Princess Mononoke VS Spirited Away: Which is Truly Better?

Anime fans are no strangers to endless debates: is Gen Urobuchi a genius? Is Neon Genesis Evangelion the most-influential anime of the last 25 years? Does new anime suck? However, no debate is more fascinating than that of Princess Mononoke versus Spirited Away.

I’m sure some of you are already prepping a response, but I ask that you wait. I think it’s an entirely unproductive debate to have without context, and it’s gonna vary depending on who you talk to. I know my own stake in this matter (it’s Spirited Away,) but since it was recently brought to my attention by a fellow Infinite Rainy Day writer, I figured I’d go into depth about the films, what makes them special and whether or not this debate is necessary.

Some history on these two films: Princess Mononoke was released on July 12th, 1997 in Japan. A passion-project of legendary director Hayao Miyazaki, the movie had been in the works since the late-70’s and had changed concepts several times. The movie cost roughly $24 million USD, was the last anime film to use hand-drawn cels and generated close to $160 million USD at the Japanese box-office. It currently holds a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 76 on Metacritic and an 8.4/10 on IMDb.

Spirited Away, conversely, was released on July 20th, 2001 in Japan. A passion-project for Miyazaki for close to 2 years, having been inspired by the daughter of a friend, the movie cost $19 million USD, was the first Miyazaki film done entirely digital and generated a little over $289 million USD at the Japanese box-office. It currently holds a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, a 94 on Metacritic and an 8.6/10 on IMDb.

Both films are held in high-regard by Otaku and general audiences, but it seems like a clear victory for Spirited Away; after all, it was better-received, made more money and is more highly-regarded by people who aren’t big into anime. It swept all the big awards, including an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003, and is found on personal favourite lists of big-names like Time Out and AFI. Princess Mononoke, though highly-respected, seems like another anime film in comparison, even getting the shaft in marketing by Harvey Weinstein due to his rejected request to cut the length for Western audiences. Still, I find the consensus is never clear over which is better, even generating huge debates. This might be a generalization, but I find that Princess Mononoke bodes better with hardcore Otaku and film nerds, while Spirited Away is more highly-regarded by critics and mainstream audiences.

Princess Mononoke tells the story of an Emishi warrior, Ashitaka, who gets his arm cursed while fighting a demon boar. He travels to a far-off forest to request a cure from The Great Forest Spirit, an animal that controls life and death, all-the-while bumping into a mining town at war with the nearby forest. Figuring that stopping this war will help him, Ashitaka plays mediator and constantly travels back-and-forth between the two sides. He also meets another human, a girl named San, who’s been raised by wolves, and they start developing a relationship.

Spirited Away is the story of 10 year-old Chihiro Ogino, who’s in the process of moving cities with her parents. The three of them wind up at an abandoned theme park, only to discover that it’s really a bathhouse for spirits. After her parents are turned into pigs, Chihiro takes up a job at said bathhouse and changes her name to Sen. From there, she meets weird spirits, helps a boy named Haku and learns to be more independent and caring. And, of course, wacky hijinks occur.

The stories themselves are simple enough, one’s a war movie and the other’s a rabbit-hole movie, but if you look at their premises, you’ll notice a lot bizarre components that, at first-glance, don’t add up; for example, why did Ashitaka go into exile? Shouldn’t his own people have tried to help him lift the curse? And Chihiro’s whole dilemma with her parents could’ve been avoided entirely had they not, I dunno, entered the weird amusement park! However, you quickly realize that, in the end, it doesn’t really matter, as Miyazaki operates more on emotion and character logic than narrative consistency.

Both movies are excellently-animated, as per course for Miyazaki, and both are examples of what anime is capable of with the right time and talent. Both have wonderfully-detailed backgrounds too: Princess Mononoke is incredibly well-rendered considering its three settings, while Spirited Away is so retentive about its bathhouse that you’d be surprised to learn that it’s fictional. And both integrate their limited CGI wonderfully, with the former reserving it for the demon tentacles and the latter some of the scenery shots.

Thematically, both films are incredibly rich. You’d expect that with Princess Mononoke, with it being a war movie wrapped inside an environmental movie, but the story plays out with a nuance and grace reserved for many of the great epics. It basically argues that man and nature can co-exist, yet are constantly at ends because of their common goal of survival. Despite this, it favours nature as the long-term victor, and that it must be respected if the Earth is to endure. This could’ve easily been preachy and heavy-handed, and that it isn’t is a testament to Miyazaki’s integrity.

