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In this episode: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke and Pals
Hayao Miyazaki is an amazingly imaginative and creative man. Among his many extremely popular and fantastic works, Princess Mononoke is considered his crowning achievement, a movie that is enormous in scope and theme and lush in its animation. It also was, before Titanic, the #1-grossing movie of all time in Japan. Apparently, it's still showing there in some theaters. Miramax, as part of its exclusive deal with Miyazaki, has just released Princess Mononoke theatrically in the U.S. The first collaboration, Kiki's Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyubin), was released only on video, but Mononoke is definitely worthy of a theatrical release.

The animation is truly gorgeous. It does suffer sporadically from the usual choppy Japanese style—Japanese animation uses less cells per second than your typical American animated movie—but as that is a style, it shouldn't be thought of as a negative. Akira, by Katsuhiro Otomo, is the only anime I've seen where the fluidity of the animation matches that of, say, Disney. In fact, I was more blown away by Akira's animation than Mononoke's, but that may be because I'm a huge fan of Otomo's style. That said, Mononoke is an amazing feat, and beautiful to watch.

Despite the epic feel of the movie, I was still more enchanted with Kiki's Delivery Service than Mononoke. This is partially because Kiki was a charming, serene world with a free-flowing, simple story and sweet characters. I know, sweet is not something I usually enjoy, but that's because sweet usually means saccharine. Kiki's sweetness was genuine. That's the sweetness I like. That and chocolate cake. And cookies and pudding. Mononoke is a much more adult movie, and the world in it is more violent and discordant. Mix this with the dryness of the two main characters, and Mononoke is both vibrant and distant.

Perhaps that's part of what being an epic is sometimes, being big and impersonal. San (Princess Mononoke) and Ashitaka are hell-bent on their respective purposes, and that doesn't allow them time to be human beings. San wants to save the forest and its creatures at any cost, and Ashitaka wants to cure himself of the evil that was put inside him by a dying demon. Later, Ashitaka wants to bring the forest and the humans together, so that they may live in peace. Wow. So much to do! So many gigantic tasks! No wonder the two don't have time to be interesting.

The most interesting characters are the ones who are more complex. Lady Eboshi, for instance, runs an iron mill around which she's built an entire community, a walled fortress. To keep her community alive (and to keep making money), she needs to keep producing iron. Part of this process destroys the forest. In an American film, Lady Eboshi would be a man named something like Mr. Darden, and he'd be bad. Just plain bad. That way, by the time he gets his comeuppance at the end of the movie, it would be morally justified. Well, Lady Eboshi is more complex than that. She is a businesswoman with a heart. She's got drive and guts, but also compassion. Her compassion shows in the people she saves from the "outside" world, people who are shunned or exploited. But she shows no compassion for the forest or nature because she does not understand their importance. Now this is an interesting character.

Also engaging is Jigo, a squat little monk with several surprises up his sleeve. He plays games with everyone, including Ashitaka, Lady Eboshi, and the Emperor himself, all for his own selfish needs. He's a greedy little bastard, but he's not really a bad guy, either. He's trying to survive, as Lady Eboshi does, in a world that is unfair and harsh. (During his travels, Ashitaka sees for himself how illogically cruel the world is.) Jigo's quest meshes with Lady Eboshi's, yet neither of them realize that, if they succeed, they will destroy much more than a mere spread of trees and soil. Lady Eboshi ends up learning this lesson, but Jigo does not. More interesting! Jigo's also funny, which counterbalances his impishness.

Meanwhile, San goes on about killing Lady Eboshi to save the forest, and Ashitaka plays Rodney King by wondering why they can't all just get along. Both do it with a mysterious lack of personality. Okay, so if that doesn't make for interesting characters, at least it makes for interesting, complex conflict. People working at cross purposes, the lack of rigidly-defined good and evil, the mismatched expectations, all these make Princess Mononoke mature and intelligent.

A film like this difficult to import, thanks to the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. Lots of work was done to make the script understandable to American audiences; what's not necessary to explain in Japan might be necessary to explain in the U.S. This means the dialogue is not a direct translation. Sometimes this can work against the movie, like the bad dubbing script for Akira (the subtitled tape I have is much better). But Mononoke's script is good, and if ever there was dubbing that was top-notch, it's in this movie. (Kiki is also very well dubbed.) But dubbing is dubbing. Hearing a character say, "Forest God! We give you back your head!" is just funny no matter how it's said. If I'd just been reading it in subtitles while the original voices spoke on-screen, the cultural gap might not have been so silly—reading a translation like that is different from hearing a character come right out and say it. The audience laughed several times at things that were not meant to be funny. Sometimes, I understood why, like the head line, while other times I was cringing at what seemed to be a lack of openness to another culture's visions, like the strange human face of the Forest God. (Or maybe I was cringing to fight back my own smirking reaction to that face.) Either way, it's distracting and takes you out of the movie.

More on dubbing: I always believe subtitles are better because that way you get the original emotion from the original actors, and not something spoken by some sub-SAG hack in a studio. But animation is originally recorded in a studio anyway, so if you get a good enough cast, dubbing for an animated film can be expertly crafted. Akira, for example, was terrible, terrible dubbing, so much so that when I finally saw a subtitled version of it, the movie seemed much more intelliget, less jokey. I understood the plot more easily and enjoyed the film 400 times more because some 16-bit American actors weren't grumbling or screeching on the soundtrack. Miramax, though, has pull. Kiki was dubbed by Kirsten Dunst, Janeane Garofalo, Phil Hartman, and Debbie Reynolds. Mononoke has the talents of Claire Danes (San), Billy Crudup (Ashitaka), Minnie Driver (Lady Eboshi), Billy Bob Thornton (Jigo), and Gillian Anderson (Moro, San's wolf mother). On the whole, the American dubbers do a great job. I was not enamored of Claire's shouty, treble-pumped yelling, and I seriously thought Lady Eboshi's English accent was fake until I found out it was Minnie Driver doing her voice. Oops. But everyone had feeling and passion in their line readings, and that's all you can ask of a dubbed movie. With any lesser cast, Mononoke would have been insufferable.

Little Ghostly Tree Spirits A definite audience-pleaser were the little ghostly Kodama, or tree spirits (see the picture on the right). George Lucas could re-learn something from this, because while the tree spirits were small and cute and funny, they were not intrusive, idiotic, or over-talkative (they don't speak at all except in a cool rattle when their heads bobble back and forth). The Kodama are more like the Jawas were in Star Wars, and definitely better for the movie's sake than either the Ewoks or, God help us all, Jar Jar Binks were for their respective flicks. The Kodama are the perfect balance of cute and not. The audience genuinely liked them in the showing I saw.

I enjoyed Princess Mononoke, but I'm not as eager to see it again as I was Kiki's Delivery Service, and I won't see it dozens of times like I have Akira. It's just missing that little spark of life that should make me miss it as soon as it's over, and I don't know if I want to sit through the hit-you-over-the-head environmental theme again right away. But if you like anime and Princess Mononoke is in an art theater near you, definitely go see it. It's a truly original artwork and worthy of the praise it's getting, even if I sound picky about some of the details. Seeing it cropped on video will do nobody no good, so if you miss it in theaters, see it on DVD instead. (Since I work at Disney home video, I can find out if we'll end up releasing Mononoke in a subtitled, letterboxed VHS version like we did with Kiki. I'll give word if that's the case.)

Oh, one final thing: This gets put into Bad Focus because, well, the focus was bad on the left half of the screen. And there was a huge green scratch running through a good chunk of the movie. Sigh.




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©1999 Steven Lekowicz