In its theatrical Japanese release of 1997, PRINCESS MONONOKE was the hugest box office grossing movie of all time in the land of the Rising Sun until it was overtaken by James Cameron's TITANIC, and, four years later, director Hayao Miyazaki's own SPIRITED AWAY. No wonder. This movie, like an earlier project of Miyazaki's, NAUSICAA OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND, explores man's relationship with nature, hatred causing destruction, and, more importantly, real characters (in other words, no real "hero" or "villain") trying to get by in a world continually torn by war.
This is not a movie for young children, as there are disturbing shots of decapitations, amputations, and occasional blood spurts. Sometimes these elements of violence turn squeamish viewers away from Anime (especially when they're done gratuitously), but Hayao Miyazaki presents it not to sicken people but to show it for the horror that it is (plus, in this film, the violence is not overdone). Take, for example, the scene where the protagonist, Prince Ashitaka of the Emishi Tribe, possessed by a curse he received from killing a Demon God (in trying to protect his village), tries to stop samurai attacking innocent people, and in doing so shoots the arms off of one man, and, later, takes off a man's head with two arrows. The sight is horrifying to see, but the deed also increases Ashitaka's demon mark on his arm, which is slowly preparing to take his life. This is a truly horrible depiction about the dangers of violence.
Also worth noting is Princess Mononoke herself, a human girl named San raised by the Animal Gods, and her struggle against Lady Eboshi of Iron Town, who is destroying the forest merely for her people's own good (the folks are outcasts, including lepers and prostitutes). San distrusts and despises all humans, and is especially determined to destroy them all (particularly Eboshi)... or die trying. When she's rescued by Ashitaka, however, a conflict within her begins to surface: are *all* humans evil, or is there at least one who is trustworthy? If there is any character who could be considered a villain, it would be the monk, Jigo, who wants the head of the Spirit of the Forest to bring to the Emperor. Such a deed would destroy the entire forest (as we find out in the film's chilling climactic scenes) but even Jigo has his own motives, too. He is not so much evil as much as he is just "trying to get by". This pretty much sums up the conflicts between all our characters here.
PRINCESS MONONOKE may not have enjoyed similar box office success here in America, but at least a lot of work and care went into the translation. As with Disney's other English language tracks for Miyazaki's films, this one is very, very well done. Acclaimed writer Neil Gaiman worked on the script, rewording it only to a) fit the mouth flaps, and b) make it understandable to a non-Japanese audience who would probably not comprehend a lot of the cultural nuances found in this film. Added to which, the voice cast includes a commendable list of stars; Billy Crudup is perfect as Ashitaka, eliciting just the right amount of warmth, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and courage, while Claire Danes delivers passionately angry, conflicted turmoil to San. (Folks said she was miscast, but I beg to differ; her character is *required* to be outraged and aggressive, and Danes does have a strong voice to carry such emotions.) The rest of the cast includes Billy Bob Thornton as Jigo (a grossly underrated performance; his Southern drawl adds to the character), Minnie Driver (elegant choice!) as Lady Eboshi, Gillian Anderson as the Wolf-Goddess Moro, and Jada Pinkett-Smith as the friendly (if no-nonsense style) worker Toki. The translation flows smoothly to those who are not familiar with Japanese folk tales, and the story succeeds in making its point, too.
This movie may not be for everybody, as it is the kind of film that may disturb young children, but older audiences will find themselves absorbed in the artwork, which showcases gorgeous, unmatched imagination, from the finely detailed forests to the cute little Tree Spirits who appear and disappear at will to the Forest Spirit itself -- a huge deer who makes plants grow with each step he takes. And at night he becomes a ghostly specter known as the Nightwalker, traveling higher than the trees. Such images warrant the purchase of this film. Better yet, its message is not too preachy, and rarely do animated movies (save those from Japan) showcase characters portrayed as, well, human beings.
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