Riffs: Princess Mononoke (Movie and Book)

Here is one of the more interesting riffs in the Ghibli canon. In Princess Mononoke, we see a character named Kaya who serves as a romantic interest (of sorts) for Prince Ashitaka. The relationship is shown shown in brief moments, but she clearly loves the boy and is devoted to him. As he is cast out of the village and sent on his quest, she gives him a crystal dagger as a symbol of her memory.

Later in the movie, Ashitaka meets San, the "Princess Mononoke", and falls in love with her. He gives her his crystal dagger as a sign of his devotion to her. Later, during the dramatic climax, San lashes out in anger by striking the same dagger into Ashitaka's chest. In the end, while the two share love for one another, they both realize that they cannot live together, and must stay in their separate worlds (don't kid yourself; when the girl you are dating says "I need my space," you're never seeing her again).

Now here's where things really get interesting. The village girl Kaya is actually a recreation of the heroine from Hayao Miyazaki's original 1980 version of Mononoke Hime, which was radically different from the eventual movie. It's far closer to a traditional fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast meets Feudal Japan. In that story, Mononoke is a large cat who takes on a human wife, the "Mononoke Princess."

Incorporating the storybook princess into the movie is a stroke of sly brilliance. The romantic heart of this movie involves a love triangle, where the heroic prince must choose between two women who carry the same name.

Most Miyazaki fans in the West had never heard of the 1980 version of Mononoke, created as a series of storyboards for a planned animation project which was scuttled, then published in the 1983 book Hayao Miyazaki Image Boards. A standalone storybook was published in Japan in 1997 to coincide with the movie, and was eventually published in North America by Viz Media in 2014.

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