Princess Mononoke (1997)

princess monoke

“My arm, it… it doesn’t hurt! IT’S HEALED, err, no, it’s still broken…”

The Scoop: 1997, directed by Hayao Miyazaki and starring Billy Crudup,  Claire Danes,  and Minnie Driver. (As this was translated into English, this is the American cast I’m crediting here.)

Tagline: The fate of the world rests on the courage of one warrior.

Summary Capsule: A prince tries to stop man from battling nature, and it’s all very beautiful and Japanese.

Deneb’s rating: Two out of three supercharged flying arrows.

Deneb’s review: Well, seems it’s Neil Gaiman week here at Mutant Reviewers, and since all the more obviously Gaiman-y stuff was quickly snapped up, I decided to do ‘Princess Mononoke’. It’s not technically his story or anything, but he did write the English dialogue, so the words you’re hearing in the dub are his.

Princess Mononoke, as I’m sure most of you know, is an anime directed by Hayao Miyazaki, AKA “The Japanese Walt Disney” and other such superlatives. I’m not as big a Miyazaki fan as some, but I do like this one quite a bit.

The film takes place in a time and place closely resembling medieval Japan (in the original Japanese, it’s explicitly Japan, but this is the English version I’m reviewing, and Japan’s never mentioned in it). In the not-too-terribly-distant past, man was at peace with the animals and gods (and animal-gods) that live in the forests.  But now the forests are being cut down, and a battle for dominance is raging between man and nature.

Meanwhile, the last of the Emishi tribe are living peacefully in their own little corner of the world when they’re attacked by a demon boar. Their prince, Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup in the dub) manages to slay it, but in the process, it touches his arm. This causes an ugly, burn-like mark that the village wise-woman says will ultimately spread and kill him. There’s no way for him to stop this, but he can ‘rise to meet it if he chooses’ – that is to say, he can track the demon back to where it came from, and find out what’s going on.

So he leaves his tribe, never to return (I’m not sure why; I think it’s a Japanese cultural thing that I’m not getting), and heads off with his trusty elk, Yakul to find the source of this evil (his tribe rides on elk-back, which looks much cooler than horseback). He ultimately stumbles upon a place called Irontown, which is chopping down the forest so they can mine for iron and make guns, and as a result is not popular with the local wild-god-life, as personified by San, the adopted human daughter of the local wolf-god. He just wants peace, but neither side is exactly inclined to listen to him, and meanwhile, two things are happening. One, he discovers that while the demon mark may be killing him, it does make him strong enough to shoot people’s heads off with arrows and bend swords, and two, he kinda likes San, come to think of it…

OK, the first thing that has to be addressed about Princess Mononoke is the visuals. This is kinda par for the course with Studio Ghibli but it must be said – this is a gorgeous movie just to look at. Hit pause just about anywhere, and you’re practically guaranteed to get an image that you could put on a postcard. It’s pretty. It’s reeeeaaaally, reaaaaaaallly pretty. Moving on now.

One of the issues I have with some of Miyazaki’s later work is that he’s just gotten gentler and gentler over the years, with a ‘no real villains’ way of looking at things. This is fine and dandy from a philosophical point of view, but from a cinematic one, it’s a little frustrating for me – I like me a good villain, dagnab it.

Princess dodges this particular bullet by giving us plenty of villains – it’s just that they’re really complex ones who are difficult to pin down on the good-or-evil scale. Lady Eboshi, the woman who runs Irontown, would seem to be the obvious choice for a main baddie – she’s the one who’s responsible for wiping out the forest, and makes no bones about it – but on the other hand, she genuinely cares for her town and the people in it, and is doing it for what she sees as their benefit. The shady monk, Jigo (voiced by Billy-Bob Thornton) is closer to a traditional example, but even he’s a nice enough guy when you catch him at the right time.

So what about the heroes, then? Oh, they’re OK.

All right, fine, that’s a stupid answer, but you could pretty much leave it at that if you wanted to. The film may be named after San (‘Mononoke’ is just what the Irontowners call her; it means something like “poltergeist” or “meddling spirit”), but it’s Ashitaka’s movie, and he’s… frankly not very interesting. He’s noble – that’s pretty much his main and only character trait. He does noble things. He makes noble gestures. He suffers nobly. He fights nobly. Rinse, repeat. One can’t really say that this hurts the movie, per se – after all, it’s not like “noble, but dull” is an uncommon character trait amongst heroes, and he does make for a nifty action hero, what with his super-strength and all – but it doesn’t help it, either. San has a good line in “caught between two worlds” style angst going on, but we don’t get to see much more of her besides “angry” and “dismayed” and associated sub-emotions. Both of them are really more symbols than characters, which really stands out next to the villains’ complexities.

