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Princess Mononoke

Review by Jerry White
Posted 19 November 1999

Princess Mononoke   Directed by Hayao Miyazaki 

Starring
Yji Matsuda,
Billy Crudup, Yuriko Ishida,
Claire Danes, Yko Tanaka,
Minnie Driver, Kaoru Kobayashi,
Billy Bob Thornton, 
Masahiko Nishimura,
John DeMita, Tsunehiko Kamijoe,
John Di Maggio, Sumi Shimamoto,
Jada Pinkett, and Akihiro Miwa

Written by Neil Gaiman 
and
Hayao Miyazaki 

I'm of two minds about my suitability to review Princess Mononoke. On the one hand, Nitrate Online should really find someone who's seen more Japanese animation than I have, who's conversant with the form and its history and who can place the film in that context. Then again, Miramax is going to be aggressively pushing this film on a "mainstream" audience, hoping that it will mark the emergence of Japanese animation into a wider American visibility. Keeping that in mind, I'm the perfect person to review it; I've seen just a bit Of Japanese animation (hereafter "anime," just to show you that I'm slightly initiated into the form's jargon) but I remain unconvinced as to that form's value in the landscape of world cinema. This is a nice way of saying that I still mostly associate anime with late-adolescent comic-book collectors. It's my mind that Miramax wants to change (well, maybe not my mind specifically, but you get the idea). And I can report, sadly, that my assessment of anime remains more or less the same as before, except that I have a slightly diminished respect for Billy Bob Thornton's acting abilities; more on that later.

The film is a tale of a young knight who is bitten by a mysterious, shambling monster, and is then stricken with a curse that threatens to slowly consume him with evil. He sets out on a quest to rid himself of the curse, and ends up getting caught in the middle of a conflict between a group of animals with vague supernatural powers (a fairly obvious metaphor for ancient Japan) and a warrior queen armed with guns, seeking to tame the forest that threatens to destroy her community (a fairly obvious metaphor for Japan). I will say that the narrative is interesting for the way that it avoids simple good & evil oppositions; both of the parties in this conflict have their share of both, and it's impressive that we never lose sympathy or entirely identify with either one. That said, the narrative is still pretty heavy on the fairy-tale tropes, and even though it invokes these metaphors that I just mentioned, does little to explore them, focusing instead on fairly literal-minded magical and pastoral themes.

This film is the work of Hayao Miyazaki, who is probably the most famous and well respected Japanese animator ever. This reputation is strongest is Japan, but it's formidable internationally as well, and I've read a number of times now about how John Lassiter and the rest of the crew behind Toy Story and other computer-generated super-productions, whenever they face an especially tough problem, go and watch a laserdisc of one of Miyazaki's films for a jolt of inspiration. I will admit that the film has some bits that are visually impressive; the evil monster, which can only be described as a big ball of black snakes, is especially weird and memorable. And yet, there's something that feels a little bit empty about all of this, and at time veers into the cheesy. The cheesiness is especially visible in a sequence where our hero shoots opposing warriors with arrows, and their heads fly off, indicating the supreme, ultimately evil power he is acquiring. It's difficult indeed to separate these sequences from the kind of silliness that you'd find in any random comic book, except that they take themselves a whole lot more seriously. I can see why a lot of people would understand the concluding, mystical sequence to be the film's supreme visual achievement, and like the opening moments of Princess Mononoke, it's got some impressive flourishes. And yet, what Miyazaki is evoking here is a kind of mushy-new-agey linkage of man and nature, which I'm sure has all kinds of links to Japanese culture and tradition but which is not, in this film, explored with anything more than a surface, feel-good kind of gloss.

As I mentioned earlier, this film is being promoted very aggressively by Miramax, who shelled out big bucks to get an all-star indie cast to do the English voices. This includes Claire Danes as the warrior princess, Minnie Driver as the animal girl who opposes her, Billy Crudup as our heroic but fallen knight, and the above-mentioned Billy Bob Thornton as a bumbling wise-man type. It's Billy Bob's dialogue that I find the most interesting, even though his role is comparatively minor. I'm willing to write off the stiltedness of the dialogue as a problem with translation, but hearing these lines Thornton's dry, southern accented voice trying to give life to these lines, well that's just plain silly. Not much judgment seems to have been exercised by the Miramax people in finding voices that would really suit these characters; they seem to have relied on star power alone, apparently figuring that if you got someone as hip as Claire Danes to participate, the rest would take care of itself. Predictably, this has not happened, and what this English language version of what is at heart a very Japanese film reminds me of, more than anything else, is the Giorgio Morodoer version of the silent classic Metropolis (1926). That version, released in 1984, was an attempt to make Fritz Lang's masterpiece accessible to eighties audiences through the addition of a soundtrack that included tunes by Loverboy and Pat Benatar. It was, in case you missed it, bloody awful, making images from sixty years earlier seem horribly inorganic with the soundtrack, in much the same way that these earnest American voices seem totally inorganic to the images on the screen.

As most readers can guess, that version of Metropolis did little to increase Fritz Lang's fame among young American audiences; I suspect that in ten years or so the same will be said about this version of Princess Mononoke and Japanese animation. This is a film that seems rather unimpressive to begin with, and this matter is not helped by cynical attempts by Miramax to exploit its potential for profit. I suspect that hard-core anime fans will find many familiar aspects to latch on to and admire in Princess Mononoke, but even they will probably be irritated by the voice-overs. As for the rest of us, there's not much exceptional about this film in terms of world cinema as a whole. In so self-consciously seeking the lucrative, mush middle ground, Miramax is likely to end up satisfying nobody with this film.


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