The film was released in Japan on July 12, 1997, and in the United States on October 29, 1999. It was a critical and commercial blockbuster, becoming the highest-grossing film in Japan of 1997, and the highest-grossing there of all time until Titanic was released later that year; it also held Japan's box office record for its homemade films until 2001's Spirited Away, another Miyazaki film. It was dubbed into English and distributed in North America by Miramax, and despite a poor box office performance there, it sold well on DVD and video, greatly increasing Ghibli's popularity and influence outside Japan.
In Muromachi Japan, an Emishi village is attacked by a demon. The last Emishi prince, Ashitaka, kills it before it reaches the village, but its corruption curses his arm in the combat. The curse gives his arm superhuman strength, but will eventually kill him. The villagers discover that the demon was a boar god, Nago, corrupted by an iron ball lodged in his body. The village's wise woman tells Ashitaka that he may find a cure in the western lands Nago came from but he cannot return to his homeland.
Heading west, Ashitaka meets Jiko-bō, a wandering monk, who tells Ashitaka he may find help from the Great Forest Spirit, a Kirin-like creature by day and a giant "nightwalker" by night. Nearby, men herd oxen to Irontown, led by Lady Eboshi, when they are attacked by a wolf pack led by the wolf goddess Moro. Riding one of the wolves is San, a human girl. Later, Ashitaka discovers two injured Irontown men, and sees San and her wolf pack; he greets them, but they leave. He carries the injured men through the forest, where he encounters many kodama, and glimpses the Forest Spirit.
In Irontown, Ashitaka learns Eboshi has built the town by clearcutting forests to claim ironsand and produce iron, leading to conflict with the forest gods towards which she has no mercy. The town is a refuge for social outcasts, including former brothel workers and lepers, whom Eboshi employs to manufacture firearms to defend against the gods; Nago was turned into a demon by one of Eboshi's guns. Eboshi also explains that San, self-dubbed Princess Mononoke, was raised by the wolves as one of their own and resents humankind.
San infiltrates Irontown to kill Eboshi, but Ashitaka intervenes, knocking them both unconscious. As he leaves, he is inadvertently shot by a villager, but the curse gives him the strength to carry San out of the village. San awakens and is about to kill the weakened Ashitaka, but hesitates when he tells her that she is beautiful. She takes him to the forest, and decides to trust him after the Forest Spirit saves his life.
A boar clan led by the blind boar god Okkoto attacks Irontown to save the forest. Eboshi prepares for battle and sets out to kill the Forest Spirit under Jiko-bō's supervision, who is working for the government. Eboshi intends to give the god's head to the Emperor of Japan in return for protection from local daimyō; according to legend, the Forest Spirit's head grants immortality.
In battle, the boar clan is annihilated and Okkoto is corrupted by gunshot wounds. Jiko-bō's men disguise themselves in boar skins and trick the rampaging Okkoto into leading them to the Forest Spirit. San tries to stop Okkoto, but is swept up in his demonic corruption. Moro intervenes and Ashitaka dives into the corruption to save San. However, Ashitaka's infection is accelerated, and San too is cursed.
The Forest Spirit kills Okkoto and Moro, and during its nightwalker transformation, Eboshi decapitates it. It bleeds ooze that instantly kills life as it searches for its head, which Jiko-bō has stolen. The forest and kodama begin to die, and Moro uses her last moment to bite off Eboshi's right arm. Ashitaka follows Jiko-bō to Irontown after bandaging Eboshi and convincing San to accompany him. Ashitaka and San battles with Jiko-bō to retrieve the head and return it to the Forest Spirit. Ashitaka, San and the land are healed, but the Forest Spirit dies. Ashitaka will help rebuild Irontown, but tells San he will visit her in the forest. Eboshi vows to build a better town as the forest begins to regrow.Yōji Matsuda voices Ashitaka (アシタカ), the last prince of the Emishi tribe whose traveling companion is Yakul (ヤックル, Yakkuru), a red elk (アカシシ, Akashishi), more similar to a red Lechwe than an elk. Miyazaki did not want Ashitaka to be a typical hero, saying that he is a "melancholic boy who has a fate" and also stated that Ashitaka's curse "is similar to the lives of people [at the time]". Ashitaka's English voice actor Billy Crudup stated that he liked Ashitaka as "an unexpected hero. He’s not your usual wild, brave guy. He’s really just a young, earnest man who’s trying to lead a valuable life and protect his village."
