The setting is historical Japan in the Muromachi era (1392-1573), during the time when firearms were first beginning to appear in the country. A raging monster enters the up-to-then peaceful village of Ashitaka, a young warrior. It plows with towering hatred straight towards the village, aiming to destroy it and kill every human it can find; so strong is the hate in the creature that the very grass it runs across wilts away to brown mush. When Ashitaka defeats the demon, it finally speaks to the gathered humans with its dieing breath. It tells them that it was a great boar protector-god of a faraway forest who was overcome with anger at the destruction humans had caused in his forest. The boar curses Ashitaka in the form of a consuming disease in his arm. As its already-dead body crumbles away it utters a scathing curse on humanity.
Such is the intensity present throughout much of Mr. Hayao Miyazaki's latest full-length film, released in the U.S. as Princess Mononoke. There are really two parts to a proper review of the American release of this movie -- a review of the movie itself, and a review of the cultural adaptation and dubbing -- so I'll handle those separately.
A small note before I begin, I was privileged to see this movie because Austin has a small but thriving film community that brings film festivals to town occasionally. It was shown in a (mostly =) normal movie theater (The Paramount), and it was attended by Neil Gaiman (more on Neil Gaiman's relation to the movie in a moment). The movie won't be coming out for the public until early November, and there is more information on that below.
The Movie: Mononoke Hime
As many anime fans are aware, Mr. Miyazaki, and associated Studio Ghibli, are famous for creating films that contain excellent artistic talent, entertaining stories, and are just plain neat movies. You may know that team for such titles as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Laputa (Castle in the Sky in the American release). All of those good qualities are present in this movie, but at about twice the normal strength for a Ghibli film. The artwork and animation of Mononoke Hime is breathtaking, the scenery is fabulous, the musical score is worthy of comparison with the contemporary greats, and the issue is close at hand: man and his continuing detrimental effect on nature. Only, in Mononoke Hime, the battle is a bit more tangible.
The story begins when a forest-protecting boar god intrudes on a peaceful village and imposes a curse on the young warrior Ashitaka. His fate is to leave the village and discover what has unquieted the boar god so and cure his curse if possible. His journey takes him across streams, through enchanted forests, and finally to "Iron Town" (as it is called in the American release). Here he witnesses the reason for the anger of the forest gods: a city setup across a lake from a forest whose residents aim to mine the iron from the hills in whatever way possible so that they might make ends meet. The story is even more complicated when Princess Mononoke herself appears, a human child raised by the forest wolves who is also out to eliminate the Iron Town.
This story is noticeably darker and more serious than most from Mr. Miyazaki. On the other hand, it is not without its light-hearted moments, and it comes across as very well balanced in that regard. If you took the kids to see My Neighbor Totoro and that's all you've seen of Mr. Miyazaki's works, you might want to consider seeing this one first without the kids. It was definitely written for an adult audience. It is also probably one of Miyazaki's longest single pieces: it weighs in at about 15 minutes past two hours.
The Dub: Princess Mononoke
Ok, when Neil Gaiman first came out before the movie and stated that he had done a "cultural adaptation", I groaned. I'm sure I heard a number of other anime fans groan too, because we are all quite familiar with said adaptations. They usually involve a butchering of the dialogue until it's not recognizable, replacing the good music with bad, and just generally tearing the show up to make it sell with American marketing.
If that's what you're expecting, you'll definitely be disappointed. It took a little bit of getting used to the English voice actors/actresses, but overall they are very good. Having seen the Japanese version a few times, I can say that the translation and "adaptation" is also very good. Mr. Gaiman said that his goal was to make an adaptation that made you feel like you were watching a movie produced in English, not a foreign film that's been dubbed; he succeeded quite nicely in that goal. The lipsyncing is very good, and the only real changes were a few extra bits and phrases thrown in near the beginning to try to insert a bit more historical background for a non-Japanese audience. Way to go, Neil! You just produced the first dub that I, a die-hard subtitled-anime fan, actually enjoyed and would recommend!
