by Frank Olson
The great animator Hayao Miyazaki established his reputation with uniquely fanciful family films like My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), but many of his earliest efforts as a director were devoted to the fantasy action genre. 1997’s Princess Mononoke is in many respects a return to the form of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986), but it has a considerably darker tone and thankfully relies far less on fantasy clichés. Miyazaki’s first few films are entertaining but feel a bit hamstrung by anime conventions, whereas Princess Mononoke, like all of the director's later films, is unmistakably the work of its visionary creator.
May 23 & 24, Midnight
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Producer: Toshio Suzuki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Cinematographer: Atsushi Okui
Editors: Hayao Miyazaki, Takeshi Seyama
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast (English-Language Version): Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, John DiMaggio, Claire Danes, John DeMita, Jada Pinkett Smith, Gillian Anderson, Keith David
Premiere: July 12, 1997 (Japan)
US Theatrical Release: October 29, 1999
US Distributor: Toho Company & Buena Vista
The improvements over Nausicaa and Castle in the Sky are instantly apparent in every scene of Princess Mononoke. Studio Ghibli’s films have always looked great, but their art department really outdid themselves here. Every frame is dynamically composed and filled with rich, colorful detail. There is often as much going on in the background as there is in the foreground of any given scene, lending the film an epic scope to rival such masterpieces of live-action cinema as Seven Samurai and Andrei Rublev. Unlike Kurosawa or Tarkovsky, Miyazaki has the advantage of working in an animated medium where literally anything can happen. Though Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s less whimsical films, it still features an embarrassment of fantastical riches, with eccentric settings and vivid character designs populating the edges of the screen at practically every moment. Studio Ghibli’s projects have always featured breathtaking background designs, but the characters in some of their earlier films tend to be a bit nondescript. But here Miyazaki lavishes as much care on the look of his characters as on the design of their world. The titular character of the film has some particularly striking early appearances in her battle garb, which includes a maroon tribal mask and a caveperson’s loincloth.
Princess Mononoke is visually lavish even by Miyazaki’s lofty standards (perhaps only topped in ocular splendor by the later Howl’s Moving Castle, which featured a sophisticated blend of hand-drawn and CGI animation), but it still suffers from the script problems that are endemic to the writer-director's oeuvre. It is obvious that Miyazaki cares deeply about environmental conservation and pacifism, given how often these themes recur in his work, but he’s never been great about expressing his opinions on those subjects clearly. Their appearances here feel simultaneously didactic and muddled, buried as they are under an unnecessarily convoluted plot surrounding a battle over control of the forest.
Here is the story, as clearly as it can be summarized in a quick paragraph. A hunter named Ashitaka is tasked with slaying a giant demon-infested boar that is rampaging through his village. During a struggle, the demon curse is transferred to Ashitaka, whose left arm is suddenly imbued with a super-strength that threatens to overwhelm him and perhaps lead him to kill others. Banished from his home, the hunter is advised to travel to a mountain range that is home to a forest spirit that may possess the power to remove the curse. When Ashitaka reaches the area, he is thrust into a complex conflict involving the giant beasts who populate the forest, a town of weapon manufacturers, a group of prize-hunting monks, an army of samurai, and Princess Mononoke, a wolf-raised girl who has turned her back on the human race.
There are at least a few too many factions involved in this conflict, which could have just as easily been stripped down to a battle between the weapon-makers and Mononoke’s animal tribe, with Ashitaka caught in between. As impressively stylized as the menacing red-eyed gang of apes are, they seem to be here just to add extra color to a movie with no shortage of eccentricity, as they have no bearing on the outcome of the final battle. The purpose of the samurai is never entirely clear, either; they threaten to steal the weapon manufacturers’ wares, which makes the potentially villainous craftsmen more sympathetic than they might otherwise be, but the samurai group’s motivation for being involved in the war is never clear enough for the viewer to care about their role in the fight.
While Miyazaki clutters the script with too many ancillary characters and unnecessary subplots, he does deserve credit for creating a number of vividly realized and fleshed-out characters. The weapon-makers from the industrial Iron Town are given a particularly nuanced treatment. It would have been easy to turn these battle-ready townspeople into mustache-twirling enemies of peace, but Miyazaki makes their need for self-defense palpable by depicting the gigantic creatures that populate the nearby forests as a genuine menace. These are not the cuddly anthropomorphic singing and dancing creatures of Disney films but hungry, sharp-toothed beasts whose tempers can turn at the slightest hint of aggression. The denizens of Iron Town are not defined entirely by their lust for self-defense, either. Lady Eboshi, the town’s matriarch, has turned her home into a haven for some of Japan’s least fortunate citizens, and she’s given everybody from lepers to former sex workers a second chance in life by giving them work as armament craftsmen. While Eboshi is depicted as misguided in some respects, she is scarcely less sympathetic than Princess Mononoke, whose desire for revenge against the humans who killed her wolf family seems simultaneously noble and insane. Mononoke is unsurprisingly eventually revealed to have a kind heart, but it's her memorable introduction as a near-feral creature with blood-smeared lips that lingers in the mind. There are no cut-and-dry heroes or villains in Princess Mononoke, and while that has more or less been the case in all of Miyazaki's films beginning with Totoro, it is especially impressive to see that kind of moral stance in a violent action film.
Princess Mononoke is the most purely exciting of Miyazaki’s films, and it features a number of stunningly directed setpieces. The opening boar hunt sequence is as exciting a chase scene as exists in cinema, and the surreal details in the animation (with the demon curse unforgettably depicted as a mass of wormy critters slithering over the boar's body) only make the action more riveting. Mononoke’s attack on Iron Town is an equally dynamic scene, as Ashitaka struggles to mediate the tension between the psychotically revenge-obsessed wolf girl and the gun-happy townspeople. Even incidental details are powerfully realized. After Ashitaka gains demon strength, his arrow shots become powerful enough to remove the limbs of his opponents; the fact that Miyazaki doesn't linger on the resulting gore only makes the action seem more viscerally, chaotically brutal. Miyazaki could've certainly trimmed his script down a bit, but it's hard to begrudge him a few excesses in a film that achieves such an epic fusion of relentless action and otherworldly beauty.