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A great blue god-spirit with branching horns and rippling patterns on its skin hunches over the forest in Princess Mononoke. Image: Studio Ghibli

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Princess Mononoke breaks the Studio Ghibli rules to tell a better story

Its vague, shifting images help communicate what fear feels like

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Hayao Miyazaki’s films can’t be categorized as kids’ stories or adult-focused features. His work always balances seemingly childish stories with grown-up themes, or mature stories with childish flights of fancy. But Princess Mononoke pushes the limits of that balance. It’s certainly the goriest of Miyazaki’s films, rife with blood and severed body parts, and it features some of the most terrifying monster designs in the Ghibli canon. Environmentalism is a primary theme, as the characters struggle to balance human survival with the needs of the nature around them. But the most impressive, frightening part of the film is the way Miyazaki manages to turn one of the film’s driving forces, the fear of the unknown, into a visible force.

Ultimately, most of the film’s bloodshed stems from fear of the unknown. The human city of Irontown, built deep past normal human boundaries in a wild forest, comes into conflict with the gods of the forest because they fail to communicate with and understand each other. As a result, they almost destroy each other. The protagonist, Ashitaka, manages to bridge the gap between the two societies entirely because he’s an outsider who can see both sides of the ongoing fight. There are no real villains in the story — Lady Eboshi, who rules Irontown, is doing her best to provide for her people, who are already social outcasts. The forest gods, in turn, are trying to keep their home and its inhabitants safe from human depredations.

a man atop a deer is chased by a tentacled creature
Ashitaka, pursued by the cursed Nago.
Image: Studio Ghibli

Ghibli films normally render characters and their environs in meticulous detail. That clear, detail-oriented style is a major part of what distinguishes Studio Ghibli, and what sets its films apart from ordinary anime, at least in Miyazaki’s personal philosophy. That makes it all the more notable when elements of Princess Mononoke stray from those clearly defined lines in order to emphasize the mystery of some spirits and forces. The film follows Ashitaka’s journey as he meets with both the people of Irontown and the gods who rule the forest, who are all seen clearly, as if to emphasize the clarity of their needs and demands.

But the curse that afflicts the boar god Nago, and spreads to Ashitaka, doesn’t have such a definite shape. Neither do the apes who attempt to eat Ashitaka, to increase their power. The curse manifests in purplish-black tendrils that vary in length, strobe between solidity and opacity, and occasionally even give off a menacing glow. And though the apes do appear clearly, they’re also portrayed as formless in their encounter with San and Ashitaka. They seem to be a single, dark mass. Their features are nebulous, denoted only by changes in color rather than the typical black outlines. Of all Princess Mononoke’s creatures, they most represent the unknown. They can’t be clearly seen, and they don’t respond to reason or negotiation.

But while they’re malevolent, not all of the film’s mysterious entities are enemies. The film’s Great Forest Spirit initially appears as a deer with a human-like face, but that appearance doesn’t remain consistent. Its face changes, and its entire form changes when Lady Eboshi decapitates it. It grows into a sort of blue liquid colossus, and becomes translucent in a way reminiscent of the curse that warps multiple characters throughout the film. Though Eboshi’s attack briefly makes it universally dangerous — the black goo it bleeds kills anything it touches — it isn’t an evil force of nature. The melting spirit heals barren land and lifts Ashitaka’s curse, and in death, it restores life to the forest.

several apes with red eyes
The apes.
Image: Studio Ghibli

Formlessness in a world defined by clear lines is inherently strange, and it’s understandable why the people of Irontown might fear the Forest Spirit or the apes, since they can’t understand them. It’s equally clear why the creatures of the forest might fear humanity, who bring a curse down on them with iron weapons, and fear the curse, which corrupts spirits as they’re taken over by blind fear. Ashitaka even makes the nature of the curse explicit, calling it the manifestation of hatred, and explaining that fear and anger only make it grow faster.

Miyazaki’s films rarely feature outright villains, as further exploration often reveals that everyone is acting on relatable motivations rather than out of malice. He takes things a step further in Princess Mononoke by putting a shape — or lack thereof — to the way people can choose to vilify things they don’t understand.

As the curse recedes and the Forest Spirit’s body helps rejuvenate the dead earth around Irontown, rebuilding finally begins. The two sides of the conflict agree to work together, or at least not against each other. Being forced to work together to prevent a crisis opens a channel for communication other than blind hatred, and allows for total clarity in the film’s visual style. There are no more formless creatures present. Instead, there are new leaves and the ghostlike kodama spirits, all clearly rendered and fully visible. The imagery signals the chance for a better, more peaceful existence, with a little more clarity and understanding on all sides.

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