Harry here folks at large, and I'm bringing you yet another of the ancient old man's musings over a film. This time he's taking a look see at MONONOKE HIME (aka PRINCESS MONONOKE). Now we need to get this print in front of Miyazaki-expert ROBOGEEK's visual scanners for further analysis. However, given Moriarty's studies took him to the Orient to study poisons, chants and pressure point death blows... his knowledge of this area of the world is nearly unmatched. Of course Robogeek has an embossed "MADE IN JAPAN" label upon his exhaust pipe (or so I'm told) so... he's pretty well versed too. Here's Moriarty...
Hey, Head Geek...
On a recent morning at the Moriarty Labs, a delicate experiment of mine was interrupted by the sound of a scuffle just outside the door of the main operating theater. Two loud thumps, a muffled cry, and the door slid open. My trusty bodyguard Junka came strolling in, all seven and a half feet of him, not a hair out of place. Under one arm, he was holding the bruised and irritated FreeRide, one of our newer spies here at AICN.
"I told him I had something for you, and I said it was the bomb," he said, trying to gather some sense of dignity. Junka may be loyal, but no one ever accused him of being an intellectual or particularly hip. I had to bite back the laughter as he dropped FreeRide in a rumpled heap, then retreated.
As soon as he got to his feet, though, FreeRide was back to his usual jovial self. He explained to me that he had managed to dig a tunnel into Miramax's Los Angeles offices. Unlike Miramax's easily-located New York offices in the Tribeca Film Center, their Los Angeles digs are in a totally nondescript building, beyond any notice from the outside. The CIA is easier to identify by sight. As a result, FreeRide was proud just to have found the damn place, much less having breached it. Together, we planned an exploratory mission, a test to check how well his tunnel would work.
Since I ended up seeing the English-language dub of PRINCESS MONONOKE, I'd call the mission a complete success. Now I just need to figure out where they're keeping CIDER HOUSE RULES and REINDEER GAMES... but that's just me thinking aloud. Today, I already feel fortunate to have sneaked a peek at such a wonderful, unique work of art.
Before I begin to discuss my reaction to the film, I want to qualify something, just so no one attacks me in the TALK BACKS for any gaps in my knowledge: I am not an expert on Miyazaki. In fact, I've only recently discovered his work for myself. It was the American debut of KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, a film I've enjoyed both dubbed and subtitled now, that really blew me away and convinced me I needed to know more about this amazing filmmaker. The amazing attention to detail, the gentle, lyrical nature of the storytelling, the humanity of the characterization... these were the things that made me want more.
Knowing that a full-blown theatrical release of MONONOKE HIME was in the works, and knowing it was the same team in charge who did such a great job with KIKI'S, I refused to read anything in-depth, and I have avoided seeing the Japanese import on laserdisc. Believe me, I've had plenty of opportunities, but I believe in the power of the big screen. I think there is something magic about the theater as the place you first see something. Harry didn't see RAISING ARIZONA until this year -- THIS YEAR, FER CHRISSAKES!!! -- because he wanted to see it in the theater. As a result of waiting, when the lights went down in that screening room the other day, I knew next to nothing about what I'd see. I had done only one bit of research, having looked up the meaning of the film's title.
PRINCESS MONONOKE, the American translation of MONONOKE HIME, is not actually a character's name in the film. Instead, "mononoke" refers to the spirit or essence of a thing. A person, a chair, a rock, a bird... all are mononoke. One particular usage of the word refers to the avenging spirit of a thing that has been wronged. It's this particular usage that I think makes the most sense. There is a key character in the film -- San, voiced by Claire Danes -- who has been adopted as the human daughter of the Forest gods. She rides against Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), willing to die to drive the humans off. She is literally the Princess of the Vengeful Spirit. Just knowing that much made my viewing of the film more enjoyable. I'll be honest... I'd heard it was a complex picture, and I was afraid I'd spend all my time just sorting it out.
Nothing could be further from the truth. From its opening shots of morning mist on a mountain range, I was hooked, pulled right in by the film's beauty and the simple, almost operatic way the story unfolds. We meet Ashitaka, a young warrior astride a great red elk named Akule. Ashitaka, voiced with real subtlety by Billy Crudup, stumbles across something at a guard tower, the beginning of a mysterious disturbance. Quickly, the situation spirals out of control, and Ashitaka is attacked by a monster, a demon, in a genuinely tense and thrilling sequence. When it threatens the village of the Emishi clan, Ashitaka's home, he is forced to kill it, revealing the beast's true form. It is a Boar-god, driven mad by whatever had changed it. During the battle, Ashitaka's arm is burned by the demon, leaving a poisonous scar on his right arm.
The Emishi have no choice according to their laws but to cast Ashitaka out in search of a cure for his slowly-spreading wound. They are a dying people, and the loss of Ashitaka is one they cannot really afford. Still, they send him on his way with his one clue, a piece of iron found in the belly of the Boar-god. It's this iron that transformed him, that filled him with anger and hatred for humans. Ashitaka sets out on what I fully expected would be a classically-structured hero's journey. I'm so used to seeing films that follow the Joseph Campbell model that it took me a while to shake my programming. Once I realized that there are no bad guys in the film, it really cast a spell on me.
