Life and Death and Animation, or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Enjoy the Fight Over the Environment

Princess Mononoke (or as you see here, Mononoke Hime) is not your typical cartoon. The themes are serious and geared for adults, though the context of the action is deceptively youthful. That's the thing today - if you can cross demographic boundaries, so much the better for the bottom line.

But Mononoke is a strange beast. We have a classic hand-me-down sort of hero's tale - Prince Ashitaka acquires a curse in a battle with an ancient wild boar. He is forced to leave his village on a quest for the cure. The curse lies in his arm, where he was unfortunate enough to have touched the boar. Ashitaka has acquired great strength, but the arms also has a mind of its own.

On his quest, Ashitaka continually finds himself between two communities - humans, and the denizens of the forest. His cursed arm wants to kill those who threaten the forest, but his higher, Rodney King, ideals resist the arm and he implores all to "just get along".

We find greed and vanity among the humans, and intolerance all around. But despite the common desire to paint the participants with broad strokes, there is some actual complexity to the motivations of some of the these folk.

I'll pass on detailing the extensive cast - addressing the characters in full isn't really necessary, and would diminish some of the wonder in the unfolding story - plus, I suppose it would be a lot of work. But I would be remiss not to mention San - who is our namesake Princess Mononoke. She has been raised by wolves, and considers herself one of them. If anything, this places her more in the middle of things than Ashitaka is, though she sides with the forest. She's a principal character, though not exactly a central one. The movie can successfully name itself after her mainly because she is the personification of the themes presented, not because it's really about her.

And yes, the theme is pretty blatantly environmental. There are spirits and gods in all their touchy-feely senses, but it works because of the mood set by the characters. They expect gods and spirits to be around them, though they are not seen as either common nor omnipotent. And even better, this leaves us with a genuine threat, rather than some symbolic life and death cycle that sustains itself despite human intervention. The film is not afraid to cash in either. The ending sequence is both gutsy and awe-inspiring. You can draw your own conclusions about how the resolution leaves things.

The animation is beautiful, if sometimes brutal and gory. This is not a film for youngsters. The gore is somewhat cartoonish, but deals mostly with body parts being chopped off - considering that will be your best guide for appropriateness.

Wonderful little touches are founded throughout the film. After San cuts a sapling, several curious tree spirits (they look like primitive yet playful stone carvings) gather to look at it. In the journey form of storytelling, there is a lot that is new to our Hero's eyes, and the experience is exquisitely expressed on screen.

The narrative does tend to sprawl. It could have been tightened up, or loosened to address all the elements that are brought up. What we see feels like a compromise, though not a bad one.

The ending is poetic, and befits an oral tradition much more than Hollywood moviemaking. Watching Princess Mononoke is definitely a refreshing experience after all the tired dross that is usually passed off as art.

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