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Anime Info

Creator: Hayao Miyazaki
Genre: Fantasy, Adventure
Length: Movie (2:13)
Purchase: Here

English Adaptation: Neil Gaiman
English Voices: Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Clare Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, Billy Bob Thornton

Summary

+ Story unfolds at a natural pace
+ Realistic and complex characters
+ Beautiful hand drawn animation
+/– Run time over 2 hours
+/– Famous voice actors in dubs may distract viewers

Overview

Princess Mononoke is my personal favorite Miyazaki film as well as one of my favorite films in general. It is a solid fantasy adventure that perfectly balances scenes of kinetic action, character development, and lyric beauty. It develops important and timeless themes of ecology and overcoming hatred without forgetting to tell an entertaining and unforgettable story.

Public Rating

Our Rating

Score of 5 out of 5
5 out of 5 · An Unequivocal Recommendation

Princess Mononoke Review

Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 10/9/2006

Introduction

Released in 1997, Princess Mononoke is the film that introduced most Americans to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Hayao Miyazaki is often referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, this, I think is an unfortunate comparison as the films of the two artists couldn't be more different. While both artists often featured young protagonists in their films, Disney's films were straightforward re-tellings of traditional European folktales while Miyazaki's films are most often set in fantastic worlds of his own design. Typically the films supervised by Walt Disney centered on a single female protagonist who is often aided or rescued by a less well defined male protagonist, often a stereotypical handsome prince. Hayao Miyazaki's films, on the other hand, more often depict an equal male and female pairing. His characters often defy fairytale stereotypes. Princess Nausicaa from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds is as tough and resourceful as any handsome prince while retaining her sensitivity and femininity. Pazu, one of the protagonists of Castle in the Sky is a working class mine worker who is also bright and inventive. Another crucial difference is the use of violence by each man to help tell the story. Disney's films were often sanitized of harsh violence while Miyazaki's, though hardly gory, are not shy about depictions of violence and kinetic action. The action is often balanced by lyrical moments of meditative contemplation and the joy of nature.

Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young warrior-prince seeking a cure for a demonic wound he received while defending his village from a demon possessed boar-god. He travels west to uncover the source of the hatred which drove the boar-god mad, transforming the creature from a benign being into a monster. Ashitaka's adventures eventually entangle him in a conflict between an iron mining village and the animal inhabitants of the forest. At the center of the conflict is the mysterious Princess Mononoke.

Review

Princess Mononoke is a fairly typical Miyazaki film. From the narration describing a world where gods and demons of nature co-exist with man and the opening frames depicting the rampaging attack of the demon possessed boar-god, we know that this film is nothing like the pop culture drenched eye-candy typical of today's Hollywood animation. This is a timeless fantasy adventure fully rendered in ink and paint, rich with wonder and meaning, steeped in the myths, legends, and history of ancient Japan.

After his encounter with the boar-god, Ashitaka learns he will suffer the same fate as that pitiful creature unless he can overcome the source of the hate which drove the creature mad. Before he departs, the wise-woman of his village gives Ashitaka one tantalizing clue: an iron ball recovered from the boar's corpse. She tells Ashitaka that the wound caused by the iron ball drove the boar mad, filled with hate, he became a demon. This is a time of change in Japan, it seems industry is encroaching on nature and guns are beginning to replace bows and swords as weapons. Ashitaka is the last prince of a dying tribe pushed to the brink of extinction by the Japanese emperor. Sadly, this adventure will be a one way journey for Ashitaka; he must cut his hair and depart the tribe forever, dead to them. This scene, besides establishing some of the central themes of the film, the need for balance between man and nature and the need to overcome hatred, also showcases Neil Gaiman's superb English rendition of the script. Not only is it faithful to the style and tone of the film it is usually faithful to the culture of the time (I have one minor quibble but more about that later). Also Gaiman's script gives enough exposition for a non-Japanese viewer to understand exactly what is going on but not so much that it suffers from diarrhea of the mouth often heard in other English dubs of anime.

After departing his village, Ashitaka demonstrates that he is as brave and courageous as any fairytale prince or Knight of the Round Table when he defends unarmed villagers from an attack by thuggish samurai. Miyazaki doesn't shy away from showing the consequences of violence - in one graphic moment he depicts a samurai losing his arms when Ashitaka fires his bow with more ferocity than he perhaps intended - spurred on by the violent hate spreading through him due to the demonic wound.

