Seijun Suzuki’s Princess Raccoon is frequently wonderful, frequently irritating, always gorgeous to look at and mostly pretty difficult to follow. Drawing upon the rich Japanese fields of kabuki plays and tanuki folklore, veteran director Suzuki has sought to create an absurd, colourful funhouse of a musical, and has mostly succeeded.
The mythical tanuki is a shapeshifting, fun-loving and mischievous raccoon dog, and we are informed at the movie’s opening that love between a human and a tanuki is strictly forbidden, even when the Tanuki looks exactly like that annoying but cute chick from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Yes, the ever-luminous Zhang Ziyi stars as the titular princess. Jô Odagiri plays Amechiyo, a prince who is banished from his father’s palace when an
oracular pool of soup (uh huh) informs the father that his son has surpassed him in handsomeness. Oracles these days, always stating the bleeding obvious!
Naturally, the prince and princess meet, fall instantly in love, and encounter the usual obstacles between themselves and happiness. At least, the audience assumes that they do, because the story here is pushed so far beneath the form and style that we are left to fill in the (admittedly rather straightforward) blanks for ourselves.
Princess Raccoon‘s primary (but by no means exclusive) stylistic conceit is as a kind of filmed play, being very stagey and asking us to allow it the same leeway with realism that we allow the theatre. For example, when Amechiyo climbs a mountain, he walks round and round a single rock formation with mounting strain, and we understand that the character is not actually walking in circles. However, the movie indulges in frequent variations on this theatrical basis. As well as the stage sets, scenes take place in real outdoor settings, and before animated backgrounds. Playfully, Suzuki has no qualms whatsoever about mixing these styles within the same scene: more than once, characters talk with each other while one is before an obviously painted background and the other is standing in, say, a field.
All of this trickery and experimentation would amount to little if the result was not absolutely stunning. Happily, it is. Even the stage-based scenes are marvels of costuming, lighting, composition and, perhaps most memorably, Suzuki’s sweeping, indulgent camera movement. And I haven’t even talked about the musical numbers yet. The music runs the gamut from disco to hip hop to calypso and back again, an aural conglomeration which more than matches the movie’s visual versatility.
Princess Raccoon is occasionally very funny, bursting at the seams with over-the-top performances, and a sense of humour that is sometimes surprisingly scatological. If the love story lacks emotional resonance, it hardly seems to matter when everything else is so much fun. And whatever Zhang’s limitations as an actress may be, it is the way she simply carries herself that is most memorable about her performance here: she moves more like a swan than a raccoon.
Now the bad news. Princess Raccoon outstays its welcome by quite a long time. At 111 minutes, it feels as much as 20 minutes too long. It is probably one of those cases in which the film makers are so in love with all their footage that they can’t bear to part with any of it. I could be killed for saying this, but this is one movie that could be improved by a bit of “Miramaxing”. That it also has more endings than Return of the King only serves to highlight the fact that it is all going on for far too long.