But really, this is a film that deals in symbols, so why should the heroes be different? There are big themes at work here – environmentalism, war, spirituality, heroism, personal identity. This is a film that draws in broad brushstrokes, and as long as you’re fine with that, you’ll probably find a lot to like here.

So, yeah. Pretty good stuff. Pretty pretty good stuff. If you like such stuff, you should check it out.

Justin’s rating: If only my rash was so cursed…

Justin’s review: I’m not huge into the world of Japanese anime, but if you ask people who are, you’ll probably get mad happy recommendations to see Princess Mononoke, the film with the funny name. You might also get some vague explanation of what it’s about, because it really isn’t an easy-to-classify movie. But the fact that this movie is drawn by superb Japanese animator what’s-his-name (I’ll leave that fact to someone who actually does research), should grab your attention. Grab it by the lapels, give it a few good threatening shakes, and throw it down into the mud. What does that all mean? That Princess “My name is very hard to pronounce, sorry” Mononoke is worth your time.

Prince Ashitaka — remember him? — is a terrific warrior with a hair bun of steel, but an unfortunate cursed injury on his arm gets him cast out from his village. “Gee, thanks for saving our lives,” they pretty much say. “But we must now turn our backs on you, because we don’t want pinkeye too.” Ashitaka and his trusty elk travel the vast distances of ancient fantasy Japan (about 22 miles) to find a way to lift the curse. Along the way, he stumbles onto a forest inhabited by animal gods (apes, wolves, boars, and presumably ferrets), which are at war with the encroaching rifle-developing humans. Playing the middle ground, Ashitaka takes both sides, mostly in order to get the phone number of Princess Monononononoke, who he meets while she’s sucking blood from a wound. Talk about love at first sight!

A story made complex by both the genres involved (including fantasy, action, adventure, romance, and a handy class on What To Do With Lepers) and the very human themes that refuse to be classified as black or white. Everyone’s a bit good and a bit bad and a LOT stubborn, and the wars that ensue — between human and animal, human and human — have a desperate edge to them. It’s easy to take sides in most films, but Mononoke takes away that comfortable position and makes you care about all parties. The action sequences, when they come, are spectacularly breathtaking and rapidly paced. Ashitaka and Mononoke know a few moves that Jet Lee might like to sit in on, and you always got to love a film where a single arrow can decapitate a samurai warrior.

More than the story, which has a grand epic feel to it, is the animation. I was never quite fooled into believing that it was completely realistic in its conception, but it comes pretty darn close. The backgrounds (trees, lakes, cliffs) are just as detailed and animated as the characters, and I found myself marveling at the small things, such as how the initial barrage of rain drops speckle a rock before the storm begins. I forgave the sometimes slow plot for the breathtaking beauty that is doled out as a reward. In fact, I was only disappointed with Mononoke herself, who wasn’t quite as pretty as Ashitaka gushed on and on to be.

Princess Mononoke is a very different movie than you’ve ever quite seen, but that can be a good thing. Right? Different is good? Hey, come back here and stop conforming when I’m talking to you! As in most Japanese films, there’s a lot of deep spiritualism going on, and a theme that goes along the lines of “Let the humans have a fully industrial society, as long as they don’t chop down any trees.” I seriously want a tree spirit doll, those cute little smurf-like freaks that rattle. On the featurette track, Gillian Anderson said she got one, and that means that I should too.

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DnaError’s rating: Astounding Anime Awes

DnaError’s review: I do not like anime. This is hearsay as I am a visual artist and as such, requires bowing to the carefully stylized feat of our Japanese masters. No matter how many times I say the aesthetic does nothing for me and that the plots are written by blind monkeys, meddlesome fan boys still shove their tapes in my face, screaming that THIS will be the one show to change my opinion on the genre.

Princess Mononoke is one of those movies.