This goal was also helped by the all-star cast. While the voice acting talent of some of these folks hasn't been tested, their voices are well known, and they did a pretty good job. Billy-Bob Thornton as the monk is a really nice touch, and Lady Eboshi's British-accent-wielding voice actress gives her a very aristocratic touch (not that Brits are inherently aristocratic, but she does come across as very refined and regal among the more normal voices of Iron Town).
There was a nifty Q&A session after the showing with Neil Gaiman, and I think it's a bit out of scope to post all of that with this review, but I'll give two little tidbits that stand out in my mind.
The first one is the story of Mr. Gaiman meeting Mr. Miyazaki. There's an Asian restaurant Neil Gaiman frequents, and the daughter of the owner is a really big Miyazaki fan. So of course she asked Neil to get something autographed. He said he would do it, but that he's really a very shy person, and the idea of meeting this man who many consider to be a minor deity of animated film making was just a bit shaking. To make a long story short, he did indeed meet him for a few moments at a dinner, and he came away with a signed CD, a signed art book with a little Totoro sketch, and a hug from Mr. Miyazaki. Deal!
The other one is talking about how he got involved in the production. There is more info about that on the web site for the movie, but here's the part they didn't include. Mr. Gaiman said he didn't want to be involved in this. He went to see a subtitled version at Miramax, though, and came away feeling like he'd seen something phenomenal. The next thought that went through his head was, "What's the next guy they try to hire going to do with this show?" That was what decided him. His statement on the matter was (paraphrased), the next guy who works on this may just look at it as a job, without the respect it deserves and really f*ck it up; but at least I'll f*ck it up with respect! (censored for the innocent, and for the web policing packages ;-)
I can't think of a whole lot that detracts from this movie. There are a few points that may turn you off from it though: its long length; the number of things you still won't understand about Japanese culture from the added dialogue (unless you already know); keeping track of the crazy procession of things that happens towards the end; and of course, despite the quality of the dub, I'm still a die-hard subtitled fan and a sometimes student of the Japanese language, and I like to hear the Japanese ^_^;
What's not good? ;-) The quality of the animation is excellent, the music is good, the plot is neat. You get to feel close to all of the characters, not just "the good guys". In fact, there aren't really any "good guys and bad guys" in this movie like in so many movies. There are several sides to a conflict, and every side has humane and cruel qualities, and every side has a valid argument. Exemplary of this is the fact that Lady Eboshi, while she appears at first to be the "bad guy" of the story, is just trying to make a life too -- and to help make a new life for an entire group of women from a local brothel, and a group of lepers, and so on. She turns out to be their humane savior, even though she encourages the destroying of the forest.Watching this movie leaves you with a ponderous feeling. I don't want to spoil the ending for you, but I will say that they did not cheese the heck out, and that is one of the most endearing qualities of it.
So What's In It For Me?
An easy glance into some aspects of Japanese culture; a look at some of the latest in state of the art animation (not a lot of computer rendering! =); and of course, a good time. If you're an anime fan, seeing it in good ol' analog on the big screen is a real treat! While much of the mythology of the movie was created by Mr. Miyazaki himself, it does have a very Japanese feel to it, and many of the history tidbits are fairly accurate.
The movie will be showing at the "20 major markets" at first. You can find more info on the web page about the movie. The web site, while a bit flashy for my tastes, is actually kinda neat. It has a pure HTML version, but the interface is a Shockwave-esque Myst-like environment that includes lots of information snippets, Quicktime movies of scenes, etc. On the top of the front page is a link to the "20 major markets" and when it will be showing at each. They start in late October (29th in New York City) and go from there.
The success of this small run will be the determining factor if they show it nationally, and in fact if they bring any more things like Mononoke Hime to the U.S. If you like this kind of film, please go see it and vote with your dollars! Tell your friends too! =)
I apologize for the length of this review, but it's such a neat movie and there's so much that could be written about it. If you have doubts, give it a shot, you might like it! If you are a Miyazaki fan already, the dub won't disappoint you!
A final note, if you can read Japanese or have translation software, there is also a Japanese Mononoke Hime site at the Ghibli web site; and if you want to find more about anime in general, try The Anime Web Turnpike.