Princess Mononoke on the Big Screen

I go to the movies for many reasons. Here is one of them. I want to see wondrous sights not available in the real world, in stories where myth and dreams are set free to play. Animation opens that possibility, because it is freed from gravity and the chains of the possible. Realistic films show the physical world; animation shows its essence.                                                                          Roger Ebert      (10-19-1999)

I must confess several things here: 1) This is my very first Miyazaki film. 2) I love Pixar and digital animation, but have never been a huge hand-drawn fan. Even as a kid, I prefered live action to animation (Shazam, The Incredible Hulk, Herbie the Love Bug, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, etc.) 3) I wasn’t sure how much I liked Princess Mononoke when I walked out of the theater. I turned to Sam (half the namesake of this blog) and Liza (his partner and contributor to the blog) and said something along the lines of, “I think I liked it. It was beautiful. It felt very long. It seemed pretty on-the-nose with the message.”

But like Roger Ebert, I go to the movies to see things I can’t in day-to-day life. And sometimes actively growing my tastes can be a purpose-enough to go see a particular film. I go to the movies literally to expand my mind, and get out of myself. I spend a lot of time planning my own comfort, and avoiding hassle in the world. This makes me ornery and exhasperated a lot. In general, happiness consultants advise two things: get out of yourself, and engage in less screen time. When it comes to cell-phones, and tv in the kitchen, and YouTube on my computer I can totally get on board. But in truth, what I think I want is more big-screen time. I am not a causal TV watcher or channel surfer. I  mostly watch films. I love to watch by myself, but I love to watch with others even more.

I would likely have never seen Princess Mononoke on my own. I could have watched it in my own basement, or in my local theater as part of this this Fathom Event. Japanese animation has always felt beyond me. So instead of watching at or near home, I drove two hours (each way) to see it in Brooklyn, because doing that meant I could see it with Sam and Liza.

This movie motivated me to take a shower, drive to and from the City, get to the theater 90 minutes early to save seats, and then drive Sam and Liza back to their apartment after the movie before coming home back to Connecticut. I’m not telling you this to win points, but because for me movies literally change my life. First by creating a connection with other humans (a key to happiness) and second, by teaching me something; by making me think about the world and my context within it; helping me to see the world through someone else’s eyes and making it crystal clear I am not the center of the Universe.

It’s now been three days since my trip to Brooklyn. In that reflective time, I have come to understand this film is not traditional cinema or animation.  Hayao Miyazaki showers us in wonderful sights, painting the essence of the world in this dazzling fairy tale. I have continued to think about this story — this piece of art — and can’t get it out of my head.

At 2 hours 23 minutes, it is objectively long. But it is a sophisticated story and needs time for us to absorb, to understand the journey and the possibilities, both for the characters and also for us out here in the real world. I still think it was on-the-nose, but this is a requirement for us to get the central theme … what begins as a humans vs nature story evolves into a nuanced tale about finding balance, and respect, and mutual understanding.

This epic fairy tale takes us on a journey with Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup,) as he searches for the evil spirits which have driven a boar-God mad, and caused it’s attack on his village. He meets San (the always great Claire Danes) along the way, a girl raised by wolves. She is also known as “Princess Mononoke,” literally the spirit of a beast, and as you may guess she is the protectorate of the forest. Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) leads Irontown, a fortified village in the process of clearing the forest and industrializing the countryside with modern iron weapons and tools.

At first I thought San must be good, Eboshi bad and Ashitaka just couldn’t make up his mind as to which young woman appealed to him more. But as we get to know Eboshi, we find a leader who cares for former sex-workers and lepers with the same compassion as her townsfolk. Good and bad are not so black and white, and nature versus technology live together in tension, while Ashitaka’s true mission becomes how to help the tension achieve understanding and balance. While the film was released in 1997, there’s an important message in there for all of us in the here and now. Conservation vs energy supply. Jobs versus environment. New technology versus legacy business and tradition.

This movie really is a treat. It looks stunningly beautiful, and is full of brilliant character designs as well as lavish wides and backgrounds. It’s a bit of an overused trope to say every frame looks like a painting, but boy-oh-boy it sure does here. I’m told the plates are actual paintings, and I wanted to pause the movie in the theater so I could take the forest scenes into my brain. My favorite character design is the the Nightwalker/Deer-God … a translucent giant that peacefully observes the forest after sunset. Beautiful, mesmerizing, stunning.

Princess Mononoke is proof that execution is everything, and the fact that every character’s perspective is given dignity and equal weight offers further evidence that movies with a message need not talk down to the audience or simplify the story and characters to the lowest common denominator. It is not beauty that makes this film so special. The morally complex story surfaces as the biggest achievement of the film. We are immersed in a world in which people are killing each other before they can see that common interests, and a mutually prosperous future, will be better than armageddon. Maybe Princess Mononoke should be mandatory viewing for Trump and Putin.

Other Thoughts (unnecessary writing on my part and unnecessary reading on your part):

I both love and hate the movie theater. At it’s best, the theatrical experience transports us away from our regular lives, and provides a magical portal to other worlds. At its worst, we are subjected to rude crowds, blinking cell phones, and the biggest offender, a movie theater that doesn’t care about movies.

I showed up an hour and a half early to get my seat at the Regal Court Street Stadium 12 in Brooklyn. The problem began at 7 PM (as the movie was supposed to begin) and the theater started a pre-show featuring a countdown that said our feature presentation would begin in 30 minutes! Clearly this was intended to start at 6:30 so the movie would start at the prescribed 7 PM time.

We sat there in a now-packed theater until the movie started 30 minutes late at 7:30. But there were no subtitles. We had specifically selected this show because it was in Japanese with english subtitles. But we don’t speak Japanese, so we absolutely needed the subtitles! Lots of hooting and hollering from the crowd, and fifteen minutes later, the movie re-started — from the beginning — with the English dubbed version and an employee yelling into the crowd that the subtitles wouldn’t work, so we were getting the dubbed version. This prompted a lot more yelling by the crowd, and took another ten minutes for everyone to settle down.

Liza told me after the movie she has been there twice before and vowed never to return. She had had bad experiences with both the theater and the fellow movie-goers (people on their phones, talking loudly, small children running wild.) In my opinion theaters have a responsibility to their customers to enforce an appropriate viewing environment, and to have technically sound equipment and presentations.

So while I loved the film, The Regal Court Street was among the worst theaters I have ever been to. Stay away. Watch it at home if you must, but this place does not deserve your business.

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