The visual are amazing, but that’s almost commonplace. Miyazaki’s clean lines avoid all the excessive and annoying deformations of most anime. The characters are naturalistic, expressive, and well designed. Justin gets it wrong by dismissing it as not quite real enough. The facts that it’s not real is the point. It’s an alternate world, one-step removed from reality, lushly detailed and beautifully composed, but by no means “real”. If you want realistic, buy a movie that doesn’t feature drawings walking around.

But good artwork and steady draftsmanship to not a great movie make (see Metropolis). What makes Princess Mononoke stand out is its careful attention to story. Translated from a Miyazaki script by the fanboy idol Neil Gaiman, the movie is at once a myth, an eco fable, and a war story. Bursting with the earnestness of a genuine epic, the yarn spills out terrifying demons, feral warrior-princesses, shadowy monks, and resolute doomed heroes. It is engrossing and expansive, addicting in that woozy movie way.

There are nits to pick however. While the Voice Acting is leaps and bounds above your typical anime fare (Billy Crudup and Minnie Driver are standout), Claire Danes lack the animal intensity of Princess San’s wild upbringing and Thorton’s voice just seems out of place.

In the end, this mythic tale of lost wilderness and ecology doesn’t offer any easy answers. Unlike your boilerplate “Captain Planet” stories, it admits that it’s frequently not a balance, but a terrible battle between man and nature. And nature isn’t the passive, helpless creature in the crosshairs of Big Bad Industrialist. The movie doesn’t shy away from he blood and gore of the conflict, but it doesn’t relish and soak in it. This is world in transition, from the rule of one set of Gods to another, and there is no silver medal winner in war. (It might be interesting to see how this same theme played out in American Gods, another Gaiman work). At its best, Princess Mononoke captures the awe and tangible wonder of ancient places. The ethereal vision of spirits rising from the wood and of powerful springs which hold terrible forces. It’s the kind of thing Disney hasn’t been able to do for years, and the thing I wished more anime was able to do.

Intermission!

  • Author Neil Gaiman (the Sandman comic books, Neverwhere) was contracted to write the English screenplay, which is not a literal translation of the Japanese screenplay (as you can see on the Japanese voiced/English subtitle track).
  • Princess Mononoke was Japan’s most popular film of all time, until Titanic knocked it down to second place.
  • Director Hayao Miyazaki personally corrected or redrew more than 80,000 of the film’s 144,000 animation cel frames.
  • Disney/Miramax, which released Princess Mononoke in North America, was contractually obligated not to edit any footage out for its North American release. They asked to, but were refused.

Groovy Quotes

Jigo: Ooh, what a revolting spectacle.

Koroku: My arm, it… it doesn’t hurt! IT’S HEALED, err, no, it’s still broken…

One-eyed sniper: Heh! I missed.
Lady Eboshi: Now watch closely, everyone. I’m going to show you how to kill a god. A god of life and death. The trick is not to fear him.

Moro: Ah, you’re awake. I was hoping you’d cry out in your sleep, and I could bite your face off.

Lady Eboshi: What exactly are you here for?
Ashitaka: To see with eyes unclouded by hate.

Toki: I wish the wolves had eaten you! Then maybe I could’ve found a real husband.

Toki: Even if you were a woman, you’d still be an idiot!

Ashitaka: Look, everyone! This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! It’s eating me alive, and very soon now it will kill me! Fear and anger only make it grow faster!

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Just about any other Miyazaki film, really

12 comments

    • Well, I wasn’t necessarily subscribing to the term myself – I agree, it’s not a very good comparison, if for no other reason than that the tones and themes of their respective bodies of work are very different – I was just noting that he has been called that. It’s obviously INTENDED as a compliment, even if it’s not very well thought-out. (A better comparison would probably be between Disney and Osamu Tezuka.)

  1. I enjoyed the film immensly, but much of it is done better in other Miyazaki films. Naussica and the Valley of the Wind especially: it’s just missing a San counterpart.

    There’s so many great moments though. Moro laughing, Ashitaka finally getting angry, watching the Forest God, and Sans desperate rage and fear.

    • I liked ‘Naussicaa’, but it felt incomplete to me – which was for good reasons, of course, since it basically WAS incomplete; it was adapting an ongoing manga that hadn’t been finished. Of the two, I’d say ‘Mononoke’ is probably superior, but that’s just my opinion – and like I said, I’m not really as big a Miyazaki fan as some. (My favorite of his would have to be ‘Castle of Cagliostro’, which is an atypical film for him in many ways.)

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