Princess Mononoke (1997)
This movie contains every single kind of nightmare fuel imaginable. I left being afraid of things I've never even considered being afraid of. What's that? It's a Disney animated release? PG-13. [smacks forehead]
DIRECTOR: Hayao Miyazaki
We're at a crossroads, people! One thing about me, I really like Miyazaki. I have always understood that he is one of the great masters of cinema, let alone of animated film. His visuals are phenomenal and he has the ability to speak in terms of emotion and honesty, regardless of his subject matter. Lauren and I started watching him when Olivia was younger with My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo and I've fallen in love with his movies time and again. Second point: I never really got into anime. I have desperately tried. I really like the idea of anime, but man alive, anime often is alienating. You'd think a big dork like me would be head first all about anime, but there is something so bizarre about the storytelling that I could never really get into it. I explored this problem in my Ghost in the Shell review. Princess Mononoke, however, is the inner turmoil between these two concerns. How do I appreciate a film from an amazing director nearly at the height of his game when he completely embraces the medium of anime?
Miyazaki, regardless of how successful the film might be considers, makes a pretty looking movie. Princess Mononoke is considered one of his great successes, so that's not necessarily the problem I'm commenting on here. All I can say is that this movie looks absolutely phenomenal. The opening shot is completely terrifying yet mesmerizing. The boar running out of the woods scared the living daylights out of me. I often think that Disney's PG-13 movies are merely suggestions, but I decided to throw caution to the wind. I would have had a crying five-year-old on my hands quite quickly in this movie. But the movement and the way he portrays the physical manifestation of evil is gorgeous. Miyazaki takes horror elements and attributes them to folklore and it is effective. The boar establishes the tone within the first moments of the film and. despite the fact that I can't actually describe or explain what was going on, I understood the heart of each sequence. I knew what the movie was going to be, regardless of how much of my logic was tied to that understanding. Miyazaki doesn't really rest there, however, because the movie might be the prettiest of the group. Watching Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro established that the Studio Ghibli vibe is surreal, but Mononoke looks something truly unique. I have to guess that it has to do with Miyazaki's use of light within the movie. The movie is set within the forest, but he uses the forest similar to the way that Guillermo del Toro does within Pan's Labyrinth. His imagery is tonally appropriate to the setting of his world. But the version of that setting is always larger than life. Ponyo uses the bioluminescence of ocean life. Totoro uses the dust mites as parallels for field mice and country life. Mononoke, similarly, uses the aesthetics of a living forest, teeming with intelligent life. I really dig it.
The problem I start having with the movie is finding my antagonist. Perhaps I am used to my archetypes being cleaner, but it seemed like we had too many bad guys and too many questionable goals. I'm used to the "man is terrible for his encroachment on nature", but nature seems to be a horrible jerk here as well. Perhaps it is the fact that nature in Mononoke tends to bear its teeth sooner than finding a means of coexistence. I really don't want to compare this to the defensiveness of the Na'vi in Avatar. (If I didn't punctuate "Na'vi" right, it's because I don't care.) Nature is given the same pride that humanity has in Mononoke, which makes them slightly unsympathetic. Furthermore, although it is clear that the ironworkers are villainous with their attempt to clear the mountain, they are portrayed in a sympathetic light. They are composed of the outcasts and ignored of society. They are a group of strong women who depend on their own determination, which is admirable. But we also know that what they are doing is wrong. They are just doing it for the right reasons. I know that Miyazaki has always commented on the dangers of industrialization and that is very prevalent. Maybe it is something to be admired that he brings a degree of complexity to a situation that really deserves it. But the lack of a clear antagonist makes the movie very frustrating. I cannot root for nature because of its blind militaristic attitude. I cannot root for humanity because they are the destructive force. All I can do is stand by my protagonist, who serves more as an outside perspective, not unlike a narrator.
Then the movie just gets confusing. Perhaps the movie ties into Japanese cultural norms and beliefs, but there is a lot of mythology that I simply cannot understand. I mention often with Japanese films that the movies really benefit from an understanding of culture that we simply do not have in the States. Yeah, it seems a cop out. I might find myself dogging the movie at this point, but I can't stress enough that Miyazaki does an admirable job of ensuring that the viewer has an emotional tie to the heart of the movie. But the movie is super confusing. Alliances are very muddled and it seems like character intentions are all over the place. The protagonist not having complete control of his body is also extremely frustrating because he does absolutely horrible things that are not really his fault. Confusion isn't exactly my favorite place to approach a film. I know, I know. I like sci-fi and that's all mumbo jumbo. But there were times that my mind wandered from this movie because I had long periods of time where I had no idea what was going on. I have to wonder if it is the way my mind is wired because I know that there was something great. I also know that some people didn't find this movie at all confusing. But if I think back to the other Miyazaki things I watched, there were elements of that in those movies as well. Is it because the other films were gendai-geki and I could relate to those scenarios sooner? Perhaps I could jump on board weird concepts in a safe environment? I mean, I got most of Spirited Away, and that movie was completely bananas. Is the jidai-geki an aspect too far for this poor gaijin to relate? I don't know. I think the movie just took it one step of confusion too far and that let my mind wander more than I would have liked.
I will probably watch this one again. It won't probably be any time soon because it is just too fresh and I will always have a backlog of movies that I want to watch sooner than having to rewatch. But I also know my kid and when she is old enough, I can just see her wanting to get into all these films. I mean, we've watched Ponyo more times than I care to admit. If the tide keeps rolling in the same way, I will eventually have Mononoke memorized. I just hope that I can glean a little bit more upon further viewings because I think I could love this movie.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.