Unlike the heroes of many western films, Ashitaka voices remorse about killing to a cynical and mysterious monk he meets in a village while trying to purchase rice with a lump of pure gold. Voiced in the American presentation by Billy-Bob Thorton, the monk represents one of my minor quibbles with the film's American release. Billy-Bob Thorton is one of my favorite actors but I believe the producers may have made a minor error in casting him as the monk - unlike some of the other American and British cast members; Thornton's voice is not timeless enough for a film of this nature. He's too specifically American; although he brings the perfect cynical edge to the role, there is something slightly off putting about a monk in feudal Japan speaking with Thorton's good ole' boy southern accent. The other problem with the monk is also another minor quibble about the American release. Gaiman's script has the monk compare the taste of a bowl of soup to "donkey piss". It is my understanding that donkeys were not available in Japan in the time period of the film. Those quibbles aside, the monk is an excellent foil to the good natured Ashitaka; he often provides the necessary counter arguments to Ashitaka's ideals and some light but necessary comic relief. He balances Ashitaka's remorse over killing two samurai with the reminder that everyone, from the lowliest prostitute to the highest emperor eventually dies. He has heard rumors that, "The emperor has promised a mountain of gold to the person who can help him live forever".

The scene now transitions to a rain swept mountain pass as Lady Eboshi leads a convoy of rice and supplies to her village. The convoy is attacked by wolves and they defend themselves with guns, confirming what the audience has suspected all along, that the iron ball recovered from the demon possessed boar-god was actually a large bullet. Downstream from the pass, Prince Ashitaka recovers two of the men wounded in the battle and in a moment reminiscent of Disney's Pocahontas, catches a glimpse of the titular Princess Mononoke. Lead on by gentle forest spirits, Ashitaka helps the wounded men home through the mysterious forest which Lady Eboshi's men fear. In the forest Ashitaka is enchanted by the beauty and magic of the place. He catches his first glimpse of the mysterious creature that may be the Forest Spirit. On the other side of the forest lies Lady Eboshi's Iron Town, a fortified industrial village that produces iron from ore mined from the mountain.

Show More Iron Town's industry has damaged the forest and drove the boar-god to madness but unlike similarly ecologically themed films (Fern Gully: the Last Rain Forest and Pocahontas come to mind) Lady Eboshi is not depicted simplistically as an evil villain. She is genuinely concerned with the well-being of her people. She apologizes for allowing the men Ashitaka rescued to be injured, employs former prostitutes in her iron works, and takes care of a colony of lepers that she employs as weapon smiths. These weapons have been specially designed for the women of Iron Town to aid in the defense of the village against animal-gods and samurai armies. Nothing Lady Eboshi does is malicious or evil, she sees the animal gods as obstacles to the well-being of the village. In fact, although Ashitaka's quest is to "see with eyes not clouded by hatred", he is the one blinded by hatred in his first encounter with Lady Eboshi. It is only by shear force of will that he stops his cursed arm from drawing his sword and killing the Lady. It is only the wise words of the oldest leper that calms him.

Nearly one hour into the film, Ashitaka finally encounters the titular Princess Mononoke when she attacks the city and engages in single combat with Lady Eboshi. We eventually learn that her name is San and that she was raised by the wolf-goddess. She doesn't identify with humans but with the wolves. She wants to drive humans from the mountain and away from the forest. Ashitaka intervenes in the fight and takes the Princess back to the forest. She first resists his friendship but later warms to him. In the forest we learn that the various animals are divided about how best to deal with the encroaching humans. The monkey tribe seems intent on eating the wounded Ashitaka and absorbing his power. She warns them against this and sends them away. After sending her wolf brothers away, San looks after Ashitaka.

In one of the most bittersweet moments of the film, Miyazaki depicts the arrival and transformation of the Forest Spirit from its Night Walker form to its more bestial day form. This beautiful transformation is observed by the mysterious monk earlier encountered by Ashitaka, he and a band of hunters have been tracking the god for their own nefarious purposes. As they track the creature they also observe a gathering of boars. The boars seem to be gathering for war, they want to march against Lady Eboshi, they are bent on vengeance. Noting that the Forest Spirit healed the bullet wound Ashitaka received on departing Iron Town, the boars have convinced themselves that the wolves must have intervened on Ashitaka's behalf. They feel cheated and betrayed that the Forest Spirit aided a human and not the boar, Nago. Ashitaka is only able to calm the boars and prevent a fight between the boars and wolves when he reveals that he killed Nago when Nago attacked Ashitaka's village. Ashitaka's explanations placate the boars and they continue on to war with Lady Eboshi, ignoring San's plea that they must have faith that the Forest Spirit will find a solution to the conflict.

