‘Princess Mononoke’ ponders the circle of life
By Adam Tatelman, Senior Columnist
In Princess Mononoke, an outcast prince afflicted with a deadly demonic disease falls in love with a forest-dwelling woman who was raised by wolves, after watching her suck the poison out of her adoptive mother’s gunshot wound. I’ll grant young Ashitaka’s attracted to a very peculiar type of woman, but if that doesn’t spell romance, what does?
It is the Muromachi period. One-time prince Ashitaka defends his village from a raging demon that was once a boar deity, contracting said infection in the process. Knowing he will die soon, he embarks on a quest to find the source of the incurable corruption. He discovers Irontown, a settlement run by the pragmatic yet compassionate Lady Eboshi, whose colonization of sacred forest territory threatens to escalate into all-out war with the gods of nature. Leading the charge against the humans is the wolf-girl, San. Falling for her, Ashitaka undertakes to reconcile human civilization with bestial nature.
This is a Hayao Miyazaki film, so yes, it contains an environmentally conscious message. Thanks to the utterly tactless way countless films have handled the subject (Chuck Norris’ Forest Warrior, anyone?), that might turn some away at the door. Fortunately, Miyazaki presents a more nuanced depiction of the eternal conflict of man versus nature.
Eboshi’s aggressive expansion seeks only to maintain Irontown’s economy and keep rival Daimyos at bay. Her town’s social structure is forward-thinking, trusting women as workers and warriors. The gods are self-serving by comparison, even barbaric, but only fight when threatened. Their leader, the Forest God, symbolizes equilibrium—as all death feeds life anew, he is neither good nor evil. No faction has ambitions beyond survival. Miyazaki hopes for an outcome where one’s continued existence doesn’t preclude the others.
Studio Ghibli’s reputation as animators was made by this movie. The action scenes are as fast and fluid as a cruise missile, creature design is memorably majestic, and there are more epic landscape shots than a Peter Jackson fantasy film. If there’s a deal-breaker, it has to be the dub. I know Ashitaka’s resigned to his fate, but that’s no excuse for Billy Crudup to phone it in this badly. The only thing his performance evoked was a bored actor counting the seconds until his cheque cleared. Claire Danes as San isn’t a whole lot better, but at least I buy her righteous indignation. And why does Eboshi speak with a British accent? These problems might be ameliorated by a less stilted translation, but the secondary characters still outshine the leads. Thank the Forest God for Keith David.
So if you’re in the mood for some Valentine’s Day anime, you should probably watch 5 Centimetres Per Second. But if you want an epic romance in the original sense of the word, Princess Mononoke has enough style, charm, brains, and heart to substitute for a good date.