Roger Ebert placed the movie sixth on his top ten movies of 1999. Mononoke also became the highest-grossing movie in Japan until Titanic took over the spot several months later. Overall, Mononoke is the third most popular anime movie in Japan, next to 2001's Spirited Away and 2004's Howl's Moving Castle, both by Miyazaki.
It is a jidaigeki (period drama) set in late Muromachi period of Japan, and centers on the struggle between the supernatural guardians of a forest and the humans who consume its resources, as seen by the outsider Ashitaka. "Mononoke" (物の怪, Mononoke) is not a name, but a general term in Japanese for a spirit or monster.
Princess Mononoke follows the journey of the last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, and his attempts to make peace between the human settlement, Irontown, and the creatures living in the forest that surrounds it.
The film begins with Ashitaka saving his village from a vicious assault by killing a demon who is actually the giant boar god Nago embodied by rage. During the fight, Ashitaka receives a demon mark on his right arm, and he is cursed by the Boar God's hatred and pain. Ashitaka is told that the mark will spread throughout his body, killing him. A ball of iron is found inside Nago's corpse, which is somehow connected to the curse. Ashitaka resolves to journey to Nago's origin, the lands to the West, to try and find a cure for his curse. He cuts his hair, signifying his permanent departure from his village, and rides out with Yakul, his loyal red elk. Since it was considered taboo to see off one who is banished, only one person dared to say goodbye to Ashitaka: his 'little sister,' Kaya (according to Miyazaki, actually his bride-to-be; calling herself his 'little sister' was a term of affection), who gives him her crystal dagger so that he would not forget her.
Having traveled some distance, Ashitaka arrives in a forest full of animal gods, including the wolf god Moro. Also in the forest is the Forest Spirit, described as a "god of life and death", which takes the form of a deer during the day and a large shadowy "night-walker" at night. The forest lies beside a human settlement called Irontown which continually clears the forest to get to more iron ore, causing many battles as the animals attempt to protect their diminishing forest. It was during one of these battles that Irontown's leader,Lady Eboshi, shot Nago.
During the film Ashitaka travels between the forest and Irontown several times, trying to make peace. During Ashitaka's first visit, the village is attacked by San, a human girl who has been adopted by the wolves. Ashitaka intervenes to stop the two sides fighting and takes San back to the forest, but is injured in the process. With San's intervention, he is healed of his wounds — but not his curse — by the forest spirit.
Under the influence of Jigo, Eboshi sets out to destroy the Forest Spirit. The head of the Forest Spirit is believed to grant immortality; Jigo plans to give the head to the emperor; in return the emperor promises to give Irontown legal protection against the envious daimyos coveting the town's prosperity. Eboshi, however, suspects (rightly) that the emperor's agents are also assigned to take control of Irontown at the most opportune moment.
Despite Ashitaka's efforts, Eboshi succeeds in cutting off the Forest Spirit's head while it is transforming. Jigo collects the head while the body is transformed into a god of death, as a result the land becomes covered with a lethal black ooze, that completely destroys the forest and turns the land barren. To stop the spreading ooze from reaching the villagers, Ashitaka and San manage to take the head from Jigo and by returning the head to the Forest Spirit, the land becomes green again, and Ashitaka's curse is finally lifted.
Ashitaka literally translates to "Leap" in Japanese. Ashitaka is an Emishi prince who was meant to become a leader of his tribe. While rescuing his village from Nago, the demon boar god, Ashitaka's arm is afflicted with a curse that will eventually consume and kill him. Under the effect of the curse, Ashitaka gains superhuman strength but causes him to grow weaker as time passes. Ashitaka is exiled by his village and sent westward to find the cause of the demon's corruption as well as a cure for his curse.
After arriving at Irontown, Ashitaka is caught up in the town's war against the mountain gods. Amidst the battle at Irontown, Ashitaka meets San and soon becomes enamored with her. Ashitaka takes San back to Moro and attempts to negotiate a ceasefire between the warring sides. He is unsuccessful. Throughout the film, Ashitaka develops deep feelings for San and eventually falls in love with her. It is stated by Moro that he wanted to share his life with her. At the end of the film, Ashitaka's curse is eventually removed and, though San and Ashitaka have grown close, they go their separate ways: to the forest and to Irontown respectively. However, Ashitaka promises to visit San in the forest whenever he can.
San translates to "Three" in Japanese. When she was a baby, the wolf goddess Moro attacked her parents, who were found damaging the forest. San's parents threw her to Moro as a sacrifice to save their own lives. Moro raised San as her own daughter, and in turn, San treats Moro as her mother and Moro's two natural pups as brothers.
