Suspension of Disbelief: Princess Mononoke
Suspension of Disbelief is a weekly feature, in which we review movies, books, TV shows, and other popular culture for the skeptical teen.
Although by no means a new movie, Princess Mononoke is one of the most beautiful Studio Ghibli films ever made. Despite initial release in 1997, the film continues to grow in popularity, and is now ranked amongst the best anime movies of all time. So if you’re a fan of anime- and perhaps even if you’re not- read on, and find out if Mononoke is worthy of your attention.
And it all starts with an evil demon pig. In the process of defending his village from said rampaging boar, Prince Ashitaka is stricken with a deadly curse. To save himself, he has to cut all ties to the village and head to the forests in the west in search of a cure. However, when he arrives there he gets drawn into an epic battle between the gods of nature and unsentimental industrialist Lady Eboshi. Eboshi and her ironworkers use guns and new technology against the forest and the mysterious Princess Mononoke- a girl raised by a wolf-god. As hard as he tries, Ashitaka cannot make either side back down, and so he can do nothing but stand by as they destroy each other… I ain’t givin’ away no endings here, cos you’ll all yell. But suffice it to say, it’s pretty good.
The animation. Oh man, this is a pretty movie. In fact, you’ll struggle to find a prettier anime- the landscapes are beautiful, as are all of the characters and creatures. They all have their own charm, whether it be facial expressions or a particular way of moving. It’s similar in that way to later Ghibli venture Spirited Away, so if you liked that animation you’ll love this. The film was largely hand-drawn, and the effort of it comes across somehow- although not as sweet and “finished” as Disney-type animations, it doesn’t suffer for it at all. As far as aesthetics go, it’s a true pleasure to watch.
Voice acting! Another plus to this anime is that the voice-acting is really good. It’s not unusual to find animated movies with great voice acting, but it is more unusual to find that a movie such as this – which has been dubbed into English from Japanese- doesn’t lose some charm along the way. Other originally-Japanese toons (Bleach springs to mind) suffer a little from poor timing, scripts and voice acting- but with a cast including Clare Danes, Billy Crudup and Minnie Driver, it was given a good chance. Oh yeah, and the script was adapted by Neil Gaiman. We love him lots here on Teen Skepchick.
Finally- and this is my favourite feature of the storyline- the industrialist character of Eboshi isn’t characterised as evil and heartless… or doesn’t seem it, to me. Although I’m pretty sure the audience are supposed to feel worse for the Tree Spirits than we are for the inhabitants of Iron Town, that doesn’t mean that the forces of good and evil in this movie are completely clear. The situation is given context- Lady Eboshi is cutting down the forest and mining into the ground, and polluting the air smelting iron- but in many other movies this would be enough to make her the token villain. In Princess Mononoke, this isn’t so much the case. Her workers are mostly women, who she rescues from lives of prostitution in towns and cities. They might serve as slave labour to her, but is it really worse than how they were living before? She teaches them a trade and shows them independence- easily interpreted as a kindness. Not to mention, she even finds work for lepers when most would cast them from the community. Now, Eboshi may not be my favourite character in the movie, but I nevertheless appreciate her portrayal as nothing worse than an ambitious human.
Even taking the above paragraph into account, the main negative is that story is a little hackneyed. It all boils down to man vs. nature. We’ve seen it a few times before and since- the most recent examples I can think of being Avatar and The Happening. However, many features of the movie coalesce to ensure that it’s much, much more than a re-hashing of an old idea. It’s beautifully and skilfully handled, with fascinating differences in setting and character which prevents it becoming just another “Dances with Wolves” (ohai, Avatar).
It’s not too hard to tell that I love Princess Mononoke, and I love it lots. It’s fairly hard not to- even if the subject matter isn’t striking in itself, the handling of it is. Many people assume they’ll dislike it because they “don’t like anime”, but that’s a bit of a hasty generalisation. Although the movie has many of the fantastical features synonymous with traditional anime movies, it also has a lot to make it stand out as a film in its own right. I would recommend giving Mononoke a try; it’s well worth 134 minutes of your life.
It’s getting 4 outta 5 cute kodama (movie is worth it just for these cuties, by the way).