Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

Princess Mononoke

Grade : A+ Year : 1997 Director : Hayao Miyazaki Running Time : 2hr 14min Genre : , ,
Movie review score

For the past few years (as of August 2000, which is when this review was written), animated films have entered a Renaissance of sorts, with Disney continuing to churn out 1 film a year (with highlights including “The Lion King,” “Tarzan,” and the recent “Fantasia/2000”), the growth of fully-computer animated films (most notably by Pixar- “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life”), as well as rivals to Disney in Dreamworks (“The Prince of Egypt,” “Chicken Run,” the latter of which was in collaboration with Aardman studios), Warner Bros. (“The Iron Giant”), and 20th Century Fox (“Titan A.E.”). Not so much a rival, although certainly worth mentioning, is the continuing rise to prominence in American theatres of Japanese Animation, better known as Anime to those in the know. For several years, this form of animation (known for striking- and many times brutal- imagery and complex storylines) has been a cult item over here, although through the proliferation of video releases, Anime has garnered more exposure than ever before.

One of the greatest Anime filmmakers to fans of the genre (I myself have seen very little, but what little I’ve seen I’ve really liked) is Hayao Miyazaki, who has a reach in terms of influence to rival the greatest live-action filmmakers (Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Scorsese), and is held as an animation master by the Disney artists.

The film of Miyazaki’s in question today- “Princess Mononoke”- was just released on video today, and for those unaware of Miyazaki’s talent or Anime in general, it serves as a brilliant introduction.

Based on an original story by Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” is the story of Ashitaka, a prince in a small village until the village comes under siege from a demon boar god, whose flesh has become eaten away and thriving of snake-like blood. During the battle, Ashitaka is touched by the boar and infected with its’ curse. The elderwoman of the village tells him he must leave forever while the curse- on his right arm- eats him alive. With the help of a monk he meets along the way- Jigo- he makes his way West to the Forbidden Forest, the home of the Forest Spirit, an ethereal creature with the ability to give and taken life, whom he seeks in an attempt to lift the curse. In his search, he comes across two beings- the wolf clan led by Moro, a wolf god, and her “daughter” San (Princess Mononoke); the second is a colony of lepers and former prostitutes organized by Lady Eboshi whom are mining the iron from the forest, and- as a result- angering both the wolf gods and boar gods whom roam the forest.

I’ll resist saying more, and really don’t like to say even that much, but this film- like the “Star Wars” films- is rich and complex in mythology and therefore requires it, and deserves it. With all due respect to the classics in the Disney catalog, they’ve never done anything quite this spectacular, intelligent, or moving (even in my personal favorites from that catalog, the “Fantasia” films). “Princess Mononoke” is a superbly-realized fantasy about the struggle for man and nature to coexist at the dawn of the Iron Age and the age of technology in general. Miyazaki- who worked on many of the animation cels himself (though he did employ some computer animation)- has created a stunning work of art (later surpassed by his 2001 masterpiece, “Spirited Away”), and a landmark in the realm of animation. Anyone who thought that all animation was just Disney-fueled (or inspired) crowd pleasers with comic relief critters best watch this film; it tells a story of unequaled dramatic power in the medium. And PLEASE heed the PG-13 rating; this isn’t Disney. While it’s less graphic in its’ violence than most Anime, it’s graphic enough to where younger kids should not be seeing it.

What a wonderful film to look at. The animation is clean, realistic in the drawing of the human characters, and swiftly-paced, which all combine with the great story and script (which I’ll get to later) and astonishing musical score by Joe Hisaishi to create a stunning piece of fluid storytelling. At 130 minutes, some may carp at overlength, but my feeling is, whether it’s 130 minutes or 45 minutes, any movie this original and breathtaking deserves as much time as it story takes to unfold. Of the more astonishing visuals are the demon boar at the beginning, a one-of-a-kind creation that could ONLY be done in animation (it would just be too dark and expensive to do with CGI- at least at the time); the glorious Forbidden Forest, and its’ inhabitants (small, unique little creatures called Kodamas); the Forest Spirit, an elk-like animal during the day, but at night, a wonderous Nightwalker; the final battle scenes (we don’t see much except in flashback); and the final destruction of the forest by the headless Nightwalker, and the eventual rebirth of the land when its’ head is returned (this section might remind some of the unforgettable “Firebird Suite” sequence at the end of “Fantasia/2000”).

If there’s one complaint I have- and it is a minor one- it’s about the script, translated into English by fantasy author Neil Gaiman. While the translation is in tune with the original script by Miyazaki, as is the case with most dubbings, I highly recommend sticking with the original Japanese track, as the English dub is a little lame at times. Still, the voices for this American release (it was released in Japan in 1997 and was the highest-grossing movie there until “Titanic,” which only lasted that way until “Spirited Away”) have been very well cast, with stellar work all around. Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous”) is Ashitaka; Claire Danes (“William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet”) is San; Minnie Driver (“Good Will Hunting”) is Lady Eboshi; Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade”) is Jigo; Gillian Anderson (“The X-Files”) is Moro; and Jada Pinkett Smith (“Collateral”) is one of the women under Lady Eboshi’s care.

Roger Ebert has stated time and time again that one of the biggest reasons he goes to movies is for the opportunity to see wonderous and imaginative visuals, and stated in his review of “Princess Mononoke” that one of the strongest arguments for animation of any kind is its’ ability to jump into the realm of the unknown, deep than any live-action film can, to show us sights previously unseen (the demon boar, for instance). “Princess Mononoke” was one of the 10 best films he saw in 1999. As I’ve become a bigger fan of his critiques- as well as my evolving interest in science-fiction/fantasy films- this has become one of the my biggest reasons for going to the movies (some movies, in particular) as well, and it does explain a lot of my own opinions on certain films. (“Princess Mononoke” also found a place in my top 10 of ’99 after I saw it.) For instance, for all the banality of the dialogue and performances in “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” and predictability in its’ script, one cannot dismiss it as crass commercialism- as many did after it was released- without completely overlooking the extraordinary accomplishments of George Lucas and Industrial Light & Magic with the visual backdrops and characters, some of the most breathtaking and incredible visuals I’d seen in any film at the time. On the other side of the spectrum, “The Matrix,” despite eye-popping action choreography, not only failed me in its’ story but in its’ inability to show me much that was new on a visual front. Like the best animation, the best and most memorable sci-fi (“Blade Runner,” “Star Wars,” “2001,” “Metropolis,” “Dark City”) takes us someplace we’ve never seen before, and in a way not only memorable, but also in a way that can send shivers through our body and leave us exhilarated. Watching “Princess Mononoke” provided me such an experience.

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