Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Review by Matt Heffernan
This has been a great year for animation, with such varied entries as Tarzan, The Iron Giant, and even South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut for the older crowd. Currently, the top film at the box office is an animated feature from Japan. Unfortunately, it's the Pokémon movie, and not the film I am reviewing today. If the former film is your only exposure so far to what the Japanese call anime, then you have entirely the wrong impression. Animation is not considered a medium exclusive to kiddie fare in Japan, but an artform that allows filmmakers to present a world that cannot be captured properly with live action. Disney attempts to do this, but they can't free themselves of the "family entertainment" burden that they thrust upon themselves many decades ago.
Princess Mononoke, despite its title, actually focuses its story on a young prince named Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup). His village is attacked by a demonic boar that is covered in worms. This infestation is so strong, that the worms can collectively lift and carry the boar around, making it look like a big, writhing spider. On his trusty red elk, Ashitaka takes the boar down with a few arrows, but manages to get some of the worms on his right arm in the process. The worms disappear, and the body of the boar decays instantly. The villagers find an iron ball inside the body, and discover that the boar was actually dead long before Ashitaka hit it. A local woman warns Ashitaka that the mark left by the worms is a demonic curse, which will eventually kill him. He decides to go in search of the Forest Spirit, who has the power to heal him.
On his journey, he finds two wounded men, and returns them to their village, Iron Town. The village is run by Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who wants to clear the forest for the iron ore that lies underneath. Intent on stopping her is San (Clair Danes), the wolf girl, who is actually Princess Mononoke by birth, but was raised by Moro (Gillian Anderson), a white wolf-goddess with two tails. If Lady Eboshi can take the head of the Forest Spirit, the forest's resources will be hers for the taking, and San will be forced to live as a human again. Ashitaka finds himself caught between these sides while his mark is growing, filling him with hate and making him kill others against his will.
As you can see, this is no typical children's movie (aside from the not-so-subtle environmental message), but a complex story filled with gods and monsters. There are some pretty intense scenes, some of them involving dismemberment, so it's definitely not for younger children. It also presents a very Eastern message about a communal with nature, which isn't always compatible with strictly held "Christian" values. There is no single God in this world, but magical beasts that are (gasp!) superior to humans. What you cannot deny is the inherent beauty of this story, and its refusal to look at value judgements on a black-and-white basis. That's not what you get from most American films, and never from a cartoon.
But Princess Mononoke is no ordinary cartoon. The technical brilliance of the animation is breathtaking. It's quite a shock to go from Pokémon to such an extremely rich environment. The film starts with Ashitaka prancing about on his elk through an idyllic field, only to be interrupted by the boar-demon. The detail involved in creating this beast is beyond what Disney would care to do by hand. They would rather create a digital model of a worm, and have thousands of these models wriggle according to a computer randomization. Director Hayao Miyazaki, instead, insists on his animators drawing each little worm by hand, frame-by-frame, creating a perfectly integrated image with its own life force. That same attention is paid to the animation thoughout the film, creating a dazzling spectacle that continually changes form.
Between the dynamic visuals and the inspired story, this is easily the best action film of the year. Of course, that's not saying much in a year with hardly any decent action films, but I do not want to discount my previous statement. In fact, this could be the film that finally breaks anime into the American mainstream. But wouldn't you know that Disney has the ball in their court. Their Miramax division bought Princess Mononoke for distribution outside of Asia. Of course, they don't want this film to be widely distributed, because Toy Story 2 is coming on Thanksgiving. Maybe someday they will learn that this film commands a different audience.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Mononoke Hime (1997)
Video Pick of the Week
Guide to Star Ratings
Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan