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PRINCESS MONONOKE -- Retro Review

Unquestionably the best Miyazaki movie in the final verdict.

Ghibli’s latest joint, THE SECRET WORLD OF ARRIETTY, is coming stateside soon. In anticipation of that, I figured it’d be fun to catch up on as many titles from the studio as I can, since I know my exposure’s woefully incomplete (to count, I’ve only watched PRINCESS MONONOKE, CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, SPIRITED AWAY and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES.)

Read my takes on...

I wasn’t planning to review PRINCESS MONONOKE here. I’d already watched it several times - - it was the first Miyazaki movie I’d ever seen, in fact - - and it therefore didn’t fit this feature’s “travelogue of discovery” conceit.

However, as it happened, the Aero Theater in Santa Monica opted to add this as a bonus feature to their screening of CASTLE IN THE SKY as a conciliatory gesture to anybody potentially miffed over their last minute substitution of the subbed print with the dubbed one (many kudos to the Aero and Egyptian for pulling off such an excellent, crowd-pleasing programming block in this CASTLES IN THE SKY series, by the way.) I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch a 35mm print of MONONOKE for free, nor to comment on the experience, so here we are with me really coming full-circle in my appreciation of Miyazaki’s body of work after nine films and 13 odd years.

For all the compliments to be lavished upon Miyazaki, the most superlative must go to how the man has a true artist’s daring instinct to never repeat himself. There are recurring notions and motifs throughout his filmography, to be sure - - from sky pirates to castles of varying mobility, and from the pure delights of flight to a somber cooperation with nature - - but each effort has a truly distinct tone and identity. So much so that being enraptured with one of his flicks doesn’t really guarantee that the next will captivate (or even necessarily entertain) you. Thus, for as soundly as SPIRITED AWAY and KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE didn’t hit with me, I do prefer that they exist as the products of an artistic vision that bravely ventures to polarizing extremes instead of keeping to safe middle ground.

With this new, wider perspective, PRINCESS MONONOKE still stands firm as my favorite Miyazaki movie - - a film with no misplaced steps, no unsure notes, no misaimed gestures and not a single wasted moment. It’s the most tightly-plotted and briskly-paced flick in this particular pantheon; one where every single scene flows into the next with clear purpose, confident speed and a sense of fitting inevitability.

MONONOKE wastes no time getting to a breakneck inciting incident in the beginning that expertly entwines a very intimate and dire physical threat with a far-reaching philosophical dilemma. The saintly and deadly Prince Ashitaka defends his village from what at first seems like a rampaging demon - - a horrifying mess of wriggly black worms that turns out to be a blinded and vengeful boar god - - and the ordeal leaves him gravely tainted. Infected with the boar god's hateful curse, he’s forced to venture out into the world on a few thin hopes. Hopefully he’ll be cured by the legendary, merciful deer god and hopefully, he'll find retribution along the way on the men whose iron bullet poisoned the poor beast in the first place.

This is all established in under ten minutes of screen time, and it never feels rushed in the way that animated feature’s cramped running times often necessitate. Rather, it has the surety of an epic poem whose every bold line decisively evokes what lesser works would need five lines to express. It operates on that highest discipline of storytelling which can make great and profound points (in this case on conservationism and vengeance) by presenting events simply as they would happen, not by moralizing or even seemingly offering a subjective point-of-view.

Each Miyazaki movie I've watched has invited comparison to other works of filmmaking and sequential art. Aside from Shinto legends, perhaps, I can't think of any adequate piece to point to for MONONOKE. I might drawn an incomplete comparison to Kubrick flicks for the aforementioned narrative objectivity (incomplete, certainly, for how much warmer this is, emotionally) but it really exists in a sphere of its own.

Ashitaka navigates a feudal landscape blighted by chaos and strife; the boar's curse slowly eating his insides away even as it grants him fearsome superhuman abilities. After a little time, he rescues some wounded soldiers who've fallen in a battle with wolf spirits and returns them to their home, the nascent industrial city of Iron Town. There, he meets the unforgettable Lady Eboshi. Like Ashitaka's sickness, the place and the lady simultaneously embody both the best and worst qualities of urban progress in even its earliest forms.

One of the most remarkable scenes comes when Eboshi quickly shows Ashitaka the very root cause of his condition - - her conclave of gun-making lepers. His righteous anger flares at the site of them, nearly compelling his possessed arm to cleave the lady's head off until one of the lepers pleads with him to show mercy. Is Eboshi to be condemned for corralling such lowly outcasts into her business of war? Or is she to be commended for giving such outcasts a haven in Iron Town they're free from the scorn of an unfeeling society and able to find the dignity of employment? Is she a demoness clawing all that is good about nature into the blazing bonfire of her ambition? Or are all these brutal forest spirits just as culpable for the hatred plaguing the land?

The hard answers, and the host of others raised in the movie, are refreshingly left up to the viewer.

There’s simply too much for me to sing the praises of than I have room for.

I could go on at length about San, the wolf girl of the title, who embodies such an alluring blend of vulnerable innocence and literally bloodthirsty aggression...

I could recount all the thrilling scenes of battle and chase which make deft action seem so instinctual in these animators' hands...

I could wax rhapsodic about Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping score, which is irresitably hypnotizing, rousing and sublime...

I could extol how fascinating this vision of animist mythology is with its spooky menagerie of gods, demons, imps and animal spirits...

I could even simply state how fun it was to watch Ashitaka’s red elk steed, Yakul, in motion, or to see the cackling mercenary monk Jigo do anything...

...but I'm sure you get the idea.

Tom Pinchuk’s the writer of HYBRID BASTARDS! & UNIMAGINABLE. Order them on Amazon here & here. Follow him on Twitter: @tompinchuk

ZombiePieon Feb. 10, 2012 at 4:53 p.m.

Little piece of animation history Princess Mononoke is the last major motion picture to use on film traditional animation with real paint. It kind of marked the end of an era in ways that most people don't know about or understand. After this film was released the final holdouts in Japan and the United States all made the transition to digital paint and computer animation. I'd lament the loss, but then again digital paint is superior in so many ways that I'd sound like a Luddite if I did. Let me just say that animation cameras suck and no longer having to meticulously paint each frame of animation was a good evolution in technology that the industry benefited from globally.

Another tidbit in case you were wondering is that the Cartoon Network show Ed, Edd, and Eddy is the last studio funded animated television show made on film using real paint and animation cels. It's painfully obvious because you can see all of these imperfections in the frames when watching old episodes.

krabbosson Feb. 10, 2012 at 8:28 p.m.

I'd say I like a few of Miyazaki's movies more than this. The plot has never been all that interesting to me and I don't find the main character to be very well developed.

generikoon Feb. 10, 2012 at 9:20 p.m.

I remember crying to this.

Top8caton Feb. 10, 2012 at 10:06 p.m.

@krabboss:

Same here, I never saw the appeal in this movie besides the art work, and even though I 'm a sucker for beautiful art, it doesn't avoid a lot of the pitfalls I have with this movies as a whole. I do however hold this movie I high respect for the impact it had on its genre in the west.

animebookworm7on Feb. 11, 2012 at 1:18 a.m.

i watched this movie too, it is defiantly one of my favorites

i love the character Princess Mononoke she is defiantly the best. she is so beautiful and active yet wild and brave.

CH3BURASHKAon Feb. 11, 2012 at 1:49 a.m.

Maybe it's because it was my first Ghibli film as well, but Princess Mononoke is also my favorite Miyazaki movie. Even though I've seen it a ton of times, I don't think I can properly dissect why I love it. Suffice to say, it feels 'perfect' - the characters, the pacing, the mythology, the allusions and metaphorical narrative, everything fits perfectly. One thing I know impressed my young self was Ashitaka's respect and humility towards the gods, a somewhat rare quality to possess as evident by the main antagonist (and town) wishing to murder a God. I know for sure that I loved the love story; I still remember that scene where Ashitaka stops the two women from fighting with his purple hate demon thing (the only moment in the movie when it gets preachy, and it's not even that bad), then walks out of the city by lifting a goddamn gate.

I also adored the End of Gods "motif" or theme. At the end, the God of Gods dies, bringing in a new era that the viewer might be more familiar with, which tied it into reality terrifically for me.

And yes, Joe Hisaishi is a genius - the Princess Mononoke OST gets regular play on my Zune, especially the Journey to the West theme:

Like I said, maybe it's the nostalgia, but I'm always annoyed when people heap praise on Spirited Away, which was indeed good but over-hyped due to being the highest-profile Ghibli film of them all.

RVonEon Feb. 11, 2012 at 5:47 a.m.

Yeah, keep pissing on Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away, Tom.

scarbeareron Feb. 11, 2012 at 5:53 a.m.

One of the other things I really liked about this movie was that it was one of the earlier cases for what could be accomplished with careful, respecftul adaptation of a script if you plan to do an English dub. I'm too lazy to look it up just now, but I want to say they got Neil Gaiman to adapt the script to English. I'm sure some purists will crucify me for saying this but at the time it came out I would say it was one of the very very few animes where the english dub could be just as enjoyable as the subtitled version.

TobbRobbon Feb. 11, 2012 at 8:56 a.m.

Spirited Away and Howl's are both better. :P

Though I really do love Mononoke... I need to have a miyazaki marthon or something.

OffT: What is up with the default avatar? It wouldn't let me change yet either :(

Ludenson Feb. 11, 2012 at 9:27 a.m.

"Unquestionably the best Miyazaki movie in the final verdict."

This first statement alone renders everything else you are saying in your "review" worthless.

You are unquestionably a shitty reviewer, Tom.

Little_Socrateson Feb. 11, 2012 at 12:22 p.m.

I agree whole-heartedly with you, but calling this a "review" is perhaps unfair. Still, even hearing its musical motifs or reading you describe the film in grandeur is enough to make me choke up, and actually watching this film inevitably causes a tear to drop. One of the most excellently crafted films ever, and the ultimate film in the ultrahumanist mold. Even better than the best Pixar films in that field.

sickVisionz moderator on Feb. 11, 2012 at 12:37 p.m.

I should get around to watching some of these films. Miyazaki's work is a gaping hole in my backlog and while I'd probably enjoy them, none of his movies grab me and make me want to watch them outside filling the aforementioned hole.

p00rdevilon Feb. 11, 2012 at 2:39 p.m.

This movie was really very good. I like the way no one was totally a villain, or entirely a noble hero. It was like all characters embodied the ying yang symbol with a little bit of black and white in their personalities. So much different than western movies that clearly define the good guys and the bad guys. Although this is an animation it makes many western movies seem childish.

AgentJon Feb. 11, 2012 at 3:38 p.m.

It was also the first Miyazaki movie that I ever saw, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

LOTW: Top 5 Miyazaki Films

Hayao Miyazaki is well known as the best animation director of his age. His works have become classics around the globe, and earned him countless filmmaking honors, including an Academy Award. Miyazaki has become synonymous with Anime, the same way Disney did for western animation. He continues to release instant classics despite continually threatening retirement.

These are the best Miyazaki films.

1. Kiki's Delivery Service

A classic coming of age tale, focusing on the titular young witch and her sarcastic scaredy cat Jiji. In the film, "Kiki" runs an emotional gauntlet, portraying perhaps the most "real" character of any of Miyazaki's creations over the years. Kiki's Delivery Service is far and away my personal favorite Ghibli movie and in my top five list of movies all-time.

2. Castle in the Sky

Could one call "Castle in the Sky" the quintessential Japanese fantasy movie? As the first of Studio Ghibli's projects, this film instantly created a new standard by which all others would be judged. A girl that needs rescuing, an evil organization to best, and ancient ruins to explore; all the trappings of a true classic. To tell the truth, it has been years since I've seen "Castle", but the iconic sky island, and its android, stand out so strongly, so vividly, even through the better part of a decade.

3. Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke was the first anime to get a wide-spread theatrical release in America, and is credited with being a big part of the subsequent anime boom in the west. The audience follows honest-to-a-fault Ashitaka after he is cursed and banished from his village. Eager to find the source, Ashitaka sets out on what can only be called an epic journey to find the curse's source. While it isn't the first Miyazaki movie to use environmental themes (nor was it the last) his feelings on pollution and the movings of men come through strongest in "Mononoke". It was also in many ways a departure from Miyazaki's norms, with more gritty realism and grand battles than any of his previous flicks.

4. Spirited Away

Is it possible that the first and only Anime to win an Academy Award could be left off of such a list? No, it isn't. Spirited Away hit the states in what was arguably the strongest time for anime in the states. The story about a young girl forced to work in a fantastic bathhouse after being separated from her parents is strong in japanese lore, and is perhaps overshadowed only by the superb visuals. Miyazaki returns to his character-developing days of "Kiki", as the lead Chihiro is the most fleshed-out girl since the "Delivery Service" days.

5. Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind

Direceted before Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli, Nausicaa is based on Miyazaki's own self-created manga series, which began in 1982, two years before the movie, and ended in 1994. Nausicaa laid the groundwork for many ideas that would later become Miyazaki staples, including the strong female lead, environmental messages, and the evils of war.

Dunchadon Feb. 11, 2012 at 3:56 p.m.

I would hard pressed to pick my favourite Ghibli movie between Hotaru no Haka and Mononoke Hime. Both are simply brilliant - I might choose Mononoke just because Hotaru no Haka is so depressing it makes me want to cut myself.

largeman29on Feb. 11, 2012 at 6:22 p.m.

Retribution? Ashitaka? Geez, at least now I surely don't feel bad about trashing your other reviews. You hardly even know these movies and you look to REVIEW them.

Hailinelon Feb. 11, 2012 at 9:07 p.m.

Princess Mononoke was the first Studio Ghibli film I saw, and I was fortunate enough to see it in a theater here in Seattle back in 1999. It's one of the few movies I've watched on the big screen multiple times; I ended up seeing it three times before it left. A very beautiful, visually striking movie with great characters.

But I disagree that it's Miyazaki's best. My favorite Miyazaki films are easily Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbor Totoro. Mononoke really shines in mature ways that are outside the realm of many of Miyazaki's other movies, and it's certainly one of his grandest acheivements, but I just found Nausicaa's story in particular to be more endearing.

@Dunchad said:

I would hard pressed to pick my favourite Ghibli movie between Hotaru no Haka and Mononoke Hime. Both are simply brilliant - I might choose Mononoke just because Hotaru no Haka is so depressing it makes me want to cut myself.

If you don't feel anything while watching Grave of the Fireflies, there may be something seriously wrong with you. That movie is the epitome of depressing, and yet, it's all the better for it. Easily one of the most tragic films I've ever seen.

takashichea moderator is online on Feb. 11, 2012 at 9:57 p.m.

I loved this movie. It truly shows how the lines of good and evil are so blurry. Eboshi and Princess Mononoke foil each other a bit. Eboshi exploits nature to help the leper while Mononoke helps mother nature by doing anything she can do disrupt Eboshi's works.

@animebookworm7 said:

i watched this movie too, it is defiantly one of my favorites

i love the character Princess Mononoke she is defiantly the best. she is so beautiful and active yet wild and brave.

I second this! :)

animebookworm7on Feb. 11, 2012 at 10:15 p.m.

i know!!!! But my favorite Ghibli character is Porco Rosso. ever move he makes is so brave, loyal and charming... even though he is a pig -_- but i love him XD

Afroman269on Feb. 12, 2012 at 1:03 a.m.
@CH3BURASHKA Maybe people praise Spirited Away because it's good. Mononoke was my first Ghibli film and I can see why it's one of the major standouts but I was never enraptured more so than I was with Spirited Away. I still get chills during the scene when the spirit world first begins to appear.

Dig Deeper into Princess Mononoke

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