Princess Mononoke

Epic fantasy is alive and well, and invading America again

The USA is finally catching up with the works of Hayao Miyazaki.

Japanese audiences have been awed by this genius writer, illustrator and director for decades, going back to his work on the TV series Future Boy Conan. His entry in the Lupin III series Castle of Cagliostro showed that more conventional movie material – such as the heist adventure genre – could be successfully adapted and expanded upon in animated form. For years, I was only able to see his classics like Laputa and Nausicaä (aka Warriors of the Wind) via bleary, untranslated  tapes obtained through a rampant underground anime network.

Now, through a deal with Miramax (a Disney company), Miyazaki’s body of work is getting the kind of treatment it deserves: classy theatrical and video release with high quality English dubbing. And, due to Miyazaki’s explicit instructions, his work (and others created by Studio Ghibli) will only be distributed uncut and uncensored – which has been causing great headaches for Disney marketing execs. Though films like the wonderful My Neighbor Totoro can be enjoyed by all ages, others like Mononoke and Laputa contain some pretty violent – even gory – sequences.

Mononoke is about a young Prince named Ashitaka (v – Billy Crudup) who becomes infected by a curse while saving his village from a rampaging forest demon. Doomed to a slow death, he sets out on a mission to destroy the source of the evil that’s beset him. He finds it in a conflict between the progressive inhabitants of Iron Town and the godlike forest spirits their mining operation is threatening. Also involved in the complicated plot are a team of hunters sent by the emperor to bring back the head of the magical Great Forest Spirit, guilds of  prostitutes and lepers who have found new life running the foundry, and an army set on taking hold of Iron Town. At center is Japan’s fabled folk heroine San (v – Claire Danes), a princess raised by huge wolves in the forest.

Though complexity is one of the story’s strengths – each character is rich and multidimensional – it’s also the film’s only drawback. Miyazaki is at his best portraying and celebrating the world’s simpler joys. Here, he returns to the type of epic fantasy he explored in Nausicaä, and at times the canvas is too big for him to keep a grip on.

But that’s only a very minor complaint. Mononoke does so well what The Phantom Menace failed to do – keep the audience involved in the story while knocking them over with wonders. The film is full of gods and monsters and amazing animation effects, but never loses sight of the personal dilemmas it’s set up. Is Ashitaka really doomed by his curse? Will San resolve the problems of her dual-species heritage? If the forest gods win, what will become of the good people of Iron Town? These concerns keep the story going, while Miyazaki’s artistic skill fills the screen with amazing beauty and imagination.

Mononoke is a must-see animation classic – and don’t forget to catch Miyazaki’s other films. They’re all wonderful, and who knows? Maybe if it’s a hit the US will finally get access to more of Japan’s treasures, like the works of long-neglected God of Manga Osamu Tezuka.

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