Yuriko Ishida voices San (サン), a young woman who was raised by the wolves and feels hatred for humans, but eventually comes to care for Ashitaka. In the English version, San is voiced by Claire Danes.
Ishida also voices Kaya (カヤ), the bride-elect of Ashitaka; Tara Strong provides her voice in the English version.
Yūko Tanaka provides the voice of Lady Eboshi (エボシ御前, Eboshi Gozen), the ruler of Irontown who continually clears the forest. Miyazaki stated that Eboshi was supposed to have a traumatic past, although it is not specifically mentioned in the film. Miyazaki said that Eboshi has a strong and secure personality, evident in the fact that she let Ashitaka move freely through the settlement unescorted, despite his unclear motives. He also said that Eboshi does not acknowledge the Emperor's authority in Irontown, a revolutionary view for the time, and displays an atypical attitude for a woman of that era in that she wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice herself or those around her for her dreams. Miyazaki also said that Eboshi resembles a shirabyōshi. Eboshi's English voice actress Minnie Driver stated that she was interested in "the challenge of playing [a] woman who supports industry and represents the interests of man, in terms of achievement and greed." Driver viewed Eboshi as "a warrior, an innovator and a protector."
Kaoru Kobayashi provides the voice of Jiko-bō (ジコ坊, called "Jigo" in the English version), a monk and mercenary who befriends Ashitaka on his journey to the west. Miyazaki was unsure whether to make Jiko-bō a government spy, a ninja, a member of a religious group or "a very good guy." He eventually decided to give Jigo elements of the above groups. In the English version, Jiko-bō is voiced by Billy Bob Thornton.
Masahiko Nishimura voices Kohroku (甲六, Kōroku), an ox driver; John DeMita voiced Kohroku in the English version.
Tsunehiko Kamijō provides the voice of Gonza (ゴンザ), Eboshi's bodyguard; he was voiced by John DiMaggio in the English version.
Akihiro Miwa voices Moro (モロの君, Moro no Kimi), a giant wolf god and San's adopted mother; Gillian Anderson provides her voice in the English version.
Mitsuko Mori provides the voice of Hii-sama (ヒイ様), the wise woman of Ashitaka's village. In the English version, Hii-sama is voiced by Debi Derryberry.
Hisaya Morishige provides the voice of Okkoto-nushi (乙事主, called "Okkoto" in the English version), a blind boar god. In the English version, Okkoto-nushi was voiced by Keith David, who also voiced the narrator in the film's opening sequence.
The cast also includes: Akira Nagoya as the cattleman leader (牛飼いの長, Ushigai no Naga); Kimihiro Reizei as a Jibashiri (ジバシリ); Tetsu Watanabe as a mountain wolf (山犬, Yamainu); Makoto Sato as Nago (ナゴの守, Nago no Mori), a wild boar turned into a demon who curses Ashitaka when he attacks the Emishi village; and Sumi Shimamoto as Toki (トキ), Kohroku's wife, a former prostitute, and the leader of Eboshi's women, voiced by Jada Pinkett Smith in the English version.
In the late 1970s, Miyazaki drew sketches of a film about a princess living in the woods with a beast. Miyazaki began writing the film's plotline and drew the initial storyboards for the film in August 1994. He had difficulties adapting his early ideas and visualisations, because elements had already been used in My Neighbor Totoro and because of societal changes since the creation of the original sketches and image boards. This writer's block prompted him to accept a request for the creation of the On Your Mark promotional music video for the Chage and Aska song of the same title. According to Toshio Suzuki, the diversion allowed Miyazaki to return for a fresh start on the creation of Princess Mononoke. In April 1995, supervising animator Masashi Ando devised the character designs from Miyazaki's storyboard. In May 1995, Miyazaki drew the initial storyboards. That same month, Miyazaki and Ando went to the ancient forests of Yakushima, of Kyushu, an inspiration for the landscape of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and the mountains of Shirakami-Sanchi in northern Honshu for location scouting along with a group of art directors, background artists and digital animators for three days. Animation production commenced in July 1995. Miyazaki personally oversaw each of the 144,000 cels in the film, and is estimated to have redrawn parts of 80,000 of them. The final storyboards of the film's ending were finished only months before the Japanese premiere date.
