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PRINCESS MONONOKE: The New Standard in Animation

Review: Miyazaki's masterpiece reaches American, intact!

By Steve Biodrowski     October 29, 1999

Since the worldwide blockbuster success of Disney's THE LION KING, rival Hollywood studios have run rampant trying to slice off a piece of the animation pie; some have come close, but none have surpassed the Mouse House. What is known to many fans but not to the majority of American viewers is that there already isindeed has been for at least a decadequality feature film animation that rivals and often surpasses the best of Disney. Japanese efforts like AKIRA are science fiction spectaculars that rank with the best work in the genrenot great animated films but great films that happen to have been achieved with animation.

One of the most consistently entertaining auteurs working in Japanimation is Hayao Miyazaki (LUPIN III: THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY). While much of anime's notoriety in this country is based on the more outrageous, adult aspects (including X-rated sex and violence) Miyazaki's work has always been closer (in a relative sense, anyway) to the Disney aesthetic. (In fact, Buena Vista Home Video has been releasing many of the director's older works on tape, including KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE). Not that Miyazaki ever directed animated musicals aimed at children, but there is a pastoral beauty to his films that has a somewhat familiar feel comfortable to Western audiences. Nevertheless, his work always struck a PG tone, with action and adventure that would appeal to teens and young adults, as well as to older audiences impressed with the artistry.

With PRINCESS MONONOKE, his first film to receive substantial theatrical distribution in America, Miyazaki steps up to a whole new level of achievement. The beauty and adventure of his previous works remain intact, but gone is the light-hearted humor of KIKI and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO, replaced by an epic tone that reaches mythic proportions. The complex story begins with an attack on a small village by a monster that appears to be a huge spider comprised of thousands of slithering worms. Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) kills the rampaging beast, which turns out to be a former forest god. As it dies, the evil curse obscuring its form melts away, revealing a large boar. Unfortunately, its curse is passed on to Ashitaka, who must abandon his village to seek a cure.

His only clue is a small metal pellet found in the body of the slain animal. The pellet turns out to be a bullet fired by one Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver), who has been razing the nearby forest in order to mine more raw ore for her irons works. The first sign that this film will not devolve into simplicity occurs when Eboshi, whom we are prepared to hate for her predations against nature, turns out to be an honorable woman who not only employs lepers but also buys out the contracts on local prostitutes and gives them honest work instead.

Meanwhile, Ashitaka encounters the titular Princess (voiced by Claire Danes), a young woman raised by the wolf goddess Moro (voiced by Gillian Anderson). Because she is defending the forest and its residents, we have to identify with her, but the film never allows us fully to condone her quest for vengeance against Eboshi. Poor Ashitaka finds himself trapped in the middle of this feud, unable to join fully with either side, yet desperately hoping somehow to find a resolution that will benefit all concerned. In a strange way, the story starts to resemble YOJIMBO and its imitators (like A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), wherein the lead character formed alliances with rival factions in order to play both sides against each. The difference here is that, whereas the master samurai in YOJIMBO had no allegiance to either side, Ashitaka has allegiance to both sides; he is not trying to fan the flames of conflict but to quench them. The problem is, because of his refusal to ally himself definitively with either side, neither one will give him the trust he needs to bring about a resolution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, the situation seems irresolvable. The strength of the film is that, despite this, we never disengage from the story. We identify with Ashitaka's apparently hopeless quest, even as we despair of his chances for success. We see the apparent righteousness of the rival characters, even as we realize that their conflict will lead to disaster. Amidst this human bickering, the relatively honorable conduct of the forest gods (all in the forms of animals) seems relatively noble, even if the creatures themselves are dangerous and violent.

Clearly, Miyazaki is making a statement about respect for nature, but he refuses the simple option of making the iron foundry out to be a bastion of evil. In fact, it seems that the conflict lies not in nature versus civilization but in the personal animosity that many of the major characters hold for each other. Ultimately, the film allows us the luxury of identifying with the clear vision of extremists who believe in their own righteousness, but then strips that luxury away from us as they are forced, by the consequences of their own actions, to take stock of their beliefs and revise them in order to go on living.

