Review of Princess Mononoke (1997)
A boar god poisoned by hate threatens a village and infects a young man. Ostracized and dying, the man journeys to find a cure. He stumbles upon human plans to take the head of the god of life and death.
Complex, imaginative, beautiful and serious, Mononoke lacks the sentimentality that tinges so much of Miyazaki’s other work. It is a masterpiece of fantasy.
The story is nominally set in Muromachi-period Japan (14th-16th century) but the influences range far afield. The stag god looks like Miyazaki’s tribute to the senior prince in Bambi (1942). The name of Ashitaka’s own red elk, Yakkul, is from The Journey of Shuna (1983), as is much of the structure. The boars remind me of the tusked ogre Humbaba in The Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2100–1100 BCE), another doomed and fearsome guardian of threatened nature. Some of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1982) is reflected here, and there is also a form of reference back to The Adventures of Hols, Prince of the Sun (1968), where the seed of Ghibli was sown: Ashitaka’s people is the Emishi, a small pocket of an old ethnic group marginalized long ago by the immigrating Yamato Japanese who have been dominant for many centuries. Takahata wanted the Hols project to be about the plight of the Emishi, but the studio refused. After 29 years, Miyazaki had the clout.