When one sits down to watch an animated feature film, one comes with certain expectations, certain assumptions and, inevitably, certain misconceptions about the genre. If ever there was a film which would challenge my conceptions about animated features, this masterpiece from Hayao Miyazaki would be the one.
Before Titanic, Princess Mononoke held the record for highest domestic box office in Japan. Despite having been exposed to a number of excellent animated films, I still found it unfathomable that a cartoon could hold a box office record. I came across this film in a rather unusual way, a friend of mine downloaded an mp3 of the credits theme onto my computer and suggested that I listen to it. From the start, I was addicted to the music of the film, cleverly crafted by Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have worked together ever since their first film “The Castle of Cagliostro”, and no one can doubt that these two know the importance of the synergy between a film and its soundtrack. Previous films such as “Laputa: The Castle in the Clouds” and “My Neighbour Totoro” demonstrated this synergy remarkably well, and Princess Mononoke is no different.
From the start, the theme music draws you into this epic battle of wills. The plot follows the journey of a young prince, Ashitaka, who goes on a quest to find a cure for a curse which he came under while defending his village. On his way he becomes entangled in a sticky struggle between the animals of the forest, the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, some brigands under the orders of the Emperor, and the forest spirit itself. He also meets a young girl named San, who is raised by wolves and is Mononoke Himé, the Princess of the Spirits – Princess Mononoke.
The characterizations are a treat in this film. Miyazaki weaves a complex interaction between a set of equally complex characters. The character motivations are not entirely obvious at first, and it is easy to fall into the trap of pigeon-holing the characters into standard Hollywood character stereotypes. The interesting thing about each character’s motivation is that not a single character’s driving force is directly opposed to another’s. This makes for an interesting set of compromises being made by each of the characters in an effort to get what they want.
The backdrop to all this is the turmoil of an early-industrial feudal Japan which is coming to grips with the environmental effects of its industrial expansion. Indeed a very strong and unambiguous message which runs throughout the film is the one of the ills of our encroaching into the environment. Indeed, Prince Ashitaka’s mortality, galvanized right from the very start by his coming under a curse and its contrast with the regenerative nature of the great forest highlights Miyazaki’s great respect for nature.
Like all Miyazaki films, Princess Mononoke is visually stunning and chocolate cake for the ears. Small wonder that Miyazaki is a living legend in Japan and regarded by Disney animators as “The God of Animation”. Its two hour length seems far too short when the song Mononoke Himé starts the credits rolling, but it does leave the viewer satisfied. The English dub of this is about the best dub of any Japanese film I have ever heard, however having said that, I would still opt for the Japanese version any day, especially for the Japanese version of Mononoke Himé which is far superior to the version which is heard on the English dub. It will probably not become the cult film that “Akira” is, but is an essential part of any decent collection of anime films.
Brilliant, captivating, unconventional. Four and a half stars.