Princess Mononoke

on October 29, 1999 by Wade Major
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   Miramax's long-awaited English-dubbed release of the smash 1997 Japanese Anime, "Princess Mononoke" is a curious concoction that perplexes as much as it impresses--a peculiar attempt to mainstream a school of animation that has never achieved more than a niche following outside of Japan. While it's unlikely that Miramax's cosmetic alterations on "Mononoke" will be enough to reverse that trend, neither do they detract from the impact of the original version, insuring, at the very least, support from the all-important core of devoted Anime fans.
   The epic fantasy adventure, which shattered boxoffice records throughout Japan during its initial release, is essentially a cautionary fable regarding man's relationship with nature. Set in Japan's mythical, feudal past, the story begins when a young prince named Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) sets out on a journey to uncover the source of the evil that transformed a giant boar into a vicious monster--an evil that has infected him and will soon consume him unless he can find out who or what is responsible.
   His journey eventually leads him to Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), leader of Iron Town, a budding industrial haven designed to produce iron for weapons as fast as it can chew up natural resources. Eboshi is a charming egotist who faces only one obstacle--the so-called Princess Mononoke, otherwise known as San (Claire Danes), a human raised by the wolf gods with whom she lives. As a cataclysmic battle between the animal gods of the forest and their human oppressors grows increasingly inevitable, Ashitaka finds himself forced to make a choice between two determined women that will forever and irreversibly change the face of the land.
   For modern-day Japan, whose once-lush mountains and forests were long ago demolished by the rush to industrialization, "Princess Mononoke" is a story that cuts to the heart and soul of a nation.
   Outside of Japan, its emotional immediacy is less certain. Even more uncertain is how a 132-minute animated feature with no songs, some graphic dismemberment and decapitations and extensive mythological references will be received by mainstream American audiences. Even the film's PG-13 rating may not sufficiently prepare Anime novices for what they will see.
   On the other hand, "Princess Mononoke" is an undeniably elegant and visually sophisticated effort, further benefiting from a more accessible setting than cyberpunk-influenced Anime classics like "Akira." Whether or not the film's considerable attributes will be enough to lure American audiences depends, yet again, on the ever-savvy Miramax marketing machine.    Voices by Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Matthew Lillard, Gillian Anderson and Jada Pinkett. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Written by Hayao Miyazaki (English version by Neil Gaiman). Produced by Toshio Suzuki, Yutaka Narita and Saiichiro Ujiie. A Miramax release. Anime. Rated PG-13 for images of violence and gore. Running time: 132 min.
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