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Princess Mononoke (1999)
Hayao Miyazaki is a name currently unfamiliar to most
moviegoers, but revered as a deity among those who spend much of their time playing arcane
card games in the back of comic book shops. The cult following that has accrued
around Japanese anime may finally swell into mainstream acceptance with the American
release of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke, one of the biggest hits in Japanese
history. Or at least, that's the hope of distributor Miramax, which has re-dubbed the
animated film with an all-star cast to maximize its cineplex appeal.
Though Miramax is a
subsidiary of the studio synonymous with American feature-length animation, Walt Disney, Mononoke
is no kiddie flick. An epic fantasy that has more in common with Lord of the
Rings than The Lion King, Miyazaki's film tells the story of Ashitaka, a young
warrior in medieval Japan who becomes embroiled in a conflict your junior high English
instructor would file under "Man vs. Nature."
village is menaced by a hideous beast, a boar-like creature covered with writhing snakes.
The warrior manages to defeat the foul creature, but only after being afflicted with a
curse that causes his arm to become squirmy and discolored. Ashitaka sets out into the
wild in hopes of finding a cure before the infection spreads and kills him.
On his journey he
encounters samurai warriors, cutesy wood sprites and fearsome white wolves, before finally
arriving in Iron Town, a frontier settlement run by the Lady Eboshi. Her industrial
expansion has met with the displeasure of the surrounding forest dwellers, and all-out war
is brewing. Ashitaka must prevent the clash in order to keep the Forest God alive, the one
who can cure him
elements of Japanese history and folklore with an ecological message that is laid on a bit
too thickly at times. His characters, though, evince a complexity that belies their
two-dimensional status. Even the villainous Lady Eboshi proves to have facets that take
her beyond Cruella DeVille caricature, as we see her caring for lepers and other outcasts
who have no place outside Iron Town. This may be the most meticulous, multi-layered piece
of storytelling ever attempted within an animated format.
Mononoke has a clean
and convincing fairy tale look and decidedly non-Disney rhythms. American audiences
accustomed to their cartoons ending in under an hour and a half may grow restless during
the more low-key passages in the movie's 133 minutes. Parents with very small children
beware: the graphic violence includes several decapitations, at least one of which is
played for laughs.
But there are also
moments of quiet, mesmerizing beauty. The woods seem truly enchanted, particularly in a
scene where the Forest God, a shimmering, translucent being, undergoes a transformation in
a darkened lake. Miyazaki has a natural, fluid sense of movement that segues effortlessly
from pastoral splendor to the most brutal of battles, and his muted colors convey the
dreamlike texture of a world far away in time.
translation by Neil Gaiman (best known as the creator of the Sandman
comics) is seamless, a tribute to the painstaking effort of timing the dialogue to
the original mouth movements. Some of the actors cast to voice the characters for
the American release, however, seem ill chosen. Claire Danes' Valley-speak is
particularly incongruous for the part of San, the feral Princess Mononoke herself. Billy
Crudup is bland as Ashitaka and Gillian Anderson doesn't raise much fur as the leader of
the tribe of white wolves. Only Billy Bob Thornton makes a notable impression as the
irascible monk Jigo.
Quibbles aside, Princess
Mononoke is certainly a landmark achievement in animated cinema. If anime is ever to
break through to a mass audience, this is the time. Older children and fantasy enthusiasts
of all ages will see to that.
- Scott Von Doviak