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Saturday, July 19, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 19 - Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997; Studio Ghibli,
Miramax (U.S. Distributor))
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (Original Japanese Cast) Youji Matsuda, Yoriko Ishida; (English voice cast) Billy Crudup, Claire Danes

Anime is a modern type of filmmaking that spans many genres and ranges from quality dramas to silly romps.  Spanning decades in Japan and growing immensely in popularity in America in the late 90’s due to the domestication of series like Dragonball Z, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop, and with the help of movie releases like the cult classic Akira and the wondrous piece of fantasy Princess Mononoke or もののけ姫 (Mononoke-hime) in Japanese.  Written and directed by the Walt Disney of Japanese animation, and arguably the second greatest animation director in film history (after the great Disney, of course), Hayao Miyazaki, Mononoke is a fantasy that is powerful and brilliant in every way.

The story begins following a warrior name Ashitaka, who is cursed by a rogue boar that became possessed by a evil spirit.  When he returns home he is forced to exile so as not to curse the rest of his village.  He travels a great distance on the back of his companion, a “red elk” (that isn’t a freaking elk, by the way) named Yakui.  Hoping to find a cure for his ailment, he seeks aid from the spirits of the forest that guard the untouched natural landscape from the fires of man, in particular those coming from the nearby forge fortress of Irontown.  Run by a headstrong matron named Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who rescued many of her working girls from the cities’ brothels to help forge more powerful weapons, the town awaits the return of its men and readies itself for war against the animal spirits.  When the town is attacked by a nimble and fearless girl named Mononoke, who refuses to identify herself as human as she grew up with the guardian wolves in the nearby forest, Ashitaka rescues her from her fate but is wounded in the process.  Nursed back to health by the wolf girl, the young warrior is now caught in the middle of a war between his fellow man, and the spirits of nature that could cure him of his curse.

Typically, the man versus nature theme is done very, very poorly.  This is especially the case when the story has a shoehorned, heavy-handed environmental message in it.  Films like Avatar always came off to me as more PSA than film, especially since that movie in-particular is just several hours of Cameron telling everyone how “awesome” he is.  However, Mononoke actually shows us the struggle of violence against nature and puts us in the shoes of the creatures and lives destroyed by man’s lust for power.  Mononoke herself is a direct contrast to Eboshi. The titular heroine is gruff, strong and devoted to her forest family, while Eboshi is arrogant, beautiful and willing to sacrifice her own people to get what she wants.  The most interesting thing about this contrast is how the characters are introduced.  When we first meet Eboshi, it is a natural assumption to assume she is good, while Mononoke, clad in furs and a wooden mask, wields a dagger and slashes and dives at the frightened villagers.  

Princess Mononoke plays with expectations, and is actually, and surprisingly, not bound by too many cliches, despite the obvious references to Burroughs’ Tarzan novels as well as a number of other man-vs.-nature stories.  It is an inspired story that is both empowering and heartbreaking.  We see the once-mighty spirits stumbling and bleeding from the powerful weapons of the humans of Irontown.  They are prophets of their own doom, so willing to give in to their collective fate.  We see that nature becomes helpless against man’s rage unless some are willing to help fight with and for it.

Like all of Miyazaki’s writings, this film has touches of Japanese folklore and spiritualism in it as well, and the cultural elements of his movies are often some of the of most fascinating parts.  Environmental themes aside, this is a great allegory to growing into one’s self, overcoming the past and accepting who you really are.  It pulls you into the world and shows you the pain each character is feeling without being emotionally-manipulative, instead it relies on one’s own empathy to truly relate to and understand what these characters are going through.  What is even a greater testament to the complexity of this film: I did not even scratch the surface in terms of plot.  There is a lot going on here that tie the emotional elements and themes of the film together better than most that have tried have been able to do in narratives past.  Miyazaki created a masterwork here, and it is widely regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time.  It earned this title, as Princess Mononoke is a deep, engaging masterpiece, and even though it is only my second favorite film of Miyazaki’s (Spirited Away is my #1), it is certainly high among the greatest animated features in the history of movies.

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