Long revered as Japan's high priest of anime (Japanese word for animation), Hayao Miyazaki, has woven a complex, multi-hued story of the ongoing struggle for peaceful coexistence between the natural world and encroaching industry. Set in ancient Japan with an all-star cast of Hollywood actors providing English language voice-overs, "Princess Mononoke" is a morality tale that draws upon Japanese folklore as well as more universal mythology in which conflicts are not black and white and where the distinction between the good guys and bad guys is not always clear cut.
The story goes like this: The Great God of the Forest, a mythical creature with the body of a deer, a human face and wooden horns that morphs into a giant, glistening blue amphibian at night (imagine Cecil, the Sea Serpent, dressed by Bob Mackie), has decreed that the forest gods may use any means to protect their domain from humans. Meanwhile, in a far-off mountain hamlet populated by a near extinct animist tribe, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) kills a monster boar bearing down on his village only to find out he has slain one of these forest protector-gods run amok after being overtaken by a wormy parasite fueled by the boar's rage. Ashitaka catches the parasite, which entwines itself around his arm and begins to spread like a flesh eating bacteria. When he sets out to get to the bottom of the curse before it consumes him, fate leads him into an ongoing conflict between Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), the leader of the iron forging Tatara clan, and the forest dwellers among whom is Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes), a human raised by wolves.
One would think that choosing sides would be a no-brainer - profiteering industrialists versus innocent animals of the forest. But Lady Eboshi, while strip mining the hillsides for iron ore, has employed the outcasts of society - lepers and prostitutes - and given their lives meaning and purpose. Princess Mononoke's sympathy lies with the she-wolf that raised her and the other forest creatures, all of whom respond to the threat of extinction with increasing rage and viciousness. After countless battles and killing, Ashitaka fulfills his destiny as the catalyst for peaceful discussion between the two sides, thereby lifting the curse that threatens his own existence.
"Princess Mononoke" came in second only to "Titanic" at the Japanese box office, which gives you an idea of how popular anime is in Japan. Mr. Miyazaki has stated that "Princess Mononoke" was intended for anyone above the fifth grade, but with a two hour and fifteen minute running time, I suspect the length of this film will seriously challenge the attention span of the average American sixth-grader. I found myself struggling after the 90-minute mark and I can't help but wonder if the film would have a broader appeal on this side of the Pacific if it were about 30 minutes shorter.
Still, in addition to the lush visuals and lovely score by Joe Hisaishi, there is much to appreciate in "Princess Mononoke", such as the sound advice given to Ashitaka by a fortuneteller when he embarks on his quest: "to see the world with unclouded eyes." The message of "Princess Mononoke" is an important one that, a few years back, was posed simply by a now infamous Los Angelean when he asked, "Can't we all just get along?" - and there's nothing Mickey Mouse about that.
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