Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Fantastical Is Brought To Stunning Life In Princess Mononoke

A few months back, I wrote about how much better animation is when it's engaging in stories and visuals that you couldn't possibly replicate in reality. If you ever wanted perfect proof of this phenomenon, look no further than Princess Mononoke, a feature film hailing from the one and only Hayao Miyazaki, a filmmaker who is all about using animation to create creatures you couldn't possibly find in the real world. In the hands of Miyazaki and the animators at Studio Ghibli, fantasy truly looks fantastical. Does anything in My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo or especially Spirited Away look remotely like anything you'd find in the real-world? Good luck translating those movies to an ultra-realistic live-action remake!

Princess Mononoke is no exception with its tale of forest creatures and humans going to war. Such a tale is populated by all kinds of critters that fascinate your imagination. Gigantic wolves that can speak telepathically, small ethereal beings that prove the healthiness of a forest, a deer God with a human face. Sometimes the creatures in Princess Mononoke are unnerving, other times they're soothing to look at, but they're always outstanding to look at. Though told in a style very much evoking classical fairy tales, Princess Mononoke's fantasy beings are such idiosyncratic achievements in design and animation that the overall movie is able to stand out as a one-of-a-kind fairy tale.

The story this unique production is telling concerns Ashitaka (Yoji Matsuda), a noble warrior who, after fighting a demon in the form of a warthog, finds that his left hand is infected by some kind of dangerous spirit. The presence of this spirit in his body ensures he will die in short order. However, there is potential hope if he travels to a far off land where the demon originated from. Searching for a cure, Ashitaka instead discovers a conflict brewing between human beings belonging to a location known as Tataraba and the animal denizens of the nearby forest. The only human resident of that forest is San (Yuko Tanaka), who has been raised by wolves and is intent on taking down the human enemies that threaten her home and her people.

Is there any hope for peaceful co-existence among these dueling tribes? That's what Ashitaka and San will have to explore across a story that's refreshingly traditional. Princess Mononoke has no time to strain to appear hip or modern, it's all too happy to be seen as a traditional fairy tale story. At the same time, Miyazaki's screenplay merges a lack of post-modernism with more nuanced characters than one might find in your average Brother's Grimm yarn. Lady Eboshi is the best example of this, as her burning desire to have the head of the Deer God makes her a clear antagonist towards the two lead characters of the project, but she's also portrayed as a ruler who genuinely cares for her people and rarely displays behavior we typically associate with animated fantasy movie baddies.

Such foes are typically over-the-top, persistently angry and loud, whereas Eboshi is calm, calculated and empathetic towards those general society has tossed aside, like victims of leprosy or women who have worked in brothels. Similarly, San and Ashitaka's budding dynamic seems to be pointing towards a traditional romantic resolution, but Miyazaki constantly takes the duo's storyline into unexpected directions. There's a sense of dimension to the characters in Princess Mononoke that make the players of this story as immersive as the animated backgrounds they inhabit. Style and substance go hand-in-hand here and it makes for something that's just as compelling on a dramatic level as it is on a visual level.

That having been said, while its character work is superb, Princess Mononoke really is at its very best on a visual level. Princess Mononoke uses stunning visuals to create such convincing and detailed fictitious worlds that echo the craftsmanship used to bring the realms seen in that new Dark Crystal TV show or the best Star Wars adventures. In all of those cases, impressive craftsmanship has been used to make the unbelievable tangible. Though its fantastical creatures are delightfully divorced from reality in design, they still feel real in the way they're animated (for instance, warthog king Okkoto has such subtle but devastatingly vulnerable movements that beautifully convey his weariness) and in the way they're written. Such an achievement is one of the most impressive things you can accomplish with animated filmmaking and its something Princess Mononoke pulls off with flying colors.

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