If all of this sounds heavy-handed, fear not. The thematic subtext is dramatized in vivid exciting scenes, never spelled out in long-winded dialogue passages. From the very opening frames, Miyazaki is totally in control of the medium, manipulating audience responses like a master. In a year of films that saw a summer resurgence of the horror genre, Miyazaki may have topped everyone with the opening sequence: the boar's attack is perhaps the most frightening sequence on films this year. What is amazing is not only the obvious elements (the monstrous appearance of the attacking beast) but the clever subtleties. Yakul, Ashitaka's red elk (which the people of his village ride like horses), goes paralyzed with fear at the sight of the monsterwhich would not be surprising in and of itself. What is surprising is that the look of the character immediately convinces us of Yakul's inherent nobility and courage. Somehow, you know this is not a creature easily frightened; therefore, to see it quivering in fear, unable to move to save itself, increases our own fear at the approaching threat.

Elsewhere, Miyazaki juxtaposes his patented pastoral landscapes with outbreaks of violence that are positively shocking to anyone familiar with his work. The visceral impact of these action scenes ranks with the best work appearing in live-action films today; in American animated films, there is quite simply nothing to compare. Under the influence of the curse working through his body, Ashitaka's skills as a warrior reach demonic proportions; the arrows released from his bow dismember and decapitate his foes (amazingly, the film somehow avoided an R-rating without any cuts). As with everything else in the film, the scenes evoke complex responses the audience: on the one hand, his opponents seem to deserve their fate; on the other, we see that the violence is slowly overwhelming the character, who must find a solution before he turns as evil as the demonic boar he slew.

The film also sets a new standard for dubbing. Not only do the lines effectively match the character mouth movements, but Neil Gaiman's English-language script effectively captures the flavor of the original. Having seen the subtitled version, I can attest that little if anything has been lost in the dubbing. In fact, the English dialogue even effectively clarifies a few minor plot points that might not be obvious to Western viewers, and manages to do it without sounding too obviously like added exposition. Also, the star voice cast do an excellent job of recreating the characters; this is a long way from the standard, cartoony-sounding voices we've come to expect in dubbed Japanese cartoons from GIGANTOR all the way to POKEMON. Perhaps only the character of Moro loses something in the translation: the Japanese language for the character was delivered by a female impersonator, creating a strange combination of masculine strength and feminine delivery. Gillian Anderson certainly does a fine job, but some of the weirdness is gone.

This is a minor cavil, however, in a film that is otherwise an outstanding achievement. While Disney struggles with MULAN to make more adult fare filled with action, and while DreamWorks stumbles with their Biblical rehash PRINCE OF EGYPT, Miyazaki has already made a film that sets the real standard, easily equaling and surpassing other achievements in the genre. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki's work should not be too surprised that he has pulled off this neat trick. What is surprising is that his vision has reached American shores in relatively pure form. For that, we should thank Miramax, who put the time and effort into the English-language version that the film deserved. PRINCESS MONONOKE may not have comic relief sidekick characters, computer-generated characters, or fairy tale source material, or catchy musical numbers; that is, it might not have any of the things that spell the word 'box office' as it applies to animation in America (well, it does have a theme song). Nevertheless, it is a true work of art; unburdened with these commercial compromises, it succeeds beautifully. It is at once a rousing adventure and a profoundly moving meditationtwo elements that sound exclusive but actually enhance each other. PRINCESS MONONOKE is, quite simply, one of the greatest animated films ever made.

A Miramax Films Relese: October 29 (limited), November 5 (wide). A Studio Ghibli Production. A Hayao Miyazaki Film. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Toshio Suzuki. English Language Adaptation By Neil Gaiman; voice casting and voice direction by Jack Fletcher. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Voices: Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Jada Pinkett Smith.

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