As a warning, this breakdown of Princess Mononoke will have spoilers.
Princess Mononoke is a ground breaking work of art, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. In fact, Princess Mononoke is one of Studio Ghibli’s finest films of all time. The film has a completely different virbe than My Neighbor Totoro, so don’t expect a mild adventure. Princess Mononoke takes place during a time of war and a changing relationship between man and nature. From the get go Miyazaki does an excellent job of world building.
The audience is introduced to Ashitaka, a young prince of Emishi tribe. Our introduction to Ashitaka is actually an introduction to the changing economical and cultural changes in Japan during the Muromachi Period. See, in the beginning of the film our young hero is infected with a demon curse, which represents the changes happening in Japan at that time. It is a time of civil war and economical changes. Ashitaka must travel west to find a cure for his curse. I suspect that the curse is really a symbol of change. Our hero must overcome change without allowing it to corrupt him. Corruption can spread very easily, so that is why Ashitaka is forced to travel west alone. The curse is Ashitaka’s burden to bear alone and overcome, so it makes sense why he must take this journey. With all this in mind, there’s some expected violence, but it is well placed.
As I said earlier, the story takes place during the Muromachi Period, which is somewhere between the 14th and 16th century in Japan. We can narrow down the time line even more, but things are still a little fuzzy. As a fact, it is known that the Chinese first exported fireworks to Japan in the 14th century. On the other hand the Portuguese brought riffles to Japan in 1543. Considering that we see the use of riffles in the film, it must be after or around 1543.
Like I said earlier, the Muromachi period was a period of change for the Japanese people. Much of the country was engulfed in cilvil war, which of course is another symbol of Man’s evolution to a more violent creature. Power can be a dangerous thing, and as we see in the film Man is after it. In fact, Man finally starts to feel like he can control nature, but it will come at a price. Nature is no push over, and hence the struggle we see in the film. Irontown basically declares war on The Forest God, which is pretty much the spirt of nature. Irontown’s war against nature represents man’s thirst for more natural resources and power. There is some historical fact to this as well. During this period, iron production greatly increased, which in turned required a large number of trees to be cut down for charcoal. We see Irontown doing this exact same act.
Furthermore, I believe that the Forest God is a simbol of death of an era. After the Forest God loses his head, everything it touches dies, which is a symbol of the death of Man’s old ways. At this point in the film, Man is much more deadly, so it makes sense that everything the Forest God touches dies. In the end it’s most likely because of Man’s greed to why the Forest dies. On the other hand, it seems like what Miyazaki is also saying that humans must find a balance with nature. By the end of the film we do see this balance but it came at a cost.