October 18, 2003

Princess Mononoke, by Miyazaki Hayao

This is one strange film.

Long-time readers will remember that after buying Spirited Away on Ian Hamet's recommendation I was so impressed that I went out and got a number of other Miyazaki movies. This is the last of the set so far.

And it is one strange film.

First, some things that stand out. The animation is stunning; I'm not sure I've ever seen it equaled, even in Miyazaki's other movies. There are some shots that reminded my friend and I of Kurosawa's movies. Second, this movie is definitely not for kids. Some of this is simply the language, which is a little more colorful than usual; there's some (very mild) profanity, and frequent references to certain of the characters as being (reformed) brothel girls. On the one hand my kids have certainly heard worse; on the other hand, I'd rather not explain brothel girls to them.

But the language is more a reflection that the English adaptation wasn't done by Disney. The thing that really makes it kid-unfriendly is the blood and gore--as Ian Hamet described it to me some time ago, "The first decapitation surprised me." There's lots of blood, lots of arms lopped off (along with the occasional head), and some really horrific monsters, all exquisitely animated.

None of this makes it a bad movie, just a movie intended for grown-ups. And it isn't this that gives the movie its strangeness either--it's just out of character for Miyazaki.

No, what makes this movie strange is the plot and the characters.

At first, things seem to make sense--at least, if you think about it you can come up with explanations that make things fit. But ultimately, too much is unexplained. Why are samurais attacking Iron Town? And why does our hero care? Princess Mononoke was raised by wolves--but if she's a princess, who are her parents? What's she the princess of? And in fact the name "Princess Mononoke" is used only once--and how does the person who uses it know that that's the girl's name? It's not what she calls herself. What's with the brothel girls? How come lepers are so good at designing guns? (You might think that it's a comment on the sort of people who make guns, but it doesn't seem to be.)

A lot of the movie resonates with the kind of anti-technological spiritual-but-not-religious worship of nature that I associate with New Agers and Hollywood stars--but not quite. It's all very strange, and the characters' motivations become increasingly hard to understand as the movie progresses.

Perhaps it's just a Japanese thing that doesn't translate well; perhaps the movie depends on some Japanese legend that fills in the gaps. I don't know.

Bottom line: I loved the animation, which was easily enough to hold my attention. It was truly gorgeous. The story, such as it was, left me cold.

Posted by Will Duquette at October 18, 2003 08:42 PM

Ian said:

Well, watching it in Japanese with literal subtitles will help, at least a little.

It might also help to know that "Princess Mononoke" is a description, not a title.

Go to Nausicaa.Net's Mononoke page for some help, especially the FAQ.

That said, this is usually a love it or hate it film. You might find more in it after Nausicaa gets released here, as they are very similar, and very different, films.

Will Duquette said:

Yes, the FAQ does indeed help, especially the explanation about the historical context, and the name "Princess Mononoke". And it explains why I found the ending so oddly unsatisfying. The movie is about the conflict between man and nature. In a modern Hollywood tree-hugger flick, the movie would end with man submitting to nature. I was afraid that that was going to happen, and (fortunately) it didn't. The other obvious possibility is that man would triumph over nature. Though it's become unpopular in recent years, this is a much more American sentiment, and it ties in to the whole pioneer thing. But the theme of the movie, evidently, is that the conflict is irresolvable. Man and nature will always, inevitably, be in conflict. The problem has no solution. And while that might be so, it's a notion that's hard for us can-do Americans to accept.

Jaquandor said:

This is one of my very favorite films, but in truth the first time I saw it I had some difficulties following what was going on and why. It actually makes more sense on second and third viewings.