That not to say that Spirited Away is a slouch in comparison. Far from it, as evidenced by themes of companionship, greed being detrimental and the dangers of child labour for immediate self-gratification. The film has so many layers that one could easily mistake it for a traditionally-drawn Pixar film, and the comparisons to Disney have been made frequently. It’s a coming of age story that isn’t overly-critical, and it’s been called a subtle commentary on the Japanese economy. I discover something new about it every time I watch it, and that’s always fun.

Musically, the two are different, yet similar. Both feature compositions from Japanese legend Joe Hisaishi, and he brings his A-game. Princess Mononoke’s running motif is beauty amidst chaos, and Hisaishi’s score emulates that with somber tunes like The Journey to the West and much harsher ones like Tatari Gami. Conversely, Spirited Away is all about a child’s personal journey, hence The Dragon Boy, a chaotic piece from the first-act, being juxtaposed with The Waltz of Chihiro, a somber piece from the third-act. Both scores are fantastic, however, so it’s really personal preference.

The cast of characters are also preference. Princess Mononoke’s cast is bigger, but it also has the drawback of not enough time being dedicated to each one. It fleshes out those that matter most, although San sometimes flips on a dime, but then you have Kia, whom you learn nothing about save when she accidentally shoots Ashitaka in the chest. This flip-floping leaves a good chunk of the cast underdeveloped, which is a real shame. Then again, if it fleshed out every character the movie would be close to 5 hours long, and Lord know it’s long enough!

On the other hand, Spirited Away’s cast of characters is smaller, as the conflict is also smaller. This allows more time for developing Lin, Yubaba, Zeniba, Boh, Haku, Kamaji and yes, even Chihiro. But this presents a different problem, that being that there are moments where the side-characters dominate. The film is roughly 2 hours, yet Chihiro’s conflict is so minor in relation to the world she’s in that it sometimes takes a back seat to The Stink Spirit getting a bath or No-Face going drunk with power. None of it feels wasted, but the focus isn’t always where it should be; in fact, when the movie finally reaches the climax, that being a test to see if Chihiro remembers her parents, it feels rushed.

Additionally, the structure and pacing in both films isn’t always the best. I love Princess Mononoke, but its first-act feels like lots of set-up. Its third-act also drags, with the obvious conclusion being stretched to create tension. I also love Spirited Away, but it takes its time setting up its premise too. Its third-act also drags, except this time it’s because the film requires breathing room in-between the hectic scene prior and the climax. Both films, essentially, suffer from wonky pacing.

Admittedly, this can be attributed to Miyazaki’s skill as a storyteller. It’s minimal, mostly because Miyazaki sculpts his stories around what he’s already animated. He loves atmosphere, so while his films ooze with depth and detail, his writing is…passable. Actually, his dialogue is nothing to write home about anyway, it’s simply more noticeable in some of his films. As long as you don’t mind, it’s all, once again, personal preference.

The overall question that needs addressing, which is better, is also personal preference. It depends on what you’re looking for in a movie: do you want a grand epic, or a small maturation? An allegory about the environment, or a microcosmic commentary on society? Do you want violence and death, or tameness and life? A mature tale, or a family tale?

That’s probably why there’s such a divide between Otakudom and the general masses: they’re both looking for different components in a Miyazaki movie. The former often chooses Princess Mononoke because it’s steeped in Japanese lore and pacing, something they’re more familiar with. The latter, on the other hand, chooses Spirited Away because it’s more accessible to those unfamiliar with anime and has more universal themes. That doesn’t make one better than the other, but rather different. Hence why this argument is unnecessary.

In conclusion, which is better: Princess Mononoke, or Spirited Away? I think the question is more like, “Which do you prefer: Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away?” But that’s my take.


  1. I honestly didn't have any significant problems with the pacing of "Princess Mononoke". Outside of San being underdeveloped/underutilized as a character relative to the other major characters, I honestly think its a perfectly fine movie overall. "Spirited Away", I'm fine with the pacing of until right after No-Face's rampage, which is where it speeds up a little too much for my taste. Its not bad, it just seems to go by a little fast, leaving the overall story feeling slightly disjointed.