Inspired by John Ford, an Irish-American director best known for his Westerns, Miyazaki created Iron Town as a "tight-knit frontier town" and populated it with "characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films." He made the characters "yearning, ambitious and tough." Miyazaki did not want to create an accurate history of Medieval Japan, and wanted to "portray the very beginnings of the seemingly insoluble conflict between the natural world and modern industrial civilization." The landscapes appearing in the film were inspired by Yakushima. Despite being set during the Muromachi period, the actual time period of Princess Mononoke depicts a "symbolic neverwhen clash of three proto-Japanese races (the Jomon, Yamato and Emishi)."
Princess Mononoke was produced with an estimated budget of ¥2.35 billion (approximately US$23.5 million). It was mostly hand-drawn, but incorporates some use of computer animation during five minutes of footage throughout the film. The computer animated parts are designed to blend in and support the traditional cel animation, and are mainly used in images consisting of a mixture of computer generated graphics and traditional drawing. A further 10 minutes uses digital paint, a technique used in all subsequent Studio Ghibli films. Most of the film is colored with traditional paint, based on the color schemes designed by Miyazaki and Michiyo Yasuda. However, producers agreed on the installation of computers to successfully complete the film prior to the Japanese premiere date.
Two titles were originally considered for the film. One, ultimately chosen, has been translated into English as Princess Mononoke. The other title can be translated into English as either The Story of Ashitaka or The Legend of Ashitaka. In a Tokyo Broadcasting System program, televised on November 26, 2013, Toshio Suzuki mentioned that Hayao Miyazaki had preferred The Legend of Ashitaka as the title while Suzuki himself favoured Princess Mononoke. Suzuki also mentioned that Miyazaki had created a new kanji to write his preferred title.
The English dub contains minor additional voice overs to explain nuances of Japanese culture to western audiences.
A central theme of Princess Mononoke is the environment. The film centers on the adventure of Ashitaka as he journeys to the west to undo a fatal curse inflicted upon him by Nago, a boar turned into a demon by Eboshi. Michelle J. Smith and Elizabeth Parsons said that the film "makes heroes of outsiders in all identity politics categories and blurs the stereotypes that usually define such characters". In the case of the deer god's destruction of the forest and Tataraba, Smith and Parsons said that the "supernatural forces of destruction are unleashed by humans greedily consuming natural resources". They also characterized Eboshi as a business-woman who has a desire to make money at the expense of the forest, and also cite Eboshi's intention to destroy the forest to mine the mountain "embodies environmentalist evil".
Two other themes found in the plot of Princess Mononoke are sexuality and disability. Speaking at the International Symposium on Leprosy / Hansen's Disease History in Tokyo, Miyazaki explained that he was inspired to portray people living with leprosy, "said to be an incurable disease caused by bad karma", after visiting the Tama Zenshoen Sanatorium near his home in Tokyo. Lady Eboshi is driven by her compassion for the disabled, and believes that blood from the Great Forest Spirit could allow her to "cure [her] poor lepers". Michelle Jarman, Assistant Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Wyoming, and Eunjung Kim, Assistant Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the disabled and gendered sexual bodies were partially used as a transition from the feudal era to a hegemony that "embraces modern social systems, such as industrialization, gendered division of labor, institutionalization of people with diseases, and militarization of men and women." They likened Lady Eboshi to a monarch. Kim and Jarman suggested that Eboshi's disregard of ancient laws and curses towards prostitutes and lepers was enlightenment reasoning and her exploitation of disabled people furthered her modernist viewpoints. Kim and Jarman conclude that Lady Eboshi's supposed benevolence in incorporating lepers and prostitutes into her society leverages the social stigma attached to marginalized groups, pointing out that the hierarchical structures within Iron Town still support the stigmatization of lepers and prostitutes.
