Though it was the highest grossing film in Japan in 1997, it would take two years for Princess Mononoke to make its way to America. Written and directed by legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, it might be one of the best Japanese animated films ever made. The English language version that was released in the United States in 1999 featured a story adaptation by Neil Gaiman and the voice talents of Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, and Gillian Anderson.
It tells the tale of a young man named Ashitaka who is stricken by a deadly curse while saving his village from a vengeful demon. To save himself, he is forced into exile and finds himself embroiled in a battle between the humans of Iron Town, the great forest spirit, a trio of wolves, and San, a young girl raised by those wolves.
At the Ahsoka’s Untold Tales panel at Star Wars Celebration Europe, Dave Filoni told a packed audience, “Ahsoka’s inspiration came from Mononoke. [Specifically] the character San.” And it’s easy to see once you’ve connected the dots. San is a young girl trained in the mystic ways of the nature and the forest by wolves. She was taken from her parents at an early age and had to learn a way of life significantly different from her own. Both San and Ahsoka are fierce and independent and connecting in spiritual ways to life and nature.
Another thing Ahsoka got from San is the way she moves. During a sequence in Princess Mononoke, San invades Iron Town, racing from rooftop to rooftop on the tips of her toes in a hurry. If you watch many scenes of Ahsoka fighting, but specifically her confrontation of Vader in “Twilight of the Apprentice,” you can see this style of movement filtering into Star Wars.
The imagery of San and the wolves offered more inspiration than we were ever able to see. At that same Celebration panel, Filoni elaborated on his idea for how Ahsoka escaped Order 66, and it involved a forest and benevolent wolf-like creatures. Ahsoka would have found herself meditating on a rock, as we often see the wolves and San doing in Princess Mononoke, when the clones arrive to take her, but the wolves of the forest have other plans. It just goes to show that the influences of a movie don’t stop at one idea or piece of imagery.
Princess Mononoke deals in very nuanced ways about the nature of good and evil and the opposing ideas of nature versus progress. It’s a deep mythology that has an ambiguity to it, that can see itself played out in the ever ambiguous nature of the Force. Once people think they understand these things, they have their assumptions changed. A very “forest-spirit” like creature that has made his way onto Star Wars Rebels in this role is the Bendu. He’s a god-like being operating on a level different than those around him. Mystical in the way the great forest spirit is.
Princess Mononoke’s largest contribution to Star Wars, aside from the stunning imagery and animation quality, might have been its inspiration for one of the most loved characters now in the Star Wars mythos. It’s a beautiful film and earns the title of “masterpiece.” It deals with the nuance between good and evil better than almost any movie I’ve seen. Is Lady Eboshi evil for wanting to better the situation for her people? Are the boars evil for taking pride in their fight? They all might be misguided and doing the wrong things, but none are specifically evil and it makes for a fascinating story. For fans of fantasy, this film completely eschews the Euro-centric fantasy we’re all used to and shows us something that feels wholly fresh and original, even twenty years after its creation.
At the a panel on Ahsoka at Salt Lake Comic Con, Pablo Hidalgo said, “If you want to understand Ahsoka more, and understand where she comes from cinematically, [Princess Mononoke] would be a great movie to watch for many other reasons as well, but go see that one if you haven’t seen it.” I agree with him. It’s something that needs to be watched.
Miyazaki’s masterpiece was rated PG-13 for images of violence and gore by the MPAA, but the themes in the story outweighed the violence in my mind when I opted to show it to my kids when they were in the seven and eight range.
Availability: Princess Mononoke is widely available on Blu-ray and DVD. It is not currently available through streaming video services.