Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Film: Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

If you say that you don’t like anime, fans will tell you that it’s an unfair thing to say. Anime, they will tell you, is a style, not a genre. Anime comes in all different stripes and genres, so claiming to dislike it is very much like saying you don’t like movies. Fair enough—it’s a style and not a genre. In general, though, it’s a style I don’t like that much. I never feel centered watching most anime. There never seems to be enough exposition for me to feel like I know what’s going on. Fans of the style typically cite Hayao Miyazaki as the best choice for a hater.

Okay. I’ve seen a few Miyazaki films. This, in fact, is the second time I’ve seen Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke). I will admit that there is a particular beauty to this film, and a toughness I didn’t recall. But I still don’t really understand what the hell is going on through a lot of it. Incidentally, I don’t typically watch dubbed versions of films, but with animation, it seems to matter less. Also, the English language version of this film feature some pretty good voice talent, so I went with it.

Anyway, the lack of exposition starts up right away. In a village of the Emishi people (and we’re not told much about them), a giant demon-possessed boar attacks. Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) defends his village and kills the boar-demon, but it wounds him, putting a curse on his right arm. Now, slowly, he’ll start to become possessed by a similar demon. This will give him tremendous strength and abilities until it takes him over and eventually kills him. He leaves his town in search of where the boar came from. On the journey tracking the boar, he meets a monk named Jiro (Billy Bob Thornton) who tells him that a great forest spirit might be able to cure him.

Eventually, Ashitaka reaches a city called Iron Town. The people here smelt iron, and frequently clear large sections of the forest to do so, using the iron to build weapons. In fact, it was a ball from one of their rifles that caused the boar to turn into a demon in the first place. The leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), is driven to destroy the forest spirits to make the town safe. While this is the indirect cause of Ashitaka’s curse, he finds it difficult to hate Eboshi completely, since she has a habit of rescuing lepers and prostitutes and giving them meaningful work and a home.

Eboshi is definitely opposed by San (Claire Danes), who the people of Iron Town call Princess Mononoke. San was abandoned by her parents and adopted by Moro (Gillian Anderson), a wolf goddess. Now San assists the wolves in fighting the people of the town in her effort to save the forest. During a raid on Iron Town, San is wounded and Ashitaka rescues her, getting himself shot in the process. This leads to an encounter with the forest spirit itself. It cures the gunshot wound, but leaves Ashitaka cursed.

And then comes the twist. Jiro is no monk, but a bounty hunter of sorts. His goal is to take the head of the forest spirit and bring it to the emperor in the belief that it will grant eternal life. To this end, he enlists Eboshi, promising her that with the forest spirit dead, the entire forest will fall into the human domain, the animal gods will lose their power, and it will become safe for everyone.

All of that is well and good. The story is a decent one, and it was adapted by Neil Gaiman, who is certainly no slouch in the coming-up-with-stories department. But it still feels at least partly unknowable to me. I don’t understand what all of the creatures are, or the Japanese concept of “demon,” which is considerably different from the Western conception. The film, I get the sense, expects me to know all of this going in, and I simply don’t.

So, while Mononoke Hime is certainly beautiful to look at and gloriously animated, I simply feel like there is something that I am missing throughout. There’s something integral here, something cultural, that is just going over my head and that refuses to let me latch onto it. I try, but I fail almost every time. In other words, I feel like I lack the cultural context to truly understand what is going on.

I would be hard-pressed to say I didn’t like this film, but I’d be equally hard-pressed to say that I love it. I respect it for what it is, knowing that there will always be a part of it that is constantly out of my reach. I get that it’s a fable on environmentalism. I get that it’s cool when demon-fueled Ashitaka severs a guy’s arms with an arrow. I get that there are few animated films of this quality in the overall look and design and complete immersion in the imagination of a fabulist. I just wish I understood it more.

Why to watch Mononoke Hime: Breathtaking animation.
Why not to watch: Lack of cultural context.


  1. I saw this film years ago (was Tom Cruise one of the voices?), and can't say that I remember much of it. It did resonate for me, however, when I was watching "Hellboy II," which features a "forest god" that gets destroyed in the middle of the city, dying a gorgeous death. That "Hellboy" moment recalled "Princess Mononoke" for me.

  2. Cruise isn't in the film. I don't know that he's ever done voice work. My guess is that del Toro's forest god in Hellboy II is a direct homage to the one in this film--there are some similarities.

  3. This film did little for me. Great animation, as you say, but... It was somehow lacking.

  4. I'm right with you on this one Steve. I wasn't drawn into the story like I've been for most Miyasaki films. I agree that the visuals are stunning, but I was distant from it for most of the running time. I also really felt the running time, which is rare for his movies.

  5. I'm loathe to get my kids' opinion on this one, too. The older one would be okay with it, but my guess is that the younger one will check out the minute a guy gets decapitated with an arrow.

  6. Believe it or not, I'm in a similar boat with you on this one. I really liked it the first time I saw it--but it was also pretty much the first major anime film I'd ever seen, so it was an entrancing kind of thing. On subsequent watches, I learned to appreciate and respect it, but not really love it (I have similar feelings with Akira). However, it has nothing to do with not understanding the context. I never look at anime that closely and try to wrap my brain around every little thing. I tend to just accept everything, let myself sink into the world, and run with it, whether or not I know what different creatures and whatnot are.

    1. I guess I just can't do that. I feel...culturally unmoored. And yes, I feel the same way about Akira.

      And yet, I didn't have this problem with Spirited Away, in part because our main character is in exactly the same position. She's as adrift as I am, so I buy the confusion.

    2. Have you ever tried non-fantasy anime? There's a TON of that out there, too, ya know. :P

    3. I haven't really. I find it difficult to muster up any enthusiasm.

    4. That's like trying to muster up enthusiasm to watch movies in general. (BOOM! Sorry... you mentioned it, so I had to go there.)

  7. I'm going to come right out and say I love Miyazaki and Princess Mononoke (although my favourite Miyazaki is Spirited Away). I'm sorry you didn't enjoy it so much! As you say, the animation is stunning, I just think Miyazaki fills all his films with such wonderful messages about the need for balance and understanding, and I found it a very emotional film. His characters are very human - his antagonists aren't even 'evil', just misguided. Lady Eboshi is a prime example of this.

    Really enjoyed reading your review!

  8. Spirited Away is definitely my favorite Miyazaki film. Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, would only be in the middle, or even lower-middle of his set of films for me. It was the first Miyazaki film I saw because it was the first one to make a big splash in the American consciousness. Like you, I felt like I was just a little off in understanding things. I have not had that feeling with any subsequent Miyazaki film I saw, both ones he made before and after this. I sometimes wonder if I watched Mononoke now if I would like it better.

    Personally, I think it's in the book because of it being the first of his films to be really talked about in the West, not because it's among his best. At least they have Spirited Away in the book, too.

  9. It is what it is. I didn't dislike Mononoke Hime, but I wasn't blown away by it the way many people are. It is gorgeous, but the story just always seemed a little out of reach.

    Spirited Away is by far the better film, I think.