    With that being said, I'll still basically endorse your ultimate conclusion, that it really comes down to personal preference. Considering their noticeably different goals, it honestly doesn't serve much purpose to pit these two movies against each other. I love them both, albeit for different reasons. I'm slightly fonder of Miyazaki's earlier films [barring "Nausicaa", which I like, but don't love], but they still have a significant place in my affections. Certainly, I think its safe to say that they are the last movies that Hayao Miyazaki directed which merit the moniker of "great".

    1. I think saying that they're the last to be considered "great" is also problematic, since people also love his more-recent films and we shouldn't be ones to judge that. Even Howl's Moving Castle, which bugs me to no end, I admit has its strengths and definitely appeals to its fans in its own way. Hayao Miyazaki is celebrated for a reason, after all.

      As for the pacing issue? I think it's personal, but I find that every Miyazaki movie I've seen has its share of pacing problems. Some are just less-noticeable than others...

    2. "I think saying that they're the last to be considered "great" is also problematic,"

      Reread my words. I said they were the last of Hayao Miyazaki's directorial efforts to date which merit the moniker of great. I did *not* say that nobody has called any of his subsequent three movies great. People have. I am judging any such estimations to be incorrect, and I will neither rescind that judgement nor apologize for making it. This judgement of mine, of course, is not the same thing as my judging the amount of love anybody has for those three movies, because how much one enjoys a movie and how good it objectively is are too distinct things.

      "Even Howl's Moving Castle, which bugs me to no end, I admit has its strengths and definitely appeals to its fans in its own way."

      Oh, of course. Saying that it does not deserve to be called great is not at all denying its significant virtues. None of Hayao Miyazaki's movies are lacking in significant virtues, not even "Ponyo" [which, as you know, is my least favorite of his movies, and also the one which I consider to be his weakest (again, two distinct qualities, the correlation of which is coincidence)].

      "I find that every Miyazaki movie I've seen has its share of pacing problems."

      To an extent, perhaps, but its seldom anything more than a nitpick until his post-"Spirited Away" phase. The structure of his last three movies is noticeably sloppier than in any of his movies before then.

    3. I guess so. It still kinda bewilders me, however, when people call his post-Spirited Away works "garbage". They may be many things, but not garbage...

    4. There isn't a single Studio Ghibli film that I'd call "garbage". Even a mediocre movie like "Tales from Earthsea" has things to recommend it.

      What I really don't get is why Ghibli's efforts *as a whole* post-"Spirited Away" have been so disparaged by some. Sure, "Earthsea" might've been a dud, and "Ponyo" might've faltered after the opening act, but there's still been plenty of good. "Howl's Moving Castle" and "The Wind Rises" have plenty of good elements despite being kind of messy. "The Cat Returns" was good, simple fun. "Arrietty" and "From Up on Poppy Hill" were very good. "Kaguya" and "Marnie" were great. The production values for all these films range from good to excellent.

      Actually, the weirdest complaint I've seen regarding their post-"Spirited Away" work is about Ghibli "putting romance into everything". This completely ignores the fact that, barring two or three exceptions, every single Ghibli movie from "Only Yesterday" onward has had a romance in it somewhere, either as a main part of the plot or as a subplot.

    5. I guess it has to do with "Greatest Thing Ever Syndrome". Essentially, when something is regarded as the "Greatest Thing Ever", everything after it tends to be a letdown and/or unfairly judged as lesser. You see it happen all the time. It doesn't make it right, or even true, but it doesn't mean that I don't see why it happens...

  2. I personally prefer "Princess Mononoke", as to me it is the more exciting and visceral of the two. But that's not to put down "Spirited Away". I mostly like the film, but I do sometimes find Chihiro a bit grating at times (that's not Daveigh Chase's fault; it's appropriate for the part, but I find her voice hard on the ears at times), and it does bug me that the lip sync is a bit iffy in some parts of the film. Still, the movie is undeniably beautiful and I do appreciate it for bringing Miyazaki to awareness.

    But to me "Mononoke" just has the edgier story. I loved the adult tone to it and I liked how it painted the animals as not so heroic and the humans as not so villainous.

    1. Considering that "edgy" doesn't necessarily make a story better in my eyes, I guess that's part of what holds me back a little on that one; after all, Mark Millar has frequently been accused of being an edge-lord in comics, and look how his work usually turns out.

      That's not to say there isn't merit to liking a film for that reason, but still...


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