Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) (1997)

Returns to theaters across the nation for a 20th Anniversary celebration, complete with a new 4K restoration. Premiered in theaters Thursday, January 5 in Japanese with English subtitles and will screen Monday, January 9 with an English dub at 7 p.m. local time. Tickets are available now. The event will also feature a screening of the never-before-released music video directed by Hayao Miyazaki, On Your Mark!

Back when “Princess Mononoke” hit the states in 1999, I literally had no idea who Hayao Miyazaki was. My teacher in high school kept a poster of the movie up on her bulletin board and I thought the movie looked amazing. Years after the Oscar buzz, I discovered “Princess Mononoke” and the brilliance of Studio Ghibli. The great thing about Studio Ghibli is there is no wrong way to enter in to their universe.

I saw “Kiki’s Delivery Service” years before and loved it, and then came this hardcore, dark fantasy epic that took a lot of bold ideas about the environment and brought it in to new heights. Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” is one of the very few animated epics from Ghibli and Miyazaki not fully set in the sky, but Miyazaki is brilliant about making the world seem so open and vast. Even when we’re watching a massive amorphous demon wreak havoc on a local Emishi village in Japan, the film has such fluidity and motion, that nothing ever feels confined to the actual medium itself. Ashitaka is one of the last Emishi prince’s who manages to confront the demon and kill it before it can reach the village itself.

In the middle of the battle with the monster, though, the demon curses Ashitaka’s arm causing it to be gradually consumed by the essence of the beast. Ashitaka learns that the demon was actually a corrupted version of a Boar god whose body took on a horrible new form thanks to an iron ball in its body. Ashitaka then seeks out a cure for his curse in the West where the boar god came from. The unfortunate consequence of the cursed arm is that Ashitaka has super strength derived from the curse. This allows for a pretty amazing sequence where Ashitaka is having a face off with a large squad of soldiers on horse back and the force of his arrow from his bow is so strong that it takes the heads off of his enemies, even yards away.

“Princess Mononoke” is a unique and often beautiful statement about the savagery of nature, and how man has stomped all over the inherent majesty of wildlife. Miyazaki envisions a world where every element of the forest garners some kind of magical and an awe inspiring being or deity. They all essentially take on lives of their own and have potential to be corrupted from the pack of large wolves that raised heroine San, to Prince Ashitaka’s loyal red elk Yakul. I especially am a fan of the Kodama spirits, the small sprite like beings that live in the trees, and rattle their heads. Director Miyazaki flips the script on the beautiful beings very quickly, and centers his tale on two very complex and richly drawn heroes.

Both Ashitaka and the wild child female warrior San all have their own motives for entering in to this war involving Irontown, the vicious Lady Eboshi. It very quickly becomes a war of man and machine and nature and magic, with both colliding forces enacting their own violent retaliations that result in some very heinous consequences along the way. Miyazaki’s animated fantasy epic is violent, and dark, but also vibrant with amazing animation and a simple but very effective story. The action and drama gladly never leave the film feeling tonally confused, and there’s a lot to be said the film’s overtones about respect for nature, and the ugliness of humanity. It’s one of Ghibli and Miyazaki’s many animated masterpieces.