Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) is not a film to watch. It is a film to feel. It is one of those rare films that is as much an experience as it is entertainment and it appeals on a level that goes deeper than thought or analysis, to a place inhabited by the most enduring of truths. This is the same place that all truly good stories come from, the place where mythologies take on the aspect of reality – Jung’s Collective Unconscious, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey – the details may change but the spirit remains the same and its archetypal elements appeal at a depth that transcend intellect and defy cultural boundaries.
It’s a place where Mononoke‘s creator, Hayao Miyazaki, obviously feels at home. Like his young hero Ashitaka, Miyazaki easily bridges seemingly diametric opposites, embracing grand entertainment and spiritual depth, high adventure and meaningful dialogue, without conflict or mutual exclusivity. It is a feat to behold for rarely is it as successfully achieved as it is in Princess Mononoke.
Testament to the power and vibrancy of Miyazaki’s voice, Princess Mononoke was upon its release in 1997, the highest grossing domestic film in Japan, out-grossed only by James Cameron’s Titanic later that same year. In 1998 it became central to an agreement between Studio Ghibli’s publisher, Tokuma Publishing, and Disney Studios, with Disney signing for international production and distribution rights to no less than eleven Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli films. While the exact production budget for the Disney/Miramax release seems to be unavailable (if anyone knows where to find these figures I’d be grateful), results seem to be somewhat double edged. Though the grace and beauty of the original language is undeniable, the American voice-overs, by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver and Clare Danes to name a few, do the film comparative justice. So too does the English script adaptation by notable British wordsmith Neil Gaiman. If you only have access to the English version, you can be assured that Gaiman has done a remarkable and beautiful job. The Australian cinema release of the film is the Japanese language original, and has been screened in most states, most particularly at Melbourne’s Astor Theatre.
Unfortunately just as Princess Mononoke enjoyed unprecedented success as a Japanese animated film in a Western market, Disney’s investment in the marketing of the film in the US was in comparison to earlier, less well received Disney films, remarkably understated, and the US/Australian release of the DVD has been postponed with no notice of release to date due to pressure on the distributors to abandon plans to distribute an English Only version. (Ed: it’s now available in Australia from Madman.)
None of this however has detracted from the power of Miyazaki’s world or indeed the creator’s popularity in Japan and anime fan circles offshore. In any language, it is a story as much a metaphor for modern life as it is an ode to Japan’s cultural heritage and the human condition. The characters populate a distinctly Japanese landscape, the complexity and the emotional realism that is brought to them illuminating their semi-historical origins. The film has an unashamed sense of nationality, and while it remains firmly positioned in the realm of fantasy it does so by drawing from reality, from Japan’s rich and complex past. Here is where the magic starts, for somewhere in the country’s history, one can almost believe gods walked and heroes lived. It is this core that gives the film its foundation.
And it is the central themes of conflict, man against nature, progression versus tradition, that gives the film its purpose. They are perhaps well-worn paths to walk but Miyazaki paves them with a unique maturity, showing us that nothing, not even entertainment, is truly simple. Here there is no right or wrong, good or evil, here motivations are based upon need not malice and events form as consequences of actions that could not have been pre-determined. Ashitaka’s refusal to take a simplistic standpoint within the conflict emphasises this real-life complexity, provides the viewer with a place to begin to examine concepts of right and wrong, rather than merely passively consuming those concepts as dictated by others. In the end, both Ashitaka and Miyazaki also shows the viewer what that maturity means. There is no fairy tale ending, no storybook Happily Ever After and this is what finally gives the film its spirit for what there is, is the understanding that things must and do end, but that in ending, in death, there is always rebirth. And that is perhaps the simplest, most beautiful concept of all.
So, foundation, purpose and spirit, Princess Mononoke is undeniably a charming, complex and sweetly powerful film that is pure magic (and I do not throw words like that around lightly). Flawlessly crafted from concept to visualisation and production and every detail between, it is perhaps one of the most mature pieces of anime ever made, in any language. And of course, superb only just manages to describe the gorgeous soundtrack by regular Miyazaki composer Joe Hisaishi whose other credits include the brilliant scores to several of Kitano Takeshi’s finest films (Hana Bi, Kikujiro, Brother), and whose talent impresses itself upon the audience with effortless power, completing the spell.
It is a spell that cannot, as already mentioned, be truly described, but one that must be experienced. It is a story that cannot be analysed but must be felt. It is a film that will for a long time, live unchallenged in the place where no matter what nationality, culture or creed, our souls reside.