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Review: Princess Mononoke (1999)

In Princess Mononoke, anime-auteur Hayao Miyazaki offers sophisticated storytelling and beautiful animation.

Feature film animation was once monopolized by Disney; in the era of CGI, other production companies like DreamWorks and Pixar staked a claim to the territory. But fans of anime know that there is another company that puts out consistently high-quality animation that often surpasses the best of Disney: Studio Ghibli, presided over by writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. While much of anime’s fame (or infamy—at least in the U.S.) derives from a sense of puritanical shock at the outrageous, adult aspects (including X-rated sex and violence) Miyazaki’s work has always been more closely aligned to the Disney aesthetic: his films tend to feature cute characters and pastoral beauty that falls within the comfort zone of Occidental audiences, while also including PG action and adventure elements that appeal to teens and young adults, as well as to older audiences impressed with the artistry.

With PRINCESS MONONOKE Miyazaki rose to a whole new level of achievement. The familiar pictorial elements are on display, but not the light-hearted humor of KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. Instead, the adventure strikes a remarkably adult tone, beginning with a frightening attack on a small village by a monster that appears to be a mass of slithering worms in the form of a spider. Prince Ashitaka kills the rampaging beast, which turns out to be a former forest god: a large boar that passes its curse on to Ashitaka as it dies.

His arm starting to show signs of transformation (wispy, worm-like tendrils), Ashitaka leaves his village to search for a cure, his only clue a small metal pellet found in the body of the slain animal. The bullet leads Ashitaka to Lady Eboshi, who runs a mining company that has been deforesting an area rich in raw ore for her irons works. Unfortunately for Ashitaka, Lady Eboshi is not simply a villain whom he can blame for the cursed animal that attacked his village; she is also a beloved leader who not only employs lepers but also buys out the contracts on local prostitutes and provides them honest work.

Princess Mononoke astride her wolf

While Ashitaka is forced to see the good side of Lady Eboshi, the same cannot be said for Princess Mononoke, a feral young woman raised by the wolf goddess Moro. Committed to defending the forest and its residents, she wants only to kill Eboshi, but the film never allows us fully to condone her quest. Consequently, Ashitaka finds himself trapped in the middle of this feud, unable to join fully with either side, yet desperately hoping somehow to find a resolution that will benefit all concerned. In a strange way, the story echoes YOJIMBO, wherein the title character formed alliances with rival factions in order to play both sides against each. But the master samurai in YOJIMBO had no allegiance to either side; Ashitaka, on the other hand, it torn between allegiances to both sides while trying to mediate the flames of conflict. It is a hopeless task: because of his refusal to ally himself definitively with either side, neither one will give him the trust he needs to bring about a resolution to the conflict.

Although the situation seems irresolvable, the audiences never disengages from the story. We identify with Ashitaka’s apparently hopeless quest, even as we despair of his chances for success. We see the apparent righteousness of the rival characters, even as we realize that their conflict will lead to disaster. Amidst this human bickering, the relatively honorable conduct of the forest gods (all in the forms of animals) seems relatively noble, even if the creatures themselves are dangerous and violent.

Miyazaki is making a statement about respect for nature, but he refuses the simple option of making the iron foundry out to be a bastion of evil. In fact, it seems that the conflict lies not in nature versus civilization but in the personal animosity that many of the major characters hold for each other. Ultimately, the film allows us the luxury of identifying with the clear vision of extremists who believe in their own righteousness, but then strips that luxury away from us as they are forced, by the consequences of their own actions, to take stock of their beliefs and revise them in order to go on living.

This description sounds heavy-handed, but the thematic subtext is dramatized in vivid exciting scenes. From the very first frames, Miyazaki proves himself a total master of the medium, manipulating audience responses with ease. The opening sequence of the boar’s attack is as frightening as any horror film. The monstrous appearance of the beast aside, the sequence works because of subtle touches that instill fear: Yakul, Ashitaka’s formerly and courageous-looking red elk (which the villagers ride like horses) goes paralyzed with fright at the sight of the monster. The sudden transformation from noble steed to quivering creature underlines the approaching threat.

Elsewhere, Miyazaki juxtaposes his patented pastoral landscapes with outbreaks of violence that are positively shocking to anyone familiar with his work. The visceral impact of these action scenes ranks with the best work appearing in live-action films today; in American animated films, there is quite simply nothing to compare. Under the influence of the curse working through his body, Ashitaka’s skills as a warrior reach demonic proportions; the arrows released from his bow dismember and decapitate his foes (amazingly, the film somehow avoided an R-rating without any cuts). As with everything else in PRINCESS MONONOKE, the scenes evoke complex responses the audience: on the one hand, his opponents seem to deserve their fate; on the other, we see that the violence is slowly overwhelming the character, who must find a solution before he turns as evil as the demonic boar he slew.

PRINCESS MONONOKE’s English language version attempted to set a new standard for dubbing. Not only do the lines effectively match the characters’ mouth movements’ Neil Gaiman’s English-language script also captures the flavor of the original, loosing little in the translation from Japanese. The English track clarifies a few minor plot points that might not be obvious to Western viewers without sounding too much like added exposition. The voice cast do a solid job, but they do not quite match the zest of the original. Moro, the wolf mother, loses the most: the Japanese language for the character was delivered by a female impersonator, creating a strange combination of masculine strength and feminine delivery. Gillian Anderson certainly does a good job, but some of the weirdness is missing.

PRINCESS MONONOKE is an outstanding achievement. At a time when Disney was struggling to make more adult fare (such as MULAN), and while DreamWorks was stumbling with their Biblical rehash PRINCE OF EGYPT, Miyazaki made a film that sets the real standard, easily equaling and surpassing other achievements in the genre. Fans of Miyazaki’s had no reason to be surprised. What was pleasantly surprising is that his vision reached American shores in relatively unadulterated form, thanks Miramax (who abandoned plans to release a subtitled version after the film failed to earn an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category). PRINCESS MONONOKE may not have catchy musical numbers, or comic relief sidekicks, or computer-generated characters, or fairy tale source material; that is, it might not have any of the elements we associate with animation in America. Nevertheless, it is a true work of art; unburdened with commercial compromises, it succeeds beautifully. It is at once a rousing adventure and a profoundly moving meditation—two elements that sound exclusive but actually enhance each other. PRINCESS MONONOKE is, quite simply, one of the greatest animated films ever made.

Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski

Princess Mononoke Ratings
  • Princess Mononoke Subtitled
  • Princess Mononoke Dubbed

Bottom Line

One of the greatest achievements from a master of anime. Purists may prefer the original subtitled version, but the English-dub (scripted by Neil Gaiman) stands on its own terms.

PRINCESS MONONOKE(a.k.a. “Spirit Princess” [Japanese title translation], 1997; U.S. release 1999). Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. English langauge dialogue by Neil Gaiman. Japanese Voices: Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yuko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tsunehiko Kamijo. English Voices: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton, Keith David.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.