Princess Mononoke was released in the United States 1997. Widely acclaimed by critics, the film is set in Japan’s Muromachi period (Japan’s medieval period). It opens with a guard on a watchtower who sees a demon coming to attack his village. The demon turns out to be a boar demon.
In battling and killing the demon, the last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, is wounded. That evening the village wise woman tells him the wound on his arm is cursed and will spread throughout his body and eventually kill him. She also gives Ashitaka the iron ball that turned the boar into a demon. She tells him there is only one being on earth who can help him, and that is the Forest Spirit in the lands to the west. Ashitaka must leave the Emishi village forever, and he does, riding out that night on his red elk, Yakul.
Soon we meet Lady Eboshi. She’s leading her workers back to Irontown with new ore. In order to keep money coming in to her profitable town, Lady Eboshi clears the forest of its trees to get to the ore underneath. She has built her town by hiring prostitutes and lepers and other outcasts to work for her. She is loved and feared among her people, but she is hated by the forest gods and animals.
A den of wolves attack—one who is Moro, a wolf goddess. Among them is San (Princess Mononoke), Moro’s human “daughter.” Not only is Moro injured in the attack, four men fall to the water below. Assuming they’re dead, Lady Eboshi leads the rest of her chain gang home.
After learning his arm now has the supernatural power to remove heads and limbs simply by shooting an arrow, Ashitaka meets Jigo, a fast-talking monk, while buying rice. Already we can see Jigo is greedy, but he’s still a comfort to Ashitaka on his travels. After they part ways, Ashitaka happens upon two of the fallen men in the river.
Ashitaka gets them out of the water onto dry ground. But he hears the wolves in the background and goes to investigate. There he sees San and instantly falls in love. San is treating Moro’s wounds, and when he announces his presence, she tells him to go away. It’s obvious she doesn’t trust humans.
Following kodamas (creatures that are a sign that a forest is healthy), Ashitaka carries one of the men through the enchanted forest (the other rides Yakul) and gets a warm welcome when he brings the men back to Irontown, their home. That evening Lady Eboshi reveals that the boar that attacked Ashitaka’s village was once a boar-god of the forest called Nago. It was she who shot him, turning him into a demon. This enrages Ashitaka, but the lepers Lady Eboshi has employed dissuade him from killing her with his cursed arm.
But San makes another attack on the village that night, this time alone. She manages to get past the guards and ammunition and fight Lady Eboshi, but Ashitaka intervenes and carries her out of the town—getting shot in the chest as he does so. He collapses soon after opening the gate, but San gets him back to the forest where the Forest Spirit—a deer-like creature with a human face by day and the Nightwalker by night—resides. When Ashitaka wakes in the morning, he finds that the Spirit has healed his gunshot wound, but not his arm. He is still cursed.
The boars, lead by the boar god Okkoto, are planning to attack Irontown in an effort to protect the forest. But Lady Eboshi knows this is coming and leaves the women to defend the town while she takes the majority of men with her to hunt the Forest Spirit. Lady Eboshi only wants the Spirit dead so she can have control over the forest, but Jigo (who is among the men), has a deal with the Emperor to deliver the head. (The head of the Forest Spirit is said to grant immortality.)
The Emperor has promised to protect Irontown in return, but Lady Eboshi rightly suspects he merely has plans to take the town over. Trusting the women to protect the town from both the boars and the Emperor’s army, she continues to hunt the Forest Spirit.
Meanwhile, Ottoko’s boar army is seriously weakened in a trap set by Irontown. Ottoko himself is injured, and San leads him to the island where the Forest Spirit can either heal him or take away his life. But Jigo’s men shoot him with, turning him into a demon. San becomes trapped and Moro attacks Ottoko to save her.
The Forest Spirit appears and takes both Moro and Ottoko. Ashitaka manages to save San, but he fails to prevent Lady Eboshi from shooting off the Forest Spirit’s head—which turns it into a mindless spirit of death, killing everything it touches and spreading a black ooze that does the same. After a protracted battle, Ashitaka manages to return the Spirit’s head, turning everything green again (but the trees are gone). The Spirit collapses into the lake and is gone.
Ashitaka plans to stay in Irontown, and he promises to visit San as much as possible. Lady Eboshi vows to build a better town. In the parting shot, a kodamo appears, signifying the forest is renewing itself.
Princess Mononoke was nominated for many awards in the United States, and won a Nebula award from the group Science Fiction & Fantasy writers of America for Best Script. It also won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Film.
Princess Mononoke is one in a series of amazing animated films by Hayao Miyazaki, who many describe as Japan’s Walt Disney.