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."
Ashitaka’s peaceful 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
Miyazaki weaves 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.
The English 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.