Princess Mononoke is one of my favorite movies, hands down. Every time I've seen it, I appreciate it more and more, and it is a rare movie that can do that for anyone.
The story is set in a mythical 17th century-ish Japan where Asian gods and humans live alongside one another. Well, actually, that would imply friendliness and a sense of peace. Instead, we see a world where conflict is rife; humans fight gods and demons for lands, humans fight each other for power, gods squabble amongst themselves, and demons manifest to randomly tear shit up. It is not a happy world, but it certainly is a beautiful one. This is, by far, one of the prettiest animated features I've ever seen, particularly in terms of complexity. Motes of reflected light sparkle in the water, individual blades of grass wave independently of one another. You really get the sense that you are seeing a real world; it is animation made as detailed as it possibly can be in order to give this impression.
The story follows one Ashitaka, exiled prince of an exiled tribe, who is forced to leave his people when he is cursed by a demon. Told that his death is inevitable, he goes out into the world and tries to find a way to cure the curse. In his journey, he encounters many people and their respective sides, as well as the conflicts that have arisen over time. Part of his journey lies in doing good for everyone he can, and so Ashitaka goes to enormous effort to try and put the world at peace.
I can't emphasize enough how interesting the situation is that Ashitaka finds himself in. Unlike most stories, there is no clear-cut villain here. Each of the factions that Ashitaka encounters have stories and viewpoints of their own that make them sympathetic. The people of Irontown, led by Lady Eboshi, seek to make a living for themselves in a hostile wilderness by mining iron ore. The spirits and gods of the forest oppose this (led largely by the wolf god, Moro, and her adopted daughter, Princess Mononoke), trying to preserve the forest and the wildlife slain by the town's encroachments. As if this were not enough, a powerful warlord tries throughout the story to seize Irontown so as to profit from its wealth. AND there is the wild card of Jigo, who wants to acquire the head of the Forest Spirit in order to claim immortality.
What makes the story even more complex and interesting is that even those factions have 'mini-factions' of their own. Lady Eboshi claims to watch over the people of Irontown out of the goodness of her heart, but it is clear that she is after something more. The wolf god, Moro, has views on how to treat the humans that are different from those of the ape gods and boar gods. And who even knows what the hell the Forest Spirit is thinking with all this insanity.
Long story short, one of Princess Mononoke's great strengths as a story is this ethical complexity. Who do you root for? Who is evil? There are no clear answers, and, as hard as he tries, Ashitaka is often unable to bring peace to everyone. He has the strength of a demon, the courage of a lion, and the patience of a saint, but even he encounters great difficulty when trying to get everyone to stop killing each other. It is very reminiscent of the conflicts of today and throughout history. Thus, one of the themes of Princess Mononoke is that the "us versus them" mentality is one that is hopelessly flawed and short sighted, yet incredibly difficult to break free from.
One aspect of Princess Mononoke that is hard for me to pass judgment on is the prevalence and growth of the love felt between San (the titular Princess Mononoke) and Ashitaka. Parts of it are very touching, and both characters are incredibly determined people, which helps to show their compatibility. They are strong-willed and passionate, and the scenes that they have together are often compelling. Thus it is that, behind the conflicts of the story, romance blossoms between the two that is enhanced and magnified by the ongoing war.
However, I also found the romance to be, at its core, a bit unbelievable. San is the adopted child of a wolf god, a position that has her attacking and killing the humans of Irontown constantly. For at least the first third of the movie, San is actively trying to kill Ashitaka whenever he gets in her way. By contrast, Ashitaka is the pacifistic prince of a human tribe who is continually trying to get all the sides to stop killing each other. On top of this, he seems to fall in love with her at first sight; particularly odd considering how this 'first sight' is of her sucking poison out of a wolf's wound. She turns to him, face smeared with blood, and tells him to go away. Romantic, no? Thus you can see why, occasionally, the romance that blossoms between them seems odd.
On the whole, though, Princess Mononoke is a magnificent movie. The music is incredibly moving, helping one get an 'epic' feel from the film. The English voice actors are fantastic; featuring actors such as Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and more. The story itself feels original, a quality no doubt lent to it by my unfamiliarity with Japanese mythology and storytelling.
But make sure to be a little cautious. Though the movie is animated, it is by no means a children's movie. People die, animals are slain, and the atmosphere itself is on the dark side. There is a happy ending, but it is a victory that is a bit Pyrrhic.
Despite this, this is a movie well worth seeing, particularly if you've never seen it before. It is one of my favorites for certain. And, being the nerd that I am, I'm listening to the soundtrack right now!