The latest, and possibly greatest, production from animator Hayao Miyazaki, Princess Mononoke is a stunning tale of war and love in ancient Japan. Miyazaki has never made a movie that failed to amaze us, but the technical virtuosity of Mononoke is beyond anything he's ever done before, and the scope of the story is beyond that of all but a few films ever made, animated or live-action, Japanese or American.
The opening sequence is a classic. Ashitaka arrives at the outskirts of his home village, just as a tatarigami, or cursed god, bursts from the nearby forest. The tatarigami used to be a boar god, but has been transformed in to a monster that is covered of a multitude of wrtihing black worms and now resembles Wilbur Whately's brother from Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror. Ashitaka, riding Yakkuru, his deer-like mount (an elk?), uses arrows to kill the beast, but not before it wounds him.
This ain't Rudolph.
The village oracle tells him that the wound is cursed, and that it is Ashitaka's fate to go west and find the source of the tatarigami's rage, which must have something to do with the metallic rock that was imbedded in its body.
Ashitaka sets out, and he finds that the Japan outside of his own valley is a chaotic but beautiful place. Ashitaka comes across a village under attack by bandits, and he feels compelled to help. Once he resolves to fight, he finds that his cursed arm becomes super-strong, allowing him to fire arrows with enough force to cleanly decapitate people. We're not sure you could ever fire an arrow that hard, and even if you could, wouldn't the tensile strength of the bow define the upper limit of the bow's power? Whatever the physics, this sight is enough to draw a testosterone-laden "cooool" from the mouths of gore-appreciative viewers.
Awwww, so kawaii!
Ashitaka continues to travel west, where he becomes embroiled in the affairs of the Tatara clan, and their huge ironworks. The Tatara are led by Lady Eboshi, who is trying to make her clan a power by developing firearms. It is a bullet from one of Eboshi's hand cannons that turned the boar god into a tatarigami.
Eboshi has set up her community on the edge of a holy forest, the domain of the Shishigami. The Shishigami is a very powerful forest spirit, sort of like a Totoro on steroids, who is protected by a pack of wolf gods and their adopted human child, "San" -- Princess Mononoke herself. Eboshi is bent on destroying the forest for it's resources, and that mean going to war against gods. Eboshi is also at war with various neighboring clans, who covet her wealth.
"Hey, there's Kevin Costner...
Better make this one count!"
Ashitaka finds himself thrust into the middle of this unenviable situation, and despite his best efforts to find some peaceful resolution, it becomes clear that either the Shishigami and its forest or the villagers will die before their little war ends.
Those familiar with Miyazaki through his films for children may be in for a shock when they see Princess Mononoke: it is clearly meant for adults. Although these parents may not find the next Totoro for their kids, they should find something even better -- a Totoro for adults, with themes and emotions that resonate even more deeply than the compelling yet simplistic messages found in those earlier films.
Perhaps the best example of this is Lady Eboshi's character. As it is her idea to destroy the forest, you would expect her to be a simple villain. But in Mononoke, Eboshi is fully rounded, even complicated. She's ruthless and strong, but she has set up the Tatara ironworks so people who have no place in Japanese society, like former prostitutes and the diseased, will have a place to be safe. Eboshi is developing firearms so that people who are powerless will have someone to defend them. And even though she is more or less directly responsible for Ashitaka's curse, that fact is contrasted with her compassion for a group of lepers at the ironworks, who she refuses to treat as the cursed individuals that the rest of society percieves them to be.
Lady Eboshi, the original NRA spokesperson.
Mononoke resembles none of Miyazaki's work as closely as it does Nausicaa. Nausicaa also featured a fearless heroine with a mysterious connection to the (super)natural world, desperate struggles against time, and epic battles between enormous armies. In fact, Mononoke represents a swing of the pendulum for the master animator, who has always alternated between small, sweet, and childish stories (like Kiki's Delivery Service) and the grand adventures for older viewers (such as Laputa: Castle in the Sky). It's impossible to say which Miyazaki mode we like better. The simple stories are such pure joy to watch, and the adventures get pulses racing like few other films can.
We watched Mononoke on a bootlegged tape in its original Japanese with subtitles. Even through the fuzz of an eighth-generation tape with yellow letters obscuring the bottom quarter of the screen, this movie blew us away. We may have a few anxieties concerning Disney's handling of the film (especially the dub to English, which is always so tricky), but the opportunity to see Miyazaki's mighty visuals on the big screen will be reason enough to thank the Mouse.