There’s a lot to appreciate about the film beyond the obvious (the animation). The story is superbly structured with wonderful world-building—I could really believe a time and place like this existed, gods and all. I loved the representation of the great god, the Forest Spirit, how it gives life and takes it away with just as much grace. One of the very, very few god characters in fiction that actually felt “godlike” to me, I could believe in it.
The cast is wonderful all-around; everyone feels organic and “real,” from the major leads, like the humble and caring, yet still cunning and calculating Lady Eboshi, to the more secondary roles like the hotheaded, determined, and loving Toki. Even Ashitaka, who shows determination and will like no other, is very subtly characterized—it’s easy to come out of the film interpreting him as pure being acting entirely out of the goodness of his heart, but while he’s absolutely not void of compassion, he’s really acting more out of logic and a desperate need to save his life than anything else, making him for a more compelling lead. In a way, he parallels the Forest Spirit; more of a neutral force seeking balance than anything.
And on that note, his quest ties into the major theme of the film really well; it’s that theme that really struck me this time around, and what gave me the newfound appreciation for the film. It’s not a matter of man vs. nature (even for as much as an environmentalist as Miyazaki is), but more about life itself. Beyond Ashitaka’s quest, there’s at least two instances where, on the brink of disaster, a character expresses feelings of despair or defeat, only for another character to quickly respond that it’s never hopeless as long as they’re still living. Death is treated as something that shouldn’t be feared, but life is still something to be valued.
And then there’s one of the final exchanges between San and Ashitaka, which resonated with me most.
After suffering nearly a year of panic attacks over the subject of life and death, Princess Mononoke’s stance on life was like a gentle, comforting breeze over me.
“It’s over, the Forest Spirit is dead now.”
“Never. He is life itself. He is here with us now, telling us, it’s time for both of us to live.”