Lady Eboshi's Iron Town is Ashitaka's eventual destination. It's her business, her iron mine, which is destroying the forest. It's Lady Eboshi who is literally at war with the Forest gods. It was Lady Eboshi who shot the mighty Board-god and drove him insane. Moreover, Lady Eboshi makes no apologies for her actions. She knows full well what effect her actions are having on the forest, but she believes Iron Town is worth it. The thing Miyazaki does so well is offer up a case that, in one way, Eboshi is right. The women who work her bellows are all women who were rescued from brothels. Now they're free, working incredibly hard but living real lives. Some of them are married. There's a future for them. In addition, Eboshi has made a home at Iron Town for lepers who had been cast aside by everyone else. Not only does she care for them, but she has even made a plan that may offer them a cure. It's the same possible cure she offers Ashitaka: if the head of the Spirit of the Forest is cut off, his blood will cure all sicknesses.
Ashitaka finds himself unsure what to do. On his way through the forest initially, he has a brief encounter with a mysterious girl who is accompanied by three large Wolf-gods. This is San, the Princess Mononoke, and she has no use for any human. She is driven by nothing but revenge. She is willing to even die if it means she has a shot at stopping Lady Eboshi. In one rousing sequence, San finds her way into Iron Town at night, and only Ashitaka is able to strike an uneasy peace. As a result of his efforts, he is shot, left with a wound that should destroy him.
Instead, San finds herself helping him. She takes him to a special place, the island where the Spirit of the Forest lives, a place where at least his gunshot wound will heal. As they wait for his appearance, we are treated to one of the most memorable scenes I've witnessed in any film this year. Tiny tree-spirits, the Kodama, begin to appear. They're tiny glowing beings with strange, surreal faces. Thousands of these odd little beings appear and run up into the trees. We see the surface of that great canopy of green, like a rolling ocean dotted with dozens upon dozens upon dozens of tiny luminescent dots, bobbing up and down in the wind. As they all watch, the Spirit of the Forest appears in one of his two forms, the Night Walker. This is something I have never seen before. This is something that words almost can't do justice to. This is pure, powerful cinema, poetry, like a prayer to nature offered up by Miyazaki. This is him reminding us of how mysterious and beautiful and confusing and wonderful nature can be. When Miyazaki sets the stakes this high, you would think it would be easy to be against the Lady Eboshi... but it's not.
If anything, the Forest gods are portrayed as frightening, beings of great anger and emotion. There's a haunting nocturnal argument with the Ape-gods, there's a tribe of Boar-gods out for some sort of revenge, and there's the Wolf-gods, led by the mother Moro (a wonderful vocal performance by Gillian Anderson), who raised San as their own after she was abandoned at Moro's feet by human parents. As a result, San doesn't think of herself as human, and when Ashitaka manages to connect to that human part of her, she doesn't respond by swooning like some moronic Disney heroine. She declares war on that part of herself, too. She is not interested in finding some bridge between her worlds. She has chosen a side, and she isn't interested in changing.
Ashitaka, on the other hand, can't choose a side. He is drawn to San's spirit, to her beauty both inside and out, and to that wildness. He is impressed by the life Eboshi is creating for her people. He knows how his own clan is dying and sees how hard Eboshi fights for her way of life. She's always under attack from someone; if not the Forest gods, then samurai. Ashitaka isn't even on his own side completely. The demon stain on his right hand and arm has grown tremendously, and it seems to have an unholy will. Whenever he uses it in anger, it is unstoppable, horribly accurate, beheading opponents and severing arms. He also has no control over when the arm begins to lash out.
When Miyazaki brings all these story threads together into an astonishing sustained finale, it is really awesome to behold. I cared about the fates of these characters more than I have about most of the human casts these years. Stuff like THE MUMMY, LAKE PLACID, and DEEP BLUE SEA can be campy fun if you're in the right mood, but there's no real connection you ever feel to anyone or anything. It doesn't matter in the end. Miyazaki has created a film where it matters; there is no one person you're rooting for. Instead, you are left to watch as things spin out of control. Innocents are hurt. We do not get everything we want. And in some ways, things are left unresolved. There is an ongoing struggle between man and nature that is the order of things. There is a balance that can be reached that isn't the same thing as victory or peace. It is a fight worth waging, Miyazaki seems to say, but worth waging right.
I was deeply moved by the film, and expect that it can be sold to an arthouse crowd. It just can't be marketed to children in any way. This is a film that should play to the same people who seek out pictures like STILL LIFE or THE CITY OF LOST CHILDREN or even AKIRA, which did quite well playing the Nuart/Angelika circuit. This is a film that deserves to be seen by anyone who takes cinema seriously as an art. Miyazaki is not Japan's Disney, no matter how hard American journalists try to position him that way. He is fiercely original, and he is using animation to weave powerful new myths that should be allowed to resonate for audiences in every country.
I have to go now, speaking of animation, and work with Harry on our report about one of our greatest spy achievements, accomplished during a recent visit by the Big Red One to Los Angeles. Keep your eyes, peeled, kiddies... it's worth the wait. Until then...