Read This Before You Watch “Princess Mononoke”

Welcome back to another weekend adventure with our hero’s quest media series. This week we’re watching an anime film by Hayao Miyazaki called “Princess Mononoke” (1997). Anime combines elements of traditional Japanese art with more modern influences such as comic books. If you like this movie, and I think you will, Miyazaki made quite a few others you’ll enjoy, including “Spirited Away” (2001) and “Howl’s Moving Castle”(2004).

I do apologize that “Princess Mononoke” is a little harder to find on streaming services than I had originally anticipated when I planned this series. That said, if you can’t find it elsewhere, this movie is available for purchase via YouTube. It costs about twelve dollars, which is a bit of money, but I suspect this is one you’ll want to watch again. This is a top ten favorite for lots of people. You’ll soon understand why.

In many ways, “Princess Mononoke” tells the quintessential story of a hero’s quest. You’re going to recognize all the major elements right away. Our protagonist, Ashitaka (not the title character) emerges a clear hero who never doubts his purpose. There’s an obvious, early call to adventure. The hero receives a talisman before he sets out. And so on. You’ll have a lot of fun watching for and recognizing all the steps in the familiar journey.

That said, this movie gives us some new ideas to explore. Responding to criticism of his earlier movies, which focused more on encouraging young viewers to be happy and enjoy life, Miyazaki wanted this film to present his viewers with more challenging themes. This movie suggests some interesting things about the differences between men and women. Pay attention to the gender roles of major characters.

Some viewers have suggested that this movie also shifts away from what they saw as Miyazaki’s overt opposition to capitalism and industrialization in his earlier movies. Pay attention to what is being suggested about economic factors like mining and labor.

You’ll notice that in “Princess Mononoke” we don’t always have sharp lines drawn between good and evil, ones where nature is purely good and humanity is selfish and bad. After all, our hero figure is human and the curse placed on him is justified. But we don’t want our hero to be on the side of evil. Clearly there’s more happening here. This hero’s journey is about learning some lessons and facing some hard moral dilemmas.

For our discussion questions, I’ll expect you to recognize how this movie works as a classic hero’s quest, but I’ll also ask you to consider how it uses this familiar narrative structure to make us explore deeper moral issues. Don’t expect easy solutions, and let things be as complicated as they need to be in your answers to the discussion questions. Part of the power and beauty of “Princess Mononoke” is that this movie doesn’t offer us obvious or easy answers.


Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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