I'm convinced this is the film Studio Ghibli spent its early years building up to. While previous efforts like Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro contained mythical elements - sleepy deities, spritely spirits, magic-tinged talents - the influence of god-level beings often feels secondary, relegated to a few enchanting (yet fleeting) glimpses. In Princess Mononoke, such divine creatures are essential, active participants. They speak, argue, swing their weight around. We aren't left to guess about their opinions or motivations, because their words and actions carry such a resonant influence. It's mesmerizingly effective, a contrast between the seemingly petty concerns of human tribes and the mass and muscle of a much heavier entity.
Mononoke represents a huge step up for the studio, particularly in that sense of scale. Rather than maintaining the quaint, intimate essence that typified their early output, this time Ghibli has gone sweeping and epic. Everything, from the ambitious, enveloping symphonic score to the wide, gorgeous landscapes and distinct environs, emphasizes this point. We've left the village to find there's a broad undiscovered world out there. Yet the distinguishing little touches and unspoken human gestures haven't been lost in the transition, either. It still looks and feels like a Miyazaki movie, calmingly earnest and heartstrong, but the canvas is larger and more potentially powerful. And man, do they make the most of that promise.