The Japanese are very different from Americans. I guess that goes without saying, really. Still, it's worth repeating -- particularly in regard to Hayao Miyazaki's new animated film Princess Mononoke. Until recently, the film was the highest-grossing release ever in the history of Japan, pulling in more than $150 million at the box office. In 1997, James Cameron's Titanic sailed into Asian waters and declared itself king of the world (proving that Japanese audiences aren't entirely different from American audiences). Mononoke fell from its lofty position thanks to Cameron's waterlogged saga, but it still remains the highest-grossing domestic release in Japan. While Princess Mononoke is unlikely to reach such dizzy monetary heights in America, its reverent stateside release reinforces its status as a dazzling epic, a brilliant work of cinematic animation and a fascinating look inside the cultural mind of the Japanese people.
For the first time ever, a piece of Japanese animation has been given its proper due here in America. The film's American distributor, Miramax, has handed Miyazaki's film the royal treatment -- eschewing the usual crappy cartoon dubs for a talented, big-name voice cast (including Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson) and gifting the film with a respectable opening in theaters across the country. It's certainly no less than the film deserves.
Miyazaki has been dubbed (deservedly so) "The Walt Disney of Japan." His animated fables (including Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service) represent as charming and as complex a body of work as anything Uncle Walt produced during his heyday. Until now, Miyazaki's films have been limited to children's fare. Though his films are as accessible and entertaining to adults as the works of Dr. Seuss, they remain aimed squarely at the younger set. Princess Mononoke represents a change of pace for the director. With its complex storyline, earthy violence and dark tone, Princess Mononoke is decidedly adult fare.
Here in America, cartoons and comic books are regarded as "kid's stuff." Japan, though, is quite happy to produce animated and illustrated entertainment for all age groups. In Japan, animé (animation) and manga (comic books) are considered high art, and the artists who make them are frequently revered on equal footing with authors, painters and musicians. The idea of an "adult cartoon" is nothing new in Japan, where animated films top the box office with almost as much frequency as their live-action counterparts. In America, there's still a certain resistance to any cartoon that doesn't involve wacky talking animals and big-eyed singing virgins. That's a real shame, because Princess Mononoke deserves some mature contemplation.
Animation issues aside, Mononoke is still the kind of film that could only have been generated in the Land of the Rising Sun. The story follows the adventures of young Prince Ashitaka (Crudup) who is cursed with an incurable disease after slaying a vicious demon that had been attacking his village. The demon, it turns out, was actually a peaceful forest god driven mad after being wounded with a mysterious iron pellet. Ashitaka embarks on a quest to rid himself of the demonic disease and to find the source of the forest god's downfall. In a neighboring province, he stumbles across a gigantic fortress known as Irontown. Irontown is run by the bold and ambitious Lady Eboshi (Driver), who is slowly destroying the surrounding landscape in search of precious iron which is then smelted into primitive rifles, bullets and other tools of the dawning mechanical age. Lady Eboshi's slash-and-burn tactics have brought her into conflict with the spirits of the forest. Chief among those "spirits" is Princess Mononoke (Danes), a human child raised by the wolf gods to be a feral guardian of the forest. As the demonic forces grow within his own body, Ashitaka struggles to mediate some kind of peace between the avarice of man and the bloodlust of nature.
Miyazaki's films have always flirted with ecological, man-versus-nature themes. (His 1988 hit My Neighbor Totoro spawned a movement to save Japan's dwindling parks and forest districts.) Princess Mononoke solidifies all of Miyazaki's concerns into one epic package. The prevailing theme presented here is nothing less than mankind's inevitable movement away from ancient, pastoral living to modern, industrial civilization.
America really only has a few centuries of history to deal with. But the ancient land of Japan has thousands of years of (well-documented) history to reflect upon. The idea of casting aside pagan beliefs, killing off the gods of the forest and turning an eye toward the primitive beginnings of modern society may be a bit hard for Western minds to fully grasp. Although we do not have Japan's rich mythological past to draw upon, it's easy enough to understand the basic environmental fairy tale that Miyazaki is trying to relate.
A carefully crafted script translation by Brit comic book writer Neil Gaiman (best known for his Sandman series) retains all of Miyazaki's rich symbolism and historical context. The greatest testament to Miyazaki's skill is that his characters never slip into easy caricature. For example: Had this film been make by Disney, Lady Eboshi would have been portrayed as an evil, cartoonish shrew. Instead, she is a fully-faceted character -- an admirably strong-willed woman who dreams of building a haven for the outcasts of feudal Japan. Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke are similarly portrayed as good people who frequently give in to their darker, baser urges.
Seen through sympathetic (or at least open) eyes, Princess Mononoke is a masterpiece -- a massive philosophical fable mixing equal parts Lord of the Rings, Yojimbo and Animal Farm. Animation fans, fantasy lovers and cinephiles shouldn't miss their chance to catch this landmark of Japanese cinema.