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'Princess' an enthralling tale of man vs. nature

October 31, 1999

By Dann Gire

Don't mistake "Princess Mononoke" for a Walt Disney animated feature.

Arrows sever the heads of warring soldiers. Demon beasts kill anything in their way. The title character smears blood around her mouth, and an evil boar's curse slowly eats a young man alive in a pre-medieval form of ebola.

"Princess Mononoke" has the distinction of having been the highest grossing movie in Japan - the only film to be beaten by the unsinkable "Titanic" at the Japanese box office.

It also has the distinction of being a magnificent Japanese animated feature, one that has been surprisingly well adapted to Western audiences unfamiliar with the conventions and histories of Japanese stories. (Some of the scenes of an iron-mining town were inspired by the director's love of John Ford Westerns.)

At two hours and 13 minutes, "Princess Mononoke" tells a smart, truly adult, epic tale of the struggle between nature (mostly supernatural nature) and the technological threat of man.

It employs spirits, demons, animals, horrible curses and lots of animated violence in its depiction of this fight. The conflict begins when an Emishi tribe prince named Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) becomes infected with a horrible, creeping skin disease, a curse put upon him by a demon-possessed, writhing-with-wormy-things boar god before the prince kills it.

Ashitaka hopes to find a cure by traveling to a distant land. There, he plans to ask for help from the forest's Deer God. Instead, Ashitaka rides into the middle of a war between the fierce animals living in the forest and the inhabitants of an industrious iron-mining town that freely exploits and plunders the surrounding natural resources.

The mining town is ruled by the mysterious Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver, who proves that even in Japanese movies, villains must speak with British accents).

San, alias Princess Mononoke (voiced in disappointingly flat tones by Claire Danes), lives as the lupine version of Tarzan, a human woman raised by the wolf god Moro (voiced by "X-Files" star Gillian Anderson). She leads the fight against the miners for the animal kingdom, in part guarded by the sacred Deer God.

Even though this sounds like a typical good vs. evil plot, "Princess Mononoke" never takes a black-and-white attitude toward its characters or their situations.

Revered Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, whose 1989 "Kiki's Delivery Service" has become a classic of Japanimation, has created not just a literate work of cinema, but a literary work as well.

Working from Miyazaki's original screenplay, American novelist and comic-book creator Neil Gaiman's English adaptation forges an engaging - no, make that enthralling - story that revels in rich ambiguities, narrative twists and nasty reversals.

Granted, by Walt Disney standards, the animation in "Princess Mononoke" doesn't have the grace of movement or intricate detailing that we've come to expect in major, big-budget animated features. The film took three years to make and utilized the old-fashioned way of animating by creating 144,000 hand-drawn cels. Only 10 percent of the movie comes from computer-generated images.

But that constitutes a small distraction in a story where every minute is ripe with the promise of adventure and we have no idea where it will take us next.

Re-printed with the kind permission of Dann Gire and The Daily Herald.

Edited with permission by Akio Nagatomi

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