Traditionally, animated films have dealt with simple themes and characters best suited to children. Even Japanese anime geared toward a more mature audience frequently succumbs to cartoon-ish violence and repetitive themes, such that it becomes a caricature of itself. Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" transcends these limited definitions.
The film opens on a secluded Emishi village in northern Japan, several hundred years in the past. An 8-legged creature covered in writhing, viscous pseudopods is carving a swath of destruction through the forest on a path leading directly to the village. It falls to the Emishi people's last remaining prince, Ashitaka, to ride out and face the threat lest the town fall before it.
Despite his best efforts at reasoning with it Ashitaka is forced to destroy the creature, but not before it wounds him, cursing him with the same agony and hate that it had endured. In its final moments, the creature's curse subsides and it is revealed that it was a forest boar-god, driven mad by a wound from a man-made weapon. Potentially facing a similar fate, Ashitaka leaves his village on a journey to find the source of the curse and, he hopes, a cure.
Ashitaka's odyssey takes us across the Japanese countryside where we are witness to mountain panoramas, bustling urban markets and sweeping forest vistas. All are rendered in incredible detail by the skilled artists at Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki's animation shop, who actually ventured into the Japanese countryside to study the forests they would be drawing. In an era where audiences marvel at computer-animated films, Miyazaki and his staff continue to draw by hand: over 90% of Princess Mononoke is traditionally-animated cels. The frames that are rendered using CGI only serve to enhance (rather than distract) from the overall experience.
Fans of The Sandman series of comic books will be glad to see Neil Gaiman's hand in this project as screenwriter for the excellent english translation, and the voice acting for the english dub is equally compelling. Minnie Driver (excellent as Lady Eboshi), Billy Crudup, and others lend their talents to the film. Mononoke is an exploration of complex themes.
There are no trivialized 'good vs. evil' stereotypes but rather real human traits of self-interest, vengeance, and sacrifice. Lady Eboshi destroys the forest to mine iron, but does so to protect the lepers and prostitutes she has saved. San (Princess Mononoke) fights to destroy the humans but only to preserve the forest and the animals she considers family. Ashitaka remains the only one who is able to see flip sides of the coin and is willing to set aside his desires for the betterment of all, even if it means sacrificing his love for San.
Ultimately, Princess Mononoke is a thoughtful human story and is not just one of the great animations, but a great film.
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