In the traditional form of hand-drawn animation (now viewed as too expensive and slow compared to CG), drawings are made on transparent cels and over-laid on each other before being recorded. For instance if a character is moving, it will remain on one cel which is laid on top of the stagnant background. This way the character can be moved without redrawing the background again and again. Special cameras are used to shoot these cels and the movement is controlled by meticulous calculations, the drawing technique of the animators, and machines that guide the final shoot. Miyazaki himself was a huge part of the two year process of painstaking animation that the film underwent and he personally corrected or redrew more than 80,000 of the film's 144,000 animation cels.
The story of the film takes place in Japan somewhere in the fourteenth century and includes a mixture of references from various Japanese periods. In the story Miyazaki also incorporates Japanese mythology: Spirit-gods, enchanted forests and talking animals are commonplace as we see the world through the eyes of the people of that time. To them, mystic spirits embodied everything, and rather than being “supernatural”, they were an important element in the natural order of things.
Princess Mononoke begins with a young Emishi prince named Ashitaka, who encounters a strange demonic spirit in the form of a possessed, wounded boar. The boar comes out of the forest and attacks Ashitaka’s village, and in his efforts to protect his people, he rides against it on his elk (named Yakul) and ends up killing it. Before dying the enraged demon-god curses Ashitaka, and inflicts a strange wound on his arm.
Upon consulting the village oracle, Ashitaka learns that this curse will eventually kill him, and that in search of a cure, he must travel west from where the boar has come and find out how it was wounded. The only clue they have is a strange black ball of iron that was embedded in the boar’s body, and Ashitaka sets out on a westward journey to discover the source of this trouble and “see with eyes unclouded”.
The scenes depicting this opening action sequence introduce the tone of the film to us immediately, they are incredibly fluid and beautiful, but also contain unabashed gore, and a weird creativity that many of us have come to expect from all things Japanese. For instance the giant boar is frighteningly rendered, and covered in squirming wormlike tendrils that are strengthening and destroying him at the same time. However this gruesome creativity is not meaningless - as Miyazaki explains in the making of the film - these black snake-like growths are made to represent hatred and the boar’s behavior reflects the all-consuming nature of the rage it breeds.
After Ashitaka sets off on his journey, he meets a man named Jigo, who advises him to go to the mountain woods of this western land. This strange forest is occupied with many other animal-spirits, the greatest of which is the mysterious deer-god.
Ashitaka makes his way to the mountains and discovers that there is an iron town here which is located at the edge of the forest. This town is run by Lady Eboshi – who has set up a matriarchal society and aspires to build a great empire. The industrial works of course bring the locals in acrimonious contact with the forest and its wildlife, and they are constantly cutting the trees and battling the creatures inside – chiefly the wolf-gods that ferociously attack their convoys whenever they head into the jungle.
It is one such battle which brings Ashitaka into contact with the village’s soldiers, who he discovers injured by the wolves and left for dead near a river. While he is rescuing them he also sees the giant animals and is surprised to see them accompanied by a fierce young girl. This girl is San, and we soon discover that she is a young human woman who was adopted by the giant wolf goddess Moro. She is known by the villagers as "Princess Mononoke" (Mononoke-hime or Princess of Angry Spirits).