Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime)
directed by Hayao Miyazaki
(Studio Ghibli, 1997; Miramax, 1999)

It is easy to write anime off as oversexed, underaged, hyperviolent cartoons. In all too many cases, the stereotype holds true. But don't let that stop you from seeing Princess Mononoke.

The artwork of this film is astonishing. Set primarily in the forests of ancient Japan, the scenery is lush with life, vivid with depth and detail. The scenery is in some cases so gorgeous it will take your breath away.

But the story, too, stands out from the crowd. Written by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki and adapted into English by writer Neil Gaiman, Princess Mononoke is the story Ferngully wanted to be. It tells of a great clash between humans and nature, with the animal gods and forest spirits rallying to stave off encroaching devasation. The archetypal figures, such as the Night Walker, are magnificent, but there are also the smaller gods and fey beings for a lighter touch.

This story has many layers and the lines between good and evil are never clear. The wolves, led by the giant mother wolf Moro, are speaking, thinking creatures, but do not compare them to Disney's funny animal sidekicks. These are wild things that will bite your head off -- literally -- if the opportunity arises. The boars are fierce and bloodthirsty, and yet their leader Okkoto demonstrates flashes of compassion and nobility. Lady Eboshi -- the leader of Iron Town, the slayer of animals and gods, and the maker of guns -- would seem the clear villain in this tale, but even she shows great kindness to the former prostitutes and outcast lepers of her community.

And then there is Ashitaka, the outcast prince whose heroism earned him a deadly curse and who bridges the gap between warring sides, and San, the feral girl raised by wolves who will defend the forest with her life.

There is a lot of story here, and the 134 minutes flies by quickly. Fortunately for U.S. viewers, Miramax -- which purchased the rights to distribute Princess Mononoke in the U.S. -- was contractually obligated not to cut scenes, thus preserving the epic in its entirety. Be grateful, and watch for the subtle nuances, such as the reaction of three kodamas (doll-like tree spirits) when a small branch is intentionally cut in their forest. There is action and violence, too, but it's neither gratuitous nor overwhelming.

Subtitles and lousy dubbing have both made anime somewhat inaccessible to a lot of people. But Miramax wisely avoided that route and brought in some big Hollywood talent to give these characters the voices they deserve. Among the credits are Gillian Anderson as the regal, growly Moro, Billy Crudup as Ashitaka, Claire Danes as San, Minnie Driver as Eboshi, Jada Pinkett Smith as the ironworker Toki and Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo, an opportunistic monk. Certainly, the dialogue is at times clipped and rushed, but the realities of dubbing are, unfortunately, limiting. For the most part, it's a successful, workable translation.

The film hasn't caught on in the U.S. the way it did in Japan, where it held the record for highest grossing picture until being toppled -- unfairly, in my view -- by James Cameron's Titanic. But American audiences are slowly discovering this hidden treasure, a development aided by top movie critic Roger Ebert's rave endorsement.

Princess Mononoke is a majestic, passionate, eloquent homage to the Earth and its spirits -- and it's a darn good story, too. Rooted in Japanese mythology, it creates a new mythology all its own, and it's one we all can absorb and enjoy.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 19 April 2002

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