How 'Princess Mononoke' Influenced 'Star Wars: The Clone Wars' And 'The Mandalorian'

(Welcome to The Movies That Made Star Wars, a series where we explore the films and television properties that inspired George Lucas's iconic universe. In this edition:Princess Mononoke.)

George Lucas often spoke about how anime inspired his decision to create Star Wars: The Clone Wars. During a Q&A at the Siggraph convention, he said about the creation of the animation facility in Singapore that was responsible for a lot of the work on that show: "A lot of (Asia) is still trying to move into the 3D age. I set up a plan to speed up the process and to build up the community there. I also look at this as a way to get my foot into anime."

One of the chief anime influences on The Clone Wars was Hayao Miyazaki's landmark animated fantasy film Princess Mononoke. Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 1999—the year it was released in the United States. The New York Post's reviewer actually called it "the Star Wars of animated features."

So, how did this film influence not only The Clone Wars, but serve as a pattern for the recently released thirteenth chapter of The Mandalorian? Let's dive in.

Mononoke-hime

Princess Mononoke is a fantasy very much in the mode of Star Wars, full of allegory and archetypes. The English language dub, which is very good, was adapted by Neil Gaiman and the voice cast that brought it to life in English (including Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and others) tells the tale of a young prince named Ashitaka. Ashitake is cursed by a vengeful forest spirit gone mad tries to destroy his village. In the process of saving it, he finds himself fatally marked. He's forced into exile and finds himself involved in a battle between Lady Eboshi of Iron Town, and the great forest spirit, three wolves, and San, the young girl raised by those wolves. 

It tells a complicated allegory about the complicated relationship between humanity, progress, and nature, a common theme through much of Miyazaki's work. 

The film is elegant and stark, its animation and beautiful imagery enhancing the complex storytelling. The animation may seem simple at first glance, but that's because it's built to serve the story and its world without distraction. And the story it does serve is complex and filled with moral ambiguity, leaving the audience to wonder how a balance can be found between human advancement and the needs of nature.

Ahsoka Tano

"Ahsoka's inspiration came from Mononoke," Star Wars: The Clone Wars creator and The Mandalorian writer/director Dave Filoni told a crowd in 2016 at Star Wars Celebration Europe. "[Specifically] the character San."

When you watch Ahsoka and San in action, the parallels are very easy to see, with visual flourishes in the way they move and fight might be the most obvious. Dig a little deeper and you'll see more thematic elements that share similarities between the characters. Original concepts for Ahsoka even gave the character a skirt like San's, cementing the visual ties even further. However, San was merely a jumping off point for Ahsoka, as the young Jedi was able to evolve into something of her own.

At that same panel at Star Wars Celebration Europe, Dave Filoni commented that one potential ending for Ahsoka was heavily inspired by Princess Mononoke: forest wolves would have saved her from the fate of Order 66. Those forest wolves ended up finding their way into Star Wars Rebels as Loth-wolves, benevolent spirits, strong in the force. 

It just goes to show that no bit of inspiration will go unused.

The Mandalorian

It seems fitting that Princess Mononoke began as the original jumping off point for Ahsoka in the world of animation and also became a heavy inspiration for Dave Filoni as he plotted her in-the-flesh live action debut. Chapter 13 of The Mandalorian, the fifth episode of the second season, introduces a much older Ahsoka in a way that reminds one of the very same vengeful forest spirits and wolves that San allied herself with in Princess Mononoke

While San faces off against Lady Eboshi, Ahsoka faces off against Magistrate Elsbeth (Diana Lee Inosant). Both Eboshi and Elsbeth share similar, tragic pasts. Though Lady Eboshi turns into a much more redeemable character than Elsbeth, both subvert nature to their industrial whims. The devastation of the planet Corvus has shot-for-shot moments that remind viewers of the smoking forests and cities animated in Princess Mononoke. 

In fact, there are many visual cues in the design of Iron Town that find themselves revisited in The Mandalorian, albeit with more Ralph McQuarrie-style flare. The forest finds these moments as well. Whether it's characters silhouetted against the moon or the bare greenness that finds itself around Ahsoka in the forest, despite its devastation, Princess Mononoke feels ever-present through this episode. 

The finale bears these marks as well. San faces off against Eboshi in an epic battle that has all of the Asian cinema influences that Filoni leaned on for the fight between Ahsoka and Elsbeth. The way Ahsoka, both animated and live-action, manages to find sanctuary on rooftops and run away feels like a direct reference to Miyazaki's character work with San. 

Although the episode sees moments of inspiration from many other sources (like Akira Kurosawa, Aliens, Tombstone, and others, as we wrote about in our initial review of the episode), it seems to be paying the most direct homage to Princess Mononoke. 

Thematically, the ideas of industrial progress versus the sacking of the natural world are present throughout the episode. It asks us to wonder if this devastation is worth it, even for those who support the Empire. What does it say about the Empire that they're able to do this over and over and over again?

We must hold that mirror up to ourselves, as all good sci-fi and fairy tales do. What does it say about us that we keep doing this? Whether it's the destruction of the rainforest to cultivate cheap food or the slave labor used to extract minerals used in our smart devices, at what point do we take that stand? It's an important question. And it's always welcome when Star Wars asks us those important questions, as it has from the very beginning.

Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece and it's always a good time to revisit it. Currently, you can find it streaming on HBO Max.