ZedneWeb / Thoughts / Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke

Sunday, 7 November 1999

Yesterday, my father, my friend and colleage Mark Engelbert, and I went into New York City in order to see Princess Mononoke. Just getting there was an adventure, as a subway system failure, a TV reporter interviewing taxi drivers, and traffic in general seemed to conspire against us. We ended up arriving late for the 2:30 showing--but it had sold out already, so we didn't feel too bad. After consulting our options, we chose to see the next showing, which was at 6:00. We ended up spending nine hours of our time and a good chunk of money to see this movie. It was worth it.

Princess Mononoke is the latest animated film from master director Hayao Miyazaki, who is greatly respected by animators world-wide. Unlike American animation, Japanese animation (called anime by its English-speaking fans) often goes far beyond Disney's brand of fantasy musicals. Princess Mononoke, in particular, is not for children. Even if the violence didn't scare them, there is much in the movie that would go right over their heads.

This isn't really a review, so I won't be describing the story. If you're curious, try one from Salon or Roger Ebert or one of the others I listed on 29-Oct-1999.

In Japan, Mononoke Hime was the highest-grossing film of all time until Titanic surpassed it. I don't expect it to do as well in the U.S.--it's currently only available in a few cities--but I hope it manages to find an audience. It really is a wonderful movie, with likeable characters, a light humorous touch, and an unflinching look at humanity's relationship with nature that never resorts to saccharine preaching. There are no simple solutions to complex problems--there might not even be a solution. The sides do not break down into easy good/evil classifications. Nature can be beautiful and awe-inspiring, but it can also be terrifying and violent. You might disagree with Lady Eboshi's desire to kill the Forest Spirit, but you can understand why she feels she needs to.

Thankfully, Miyazaki is too good to depend on tired clichés. There were no speed lines or cute animal mascots. There were no battles involving two men running at each other with swords, screaming "Yaaah!" No scenes where a character says another character's name for no apparent reason. The hero, Ashitaka, would much rather prevent violence than be part of it.

Miramax has not released a subtitled version, so we saw an English-dubbed version instead. The "sub vs. dub" argument is one of the big fault lines among anime fans. I tend to prefer subtitles for two reasons.

  1. Subtitled versions tend to be more accurately translated, while English dubs will often make changes to accomidate lip movements or because the dubbing staff has their own interpretation of a scene or character.
  2. The voice acting in English dubs is often, well, bad. I've heard dobs where you could almost see the actors reading their lines from the script.

I don't know how accurate the translation is--all I can say is it felt accurate--but I have nothing but praise for the English voice actors. They really did a fine job: no awkward pauses; no dry, unemotional reading; no stupid "cartoon" voices. If I manage to get a dual-language DVD release, I may end up watching the English version more often. (After all, reading dialog will never be as seamless as listening to it, no matter how comfortable you are with subtitles. And they obscure parts of the screen as well.) As expected, Neil Gaiman did an excellent job adapting the script for English use.

The audience was an interesting mix, ranging from a gray-haired couple towards the back, to young children with their parents (at least one of whom started crying during the violent first act and had to leave). It was an older audience than you would see at a Disney animated film, or even at an anime convention. There were no obvious anime fans that I could see. (I was wearing a NERV-logo T-shirt, but I was also wearing a jacket, so I probably don't count as "obvious".) The audience liked the film: we applauded at the end, and many of us stayed until the end of the credits.

David Menendez, zednenem@alumni.psu.edu