I should first say that I have nothing against nature, forests, and all that other good ecological stuff. Hey, plants keep us alive, right? It just so happens that whenever someone attempts to make a movie about how nature is good and how man is inherently evil since all they want to do is destroy nature, I tend to snooze. I can’t help myself. The whole subject is so biased against the presence of humans that I feel like I’m part of the problem just by being alive.
“Princess Mononoke” is a Japanese animation that utilizes traditional cell animation and is written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the man responsible for “My Neighbor Totoro”, one of my all-time favorite films, animation or otherwise. While “Mononoke” shares some familiar themes with “Totoro”, most notably the worship of nature as a living entity, “Mononoke” is quite violent. Despite its very grown up vision of the world through the eyes of two young girls, “Totoro” was a cutesy film at heart. “Mononoke” on the other hand is a full-blown action adventure film mixed in with talking animals, celestial beings that take the form of deers, and a very bloody war between humans and animals and all beings in-between.
The film opens with Ashitaka, a prince in a small village in the countryside, being cursed by a demon-possessed wild boar. Ashitaka leaves his village and journeys to the source of the curse, where he encounters the (improbably) thickheaded Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver). Eboshi has brought a small army of gunmen to the Japanese countryside to clear out the animals and the Gods, to burn down the forest, and to dig up ore to make more guns. And she’ll kill anyone and everyone who gets in her way.
By the simple fact that she’s willing to wipe out all of nature to mine her precious ore, Eboshi is at war with the forest’s inhabitants, led by San (the Princess Mononoke of the title), who was raised by wolves as a child and is now their leader. Into the fray walks Ashitaka, who brings with him his curse, impressive skills with an arrow, and enough ignorance, naivet’, and a general lack of intelligence to make a male supermodel blush.
If it sounds like I don’t appreciate the movie’s themes of humanity and its role in regards to nature, you’d be wrong. I also appreciated the fact that Miyazaki avoids making Eboshi and Jigo (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton) cartoonish bad guys, but instead treat them like multi-faceted people. Although there is a sense that, in an effort to rid his movie of any obvious villains, the film fails to convince us who we should be rooting for.
“Mononoke” is surprisingly quite impressive in its English dubbing, and I can safely say this is the best Japanese to English translation of a Japanimation I have seen, period. The voice actors all have impressive credentials, which allow them to skip the pitfall of bad English dubs that so many Japanimation become victims off. (The horrible dubbing for “Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust”, where English actors read their lines as if there were no punctuations in the script, comes to mind.)
“Princess Mononoke” has some impressive art and something is always happening within the frame to keep us interested. Unfortunately the movie is not entirely engaging, and its characters never go through any changes, leaving us to wonder what all of this was for in the first place.
In fact, there are no character arcs to be found anywhere within “Mononoke.” Eboshi, for instance, first appears as a woman who nonchalantly rapes the land and murders the beasts, and ends the same way. Her character is a role model for everyone within the movie, including the vapid Ashitaka, who is incapable of making one single intelligent decision. The kid is just, well, not all that bright. Which, incidentally, also describes the movie.
Hayao Miyazaki (director) / Neil Gaiman (English screenplay), Hayao Miyazaki (screenplay)
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton …. Jigo
Gillian Anderson …. Moro
Billy Crudup …. Prince Ashitaka
Claire Danes …. San
Minnie Driver …. Lady Ebosh