Show More
Princess Mononoke is epic filmmaking at its best - on a grand yet human scale. Unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, Ashitaka's mission is a personal quest that impacts the world rather than a quest to save the world that impacts him personally. The characters are realistic and well rounded individuals rather than two-dimensional archetypes. The protagonists are not saintly heroes and the antagonists are not demonic, hackling villains.

This is another important place where Miyazaki differs from Disney and his successors. While the animal characters in Disney films often behave like quadrapedal humans; Miyazaki's animal characters although endowed with speech (they are gods after all) behave like animals. They have motivations and objectives that animals would have. When San's wolf brothers encounter Ashitaka, they want to eat him or his pet elk. The wild boars fear that if they don't go to war against human beings they soon will be nothing more than dumb game animals.

The various strands of the film come together in mind boggling climax on par with the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike the apocalyptic endings of films like Akira, the ending of Princess Mononoke is about re-birth and rejuvenation not the end of the world. As they track the creature they also observe a gathering of boars. The boars seem to be gathering for war, they want to march against Lady Eboshi, they are bent on vengeance. Noting that the Forest Spirit healed the bullet wound Ashitaka received on departing Iron Town, the boars have convinced themselves that the wolves must have intervened on Ashitaka's behalf. They feel cheated and betrayed that the Forest Spirit aided a human and not the boar, Nago. Ashitaka is only able to calm the boars and prevent a fight between the boars and wolves when he reveals that he killed Nago when Nago attacked Ashitaka's village. Ashitaka's explanations placate the boars and they continue on to war with Lady Eboshi, ignoring San's plea that they must have faith that the Forest Spirit will find a solution to the conflict.

Princess Mononoke is epic filmmaking at its best - on a grand yet human scale. Unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, Ashitaka's mission is a personal quest that impacts the world rather than a quest to save the world that impacts him personally. The characters are realistic and well rounded individuals rather than two-dimensional archetypes. The protagonists are not saintly heroes and the antagonists are not demonic, hackling villains.

This is another important place where Miyazaki differs from Disney and his successors. While the animal characters in Disney films often behave like quadrapedal humans; Miyazaki's animal characters although endowed with speech (they are gods after all) behave like animals. They have motivations and objectives that animals would have. When San's wolf brothers encounter Ashitaka, they want to eat him or his pet elk. The wild boars fear that if they don't go to war against human beings they soon will be nothing more than dumb game animals.

The various strands of the film come together in mind boggling climax on par with the stargate sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Unlike the apocalyptic endings of films like Akira, the ending of Princess Mononoke is about re-birth and rejuvenation not the end of the world.

Conclusion

Viewers seeking purely escapist entertainment may not enjoy Princess Mononoke. Unlike many anime films and series, the focus is on storytelling and character development rather eye-candy such as titillation and violence. Too many anime use their stories as bones from which to hang action set pieces; what violence occurs in the film grows organically out of the story and develops in a way that supports Miyazaki's themes. Although the film culminates in a series of epic battles, war, when it is depicted is not glamorized but shown as the ultimately futile endeavor it actually is. Princess Mononoke Miyazaki takes as his themes a deep concern about technological progress at the detriment of nature, the need to overcome hate, and the futility of violence and war.

Miyazaki's characters are as well developed as the themes he explores. Both the human and animal characters are complex beings with varied motivations and objectives. No one is purely evil or purely good - all of them wrestle with the rightness or wrongness of their actions in their own way and in their own time.

On another note, at a time when American animated films are increasingly computer rendered, light comedies aimed primarily at children. It is refreshing to watch the films of Hayao Miyazaki who still employs "old fashioned" hand drawn, ink and paint cel animation to tell complex and thought provoking stories for audiences of all ages. His stories, themes, and characters are allowed to develop slowly over the course of the film instead of jumping from one sight gag or action set piece to the next.

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