Saturday, March 23, 2013

CANON OF FILM: "PRINCESS MONONOKE"

PRINCESS MONONOKE (1997)

Director/Screenplay: Hayao Miyazaki



Hayao Miyazaki is Japan’s most popular filmmaker. Not “animated” filmmaker, filmmaker. His work continually set records within the country and his films have won numerous Japanese Academy Awards. In recent years, America has caught on to the realization that he may be the greatest Animator of all-time. His film "Spirited Away" won the Best Animated Film Academy Award, and even Disney considers him the master of animation; for a time even, Disney completely gave up working with hand-drawn animation to focus solely on computer animation, pretty much solidifying Miyazaki’s status. “Princess Mononoke,” which was intended to be his last film, is one of the greatest animated movies ever made. Not just in technique, which does have more computer-generated effects than most of his films, it's still predominantely hand-drawn, but also in story and scope. it's his most ambitious tale. The story takes place during the Muromachi Period in Japan, the time when the Industrialization of the future is in conflict with the nature gods that rule the ever-dwindling forests. The movie’s protagonist is, Ashitaka, an Emishi Prince, (The Emishi themselves a small tribal group in japan who many thought was longago extinct) who’s forced to leave his tribe to investigate a disturbance that made its way towards his village in the form of a giant boar god that had become demonized after it was pierced with a led bullet. The boar injured him in the attack, causing an evergrowing scar, as well as unusual god-like strength, that reveals itself suddenly and violently. Into the forest and towns he trembles where he runs headstrong into the conflict, one side led by Lady Eboshi, a ruler of a construction town known as “Irontown,” which she has populated with her own army along with dozens of former brothel girls whose contract she’s bought out to work the mines. Her “Irontown,” and weapon constructing is in direct conflict with the forest gods and creatures which are lead by Moro, a Wolf God who seems to act as a head of the forest, more wise and intuitive about the battle than maybe even she wishes. She has raised a human child, San, as her own, who’s grown up believing her true self is as of the wolf, and is very hateful towards humans, although Ashitaka’s presence appears to make her slightly uneasy. She's the one, also referred to as Princess Mononoke in the title, but that's more of a description. (A "mononoke" is actually not what you'd call a common Japanese word, but it does get used to reference a general spiritual monsterous creature) Also involved is a monk, Jigo, who at first seems to be one who follows his own path, but is working with the Emperor who’s overseeing the struggle from afar with his own interest, and then a forest spirit, who walks the forest at day as a deer-like creature, and at night as a protective light that protects the forest from the darkness of the outside world.  All these struggles will inevitably collide with each other, but the story evolves even deeper than just different societies fighting for survival. Ashitaka, coming in as an outsider vehemently refuses to take sides, to the chagrin of some, and the fact is that, there is no good guy or a bad guy in this conflict, just two groups fighting for survival, and fighting for the future, knowing that for one side to succeed, the other must fail, even as Ashitaka tries to get them to live together in harmony, the survival of Irontown, would mean inevitably, the destruction of the forest. Even after the battle reaches it’s climax, the movie ends on an ambiguous note that makes it appear that a struggle will continue.

This is one of the few films that really feels like mythology, in the best and grandest sense of the word. That's something that's really hard to do in film by the way. Whether it's old school Homeric tales, or modern made-up mythology like "Lord of the Rings", 'cause while some of them can be good stories, when told or read, they don't translate well on film, because essentially, you either have gods controlling the humans or watching them from afar, and not doing anything, so it's either using the human race for puppetry essentially, or the humans are fighting the gods and they're just gonna lose and get destroyed 'cause nothing kills the gods, even when it's done well, it never works all the way, but "Princess Mononoke" is a major exception to this, 'cause it's not simplistic. Yes, we have it all, Gods and Mortals battling it out over technology, characters that are not one-dimensional and all POVs are valid, and even an heir of destiny and fate reigning over the entire film, and yet, because it's set in this transitional time period, it isn't just a simple mythological or just a straight-forward morality play. This is one of those films that works on a lot of different levels. (I myself, once wrote an English paper comparing the film "Gilgamesh", and on that level, there's quite a few parallels.) Let's not forget, the amazing look of the movie. Even Miyazaki's lesser films like "Porco Rosso" or "Howl's Moving Castle", are so visually striking, with this incredible hand-drawn animation that it's impossible not to become enriched by the world. This film can be taken apart frame by frame, and hung up as paintings, in any museum in the world. Like all of Miyazaki's work in recent years, "Princess Mononoke", was redubbed in English, with big stars like Minnie Driver, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup and Billy Bob Thornton to name a few; I recommend that version as much as the original Japanese-language one. An epic that’s not a struggle to watch, and is filled with images that can only be seen because of animation. When I run into animation skeptics, especially Japanese animation skeptics, the first film I show them is "Princess Mononoke," and more often than not, it's the film that wins them over. 
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