Princess Mononoko

Written by Matt Zoller Seitz on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.



Nature’s Way
In
this epic Japanese animated film about a war between humans and animal gods
for control of an enchanted forest, nature is not merely a setting. It is a
living being. It breathes and feels. Writer-director Hayao Miyazaki alternates
images of calm and ferocity with a single-mindedness that suggests religious
fervor. If you can give yourself over to the film–which might be hard considering
its epic length and defiantly Japanese themes–it can induce an awed, trancelike
state.



The tale starts in a remote
mountain village in the late 16th century. Young Prince Ashitaka (dubbed in
the American release by Billy Crudup) is one of the last of his tribe–an
ancient woodland race believed by the rest of Japan to be extinct. While riding
his trusty deer out in the woods one day, he is chased by a wounded boar that
turns out to be one of the forest’s protector gods. The beast sprouts thousands
of wriggling pseudopods that suggest gigantic maggots, then chases Ashitaka
back to his village. The prince pleads with the demon for forgiveness and is
ignored. He finally kills the monster with his bow and arrow; in the process,
he suffers mysterious wounds on his right arm that suggest cancerous lesions–wounds
that fester when he feels destructive impulses.


With the blessing of his
tribe, most of whom are elderly, Ashitaka leaves the village and journeys to
the more modern and corrupt world at the base of the mountain, hoping to discover
the source of the curse that turned the boar into a vengeful monster. Along
the way, Ashitaka encounters human and animal groups who are working at cross-purposes.


The Tartara clan is a hardy
band of workers and soldiers headed by the female warrior Lady Eboshi (Minnie
Driver), who is revealed to have been the source of the musket shell that wounded
the boar Ashitaka killed in the film’s opening. Eboshi is more than a boar-killer:
she’s a visionary businesswoman in a world run by men. She founded a lucrative
iron foundry and trading post at the edge of a lake, and staffed it with marginalized
members of society, including young women liberated from brothels.


To secure the land around
the fort, Eboshi and her army drove the boars out of their rightful habitat
and up into the mountains, where they have come into political conflict with
a rival herd of magical beings–giant white wolves led by the god Moro (Gillian
Anderson). Moro has an adopted human daughter, Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes),
who has rejected her own civilization and its selfish, vicious ways. Of course
Ashitaka becomes smitten with her. The first time he sees her, she’s sucking
iron-poisoned blood out of her canine mom’s musket wound; she boldly returns
the prince’s stare without bothering to wipe the scarlet from her face.


Eboshi builds a beneficial
but uneasy alliance with another human leader, a scheming monk named Jigo (Billy
Bob Thornton), who leads a resourceful army of samurai. Together, they hope
to track down and slay the elusive supreme forest god, a deer with a man’s
face, and give the emperor the god’s severed head, which is rumored to
makes its possessor immortal.


Great Tolkien’s ghost!
I’ve only scratched the surface of Princess Mononoke’s dense
and detailed world. Ashitaka is a likable guide and surrogate, but there’s
only so much he can do to untangle Miyazaki’s universe. He’s an outsider
whose understanding of the various political and philosophical alliances barely
exceeds ours. His physical power, though great, is limited as well. The accursed
blotches on his right arm enable him to dismember and decapitate enemies easily.
But in the end, he’s just one mortal; he can no more halt the tragic course
of events than a single felled tree can stop an avalanche. Besides, the director
makes it clear that even if nature survives the coming showdown, the conflict
will leave scars that can’t be healed.


Though Princess Mononoke’s
characters are conceived in archetypal terms, representing particular aspects
of humanity or nature, they’re not cardboard. They’re eccentric, complicated
and amusing (particularly Jigo the monk, a classic scuzzball trickster). And
unlike most cartoon directors, Miyazaki doesn’t try to hook us with clear-cut
good guys and bad guys. Eboshi is portrayed as a strong, clever, inspiring leader,
Jigo as a victim of his own desire for the emperor’s approval. The forest
gods are as stubborn and naive as they are charismatic and noble. The prince
and princess are ingenues–would-be lovers separated by fate and culture–but
they have distinctive edges, and motives that remain hidden from everyone (themselves
included).


There are a dozen other
significant characters, and their actions occur within a puzzle-box layering
of contexts: history, folklore, theology, environmental parable. To make things
tougher on the audience, the most significant events occur beneath the narrative.
They’re allusive, emotional, philosophical. There isn’t a dull or
unoriginal composition; certain images manage to be beautiful in their own right
even as they express the film’s ideas. The maggot-infested boar-demon slithers
through the grass with a cobra’s zigzag velocity, yet his squat, rounded
shape evokes a spider; he is nature, vengeance and death rolled into one. A
mortally wounded boar that’s too proud to die staggers uphill through a
mountain forest, gushing geysers of dark red blood–the personification
of nature crucified by man. In long shots, the forest has the hazy stillness
of a Japanese watercolor; when a tiny human or group of humans appears far off
in the distance, the faint movement in a placid frame disrupts and threatens
nature’s perfection even as it reminds us of humankind’s smallness.


