Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (in the English version) Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton
The maestro Miyazaki tackles ecological issues by moving the setting of the crisis from the topical Amazonian rainforest to an enchanted land far away in this anime classic. Although it’s titled Princess Mononoke, the eponymous princess is actually more of a supporting character who goes by San instead of Mononoke, and she doesn’t do much in the film except act angry a lot. Our real hero is more interesting.
We open with Prince Ashitaka (Crudup), our real hero, defeating a gigantic gross warthog worm demon thingie, but in the process of bringing the nasty beast down, he gets hit with a fatal curse. In an effort to find some sort of a cure, he travels to the heart of an enchanted forest to beg the spirits to heal him. In doing so, he also stumbles into the ongoing war between Lady Eboshi (Driver), a ruthless and inventive leader, and the spirits of said forest.
While animation is not typically a genre I would choose to watch if left to my own devices, I have to give Miyazaki his due in this, my first experience with the Japanese master. In terms of animation itself, I was impressed by several facets of the film. The forest spirits were all done with a bizarrely grotesque beauty. The army of warthog spirits was disturbing and impressive. The main forest spirit was truly awe inspiring. The landscapes were absolutely enchanting, and the little ghost sprites of the forest were delightful. The human characters were normal Japanimation, but perhaps that lets the fantastic elements shine by comparison.
In terms of the narrative, I was truly impressed by the even-handedness with which Miyazaki approached the story. The message of the film is a profoundly ecological one, and yet it has become stereotyped: big bad industry (Eboshi) threatens to destroy beautiful serene nature (forest spirits). Amazingly, Miyazaki makes this a complicated battle. Eboshi is ruthless, but also fiercely protective of her own people, and they, in turn, idolize her. She is not wantonly going to war with nature; she is doing it to protect her own. She takes women from brothels and gives them honest work. She employs lepers when anyone else would leave them to die. Sure, she could do with a dose of ecological awareness, but she isn’t wholly villainous. The forest spirits, for their part, are hardly the angelic, serene fairies. They suffer from infighting and ignorance, ultimately doing more to destroy themselves than one would expect. They are hotheaded and close-minded. They are hardly wholly heroic.
In the middle of this is Ashitaka, the definite hero of the picture. He’s one of those obnoxiously perfect heroes; he doesn’t have a damn flaw. Honestly, his saving grace is related to more of his perfection: he refuses to take sides. He travels back and forth between Lady Eboshi and the forest spirits, aiding and abetting both of them at various points throughout the film. I like that a lot about them. My husband is a very middle of the road person; it’s very easy for him to see both sides of an argument, and I respect that in him. Needless to say, that’s what Ashitaka is all about, and it’s something you just plain never see in a film hero. It was refreshing.
Ultimately, though, while I can respect this film, I don’t know that I liked it very much. It did little to hold my overall attention, and despite the even-keel of the overall narrative, the ecological standpoint was still preachy, something that really turns me off. I respect Princess Mononoke, but I honestly can’t see myself ever wanting to watch it again. It has, however, made me curious to see how else Miyazaki will surprise me when I partake of his other classics.
Arbitrary Rating: Interesting, but no more than that. 6/10