Wednesday, November 24

Review: Princess Mononoke

Something that has always intrigued me about Japanese movies is their use of mythology. Most western movies deal with evil as something that is inside people, something you can avert by living virtuously. But Japanese movies, with their pagan mythology, deals with morality in a completely different way. I'm by no means an expert in anything Japan-related, but my impression is that they view the struggle between good and evil not something man is spiritually caught in between, but physically. You can at any moment get attacked by demons for no particular reason. If you don't fight, it will kill you dead. End of story.

Besides the fact that this is much manlier, it offers a completely different movie-watching experience. Instead of focussing on the psychology of one or two characters and have the story driven by them, Japanese movies often feature a large group of people struggling with forces as elemental and massive as life and death. Their intentions are clear, and you can mostly sympathize with their struggles, but the morality of their actions is never clear or simple. Couple this with the wealth of symbols of Shinto, one of the largest polytheistic religions in the world, and a very rich folklore, and you have enough source material to make some pretty magical films.

And that is exactly what Princess Mononoke is: magical. Not magical in the way that Disney movies are magical, that's pussy magic. Magical in the same way you feel when you see the world from atop a mountain, and realize how huge everything is. Magical in the same way you feel when you watch the stars on a quiet night, and reflect on your vulnerability and the mysteries of the universe. Magical in the same way you feel when you walk on the grass barefoot and daisies get stuck between your toes. 

Those little fellas are called Kodama. They are basically the coolest thing ever.
Princess Mononoke tells the story of Ashitaka, a young prince whose village gets attacked by a giant demon god. When he kills the beast, a curse is put on him. The village elders tell him that there is nothing he can do about this: the curse will slowly deteriorate him until he dies. Without as much as a blink, he accepts his fate and sets out to the west to find and destroy the source of this curse. When he arrives, he find himself in the middle of a conflict. There is a war going on between Lady Eboshi, a militant woman who runs an iron forgery and Mononoke, a child raised by wolfs who hates humans and tries to protect the forest she lives in. It's a masterstroke that Miyazaki didn't make this conflict one-dimensional: Eboshi might destroy the forests for her industry, but she is also the caring head of an entire village of people who are really quite nice. And although Mononoke might seem the ideal protector of nature at first, she is also a moody and vengeful child with little regard for anything other then her own ambitions. And then there is the mysterious Deer God, the deity of the forest who seems to represent the natural order of things, without the meddling of man.

This is only one of the many tales that goes on within the world of Princess Mononoke. A slew of secondary characters (that would be able to carry an entire movie on their own) inhabits the movie, but their stories just play in the background, without really influencing anything. It really feels like the movie takes place in a universe on itself. This is helped more than a little by the absolutely gorgeous animation. Hayao Miyazaki is the head of the only film studio in the world that still works primarily with hand-drawn animation, which basically makes him a saint in my book. The drawing is so amazingly beautiful and complex that it's a miracle it works in motion, but it does. Fantastically.

Imagine this thing moving.

Anyone still dismissive about the merits of animation will be convinced by this movie. It tells a tale that could never have been told by live-action, in a universe that could never have been created with live-action. This is not a children's movie. Not even a teenagers movie. This is epic Japanese fantasy in the legacy of Akira Kurosawa, and if you're in any way interested in having your mind blown you should not let this pass.


I think there are very few people on the planet who can express the atmosphere in movies like this. Jonsi is one of them.

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