Mr. Corman, The Suicide Squad, and Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Hal: Once again, because it bears repeating: this movie is perfect. It truly is a marvel of cinema, it’s sheer staggering ambition making it a standout even in the Ghibli canon, melding an intensity of complexity and disturbing imagery recognisable only from the likes of Akira, with a tenderness, humanity, accessability and sense of magic and wonder. It’s the most intensively environmentalist of the Ghibli canon, a theme that merits its breadth of scope and ferocity.

Like all great epics, the story begins simply, with a young man, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village from a rampaging demon only to discover that the demon was in fact a giant boar whose body and spirit had been corrupted by a fragment of iron, and by killing it, the curse has been transferred to him. Accepting his death as inevitable, he chooses to follow the boar’s path of destruction and see what he can learn about the curse’s origin. Eventually he comes upon the warring factions competing for the fate of the forest, the fierce Moro wolf pack defending the sanctity of the forest and its elusive spirit, the Emperor’s samurai, led by the unscrupulous and manipulative Jigo, and the people of Iron Town and their magnetic leader Eboshi, striving to prosper by exploiting the natural resources of the land.

As he moves between these conflicting groups, Ashitaka wrestles with the raging curse within him, while struggling to find a way for them all to live together in peace. The film’s enduring brilliance lies not only in the stunning visuals, arguably the best 2D animation ever produced, each and every frame having such uncanny weight, atmosphere and tension, but in the depth and humanity of each and every character. Ashitaka sets out “to see with eyes unclouded by hate” and that’s precisely what the movie allows us to do. As much as the characters may frustrate us with their short sightedness and arrogance, we can’t quite bring ourselves to hate any of them. Even by the very end, there’s no clear path of right and wrong, and even the most amoral character has a relatable set of priorities that make sense.

By avoiding straw men, the ecological message is made all the stronger and more practical, and the film vastly more enjoyable. I can’t name a single character I don’t like or find fascinating. When we arrive at Iron Town, a lakeside fortress surrounded by a barren, gutted landscape, sending columns of black smoke into the atmosphere, we expect to meet our villain inside. However, instead we find Lady Eboshi, a charismatic, gentle and nurturing figure revolutionising her society, attempting in her own way to fulfil a utopian vision of independence and prosperity. She’s empowered the women around her, lifted people out of poverty and given a home to the outcasted and diseased and made them the envy of the society that rejected them. We share Ashitaka and San’s anger at what she’s doing to the world in her single-mindedness, but still see the good she’s done with what she’s built. Her short-sighted rampage must be stopped but the community she has built is the most functional, stable and content anywhere in the film.

Moreover, Eboshi herself is charming, charitable and magnanimous, and her pride and passion shine through every moment she’s onscreen. This time I was watching it in the English language dub. I typically prefer subtitles even with anime, however I have to commend the quality of the voice cast in this. Billy Crudup and Claire Danes are excellent as the two leads, Ashitaka and San, Minnie Driver is wonderfully calm and collected as the imperious Lady Eboshi and special mention has to go to the extraordinary work of Keith David as the blind boar god Okkoto who invests such pathos and tragedy into his magisterially booming voice.

There’s so much one could say in praise of Princess Mononoke, not only is it flawless by its own merits, but it is as complete and rewarding as a work of cinema could hope to be, a resplendent fulfilment of the medium’s potential to create artful entertainment and entertaining art. Both incalculably vast and yet richly detailed, it marries the regal gravitas, scope and humanism of a Kurosawa epic, to the violent, unwholesome and earthy passion of an Akira, all distilled down through the distinctive and uniquely accessible instruments of director Hayao Miyazaki’s trademark style. It’s about as perfect as a work of dramatic fiction could ever be.

Those are our recommendations this week! What are yours? Let us know in the comments!

Written by TV Obsessive

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