Except for Terrence Malick’s
The Thin Red Line, a film of similarly grand ambitions and challenging
methods (and, to a lesser extent, Michael Mann’s The Last of The Mohicans,
which Miyazaki quotes), there is no comparably rich vision of humankind’s
war on nature in recent American cinema–not in live action, not even in
ecologically conscious Disney cartoons like The Lion King and Tarzan.
The latter are visually inventive and often powerful, and they respect the cycles
of life and death. But in the end, they’re stories of individuals–and
both the characters and setting are isolated from civilization’s destructive
forward march. Princess Mononoke is different. In Miyazaki’s film,
as in The Thin Red Line, humans and animals clash and the natural world
pays a price; when trees are toppled, it’s a provocation, an abomination,
like a closeup of a throat being slit. But both films never let us forget that
nature, even in retreat, is unimpressed by our self-importance. It knows that
if it dies, we die. Nature is a rock humanity dashes itself against.


Miyazaki has visited these
themes before–in Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, Porco Rosso
and Kiki’s Delivery Service. The studio he helped found, Studio
Ghibli, makes animated fantasies for adults that deal with big subjects–war,
industrialization, evolution, the pain of memory, the fear of what the future
will bring. Mononoke fits in that tradition, but it has more scope, and
it’s the most uncompromising, mysterious film Miyazaki has made–an
intimate epic that borrows from Yasujiro Ozu’s meditative stillness one
moment and Kurosawa’s muscular dynamism the next.


Will American audiences
warm to it? Beyond the art-film and anime crowds, I doubt it. I haven’t
seen the subtitled version, but I’m told that this dubbed edition, with
mythic-cryptic dialogue by comic writer Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), makes
the film colloquial without misrepresenting its Japanese texture. No matter:
plenty of viewers who were attracted by Miramax’s promotional campaign
and critics’ recommendations will find the film impenetrable. And at two-hours
plus, it is probably too long. (I was so enthralled that I didn’t mind
the running time; others will.)


Another complaint that will
be levied against Miyazaki is that his characters are too archetypal and lack
depth. Such a charge would betray ignorance of what the film is and how it works.
Miyazaki’s tale is an allegory wherein ideas and images take precedence.
Judging it by the standards of American cartoon features would be embarrassingly
wrongheaded–as wrongheaded as applying the standards of typical live-action
Hollywood features to cosmic personal statements like The Thin Red Line,
2001: A Space Odyssey or Being John Malkovich. It’s true
that many recent American animated features are less sprawling and imperfect
than Princess Mononoke. But remember, great recent Disney films–and
competitors’ efforts like The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant–operate
at a more modest level of ambition; they hew to formats American audiences (and
American animators) are comfortable with. I can’t think of any recent American
cartoon feature against which Princess Mononoke can be judged and found
lacking, because there’s nothing else like it.


Which isn’t to say
its concerns should be dismissed as philosophical or foreign. Though set 500
years ago and half a world away, its relevance can’t be denied: All around
us, nature is dying. While conceding that damage done can never be undone, Miyazaki
ends the film on a hopeful image–but it, too, is tinged with sadness. The
filmmaker isn’t saying, "It’s not too late." He’s saying,
"Let’s hope it’s not too late." The difference between those
sentences is the difference between agitprop and fairy tale–between cautionary
fable and art.


 



Last Night
directed
by Don McKellar

The
first feature directed by Canadian actor-writer Don McKellar is also built around
the Apocalypse. McKellar is familiar to arthouse regulars from his appearances
in numerous films by Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg and others; he’s a smallish,
slender, dark-eyed actor whose woodwind intonations and nervous mannerisms suggest
John Malkovich with a dash of Woody Allen. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter
who wrote the two best musical dramas of the 90s, 32 Short Films About Glenn
Gould and The Red Violin, both directed by François Girard.



Set during the last evening
before the world ends, Last Night is not as emotionally intense and intricately
structured as his work with Gerard. But it’s smart and funny, and although
its early scenes herald a deadpan-wacky intellectual comedy that isn’t
going to work, McKellar takes the story in unexpected directions. He’s
not a great director, but he understands pacing and performance, and he’s
confident enough to guide us through a variety of moods, seemingly incompatible,
which mesh with unexpected ease.


The cast of characters is
led by Patrick (McKellar), a sarcastic and lonely young man whose wife, a kindergarten
teacher, died a few months earlier. Confounding received wisdom on how to start
a commercial comedy, McKellar starts with Patrick visiting his parents, who
are celebrating Christmas, complete with turkey dinner and gift exchange. Patrick’s
hypersensitivity and impatience, coupled with the unflappable whitebread reactions
of his middle-class parents and sister (Sarah Polley), prepare us for a prickly
relationship comedy. But we soon learn that this is not Christmas. It’s
the last night on Earth; Patrick’s parents have decided to pretend it’s
Christmas because that’s their favorite day of the year.