An additional theme is the morally ambiguous conflict between humankind's growth and development and Nature's need for preservation. Noted by Roger Ebert in his 1999 review, "It is not a simplistic tale of good and evil, but the story of how humans, forest animals and nature gods all fight for their share of the new emerging order." Billy Crudup, who provided the English voice for Ashitaka, said "The movie was such an entirely different experience; it had a whole new sensibility I had never seen in animation. It also had something profound to say: that there has to be a give and take between man and nature. One of the things that really impressed me is that Miyazaki shows life in all its multi-faceted complexity, without the traditional perfect heroes and wicked villains. Even Lady Eboshi, who Ashitaka respects, is not so much evil as short-sighted." Minnie Driver, the English voice actress for Lady Eboshi, commented similarly: "It's one of the most remarkable things about the film: Miyazaki gives a complete argument for both sides of the battle between technological achievement and our spiritual roots in the forest. He shows that good and evil, violence and peace exist in us all. It's all about how you harmonize it all."
Dan Jolin of Empire said that a potential theme could be that of lost innocence. Miyazaki attributes this to his experience of making his previous film, Porco Rosso, and the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which he cites as an example of mankind never learning, making it difficult for him to go back to making a film such as Kiki's Delivery Service, where he has been quoted as saying "It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we're happy?"
Princess Mononoke was released theatrically in Japan on July 12, 1997. The film was extremely successful in Japan and with both anime fans and arthouse moviegoers in English-speaking countries. Miramax Films, then a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, purchased the film's distribution rights for North America. Miyazaki met with Harvey Weinstein, Miramax's chairman; Weinstein demanded that edits should be made to Princess Mononoke. In response, Toshio Suzuki sent Weinstein a katana with a message stating "No cuts."
The English dub of Princess Mononoke is a translation with some adaptation by fantasy author Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman. The main changes from the Japanese version are to provide a cultural context for phrases and actions which those outside of Asia may not be familiar with. Such alterations include references to mythology and specific names for groups, such as Jibashiri and Shishigami, that appear in the Japanese version, which are changed to more general terms, such as Mercenary and Forest Spirit, in the English version. The rationale for such changes is that the majority of non-Japanese viewers would not understand the mythological references and that the English language simply has no words for the Jibashiri, Shishigami and other terms.
Miramax chose to put a large sum of money into creating the English dub of Princess Mononoke with famous actors and actresses, yet when they released it in theatres there was little or no advertising and it was given a very limited run, showing in only a few theatres and for a very short time. Disney later complained about the fact that the movie did not do well at the box office. In September 2000, the film was announced for release on DVD in North America exclusively with the English dub. In response to fans' requests to add the Japanese track as well as threats of poor sales, Miramax hired translators for the Japanese version. This plan delayed the DVD release back by almost three months, but it sold well when it was finally released.
On April 29, 2000, the English-dub version of Princess Mononoke was released theatrically in Japan along with the documentary Mononoke hime in U.S.A.. The documentary was directed by Toshikazu Sato and featured Miyazaki visiting Walt Disney Studios and various film festivals.
Princess Mononoke was the highest-grossing Japanese film of 1997, earning ¥11.3 billion in distribution receipts. It became the highest-grossing film in Japan until it was surpassed by Titanic several months later. The film earned a domestic total of ¥14,518,798,588.39 ($148,000,000.)
It was the top-selling anime in the United States in January 2001, but despite this the film did not fare as well financially in the country when released in December 1997. It grossed $2,298,191 for the first eight weeks. Although it showed more strength worldwide where it earned a total of $11 million with a total of ¥14,487,325,138 ($159,375,308).
In Japan, the film was released on VHS by Buena Vista Home Entertainment on June 26, 1998. A LaserDisc edition was also released by Tokuma Japan Communications on the same day. The film was released on DVD by Buena Vista Home Entertainment on November 21, 2001 with bonus extras added, including the international versions of the film as well as the storyboards.
In July 2000, Buena Vista Home Entertainment announced plans to release the film on VHS and DVD in North America on August 29. Initially, the DVD version of Princess Mononoke did not include the Japanese-language track at the request of Buena Vista's Japan division, citing concerns that "a foreign-released DVD containing the Japanese language track will allow for the importation of such a DVD to Japan, which could seriously hurt the local sales of a future release of the [film]". The fansite Nausicaa.net organized an email campaign for fans to include the Japanese language track, while DVD Talk began an online petition to retain the Japanese language track. The DVD release of Princess Mononoke was delayed as a result. Buena Vista Home Entertainment released the DVD in July 2000 with the original Japanese audio, the English dubbed audio and extras including a trailer and a documentary with interviews from the English dub voice actors. The film was released on Blu-ray disc in Japan on December 4, 2013.
Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment released Princess Mononoke on Blu-ray Disc on November 18, 2014, and was included in the Blu-ray Miyazaki Collection, released on November 17, 2015.
GKIDS will re-issue the film on Blu-ray & DVD on October 17, 2017.
Princess Mononoke received favorable reviews from film critics. As of March 2014, the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported a 92% approval rating based on 105 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. It offers the consensus: "With its epic story and breathtaking visuals, Princess Mononoke is a landmark in the world of animation." On Metacritic, the film achieved an average score of 76 out of 100 based on 29 reviews, signifying "generally favorable reviews".
The Daily Yomiuri's Aaron Gerow called the film a "powerful compilation of [Hayao] Miyazaki's world, a cumulative statement of his moral and filmic concerns." Leonard Klady of Variety said that Princess Mononoke "is not only more sharply drawn, it has an extremely complex and adult script" and the film "has the soul of a romantic epic, and its lush tones, elegant score by Joe Hisaishi and full-blooded characterizations give it the sweep of cinema's most grand canvases". Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called Princess Mononoke "a great achievement and a wonderful experience, and one of the best films of the year. […] You won’t find many Hollywood love stories (animated or otherwise) so philosophical." Ty Burr of Entertainment Weekly called the film "a windswept pinnacle of its art" and that it "has the effect of making the average Disney film look like just another toy story". However, Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post stated that the film "is as spectacular as it is dense and as dense as it is colorful and as colorful as it is meaningless and as meaningless as it is long. And it's very long." Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times said that the film "brings a very different sensibility to animation, a medium [Miyazaki] views as completely suitable for straight dramatic narrative and serious themes."
Roger Ebert placed Princess Mononoke sixth on his top ten movies of 1999. It ranked 488th on Empire's list of the 500 greatest films. Time Out ranked the film 26th on 50 greatest animated films. It also ranked 26 on Total Film's list of 50 greatest animated films.
Princess Mononoke is the first animated feature film to win Best Picture in the Japan Academy Prize. For the 70th Academy Awards ceremony, Princess Mononoke was the Japanese submission to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not successfully nominated. Hayao Miyazaki was also nominated for an Annie Award for his work on the film.
The film score of Princess Mononoke was composed and performed by Joe Hisaishi, the soundtrack composer for nearly all of Miyazaki's productions, and Miyazaki wrote the lyrics of the two vocal tracks, "The Tatara Women Work Song" and its title song. The music was performed by Tokyo City Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Hiroshi Kumagai. The soundtrack was released in Japan by Tokuma Japan Communications on July 2, 1997, and the North American version was released by Milan Records on October 12, 1999.
The titular theme song was performed by counter-tenor Yoshikazu Mera. For the English adaptation, Sasha Lazard sang the song.
As with other Studio Ghibli films, additional albums featuring soundtrack themes in alternative versions have been released. The image album features early versions of the themes, recorded at the beginning of the film production process, and used as source of inspiration for the various artists involved. The symphonic suite features longer compositions, each encompassing several of the movie themes, performed by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mario Klemens.
All music composed by Joe Hisaishi, except as noted.
In 2012, it was announced that Studio Ghibli and British theatre company Whole Hog Theatre would be bringing Princess Mononoke to the stage. It is the first stage adaptation of a Studio Ghibli work. The contact between Whole Hog Theatre and Studio Ghibli was facilitated by Nick Park of Aardman Animations after he sent footage of Whole Hog performances to Studio Ghibli's Toshio Suzuki. The play features large puppets made out of recycled and reclaimed materials.
The first performances were scheduled for London's New Diorama Theatre and sold out in 72 hours, a year in advance. In March 2013, it was announced that the show would transfer to Japan after its first run of shows in London. A second series of performances followed in London after the return from Tokyo. The second run of London performances sold out in four and half hours. The play received positive reviews and was one of Lyn Gardner's theatre picks in The Guardian. On April 27, 2013, the play was presented at Nico Nico Douga's Cho Party and was streamed online in Japan.