A gripping tale of a feral ecoterrorist raised by wolves that discover what you hu-mans call “emotions”.
That quote was my understanding when I first saw it four years ago. Now that I rewatched it, I completely disagree.
First, the main story is about Ashitaka, the prince that sacrifices himself for his village. After narrowly avoiding the destruction of his village and getting a death curse for his troubles, he tries to have it lifted in far away lands. Even though his life is on the line, he doesn’t lose his small-town good samaritan personality, and treats everyone that he meets as one of his subjects, someone he will try to defend with his life and ask nothing in return. When his curse gives him superhuman strength and he kills his pursuers, he starts having seconds thoughts about his quest, and wonders if it’s better to just give up. Wiser men explain to him that adulthood means making choices, and from that point forward he will avoid confrontation to the best of his ability.
Reaching the Iron City, he finds a complex power struggle, with many lies and deception, just like any war that involves people.
The city itself is run by someone that leads by example and manage to establish an independent foothold in a land coveted by many factions. Their industry is a metaphor for their people, taking the scraps that others discard and combining them into a new united whole. Lady Eboshi is a pragmatic leader that cares for her subjects, and that’s probably why she bonds so easily with Ashitaka.
The city is in constant attack by the local warlord. This is a force that keeps looming in the background, but it’s another existential threat to the city.
Another faction is the Emperor, represented by his special forces led by the warrior monk Jigo. The emperor is led by superstition and dispatches his forces to this far away land to recover an artefact. Eboshi does her dirty work for pure selfish reasons, since she doesn’t believe in the supernatural properties of the Deer-God Head, and just wants placate the Emperor to keep his armies at bay and maintain her independence.
Finally, there’s Gaia, divided in clusters by species, in which Mononoke belongs to the wolves by affinity, as a female Mowgli. They are overseen by the Deer God, the major force that decides over life and death of all animals. In classic Japanese fashion, each species has a leader that also rules by example, by virtue of being wiser and more capable than regular animals. They are literally Elder Gods.
One of the best characteristics of this epic film is that there is no black and white divisions here. All are doing their best to defend their people, sometimes at expense of others, and all have flaws that disqualify all of them from being the nominal “good guys”, but none of them are evil in the real sense of the world. It’s a war without nihilism.
Ashitaka leaves his village to find a whole new world out there, and finds new people to protect. Mononoke gets her world view shattered, since she discovers that humans can be friends in the struggle for the forest, not just enemies to vanquish. Still, she remains with her wolves in the forest, because Ashitaka say when all seems lost, nothing is over while they are still alive.
As for more down-to-earth (sorry) matters, it’s a Ghibli film, what to expect? Gorgeous handcrafted visuals with only minor CGI to enhance some scenes, crying-worthy soundtrack, in addition to everything else. It’s pretty hard to point out any flaws the individual parts, let alone the whole thing at a time. Highly recommended.