This review is incredibly hard to write, because, after only one viewing, I'm not sure I have a good sense of how good this movie was.  Most films are simple and easy to rate after one viewing.  Others not.  L.A. Confidential was a great movie - not the least because it starred one of my favorite actors, Kevin Spacey (but why does he keep getting shot in movies?), and also because it had the good sense to prominently feature one of my favorite 1950's science fiction films - When Worlds Collide - on a theater marquee.  But Confidential was hard to follow the first time through, mainly because the plot was complicated and some characters only appeared on-screen briefly, but were then mentioned again and again by other characters.  Films like Confidential and Shakespearean films, as opposed to, say, Adam Sandler movies, improve with repeat viewings - I suspect Princess Mononoke will too.

Before I delve too much into what I didn't follow, let me describe what I did get from one viewing.  First off, this is a really impressive production.  The artwork is original, and, at turns, breathtakingly beautiful, bizarre, powerful, subtle and humorous.  A few examples:

The beautiful: Some of the animation rivals Disney, which is (rightfully or not) often considered the measuring stick. In one scene, our heroic prince, Ashitaka, rides through the forest on his red elk, prettily dappled in sunlight.  In another quick scene, late-afternoon sunlight streams across the view, striated as it passes over rocks and vegetation.  Beautiful pastoral images.

The Bizarre: Japanese animation can be really strange, so over-the-edge that I can't lose myself in the movie.  Example: In one anime film (Ninja Scroll), a villain's humpback is revealed to be a big nest of bees (!) - bees which swarm out and harass our heroes.  Folks, I've done some art that people consider strange, but this sort of thing is weird, weird, weird. Perhaps there's a fine line between being original and being off-putting. Perhaps I can relate to some weirdness but not other weirdness.  Perhaps it's an indescribable personal thing, my weirdness versus your weirdness, you dig? 

In any case, some of the images in Princess Mononoke are strange, but not so far-out that I lose suspension of disbelief.  Example: In an early scene, a boar-god attacking a village is covered with a matte of writhing worm/tentacle things, which symbolize the evil spirit infecting the boar. Strange, but not too strange. 

The Powerful: In another important scene (see first image above), we are introduced to the Princess, but her mouth is red, covered in blood from an unsuccessful attempt to suck poison from the wounded breast of her mother wolf.  She holds a long pointed dagger, she wears a necklace made of animal teeth, and her eyes burn with anger.  This ain't no little mermaid.  This is a mighty image - and something Disney would never dare to do.

So, lots of movies these days have great images - what about the script and story?

Here's where I get into trouble.  I have to admit that I was, well, confused.  Being confused annoys me to know end, because I always enjoyed being the guy with the facts, the guy in the know.  Oh well. Not here.  This is what I got: An evil boar-god, as I mentioned, attacks a defenseless village, but is slain by the good prince Ashitaka.  However, the Japanese moviemaker (e.g., writer-director Hayao Miyazaki), unlike James Bond moviemakers, knows that every victory comes at a price and every action has a consequence.  Ashitaka is wounded in the fight and infected by the boar-god's evil.  The village bruja tells him that the evil poison will spread through his body, eventually destroying his soul and killing him.  The bruja - who bowed before the dead body of the boar-god because she and Miyazaki, unlike, say, Sylvester or Arnold, have a respect for the gravity of a life taken, even an evil life - sends Ashitaka on a quest to find a cure for himself.  His one clue is a bit of iron lodged in the beast's heart, which shattered his bones upon entry and turned him evil.

Throughout the course of the movie, Ashitaka meets a bewildering array of characters, all of which have Japanese names I couldn't remember, and all of which were somehow important to the plot.  These characters included the Princess (who, for some reason usually isn't called Mononoke during the film, but "San," which sounds like "Son," which is confusing since she's a she), enormous white wolves (who raised Mononoke, I mean, San, from infancy), a town of iron-smithers run by Lady Eboshi, who hires prostitutes and lepers to work for her, various bandits, soldiers and outcasts, a tribe of boars, mute but cute forest spirits, an invading army of samurai, apes who plant trees at night, and a regal forest spirit.  Got that?  In addition, we are asked to remember various curses and complex relationships - involving ancient hostilities, shame, greed, selfishness, revenge, and fears of racial decay.

