Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke"

First time we ever saw the dubbed version of Princess Mononoke, and it improves on the Japanese (or the English translation of the Japanese) in several ways: Neil Gaiman points up the humor, especially in the lines of Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) who, when you think about it, is practically the only comic relief in the movie ("This tastes like donkey piss," "Did that sound like a threat? I'm sorry!") Minnie Driver is especially fine as Lady Eboshi, capturing her coolness in the face of fire as well as the ambiguity of her character (Is she a leader? A protofeminist? A warmonger? A statesman with delusions of grandeur?). It also clarifies much of the action the previous translation couldn't quite explain (the fact that, for example, the Forest Spirit may vanish with the sunrise).

As for the film itself, always thought it was his most Kurosawa-like; it takes place at roughly the same time period as Seven Samurai (the Sengoku period), down to the flintlock muskets and clothing and architecture (Irontown looks like a rapidly industrializing version of Kurosawa's peasant village). The action sequences, coherently shot and edited and exciting even by anime standards, recall Samurai's memorable swordfights and horsemanship; various images--quiet ones like Ashitaka riding along a high ridge or running across a grassy field, or more elaborate ones like Eboshi's gunmen firing on attacking samurai, or on the giant wolves running down the muddy, storm-swept slope recall the Emperor's filmmaking at its, well, most imperial (or at least most impressive--Hidden Fortress, Kagemusha, Ran).

I might add that (SPOILER: skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the film) here I think we first see Miyazaki's tendency to tie up (or at least sum up) all the loose ends in his increasingly complex narratives, rushing them a little--San and Ashitaka clarify their relationship in a few lines of dialogue (we love each other but we won't live with each other); Eboshi expresses remorse over her wrongheadedness; Jigo shrugs his shoulders. Unlike in Howl, where the royalty find their missing brethren and call off the war (just like that!), Eboshi pays a price; I just think she needed one more scene along the way to make the transformation more believable (a moment where she hesitates and wonders if she should ride the wolf, for example).

I used to think the film was too exhausting, too complex especially towards the final half-hour (introducing too many new characters with unexplained abilities that don't really pay off); now I'm not so sure. It's Miyazaki's biggest film in terms of budget (well, maybe Howl is bigger), and the one where he works out the most thoroughly his ambivalence towards men and beasts, nature and technology, war and humanity (for a more complex expression of these issues you'd have to turn to his thousand-page manga of Nausicaa, of the Valley of the Wind). Spirited Away is perhaps more moving, Howl displays a more sophisticated palette and integration of digital animation (but the next film is almost always an improvement on the previous one, technologically speaking); Mononoke is, I suppose, his Big Statement, a summation of his work to date.

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