San's primary concern is protecting the forest and the animals she lives with. San rejects her own humanity and even thinks of herself as a wolf. She has attempted to assassinate Eboshi of Irontown many times, as San believes that Eboshi's death will result in the end of Irontown and human growth into the surrounding forest. It is only by Ashitaka's affection to her that she slowly comes to acknowledge her human side as well.
After the battle for the Forest Spirit's head, San tells Ashitaka that he is very dear to her, but since she cannot forgive the human race for what they have done to the forest, she will continue to live apart from the humans. San returns to the forest and Ashitaka remains in Irontown.
Lady Eboshi is a strong-willed and independent woman. Though seemingly callous and distant to others, she actually cares a lot about the welfare of her people; the guns they produce are primarily intended to secure their independence. She also takes in lepers, treating them as humans instead of parasites, and helps them with their wounds - a fact which Ashitaka acknowledges to the point that he cannot condemn her for inflicting him (indirectly) with the curse.
Eboshi has many enemies, including San, men, and the animal gods. Eboshi and her ishibiya troops are responsible for the cursed iron bullet in Nago which eventually affects Ashitaka. She shoots Shishigami's head off, causing him to turn into a God of death and send forth a dark liquid that kills anything it touches. The liquid falls on Moro's body, separating the head from it. After Eboshi throws Shishigami's head to Jigo, Moro's head resurrects long enough to bite off Eboshi's right arm. This event redeems her, and she decides to rebuild Irontown not as an industrial center, but as a modest settlement.
Jikobo is an Imperial agent travelling in the disguise of a monk who was assigned by the Emperor to capture the forest spirit's head, in return for an entire hill of gold. The Emperor believed that the forest spirit's head would give him immortality. Jikobo used a pack of skilled hunters, and a group of his own men, to help him hunt down the forest spirit. He also manipulated Lady Eboshi to kill the forest spirit for him, in exchange for tracking it down for her.
Shishigami (The Forest Spirit)
Shishigami is the ancient spirit of the forest. During the day, Shishigami resembles a great stag-like qilin with many antlers, bird-like feet, and the face of a baboon. At sunset, Shishigami becomes Daidarabocchi (translated to the Nightwalker in the English version), a huge god in a humanoid form that appears to be made out of stars with a long pointed face and tentacle-like spikes on the back. Shishigami is protected by the Wolf Clan. As he walks, flowers bloom up at his feet though they quickly wither and die. He is capable of both giving life and taking life away. When Eboshi shoots off his head, he becomes a raging god of death and his starry appearance changes to a dark tar-like liquid that kills anything it touches.
3D rendering was used to create the demon snakes, and composite them onto Ashitaka, who is hand-drawn.
Princess Mononoke is mostly hand-drawn, but incorporates some use of computer animation.
When released, Mononoke was the most expensive animation ever made, with production of the film cost ¥2.4 billion (approximately US$20 million). Miyazaki personally checked each of the 144,000 cels in the film, and is estimated to have redrawn parts of 80,000 of them.
Computer animation was used during 5 minutes of footage throughout the film, and a further 10 minutes used digital paint, a technique which is used throughout all subsequent Studio Ghibli films. The computer-animated parts are designed to blend in and support the traditional animation, and are mainly used in images consisting of a mixture of CGI and traditional drawing.
This is the only anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki that does not feature a flying sequence, his well-known trademark.
This story takes place in Japan during the Muromachi Period, which is considered to be the transition period between the medieval period and the early modern period. It is notable that the power of the shoguns greatly declined in this period. The landscapes which appear in Princess Mononoke are said to have been inspired by the ancient forests of Yakushima, off Kyūshū, and the mountains of Shirakami-Sanchi in northern Honshū.
Ashitaka comes from a tribe called the Emishi, which used to be natives of northern Honshū, that had been resisting subjugation by the Japanese emperor for centuries. However, the Emishi were defeated by the samurai of the Yamato clan, which proceeded to become the rulers and government of the Empire. The Emishi thus went into hiding, around the Northeast part of Honshu, Japan's largest island. By A.D. 1300, the Emishi were becoming integrated into Japanese society. However, Ashitaka supposedly comes from a tribe of the Emishi that had resisted integration and still lived in exile.
The film was extremely successful in Japan and with both anime fans and "arthouse" moviegoers in English-speaking countries. In those countries, it was widely interpreted as a film about the environment told in the form of Japanese mythology. Disney's Miramax subsidiary purchased U.S. distribution rights, but wanted to cut the film for American audiences (and for a PG-rating). However, Miyazaki balked at this, and the film was instead released uncut with a rating of PG-13. Miramax also chose to put a lot of money into creating the English dub of the movie with famous actors and actresses, yet when they released it in theatres there was little or no advertising and it was given a very limited run, showing in only a few theatres and for a very short time. Disney later complained about the fact that the movie did not do well at the box office. In September 2000, the film was supposed to be released on DVD in the U.S., but Miramax announced that only the English dub would be included on the disc. Outraged fans demanded the Japanese track be put on the disc as well, and the threat of poor sales prompted Miramax to hire translators for the subtitles, which held the DVD release back by almost three months. When the film was finally released on DVD it sold very well, due to no limitation in availability. According to Ultimate Disney, the film is due for a two-disc Special Edition treatment in the near future.
