In 1997, Studio Ghibli released Princess Mononoke, intending it to be lead director and co-founder Hayao Miyazaki's final film. Like any artist in his position likely would, Miyazaki went all in, adopting a significantly darker tone than that of predecessors Porco Rosso (1992) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and crafting the studio's most outwardly violent film thus far. A tale of gods, humans, and animals set against latter period samurai Japan and the country's industrialisation process, Princess Mononoke was the work of a director who wished to leave his audience with one final grand statement.

Of course, Miyazaki did not retire as intended and went on to direct for the studio until 2014 when production halted following his actual retirement. By 1997 however, he had established the studio as one both extremely financially successful and critically adored, within his native Japan and beyond. My Neighbour Totoro (1988) in particular was an early signifier of Ghibli's global appeal, sending its beloved title character up as an iconic figurehead of modern Japanese culture and its national cinema.

Mononoke on the other hand was a departure in style for the director, a venture into more adult and caustic territory with conflict as its driving force as opposed to the more child friendly themes of his earlier films. One must assume that, as his perceived swansong, Miyazaki was indulging in ideas he thought he may not get a chance to explore again.

Fig i: Princess Mononoke (1997) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki

On its surface, Princess Mononoke could be interpreted as a film about environmentalism and the destruction of the natural world by the evils of the human race. Though if we are to delve into its ideas surrounding the environment then it becomes a period piece about the turbulent industrialisation of Japan, and deeper still it explores the notion of tradition and the onset of modern life. Following this analysis, the film morphs into an intense meditation on the sacrifices that must be made for progression, be that tradition, ideologies or human life. In essence, it's an incredibly layered film that can be interpreted on a number of levels, but if we were to boil all these thematic elements down into a simple 1000 word essay then Princess Mononoke is predominantly a film about transition.

Here I intend to briefly explore a few of the 'changes' that the film depicts. Firstly there are the ideas of transition present in the film's narrative, such as the change from a natural to an industrialised landscape brought on by semi-antagonist Lady Eboshi. Secondly there are the changing female roles in society that we can observe, and finally, separate from the film's content, the transition that the studio itself underwent following the release of Princess Mononoke.

In terms of the environmentalist aspect of the film it can be perceived as highly critical of our disregard of the natural world and also our profiting from its destruction. This feature is perhaps best considered as a canvas for the rest of the Miyazaki's grand ideas to fill however, a dramatic conflict to power the film's narrative as opposed to its spiritual core. The conflict between nature and industry gives us a basic foundation of dispute between characters to kick-start dramatic progression, and simultaneously leads us down the numerous other paths of analysis present in Miyazaki's work.

Below we see the transition occurring between landscapes, and the aforementioned industrialisation that occurs in Princess Mononoke. A recurring idea throughout the film is the metamorphosis of natural to unnatural with not only the setting demonstrating this, but also the use of rifles and primitive technology in combat alongside the traditional samurai swords.

Fig ii: The natural landscapes of Princess Mononoke are characterised as being bathed in light, lush and green...

Fig iii: ...Whereas the industrialised portion of the setting adopts the same colour palette as the demons that stalk it.

Upon this canvas plays out a tale of changing times, most prominent being the roles of the female characters in this society, with the miniature city a microcosm of what is to come in industrialised Japan. Though Ghibli had used female characters as protagonists many times before, we had not seen them portrayed quite as we do here. Kiki was resourceful and motivated in Kiki's Delivery Service, but she was still naïve and young, likewise for the child protagonists in Totoro. In Princess Mononoke however, Miyazaki places female empowerment right at the heart of the film's attitudes concerning societal transition.

Antagonist Lady Eboshi is capable, ruthless, intelligent and powerful, as are the many prostitutes she has liberated and now employs as her workforce. The women in Princess Mononoke are characterised often as the smartest people in the room, putting the men to shame with their work ethic and courage. This change in gender representation is intrinsically linked to the changing times of Japanese culture, and the shift away from the male focused traditions central to feudal Japan. In many of the films Miyazaki had taken influence from (see: Most of Kurosawa's filmography, numerous westerns) women took a backseat role, content to play as either foils to the men or functioning as romantic interests as opposed to fleshed out characters.

With a transition away from tradition and into industrialisation however, comes a shift in gender roles, and in the following images we see the group shot that has defined male culture in Japanese films adopted by the female characters, changing entirely the gender structure of the film.

Fig iv: This frame is notable for its similarity to many of the group shots used throughout Seven Samurai (1954) where the group shot was used as a signifier of male bonding in feudal Japan. Here it is replaced entirely by females, signalling a changing in both the times and attitudes of Japan.

Fig v: A further demonstration of the idea presented in Fig iv - note the men that flank the position, separated and weak as opposed to the unit that the women form.

The final idea of transition present in Princess Mononoke is one not depicted in the narrative; but rather it is the previously mentioned change in the studio itself. Further playing into the hands that it is a film about change, this was the last major animated film to be drawn on plastic cells. Following this, new methods of animation became commonplace and some would argue the shift away from tradition that Miyazaki depicts in the film spills over into the production aspects also.

We could also consider the film as the catalyst for a shift in tone for Studio Ghibli. Their subsequent production Spirited Away (2001) may not have the bloodshed or violence present in Mononoke but it no doubt continued down the darker path established here. Although Miyazaki was seemingly experimenting with just how much he could get away with on his final piece of cinema, he ended up proving that even a twisted adventure concerning evil, death and darkness could be incredibly profitable, with Princess Mononoke becoming the most successful film in Japan of all time until the release of Titanic later that year.

Fig vi

Fig vii

Fig viii

Princess Mononoke remains quite unlike anything the studio has made since, but stands as the turning point in their existence, one at which they embraced a darker more nightmarish tone that would rear its head to varying degrees in everything they made since. It is a transition for the studio in the sense that, through Miyazaki's experimentation with more extreme and surreal visuals (figs viii, ix, x) the studio was able to make subversive animation appealing and successful without losing any of their core values. The above frames highlight some of the strangest and most unsettling imagery found in Ghibli's catalogue, and were it not for Miyazaki's intended final indulgence in stranger ideas, visuals and atmospherics, then we may not have been gifted the subsequent decade and a half of daring animation that was ushered in as a result.

Studio Ghibli Forever Season is currently underway, with Princess Mononoke heading back to cinemas on June 19th. Head here to find out more information.