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Empire List #488: Princess Mononoke

This movie was an event among friends. Back in the fall of 2007 I was taking a public speaking course at the University of Sherbrooke and one assignment was writing a persuasive speech. My friend and fellow film buff Derek Godin wrote a speech about why Sherbrooke should have an art house cinema where they would play cult movies. Since there was no way that would happen in real life, Derek decided to open his own art house by booking the rec room in the student lounge every Friday evening where he would play two movies from 7:00pm to 11:00pm. He called it OMASUS (Obscure Movie Appreciation Society of the University of Sherbrooke) and he played movies from his own large collection starting in 2008.

It didn’t always work, there were some snags, such as missing DVD cables, missing keys for the projection room, and a party going on next door. But Derek’s club did allow me to watch a whole bunch of movies that I had not heard of or would have had a very hard time finding on DVD. One that I had heard about, but had never seen, was Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke,” which we watched in the fall of 2009 along with another Miyazaki classic, “NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind.”

Miyazaki is known as the Walt Disney of Japan with a strong love for nature and it shows in “Princess Mononoke.” There are talking animals, a warrior girl, a prince, beautiful forests and landscapes, and it is beautifully hand-drawn unlike today’s animated movies, which adhere to computer animation. Yet there is also a surprising amount of violence when compared to Disney movies. When characters fight, many of them die, sometime brutally. Also there is no clear-cut villain as every character has a reasonable motive for his/her action.

The story begins when Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup in the English version) battles a giant cursed boar in his village. The boar is covered with what appear to be black undulating snakes that cover most of its body, one of the movie’s few uses of computer animation. Ashitaka slays the beast, but is cursed in the process. The village wise woman tells him the curse will eventually spread through his entire body and kill him. His only hope lies in finding the land where the boar cam from, find what cursed it, and possibly find a cure.

Ashitaka’s journey takes him to a town in the mountains called Iron Town, whose villagers are clearing the forest to make charcoal and melt iron sand. Their exploitation of the land has caused a war with the forest creatures that are led by the wolf god Moro (Gillian Anderson), the boar god Okkoto (Keith David), and San (Claire Danes) a human girl who was raised by the wolves. As it turns out, Ashikata’s curse is a result of these battles. When Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) the leader of Iron Town, shot a forest god it became mad and cursed, eventually reaching Ashitaka.

There is a clear environmental message here: as mankind exploits nature, there will be unpredictable consequences. But then again can you really blame Lady Eboshi? All she wants is for her town to be prosperous. It’s not like she is whipping her workers and forcing them to mine the ore; it’s a job for all of them.

For San and the forest gods it is just as simple: the humans are destroying their forests, so they have to fight back. Poor Ashitaka is just an unfortunate player stuck in a much larger game. Indeed there are a few subplots that force the viewer to pay close attention. While the war between Iron Town and the forest gods is going down, other human forces would like to take control of the town by force. There is also a powerful Forest Spirit that Lady Eboshi wishes to kill to end the war. A mercenary called Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) also seeks the Forest Spirit, but to collect its head and give it to the emperor of Japan.

When the Forest Spirit does get its head shot off, the best sequence in the movie begins as the Spirit’s body turns into a gigantic ooze killing everything in its path. This sequence must have taken months to animate and considering the damage it causes, would have been nearly impossible to create for a live-action movie.

We watched the movie in the original Japanese with English subtitles since Derek prefers to watch movies in their original language just like me. That might bother some people, but true movie fans will tell you, dubbing sucks.

This wasn’t an obscure movie per say or even a cult movie, but it definitely should play in art houses. The tone is a lot darker than American animated movies and it doesn’t have a clear-cut happy ending. The plot is dense, the characters each have their own motivations, and the animation is beautiful even when compared to today’s technology.

It makes me miss those Friday evenings with my fellow film fans.

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