It was all a bit much.  Now, don't get me wrong, I think most movies are too simplistic, and I'm glad to find a movie that was so surprisingly challenging, but there's a fine line between complexity and turgidity (as was Star Wars' problem).  Being confused makes me annoyed, bored and frustrated with a movie - the way I felt during several portions of the second half of this film.  I'll have to see it again to determine if my confusion was my fault or the movie's producers.

Overall, I'll give the film 


for now, but I reserve the right to change (probably raise) the rating after I see it again in a couple days.

Princess Mononoke (American version) featured the vocal talents of Billy Crudup (the prince Ashitaka), Minnie Driver (whose British accent really stuck out as the evil Lady Eboshi), Claire Danes (Mononoke, whom everybody called San).  Billy Bob Thornton's in it too, and I think he played the outcast Jigo.  Neil Gaiman (most famous for The Sandman comix) adapted the script, and you have to assume he knows what he's doing.  But this is all really Hayao Miyazaki's (Nausicaš of the Valley of Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro) baby. BTW, the film has some graphic violence (lots and lots of decapitation and arms chopped off), so DO NOT bring the wee ones.  This is NOT Disney.  

I'll see it again in a couple of days.  In the meanwhile, if anyone else has seen Princess Mononoke and would like to comment, please send me an email.  

From: Ian [mailto:ilsamuel@ucalgary.ca] 1/10/00

My impressions after seeing Princess Mononoke:

1. Far, far more substance than your average anime. A lot of the fun for me was in making the connections in the involved plot and seeing how the different groups (the Emperor's men, Lady Eboshi and her fragile community of outcasts, the forest gods) interacted with each other in the power struggle. I'll always come out in favour of a movie with the courage to sacrifice simplistic good vs. evil dualism to a portrayal of the complex motives of all the parties concerned, and _Princess Mononoke_ did just that. The plot was complex, but it worked because the characters were driven by convincing impulses and beliefs -- and because there was plenty of suspense as the conflict spiraled out of control, and you wondered just how Ashitaka is supposed to fulfil his quest and salvage peace from this mess.

Compare and contrast the laughable "plot" of the Phantom Menace, which was so confused and pointless precisely because there were NO plausible motives involved.

2. Visually stunning. The only anime I've ever seen that rivals my all-time favorite, _Akira_, for quality animation and arresting images. The "night walker" sequences involving the forest spirit are

3. Could have wished for stronger characters, though. Granted, the characterization here is light-years ahead of what you'll find in virtually any other anime on the market (the doomed, noble forest gods are particularly moving), but the leads -- "San" and the cursed prince -- are disappointingly cardboard. And the supporting characters are too close to typical anime for my taste, irritating and often there to be played for laughs in a movie that's particularly poorly suited to "comic relief" casting.

On the whole, I'd rate Mononoke at 8.5 or 9; it's not just a good animated film, it's a good film, period -- a standard that most animated features (even those by the big D) never reach.


From Matthew Bartlett 10/29/00 

You mentioned in your review that Mononoke was tough to follow. I truly thought it wasn't that diffiicult. Americans, stero-typically, are guilty of "kiddifying" all cartoons- meaning they havbe simple plots, simple characters, and just as simple to follow ideas. Whereas Anime (again in general) is typically not so child-oriented. Where the US has made cartoons into an industry of children and young teens, Japan turned it's animators into the likes of Hollywood and TV directors. Often these films are mainstream films and tv series (as was Macross- the US Robotech counterpart). 
The fact that the story had incredible depth and definite characters and pasts makes a rich story of unequal effect. Most people see a cartoon and assume it's for children and put a pre-minded notion of how it "should" be, and that's what I think most people who see few Anime cartoons are guilty of. It's not to say that the story is too hard to follow, it just was not written to be a child's cartoon, when you see it again (as you mention you likely will) watch it as if it were a Hollywood MOVIE release (and try to think of the characters as real people, not cartoon characters- people have no trouble thinking that Agents Scully and Mulder are real people, so why not think of San and Ashitaka the same way?) 
Matthew Bartlett 

OTHER MOVIE REVIEWS: Austin Powers (References), Being John Malkovich, Blah Witch Project, Deep Blue Sea, Dogma, Dune, eXistenZ, Iron Giant, The Matrix, The Mummy, Princess Mononoke, The Sixth Sense, Sleepy Hollow, Smallville, Star Trek IX: Indigestion, Star Wars: The Turgid Menace, Thirteenth Floor, Toy Story 2, Trekkies, Vile Vile West, The World Is Not Enough

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