The first scene introduces
a recurring theme: faced with extinction, large portions of humanity might react
by embracing familiarity and fantasy instead of destruction. The young yuppie
wife Sandra (Sandra Oh, in a rich and touching performance) is a female Odysseus
whose car was destroyed during a routine trip to a grocery story and who’s
systematically working her way home; she and her husband will await the end
together, then kill each other at a minute to midnight in order to assert control
over their destinies. Duncan (Cronenberg, in a wry turn as an actor) is a gas
company bureaucrat who takes comfort in calling each one of the company’s
customers and reassuring them that they’ll have gas service right up until
the end. Patrick’s best friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) has covered
the walls of his bathroom with a magic-markered list of sexual fantasies so
dense it resembles a hieroglyphic narrative; he’s been spending the last
few days welcoming various women (and some men) into his bedroom, then crossing
off the dreams they fulfilled. (The list includes "foursome" and "getting
a blowjob from a pregnant woman.") Patrick insists he wants to be alone
when the end comes, because in all the ways that matter, his life is already
over.


I was charmed by most of
this movie even though I found it difficult to relate to. Fear of death is the
ultimate boundary-crossing theme, but McKellar’s world is build around
jokey Canadian assumptions of how people would behave in these circumstances.
McKellar has said Last Night is at least partly a satire on the Canadian
reputation for niceness at all costs. That went over smashingly in Canada, where
the movie won three Genie awards this year (that nation’s equivalent of
the Oscars), but to Americans, it’s probably the least interesting aspect
of the story.


I kept thinking that on
the eve of destruction, people wouldn’t be as reserved–even comfortably
numb–as they are here. There’s some looting and violence and impulsive
coupling, but not as much as you’d expect. Of course, in the film’s
scenario, the human race has known the end is near for a good six months, so
they might be tired of lashing out.


But the grace notes are
striking. Patrick’s elderly female relatives watch home movies of their
now-adult offspring and observe that little kids haven’t lived enough to
understand the meaning of death; as one of the women finishes speaking, the
tv shows a closeup of a girl’s smiling face, at which point the footage
runs out and the screen goes black. Duncan’s phone messages to gas company
customers thread McKellar’s patchwork canvas together like an Altman device–the
roving sound truck in Nashville, the pesticide-spraying helicopters in
Short Cuts. A briefly glimpsed tv news report informs us that 600 music
fans are celebrating the end by taking part in "the world’s largest
guitar jam," and the clip shows an immense crowd all strumming the chorus
of "Takin’ Care of Business"–which, come to think of it,
could be an alternate title for Last Night.



Framed
Spoiler
warning #1: The horrific final act of Boys Don’t Cry is seared into
my brain; I can’t remember the last time onscreen violence in a mainstream
movie upset me so much. (Don’t read this item if you haven’t seen
it or aren’t familiar with Brandon Teena.) It’s not so much the savagery
as the banal evasiveness that enfolds it: The eldest brother furtively asking
his mother where Brandon is, not bothering to hide the yellow cleaning gloves
on his hands or the screwdriver in his left palm; the mother pretending not
to see the yellow gloves and screwdriver.



The detailed account of
Brandon’s rape is excruciating but necessary; it illustrates the idea of
rape as a means of punishment and control more clearly than any major American
release since The Accused. And the climactic double shooting is just
as profoundly affecting. Writer-director Kimberly Peirce subtly links the murder
of Brandon and the shooting of his female friend, a young single mother whose
toddler staggers away from her fallen body, shrieking inconsolably. One murder
became two because there just happened to be another easy target in the room.
The message is clear: violence against gays, lesbians and transgendered people
is not a special kind of violence that deserves special understanding. It’s
a crime against everyone–and if not eradicated, it will spill over into
so-called "normal" society.



Spoiler warning #2: The
first rule of this Fight Club item is: Don’t read it if you haven’t
seen Fight Club. The second rule: Ditto.



Last week, a friend asked
me about a previous Fight Club item, in which I mentioned a scene between
the Narrator (Edward Norton) and Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a bus; I noted
the irony of the Narrator making a skeptical remark about a hunky male underwear
model on the poster when his best friend, Tyler, looks like one himself. The
Narrator’s remark gains resonance when it is revealed that Tyler is not
real.


That bus scene feeds into
one of my pet theories about Fight Club, which is that the Narrator is
gay and doesn’t know it. In one of the brutal duke-out sequences, he declares,
a la Raging Bull, that one of his opponents is so pretty that he must
be destroyed (in lieu of being fucked, since that would be gay). The Narrator
is fascinated with the male body and images of macho beauty; Tyler is his idealized
self-image, a fusion of straight and gay sexual iconography. When the Narrator
finally does go to bed with his girlfriend, he must psychologically project
himself not just out of his body, but out of the room. In other words, the Narrator
knows he’s supposed to sleep with women, but he finds the act so repellent
that he must invent a persona to do the deed on his behalf.


I repeat: There is much
more going on in this film than its detractors claim.


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