Princess Mononoke’s recent release on Blu-Ray provided me an opportunity to truly appreciate the gorgeous animation of Miyazaki’s seventh feature-length film. My previous viewings of the film had been low-quality (pirated) versions – in fact, I can distinctly recall watching the film at a friend’s place on a burnt DVD when, halfway through, the disc literally exploded out of the computer, sending jagged shards across the living room.
While I wouldn’t argue that Mononoke is Miyazaki’s best film, it is perhaps his most beautiful: fluid, colourful movement against sumptuous matte backgrounds, finding beauty without hewing too closely to realism. The Blu-Ray also provided my first opportunity to listen to the English dub which, despite a stacked cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, Keith David, amongst others) feels too casual for the traditional formality of the Japanese dialogue (perhaps Neil Gaiman, who reportedly had a role adapting the script, is to blame).
If we were judging Mononoke on animation alone, it would be a five star film. The film itself, while impressive in many respects, lacks something compared to Miyazaki masterpieces such as My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. Like most of the legendary director’s films, its impelled by heavy themes, thoughtfully considered: here contemplating the progress of environmental devastation amidst communities torn apart by warfare.
The epic sweep of the film – gods and demons, wolves and boars, cannonfire and arrows – is conveyed with commendable complexity. There aren’t bad guys or good guys, but individuals driven to violence and destruction by conflicting ideologies. That complexity can tend towards opacity, however; I’ve seen the film three times now, and I admit to being fuzzy on the particulars of the narrative without a visit to Wikipedia. That isn’t necessarily a flaw, but the scope can muddle the emotional clarity of the film, particularly when our hero – the cursed young warrior Ashitaka (Billy Crudup/Yôji Matsuda) is imbued with so much nobility and honour that he becomes, well, boring.
Fortunately, the film itself is rarely boring, thanks largely to its spectacular imagery. While I might quibble with the density of the narrative, hijacked by rules perplexing in their complexity and Miyazaki’s preoccupation with emphasising environmental themes, I can’t deny that this is a peerless cornerstone in animation. And all my quibbles about the impenetrability of the story can be forgiven in the film’s final minutes, when narrative threads converge into something that is both spectacular and effectively emotional.