Thursday, April 19, 2007

Review of Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke (1997) continues to be one of Hayao Miyazaki’s best-known and most popular anime features, rivaled only be the more recent “Spirited Away” (2001). It tells a complicated story about a young prince from an obscure forest village who is attacked by a boar and cursed. To have any hope of exorcising the curse, he must track down the origins of a iron bullet, found within the boar’s corpse. The journey will lead the boy through a world rife with animal tribes, human factions, gods and demons.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning. The incorporation of some CG elements only adds to the film’s vitality and fluidity. The art style goes a long way in establishing the personalities of the wide variety of characters, not just by rendering expressions, but by giving unique outfits, color schemes and movement patterns to each entity. Little details like the evil writhing worms or the way that the tiny dragon flies perch on each other’s tails in mid-flight (just like in real life) go a long way towards making the forest seem alive.

The English dub benefits from a generally impressive all-star cast. While I’m usually very much against dubbing and celebrity voicing (nearly all celebrities are not actually talented voice actors and get cast, for buckets of money, purely to bring in name recognition), but Princess Mononoke deserves credit for maintaining a fine translation and a wealth of vocal personality. Only a few of the minor ‘henchmen’ style characters are given cartoonish, out-of-place deliveries.

It’s funny that while Princess Mononoke set box office records in Japan and currently sits at #112 on, I still find myself needing to defend the film. Partially this is because anime had rarely had such mass appeal and the inevitable backlash from people who actually watched several dozen movies a year (or god forbid, several dozen animes per year) new the debt the film owed to earlier or obscurer works. Partially it’s also because the film is so easily read as environmental (and thus preachy) as so many Miyazaki films are. It reminds me of a quote by Pauline Kael, “…if you could see the ‘artist’s intentions’ you’d probably wish you couldn’t anyway. Nothing is so deathly to enjoyment as the relentless march of a movie to fulfill its obvious purpose.” Miyazaki doesn’t exactly keep his basic intentions a secret.

However, I think identifying the outer layer of the film’s ideology can serve as too easy of an excuse not to look deeper. Pegged as another tree-hugging children’s movie, critics are tempted to say, “I’ve seen Nausicaa (1984) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988)” and then tune out. To my mind, interesting questions are posed concerning the use of passive versus violent resistance techniques, the place of mercy in society versus nature, feminism, the cost of war (the consequences of every battle except the conclusion are shown, often times more prominently than the action itself), the breakdown of communication between opposing ideologies, the balance between stagnation and progress (note that while Iron Town overreaches its boundaries and is destroyed, the protagonist’s village has simply regressed and died out) and much more.

Miyazaki’s more violent, unsettling approach perhaps rightly earned the film a PG13 in the US but it’s not just the addition of blood and death that makes the film seem more mature. There’s a level of moral ambiguity through the bulk of the film that complicates characters and introduces themes that small children would not be expected to work out. Mutually exclusive positions are posed that are not easily labeled as right or wrong. The forest powers, usually keyed as the natural, harmonious and righteous entities, possess a viciousness and stubbornness, not to mention curious lusts for violence and vengeance, that doesn’t feel entirely wholesome. The citizens of Iron Town are hardworking and technologically innovative (traits famously associated with Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli), but they are ruthless and outright disrespectful to the land and animals around them.

By comparison, Spirited Away (which I admit to preferring), offers a relatively simple and well-worn message about the need to maintain our childhood innocence, wonder, resilience and hope. If it wasn’t so perfectly packaged, I’d return to sender. It’s actually much easier to spot the right and wrong in the later film. The difference that makes Princess Mononoke feel preachier is that gung-ho environmentalism is not always a pleasant or practical message to hear.

In my mind, Princess Mononoke has two important flaws. First, despite the complicated motives, convictions and personalities of the large cast, Ashitaka (the protagonist) is given a superhuman confidence and narrative infallibility. This moral high ground is extremely problematic for a character who, “sees with eyes unclouded by hate,” a comment that codes his multiple kills as cold-blooded and objective. Miyazaki does a great disservice to the strength and boldness of posing difficult as-yet-unsolved questions by stocking a hero whose actions are never seriously interrogated by himself, his peers or the cinematic structure of the film. A protagonist riddled by doubt and internally struggling to find the best answer or (failing that) temporary compromises, would have been much more progressive.

Secondly, the film’s pat ending is polished off in a tidy three minute finale that hardly acknowledges the troubling issues still at large. Each character delivers a line or two that assures the audience that happiness and closure have been attained for all. It feels like a bid to make this yet another ‘beloved’ classic from the reliable studio, when its power and durability lies mainly in its attempts to be challenging.

Walrus Rating: 9.0


Mad Dog said...

Your two stabs at the weaknesses of Mononoke are probably what bother me the most about the movie. Miyazaki LOVES his protagonists and frequently makes them picture-perfect Pollyannas that are never wrong and are pure and yadda yadda (see Nausicaa and Kiki). And that ending is indeed so overwhelmingly simplistic and even sort of pushes the "reset" button on a lot of things, including Ashitaka's and San's relationship. I fucking hate that and my roommate who saw it with me and loved it right up until that moment hated it, too, after that.

Another thing that bothers me is the setting. I just don't gel well with animes set in a past period of Japanese history (even one as heavily mythologized as Mononoke's). Both times I saw it, my attention wandered. Also, Billy Bob. I hate his performance. Everyone else works to varying degrees of success but Billy Bob I really do not like in this part (and Gillian Anderson ain't too far behind).

I do like this movie more than Nausicaa and Totoro. More than Nausicaa because it seems like a more mature expression of the ideas Miyazaki wanted to tell (and because there's no one quite as singularly punch-worthy as Nausicaa in all of anime). I also liked this more than Totoro because there was conflict and major characters over the age of 4.

This is gonna be one of the biggest differences in our opinions on movies into the forseeable future.

FilmWalrus said...

I would suggest that it isn't fair to judge a film entirely by the ending (unless the entire film is focused on a single unifying ending twist that causes the rest of the film to fall apart without), but it is not an uncommon reaction.

I also think that Billy Bob's performance is only mildly bad and if the DVD had Japanese audio with English subtitles it could be circumvented anyway. I mostly agree about poor G Anderson.

I would suggest that your dislike of PM is based more on anime analysis than film analysis (in terms of how we compare it and study the technical and structural aspects), which is fair but leads us to different conclusions. I'm going to go dig out your anime tracker and look over our relative scores to see how much that theory holds up.

mursel said...

As he kills his scar/insult grows. When he sacrifices to save manoke he has a second chance to live and eventually he is saved when he gives the head back.