It was rated PG-12 in Japan, PG in the UK, M in Australia and PG-13 in the U.S. for images of violence and gore.
The film was promoted with the tagline live (生きろ, Ikiro). The inflection of the verb here indicates a meaning of encouragement, as in 'please live'.
The United States and United Kingdom DVD releases have both the English and Japanese soundtracks, together with subtitles for both the English dub and a more literal translation.
At Miyazaki's insistence, the film was uncut for the English release, so that only the soundtrack was altered. The English dub of Princess Mononoke is a translation with some adaptation by Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman. The main changes from the Japanese version are to provide a cultural context for phrases and actions which those outside of Asia may not be familiar with. Such alterations include references to mythology and specific names for groups, such as Jibashiri and Shishigami, that appear in the Japanese version, that are changed to more general terms, such as Mercenary and Forest Spirit, in the English version. The rationale for such changes is that the majority of non-Japanese viewers would not understand the mythological references and that the English language simply has no words for the Jibashiri, Shishigami and other terms. However, some critics (Michael Atkinson, Mr. Showbiz) have said that the translation from Japanese to English and the alterations in which it has resulted have weakened the film somewhat.
The English dub received mixed reviews from critics. While most of the reaction was positive, others criticized the dub for most of its casting choices, notably Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo and Claire Danes as San, claiming that they detracted from the experience. Despite this love-hate atmosphere, the dub has been hailed as one of the best ever done alongside Spirited Away, which has been met with the same criticism.
The film has also been recently dubbed in Mandarin as well. There are not a great number of differences, and the translations seem to be accurate enough. Still, there are three translations mentioned of 'Princess Mononoke/ Mononoke Hime', while most of the other names use either Chinese or sound translations.
Leonard Klady of Variety wrote a positive review of an early release of the picture. On Roger Ebert & The Movies,the film received two thumbs up from Harry Knowles and Roger Ebert. Ebert also gave the film four out of four stars in his print review.
- Best Picture; The 21st Japanese Academy Awards
- Best Japanese Movie, Best Animation, and Japanese Movie Fans' Choice; The 52nd Mainichi Movie Competition
- Best Japanese Movie and Readers' Choice; Asahi Best Ten Film Festival
- Excellent Movie Award; The Agency for Cultural Affairs
- Grand Prize in Animation Division; 1st Japan Media Arts Festival (by the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Ministry of Education)
- Best Director; Takasaki Film Festival
- Best Japanese Movie; The Association of Movie Viewing Groups
- Movie Award; The 39th Mainichi Art Award * Best Director; Tokyo Sports Movie Award
- Nihon Keizai Shinbun Award for Excellency; Nikkei Awards for Excellent Products/Service
- Theater Division Award; Asahi Digital Entertainment Award
- MMCA Special Award; Multimedia Grand Prix 1997
- Best Director and Yujiro Ishihara Award; Nikkan Sports Movie Award
- Special Achievement Award; The Movie's Day
- Special Award; Houchi Movie Award
- Special Award; Blue Ribbon Award
- Special Award; Osaka Film Festival
- Special Award; Elandore Award
- Cultural Award; Fumiko Yamaji Award
- Grand Prize and Special Achievement Award; Golden Gross Award
- First Place, best films of the year; The 26th "Pia Ten"
- First Place; Japan Movie Pen Club, 1997 Best 5 Japanese Movies
- First Place; 1997 Kinema Junpo Japanese Movies Best 10 (Readers' Choice)
- Second Place; 1997 Kinema Junpo Japanese Movies Best 10 (Critics' Choice)
- Best Director; 1997 Kinema Junpo Japanese Movies (Readers' Choice)
- First Place; Best Comicker's Award
- First Place; CineFront Readers' Choice
- Nagaharu Yodogawa Award; RoadShow
- Best Composer and Best Album Production; 39th Japan Record Award
- Excellent Award; Yomiruri Award for Film/Theater Advertisement
- 12 July 1997 - Movie theater in Japan
- Christmas 1997 - VHS release in Japan
- 1999 - English dub version
- 2003 - Newer VHS/DVD release in Japan
- 2006 - DVD release in Australia
- 18 November 2014 - DVD release in USA