Japan’s all-time box office champ, “Princess Mononoke,” is a rich cartoon fable of bygone gods locking horns with man and with industry, which threatens to unbalance the forces of nature. Though set in the 14th century, its ecological bias and feminist slant provide a modern resonance. But the picture — steeped in Asian folklore — will require shrewd translation to connect with Western audiences. A few deft brush strokes could result in strong theatrical returns and extremely buoyant cassette sales. The ani could reap a bounty from all revenue streams as it ushers in a Japanese animation franchise.
(Disney recently concluded a multipicture acquisition of films by “Mononoke” director Hayao Miyazaki that will include theatrical and video releases in the U.S. and other territories. “Mononoke” will open via Miramax in the summer.)
Flying in the face of popular Western animation, “Princess Mononoke” is not a musical, nor is it primarily directed at preteens, even if that group can readily embrace it. The film represents a bold experiment for Miyazaki, whose earlier work, including “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” “The Red Pig” and “My Neighbor Totoro,” had more gentle, youthful themes. The new film, which has grossed more than $150 million in Japan, is not only more sharply drawn, it has an extremely complex and adult script.
The tale begins in Japan’s distant and sparsely populated north. In the opening section, young Prince Ashitaka is valiantly fighting off a demon god — a giant boar seemingly possessed by wormlike creatures. After the prince slays the beast, the village oracle begs its forgiveness, but it has already left its curse on the prince and infected him with a fatal disease. He’s told by the seer that he must venture to the west to have the malediction lifted.
The journey evolves into a mystical and violent pilgrim’s progress. He encounters bloodthirsty samurai, a corrupt priest and cuddly, docile forest gnomes. Eventually, the prince arrives at the great forest and is befriended by Lady Eboshi, who operates a giant ironworks on its periphery.
Ashitaka finds himself thrust into the middle of several conflicts. Eboshi’s clan is in danger of attack by rivals. The great struggle however, is between the factory and the forest families of boars, wolves and the like who are being killed off to make way for industrial expansion. For centuries, the woodland denizens have controlled their turf, but this woman has a powerful secret that’s turned the tables — gunpowder.
Allegiances are further clouded by the arrival of the title character, also known as San. She not only runs with the wolves, she considers herself one of them. San does not know what to make of the young stranger. And though each side considers him friend or foe at various stages, Ashitaka ultimately wants to reconcile the two and find the deer god who can cure his affliction.
In keeping with the best of Disney’s toon features, “Mononoke” develops full characters, obscuring the lines separating it from live-action fare. Eboshi is not some cardboard villain; rather, she is a force of the future, employing society’s misfits, such as lepers and ex-prostitutes, and giving them the chance to find dignity in work. She’s also headstrong and incapable of backing down once she’s thrust into battle.
Pic shares an eco theme with Miyazaki’s earlier “Pom Poko,” but it is much richer, drawing upon the nation’s history and adapting folkloric legends for a highly original tale. “Princess Mononoke” has the soul of a romantic epic, and its lush tones, elegant score by Joe Hisaishi and full-blooded characterizations give it the sweep of cinema’s most grand canvases.