A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 197 – Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke – September 13th, 2010

Last night we decided we really need to be better about putting in our subtitled movies. We’ve got a good number of them and we don’t want to get to the end of the project and have only subtitled movies to watch. I admit, when I started this I didn’t really consider the logistics of running times and subtitles and having to parcel things out over the course of the project. It’s meant putting a lot more thought into choosing a nightly movie than just looking to see what’s next on the pile. So anyhow, tonight we were looking for something on the longer side and subtitled. I picked this, having never seen it before, and I have to say I was very pleased.

Of course, this is yet another overhype victim. There was a point when I don’t think I could turn around without someone telling me how amazing this movie was. And I won’t deny, it is a gorgeous piece of art. But it’s also something I needed to come to on my own, with no prompting or cheering or fawning adoration. I think if I’d watched it at someone else’s bidding I’d have resented it and focused on finding things to critique. And I do have critiques, but I didn’t let them get in the way of my enjoyment of the movie.

About half way through, I decided the movie had some interesting parallels with The Lord of the Rings. Look at the Ironworks of Lady Eboshi and their consumption of the surrounding forests and compare that to Saruman at Isengard. Look at Ashitaka, cursed and forced to leave his idyllic village on a quest to far off lands, bearing a taint that will eventually kill him and compare that to Frodo and the One Ring. The various animal tribes could be put up against the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor and the Elves. This is the sort of stuff anime fans write papers on in college. And this isn’t a bad thing. Certainly, I’m not saying it’s a ripoff or anything. It just has some similar themes and elements. The pro-nature, anti-industrialization, changing of a world, ending of an era stuff. Plus the quest element, which is a widespread trope the world over. But I like that I could see the similarities. After all, I love The Lord of the Rings, so I enjoyed seeing similar subjects handled in such a different way.

One of the key things to this movie is the idea that the wild woods of Japan at the time of the movie were ruled over by animal gods, each god having a tribe. In the movie we see the Deer God, the Wolf God, a Boar God and a Gorilla tribe, though I’m not sure which of them, if any, was their god. I loved that each tribe and god had a personality distinct from the others. They all had their own quirks and I have to wonder if there’s more to them that I don’t get, not being from or knowing enough of Japanese culture. Enough, though, is either shown or explained. The boar are a proud tribe and will fight even knowing that the fight is in vain. The gorillas are shy, coming out at night to replant lost trees, but also darkly dangerous, wanting to eat men to gain their strength. The deer are silent, saying nothing and living hidden in the woods, peaceful and uninvolved. And the wolves are persistent and vicious but canny enough to know when to bide their time. It makes me want to know other tribes and gods of the land.

The whole movie is about the struggle between the wild world and the creatures who live in it and humans and the human desire for progress at all costs. Human destruction of the forests the animal gods live in has turned some of the gods into angry, grieving, vengeful demons. When one attacks Ashitaka’s village, scarring and cursing him before he kills it, he must leave to find the source of the demon and find a way to rid himself of the curse. This brings him to a forest and mountain far from his home where Lady Eboshi has built a foundry, smelting iron from the sand of the mountain and using it to make guns. While she treats her people well, and is beloved by them, her ambition has caused the wild gods of the woods and mountain to rise against her, and Ashitaka wanders smack into the middle of their battle. There are the apes, who appear and make threats, then disappear again. There are the boar, who arrive from another forest in search of the one who slew a related boar god. There is the mysterious deer god in the deep woods, whose blood is said to cure wounds. And there are the wolves. Three of them. A mother and two sons. And with them a young woman whom they have claimed as family.

Of course Ashitaka falls for Sen, the girl. That was kind of inevitable, you know? But it’s not really a love story. Their feelings for each other figure into things, but they don’t provide a miraculous happy ending. I really liked that about this movie. Love doesn’t get to conquer all. It doesn’t fix everything. It takes hard work and determination and even then, when things seem to have been fixed, it’s not like a do-over where everything’s reset to how it used to be. Lives are still lost. Things are still going to be hard. There’s still an Emperor with warriors. There are still guns. There are injuries. And Ashitaka and Sen don’t get to ride off into the sunset on wolfback. I like that too.

Another thing I like is how much grey area the movie has. As I mentioned, Lady Eboshi is well liked. Sure, she’s mining the mountain’s resources and goes haring off to hunt down the deer god and chop its head off, but she’s also taken good care of her people, taught them how to defend themselves against armies. She took in lepers and cared for them, giving them a home and work when no one else would. The women of her settlement are empowered and not at all shy about showing just how strong they are. They do hard work and they train to defend their home and they’re proud of it, as is she. I really don’t think she’s supposed to be seen as a villain. She’s merely part of the tide of humanity washing up the mountain’s sides. If I have one real criticism of the movie it’s that her motivations are left a little vague. At the outset she seems like a reasonable and level headed person who’s well capable of working out what’s in her best interests. But then she leaves her settlement to go off on her hunt, apparently because a hunter in the employ of the Emperor says the Emperor wants the deer god’s head. Sure, that might be in her best interests politically, but it’s not really made clear, and not in a good way. It muddies her character a little, I think. Makes her seem more hotheaded and given to getting carried away with brash ideas than she was made to appear before. And that’s a pity, given how well the movie does with female characters overall. There’s Eboshi, Sen (who kicks a ton of ass), Toki (the de-facto leader of the settlement’s women) and then the wolf god herself: Moro. I wish Eboshi had been given the chance to firmly make her decisions on screen, with strong motivations, even if they were misguided.

All that aside and going back to what I enjoyed about the movie, let’s end by talking about the movie’s artwork. Everything about the story needed to communicate a real world setting but with a hidden fantastic world being revealed. The movie is full of perfect images, from the odd little rattle-headed kodama who show the health of a forest, to the gorgeous night-walker embodiment of the deer god who drifts through the woods and mountains as an ephemeral body of stardust. The demons are terrifying creatures that evoke images of rotting corpses devoured by maggots and worms. The lush greenery of the forests and ponds sets the browns and reds and oranges of the foundry well apart. And the animation complements it all perfectly. It’s a lovely movie, full of things that could have been cliched in lesser hands, but which become beautiful when someone like Miyazaki is in charge.

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September 13, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , ,

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