Princess Mononoke
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

Every so often a single movie shakes up its own genre, redefining it, and altering its course for good. Last Tango in Paris did it for erotica, 2001: A Space Odyssey for sci-fi, and Goodfellas for gangster films. Now Princess Mononoke is poised to change animation. Made in Japan over two years ago, it is finally getting an American release this fall courtesy of Miramax. It was conceived, drawn, and directed by famous anime artist Hayao Miyazaki who has a small following in the U.S. and who is akin to Spielberg in Japan. Whereas other anime films have failed to make the cultural cross-over, Princess Mononoke transcends its subgenre by creating a simple story, populating it with complex characters, and couching it all in brilliant, breathtaking animation.

The story is a simple tale of man against nature. The destruction of sacred forests in ancient Japan is spawning evil spirits that possess animals and turn them into killers. When a possessed boar wounds a young human warrior named Ashitaka, it sets in motion a war between man and the animal kingdom. It’s a simple plot with a hackneyed moral tagged on at the end, but it is all a staging ground for the characters. Along the way, we meet humans and animals who at first seem to fall neatly into good-guy/bad-guy roles, but who later switch sides several times until it is no longer clear if there is such thing as good and bad in this universe.

The main character, despite the title, is Ashitaka, the young warrior. Ashitaka is unlike any other animated character American audiences have seen. Soft-spoken and at times introverted, he doesn’t beg for our affection. He is pensive and keeps his emotions hidden. When a demon possesses his body, he becomes even more shaded. The evil spirit enables him to decapitate men with a single arrow and to survive gun shot wounds that pierce his entire body. But the spirit is also eating him alive, and so he must embark on self-imposed exile to search for the source of his malevolent powers.

Ashitaka is a film-noir anti-hero. He is neither bad nor good. When he is taken in by a clan of iron miners, he realizes that they are destroying the sacred forests he wants to protect, and yet he continues to care for them. Later in the movie, he must choose a side to fight on, and he chooses to fight for both. This frustrates our need to cheer him on, to root for him. It even diminishes our ability to sympathize with him.

Princess Mononoke further distinguishes itself by creating a cast of supporting characters who are equally complex. The leader of the iron mining clan is Lady Eboshi, a driven warrior queen. Eboshi can be cruel, but she is always reasonable and logical. She treats her people well, embracing even the lepers of the clan. There is also Jigo, a monk to whom Ashitaka confides early in the story. Later, Jigo reveals an egotistical streak in his character, one with tragic consequences.

The animals also play a crucial role in the story. These aren’t the cuddly toys Americans are used to. They are ferocious, confrontational, and at times, insane. They squabble amongst each other. The wolves and the boars fight over how to confront the humans while the apes criticize everything but are unable to offer any alternative solutions. The filmmakers avoid relegating the animals to side-kick roles. These characters are as conflicted and ambiguous as their human counterparts.

Among the wolves is an adopted human girl, the Princess Mononoke. She is a human-hater when we meet her, but when Ashitaka saves her life, her devotions become confused. The relationship that ensues successfully navigates all the possible cliches. While they both acknowledge an attraction, there is no ostensible romance. They try to assert dominance over each other but in different ways: Ashitaka through reason, and Mononoke through brute, instinctual force. The ending doesn’t provide a neat resolution to their relationship. There are still many unknowns that the filmmakers wisely leave undefined. Doing so elevates their complex relationship above mundane romance and towards a symbiotic partnership.

Of course it helps that the voices have been re-dubbed into English. Among the cast members are Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thorton, and Gillian Anderson. But the real stand-outs are Billy Crudup as Ashitaka and Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi. They bring subtlety and intelligence to their roles. Together, they are the movie’s most interesting couple because though they are adversaries, they are cut from the same intellectual cloth.

The true star of Princess Mononoke is its creator, Hayao Miyazaki. He takes animation a step further than anyone else by creating images we can’t imagine imagining. The death of a forest spirit, for instance, becomes both tragic and beautiful in his hands. Its dying body spreads canopy-like over the forest, covering everything in a gorgeous green mist. Miyazaki’s originality is on a par with Welles’ and Kubrick’s. He conjures a very specific world, one that feels authentic and that doesn’t end at the screen’s edge.

Princess Mononoke will certainly change the way critics judge animated movies, but it is uncertain how major studios or audiences will respond. The audience at the New York Film Festival was unmoved. A number of people walked out, and the applause was weak given the hype surrounding the screening. Perhaps audiences became confused by the introduction of moral ambiguity in an animated movie. This confirms Princess Mononoke’s status as an evolutionary shot in the arm. Like most masterpieces, it will offend before it enlightens.

[rating: 4 of 4 stars]