Princess Mononoke

     I noticed recently that just about the only good shows on television now are animated: "The Simpsons," "Futurama," "King of the Hill," "Batman Beyond," "The Batman/Superman Adventures," and so on. These are all visually interesting shows, often very funny, very cleverly written, and (wonder of wonders) they surprise you every once in a while. Try to find a sitcom that does that.

     Another important fact: none of these shows are related to Disney in any way. The animation that Disney produces isnít bad, per se, but it isnít really going anywhere, either (excepting Pixarís astounding computer work, of course). They found a profitable formula some years back, and theyíve stuck with it--right in the proverbial rut. Theyíre not taking chances anymore, which means theyíre not doing anything interesting anymore.

     Nevertheless, I contend that animation is one of the areas of the visual arts that is really going somewhere. Disney just isnít in the vanguard anymore. The real innovations in animation are going on in Japan--and Iím not talking about Pokťmon here. Donít get me wrong, I think "Pokťmon" is actually a pretty good show, and I love it for daring to make use of that most shunned of all forms of humor, the pun, but the animation isnít anything to rave about, and thereís not much complexity or subtlety in the story-telling (message for this week: be nice to your friends!). And, God, that awful music!

     No, when I talk about innovative Japanese animation, Iím referring to anime movies like Ghost in the Shell. And, for a more current example, look at Princess Mononoke (written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, English screenplay written by Neil Gaiman).

     Seriously, go and look at it. Itís one of the most exciting animated movies...well, ever. Itís extremely intelligent, beautiful, and complex. Itís absolutely thrilling to watch this film unfold itself on the screen. Every frame is a work of art. If Kurosawa had made animated films, he might, in his prime, have made a film like Princess Mononoke. Miyazaki takes on some of the same themes that Kurosawa examined in his films (themes that many Japanese films deal with)--the relationship between man and nature, and the dangerous consequences of pollution, technology, and the expansion of the population on the environment. The whole Godzilla franchise is based on this idea, and much of Akira Kurosawaís Dreams is about what bad terms modern man has established with nature. But, truth be told, Kurosawa simplified this complex topic to flat didactic messages: man is bad, nature is good, man should go back to simple, rural, non-technological life. Princess Mononoke does not simplify the topic at all--do not make the mistake of thinking this is some kiddie cartoon flick. This is not a childrenís movie. Itís a thoughtful, adult film. Itís not afraid to show the dark side of things--Bambiís mom doesnít just get shot, she gets her head torn off.

     Even so, there is also a lot of delicate, quiet beauty among all the darkness and carnage. And at the very end of the film, we are offered a little sliver of hope for the future, that maybe we selfish but wonderful human beings may finally figure out how to live peacefully with our savage but beautiful environment.

     Princess Mononoke is set in Japanís mythological past when the countryside was roamed by gigantic animal-spirits--gods in the forms of beasts who are sentient and can speak. The people have only just learned how to make iron bullets and firearms, and a lot of them are still using swords and arrows, especially in remote villages like that of our hero, Ashitaka. Ashitaka (voiced, in the American version, by Billy Crudup) is a young prince who, as the film opens, is injured by a mad demon that comes crashing out of the nearby forest. This demon is actually a good forest spirit gone wrong. Itís been shot by an iron bullet and thus invaded by black parasitic worms of hatred and anger (think the dark side of the Force, personified by squiggly maggot-type things). Through his own wound, Ashitaka, too is poisoned. In the hopes of finding a cure, and of discovering why and how this happened, Ashitaka sets off to follow the trail left by the boar-god. The trail eventually leads him to Iron Town where he meets Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), a powerful woman bent on subduing the forest and its spirits. He respects her strength and her humanitarianism, but not her goals or the violent way she goes about achieving them. While in Iron Town, Ashitaka also meets San (Claire Danes), our title character, a princess of the wolf-spirits. Sheís the proverbial girl raised by wolves and doesnít consider herself human any longer. These two women are mortal enemies. Ashitaka hopes to reconcile them and work out a compromise between humans and forest spirits, but Eboshi is determined to kill the spirit of the forest itself, and San is determined to kill Eboshi. And things just get more complicated when Ashitaka and San fall in love.

     Along the way, Ashitaka also meets the sarcastic mercenary Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton); the tough Number 2 of Iron Town, Toki (Jada Pinkett); and the queen of the wolf spirits, Moro (Gillian Anderson). He also gets into numerous gory skirmishes with roving samurai.

     The story is exciting and involving and, as I said, the animation is astounding; the film is chock full of eerily beautiful images. Another stand-out element are the sound effects, which really impressed me with their realism and subtlety. Also, the voice talent is generally quite good, especially Billy Bob Thornton. Only Claire Danesí flat, monotone performance as San sticks out like a sore thumb.

     Princess Mononoke shows us both sides of the issues it examines--issues essential to our position on this earth in relation to the rest of nature--and it admits that satisfactory answers to the questions thus raised are not easily discovered. But it also offers us, in the very last frame, a little glimmer of hope. And it does all this with nearly flawless beauty. What more can you ask of a movie?

Jim Genzano




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