Princess Mononoke (1997)
Unforgivably misleading title for such an outrageously awesome movie.
Princess Mononoke takes place in a feudal Japan where humans live in harmony with the gods and demons that walk the land, that is until a forest deity attacks a village after being poisoned by an iron bullet. Lucky for the villagers, one of their young princes slays that sucker down, but unlucky for the prince, he gets cursed in the process and is subsequently banished by the town elders. So he breaks open his piggy bank, grabs his stash of weapons and hops on his red elk as he searches the countryside looking for the source of the bullet that started all this madness and hopefully find a way to save his life before the curse consumes him entirely.
As for the title, it refers to a mangy girl who was raised by wolf gods that the said prince meets along the way. The weird thing is, her name is San, she’s only referred to as “Princess Mononoke” once in passing, and she’s not the main character. Absolutely no clue as to why this is named after her instead of Prince Ashitaka – our protagonist who happens to have a much cooler name – but as a result, it’s always been an uphill battle trying to convince people that this isn’t just a Disney knockoff, but making that mistake will set you up for one rude awakening.
I, for one, was of the ripe young age of 11. Terrified of girls, you would have needed a crowbar to pull Pokemon (the Blue Version, of course) out of my Game Boy and making sure to catch every last episode of the the said cartoon became a daily ritual after school. Just adorable. Back then, I thought I knew what anime was, but I really had no effing clue. So into the theater I walk, ten minutes go by, and then a guy gets his arms shot clear off with a bow and arrow, only to be followed up by another dude getting decapitated by the same means. Was not expecting that, I’m surprised I could even follow what the hell was going on after that, and I was not ready for the serious lack of sleep I got that week.
Yeah, the whole PG-13 thing was pretty misleading, too, but this isn’t a horror movie, this is an eye-opener.
So this was my first introduction to Hayao Miyazaki, Japan’s pride and joy, an animator who truly deserves to have his head frozen so that future generations can somehow benefit. It’s no surprise that his stuff makes more bank than Avatar in his hometown, ’cause the dude is one master storyteller who sure ain’t copping to all that “cartoons are for kids” bullshit. Make no mistake, this one ain’t for the kiddies.
The animation is gorgeous. The lush backgrounds, the sprawling landscapes, the human characters, the forest spirits, and the vivid imagination that fuels it all are just unreal. Nothing against Disney, nothing against Pixar, but animation like this is rare to find these days and there really is something about good ol’ drawing by hand that you just can’t get from a computer.
But the story is what this is all about. This isn’t big-breasted broads toting eight-foot-long machine guns fighting tentacled robots during World War VI, this is about the relationship between man and nature and what happens when things stop being simpatico. Miyazaki’s not beating us over the head, he’s just pointing out that the relationship seems to have gone quite sour over the years and we humans have gotten awfully used to raping our planet blind without thinking twice about the consequences. These days, that probably sounds awfully familiar, but 13 years ago it was ahead of its time and it definitely wasn’t the kind of morality tale you’d normally find in any movie. It’s a story that’ll make you wince even more whenever someone’s answer for cleaning up the environment boils down to “the next generation can deal with it”, it’s history in a nutshell and it’s as unusually important as it is mature.
And it’s amazing how Miyazaki brings as much life to his non-human characters as he does the ones who walk on two legs. Very complex folks with very complex motivations and backgrounds that are all very relatable even when they’re at different ends of the same spectrum. Easy to pick out the good guys, hard to justify the bad ones, and that’s the way it should be.
And the action scenes are freakin’ awesome. Man, that Ashitaka is a total badass, the shit he can pull off with a cursed arm and a bow and arrow is just bonkers. So, so badass.
A-list cast of voice actors, too. Billy Bob Thornton, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Keith David, Minnie Driver, Gandhi, Abe Lincoln, Moses; everyone turned out for this bad boy. Doesn’t make a huge difference in the long run, but I dig it nonetheless.
Also love the score. Just beautiful. Alright, I’ll quit all the gushing.
Look, I love Spirited Away as much as the next guy, but Princess Mononoke gets my vote for best Miyazaki movie. It might not have the charm or heart of Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro, but this is what got me into anime, this is what got me to graduate from Dragon Ball Z reruns and discover Akira, Ghost in the Shell and all that genuine geekout stuff, and that goes a long way. But aside from the nostalgia factor, it really is an amazing journey, its epic through and through, and it deserves to be measure on the same scale as any live-action movie. Truly something else and one that’ll most likely start changing opinions.