Princess Mononoke review by Matt FuerstYesterday I gave into the dark side. You see, there has been a nationwide Video Store bounty on my head for the past 4 or 5 years. I have a pretty serious case of "late-return-movieitis" which is a common thread in my life, reviews and columns. A recently got into a discussion with someone that told me that Blockbuster, the evil Blue and Yellow Goddess, cleared their late fees out of their computer after about 2 years, without charging them their late fee. Well I know I was never charged my high 2 digit late fee, and it had been at least 4 years since I had rented anything from a Blockbuster, so I gave it a swing. With sweaty palms I approached the counter. The 16 year old new trainee saw right through me, I knew it. I was busted. "I'd like to open a new account." my voice cracked. What am I, Peter Brady? I had to stay strong. "We don't open new accounts anymore." He was onto me. A cat toying with the half wounded mouse, ready for lunch. I nervously began eyeing the door. Damn, I should have left my car running. Stupid, so stupid, to go out this way. I just wanted that one last score. One last score. "Oh, OK...." I begin to make for the door. "Just kidding sir! Sir!" I stop. Is the hunter that smart?
The hunter wasn't that smart and I got two shiny new cards. I didn't even have to use an alias. I am now suckling the teat of the full screen corporate whore. My local store is quite new, open probably two months, and it shows. The DVD selection is pretty horrific. I went in looking for some cheesy horror flicks, having a spouse-free day, but the horror DVD selection was miserable, so I wandered around the store looking for other swag. I ended up with a nice little break from Hollywood... the Criterion Seven Samurai and the greatly hailed Princess Mononoke. I have been pondering outright blindly purchasing Mononoke for the past year or so since I never find it available for rent, so I was pretty excited to find it hidden away at the bottom shelf of the drama section. Mononoke was hardly a blind rental even, currently it's ranked #105 in the IMDB's top 250, which I find to be pretty reliable in spite of the current LotR favoritism. It was also nominated for Best Film awards with several low-level awards shows, was on Ebert's Top 10 list of 99, the list goes on. Very critically acclaimed.
The storyline is very complex, the movie wastes absolutely no time in plunging you in head first and uses every minute of it's 134 minute runtime. A boar God (yes, a God that is a boar) attacks Prince Ashitaka's village. The Prince manages to slay the beast, but not without being infected with the same disease that was driving the boar mad. Ashitaka sets off to find a cure for the disease, leaving his village which is hidden from the world for the answer. Ashitaka's only companion for the trip is his mystical part-horse, part goat, part other stuff friend Yakkuru. For a bit the movie turns into a fairly routine "journey" movie like The Odyssey. Ashitaka finds a village under attack and helps the villagers defend themselves. He meets Jigo, a mysterious traveler who seems to impart a lot of knowledge, but to what end? He eventually returns two wounded soldiers to their village, which is run by Lady Eboshi, a very progressive woman with grand plans. Eboshi runs the village, whose sole purpose is to create iron. She represents technology and progression, which is constantly at odds with nature. She has destroyed much of a village and a mountain to create her village, and is under attack from the wolf, ape and boar gods that inhabit the forest. (Interestingly enough, the only animals shown are all "gods" so I don't know if in the land where the movie takes place all animals are gods, or we just see the god animals. Yakkuru doesn't seem to be a god...) The head honchos of the forest are the wolf gods, and the head of the pack is Moro, who has an adopted human daughter, San, the Princess Mononoke. Confused yet?
A simple, traditional story would focus on the battle between nature and technology, Eboshi encroaching upon the animal gods, with the animal gods each fighting in their own way. But, this is far from a simple story. All the characters are finely developed. So, for example, we see that Lady Eboshi at the same time has a ruthless, yet soft and nurturing heart. She desires to slay all the animals as quickly and fiercely as possible, yet takes in the lepers from the area and cares for them, and all the women working in her plants (only women work in the village, the men do not) she rescued from local brothels. So, if Eboshi wins, all the animals will die and the forest will be destroyed, yet the humans will survive. If the animal gods win, then the entire village will be destroyed, and those that remain would starve and die. There are no simple solutions to the problem. Even the animals are finely crafted, and distinctive amongst themselves. The boar gods are quite reactionary, and are prepared to mount an attack on the village at any moment. The wolf pack realizes that a direct attack would be tantamount to suicide, the technology of the humans has evolved that they cannot win. All of this is richly layered and very well done, and it really doesn't even involve the crux of the story, which is Ashitaka's quest, and his relationship with Princess Mononoke.
If all of this sounds great, then you have just been snookered, much like I was. I consider myself a pretty open minded individual, so giant sized animals all gathering around and talking with each other is reasonable enough for me. Mystic tree gods, ghost like apparitions living on branches, giant ectoplasmic entities floating around, I can deal with all of that. The movie, while completely cohesive and tightly written, just is too abstract for my tastes. When the story is laid out, it just comes off as too ludicrous, too far out there for my mind to relax and enjoy. I know, the storyline is great, and truly far better than the usual Michael bay/Jerry Bruckheimer movie that is rolled out every summer, but that doesn't mean that it is entertaining.
Most of the reviews I have read around seem to praise the animation, which I find to be real confusing. The animation is definitely of lower quality than I expected. Akira from 1988, while a drastically different style than Mononoke was far superior in it's quality (and quantity). Even with similar traditional line drawing animation, I think that Ghost in the Shell from 1995 is far superior. Along the production lines, I was not particularly moved by the soundtrack as well.
The DVD is anamprhic widescreen with a 1.85:1 ratio. The film originally being anime from Japan, there are a mirad of options as far as spoken languages and subtitles go. The spoken languages available are English (Dolby 5.1), French (Dolby 2.0) and Japanese (Dolby 5.1). Subtitles are available in English. Most of the real hardcore anime fans will only watch the film in the original language, with subtitles on, but I definetly prefer dubbed anime. Mononoke gets the best dubbing treatment of any anime, with names like Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thorton and Clarie Danes being involved in the dubbing project. There are a few other goodies like a featurette on the disc, which is surprisingly pricey for a 1 disc release.
Afterwards, I told my wife (who ended up not being absent for my spouse-free evening) that I was very glad that this wasn't my introduction to anime for her (or myself for that matter). It would be very difficult to convince her to give another anime a shot, since this one just doesn't click. Honestly, if I didn't read that this movie was so great, I would have a difficult time understanding how it even got a large US release. Obviously it strikes a chord with people, and maybe it is just the tight yet complex storyline that pulls people in, but I can't understand who they managed to stay interested. Yet another flick that leaves me standing out in the cold from the rest of society... oh well at least I've got my Blockbuster card and Seven Samurai waiting for me.
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