PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

  • Director: Hayao Miyazaki
  • Writers: Hayao Miyazaki, adapted to English by Neil Gaiman
  • Starring: In Japanese: Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yuko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tsunehiko Kamijo, Akihiro Miwa, Hisaya Morishige, and Sumi Shimamoto; In English: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, John DiMaggio, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, and Jada Pinkett Smith
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription to HBO Max, Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

In America, we think of animation as something for children. In the years since the debut of The Simpsons, this has changed somewhat on American television, but not in the movies. In Japan, this is far less the case. Anime is considered something of a national art form, and though a good portion of it is produced with kids in mind, a lot of it is also for adults. That is why Hayao Miyazaki’s first movie to gain wide distribution in the US was My Neighbor Totoro, which is a great movie that received a G rating in the US. But Princess Mononoke took the stock of Miyazaki to a new level in the West as a director, despite receiving a PG-13 rating and involving a surprising amount of severed limbs and beheadings. It became, for a short time (less than a year), the highest grossing film ever in the Japanese domestic market, but because the American market really didn’t know what to do with it, disappointed financially in its American theatrical run two years later. However, it has gained on popularity in the DVD and streaming services, and it is now available to everyone on HBO Max with the rest of the offerings of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.

Princess Mononoke feels like it is based on a fairy tale, but it is an original story by Miyazaki. It also has the basic structure of a Disney movie, with lots of side characters and talking animals, but it is decidedly darker and more cerebral than that. The story is sprawling and hard to summarize, but in essence, it involves the noble Prince Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda/Billy Crudup) getting caught up in the conflict between the forces of human progress, as represented by Lady Eboshi (Yuko Tanaka/Minnie Driver), and the primeval forest, presided over by the wolf-god Moro (Akihiro Miwa/Gillian Anderson). He meets the half-feral San (Yuriko Ishida/Claire Danes), the human adopted daughter of Moro, who thinks of herself as a wolf. San is the “Princess Mononoke” of the title; Mononoke is not a name, but a name for a type of shape-shifting creature from Japanese mythology.

Mononoke is set in the Muromachi period of feudal Japan (approximately 1336 to 1573 CE), though it is mostly a somewhat allegorical fantasy about the relationship between humanity and its environment, full of Gods, talking animals, and forest spirits. The villain, Lady Eboshi, is not so much a villain as a representation of civilization’s progress. She believes, not only in technology (in the form of muskets and cannons), but in the equality of women and in the basic humanity of the less fortunate. Her motivation for wanting the forest for herself is because she thinks there is a cure there for the lepers that she takes in. This is not a simple environmentalist parable of right and wrong, it is a complicated story about whether humanity and nature can ever co-exist, and if nature can ever really allow humans to take from it what they need.

To tell that story, the animation varies from some of the most beautiful you’ll ever see to deeply ugly and disturbing. Within two years of the release of Toy Story, Miyazaki used computer animation to make wildly squiggling demon tentacles. Princess Mononoke combines Japanese animation styles, particularly in the design of the human characters, with extremely lush and detailed backgrounds and animal characters. From an animation perspective, this may seriously be the most beautiful “traditional animation” I’ve seen in my life.

But in America, this doesn’t fit into any of the boxes. It is definitely not for kids, yet it’s animated. Oh, and it’s well over two hours long. After its runaway success in Japan, Harvey Weinstein, in between sexually assaulting people, bought the rights to the movie, promising he wouldn’t cut down the running time, then attempted to do so anyway. He then received a samurai sword in the mail from Studio Ghibli, with a note that read “no cuts.” Popular author Neil Gaiman was brought in to adapt the script for an English-speaking audience. Maybe Weinstein was right, to the extent that no one went to see this movie in a movie theater in the US. But its reputation has continued to grow over the years, as has Miyazaki’s recognition internationally as a master filmmaker. His next feature, Spirited Away, won a Best Animated Feature Oscar (a category that hadn’t been invented in 1997), and won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival against all the live-action movies. It also became, once again, the highest grossing movie in Japanese history.

When I was a kid, I remember watching Fern Gully a bunch. It was a kids’ animated movie, with songs and everything, about evil oil companies or something threatening the magical rainforest where the fairies lived. In retrospect, nuance was not Fern Gully’s strong suit. I thought about Fern Gully a lot while watching Princess Mononoke. In this movie, the humans are threatening nature, not because they’re evil, but because they need what it has. And nature is inhospitable, wild, and threatening. It is mad you cut down that tree and is about to bite your face off because of it. Ashitaka spends most of the movie yelling that humans and the forest should just get along. But the forest, it turns out, cannot be negotiated with. So, in summary, this is not a “save the trees” kind of story. It’s a story about the elemental conflicts we all have to deal with. With lots of arrows and samurai and stuff. You should watch it.

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