Japan's animated eco-fable is not a trip to Disneyland
Beneath the kitschy grandeur lies a true work of art
October 29, 1999
BY LIAM LACEY
When a giant, talking boar god, covered with writhing worms, goes insane, destroys a forest and attacks a Japanese feudal village, the people know something is amiss. And the audience for Princess Mononoke knows from the opening frame that they're not in Disneyland any more. There are no cute sidekick animals, adolescent songs, or a chorus of fluttering bluebirds.
Japan's second-biggest-grossing film of all time (before Titanic, its $160-million box office was a record) is built on a scale so ambitious it makes North American animated features seem puny. The story -- of a young man who must fight huge beast demons, save himself from a horrible curse and make peace between a warrior queen and the spirit of the forest -- is complex and filled with multiplying digressions. The imagery, ranging from sublime mountain-smashing power to firefly delicacy (individual waterdrops splashing on a rock) is exuberant and intoxicating.
The English-language version of the 1997 animated hit comes to North America indirectly through Disney, by way of its Miramax art- house division, and employs the voices of Miramax favourites Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thorton and Minnie Driver. The new script was adapted by Neil Gaiman.
Princess Mononoke, set in the feudal 16th century, is an eco-fable about an apocalyptic battle between animistic gods and the newly emerging industrial society. It follows the adventures of Prince Ashitaka who sets out on a journey to discover the source of the evil that has turned the boar into a killer, and infected the prince with a poison that may destroy him.
His journey leads to Lady Eboshi (Driver), a warrior queen whose people mine iron from a mountain. An ambiguous figure, she is both a force for good -- rescuing the colourful prostitutes from the town to work her forges -- and for evil, using the iron to create weapons of mass destruction. Her main opposition comes from an adolescent girl raised by wolves, Princess Mononoke (Danes), and vast armies of animal gods, led by a shape-shifting spirit called, simply enough, the Spirit of the Forest. The latter is Bambi's great stag by day (when he walks, flowers spring up spontaneously behind his hooves) and a raging Godzilla by night.
For all its kitschy grandeur, Princess Mononoke is also a considerable achievement as a work of art. It was shown recently at the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival, not common for a cartoon. The visionary behind the work is Hayao Miyazaki, regarded as the class act in Japanese anime (the cartooning style that also includes such children's favourites as Sailor Moon and Pokemon). Miyazaki, who has spent 30 years as an animator -- his other works include Kiki's Delivery Service -- is widely admired and imitated by the post-Little Mermaid animators at Disney, Pixar and other North American houses. Mulan, for example, with its monumental battle scenes, was directly influenced by him.
Princess Mononoke is engrossing, but the story is unlikely to have much allegorical appeal to North Americans. We're not used to tree huggers who resort to decapitating their enemies.
As with other kinds of Japanese anime, the characters are not naturalistic. Though Mizayaki can fill a screen with explosive action, the characters still walk like puppets. Some elements are excessively precious: The little white tree spirits look like the extended family of the Pillsbury Dough Boy. The cultural divide lends Princess Mononoke a shimmer of surreal, sometimes queasy contradictions: Think of Akira Kurosawa's magnificent battles, as staged by the big-eyed moppetts from Walter Keane paintings. You don't know whether to wince or offer a standing ovation.
Toronto Globe and Mail, October 29, 1999
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