrives, and maintains stability on all fronts having to do with humanity. The issue is that complete human stability is, once under proper guidance (even if this guidance is from a distinctly more monarchist standpoint, thankfully Iboshi puts her people first and her personal interests matter very little) is easy to develop, given the proper circumstances. However, what makes it difficult is balance. Damaging the environment is an inevitability for Iboshi. Trying to develop a relationship and create a balance between herself, her people, and the often uncontrollable and primal chaos of nature, is a totally different story.
The thing that works about Princess Mononoke’s narrative the most is that no single character is a willing participant. They are all forced into conflict with one another completely removed from what they want and who they are. Ashitaka is cursed and banished from his homeland in search of answers because he simply has nothing left. He needs a home, but any place he goes is in a dynamic fluid state of conflict with something else that has to be resolved. The nature spirits and the princess fight purely to preserve themselves and drive the humans away, and the humans simply strive to exist in an ideal industrial utopia now that they’ve achieved it. They all have active agency, none of the characters are dragged along by the plot, they all drive it forward, but because it ingeniously gives everyone perfectly logical reasons for existing as they do and wanting to maintain that existence, the conflict feels almost alive.
The point of it all is that balance is a very difficult thing to achieve when all things are considered. Even when every participating party has ground to stand on morally, it’s just not that simple. Maintaining balance must include ALL things, otherwise, conflict or destruction is inevitable, and thus so is death.
The dynamic structure and character setup is certainly one thing, but the other thing to adore here is the visuals. Resplendent, vibrant, ethereal, bloody, rough, it runs the entire gambit. Hand-drawn animation simply cannot be beaten by computers when it comes to movement, and just like Spirited Away, this is demonstrated beautifully. However Spirited Away is far more contained in scope, and thus is more about the details. This is a bonafide fantasy epic, not as setpiece driven and road-trip-centric as Lord of the Rings, but is far more sound as a five-act narrative. It also confirms to the structure we often see with dynamic conflicts where the first half is all setup, and the second half is complete payoff. If the film has any weak points, I’d say that because everything moves so briskly and everything is so well established, occasionally the characters can get a bit lost, even though they are still great. I live by the storytelling mantra that exposition isn’t exposition if it’s interesting, which is shorthand for ‘integrate exposition more organically in your stories and no one will care’ and Princess Mononoke does that maybe better than anything I’ve ever seen? But as such, it’s so good in one area that another area suffers slightly, but even then, only just.
Princess Mononoke is a beautiful testament to the wholesome optimism we can find in humanity and our relationship to the world, but not in a cheap, tacky, or heavy-handed way. It’s more spiritual. And how fitting it is that the film itself feels like a religious experience in its best moments.
Also holy SHIT that score. Damn.