RetroReviews #35: Princess Mononoke (1997)





I watched Princess Mononoke months before writing this review, although if I had watched the movie just five minutes ago, it wouldn’t help me try to summarize the plot. I’m not really into anime films (which I’m sure is blasphemy to all your hardcore anime fans out there), and one of the reasons why is don’t really make a lot of sense to an American audience. For Princess Mononoke, this is both a blessing and a curse. It was the the first of three I filmed that were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. (who is sort of the Walt Disney of Japanese animated films). It wasn’t the best of the three, but it was certainly the weirdest. That’s really saying something, since the other two made no sense, either. Even watching the English dubbed version with a very big name American cast (Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, and Jade Pickett Smith are among those lending their voices to the American release), it still didn’t change the very Japanese tone of the entire film. It’s part of the film’s charm, and its also part of the reason why the film is largely inaccessible to westerners.

The basic plot has something to do with a warthog becoming infested with a demon-god thing, to the point where they have to slay the creature and remove its head, but then it gets mad and grows into a giant rampaging monster until they are able to summon the spirit of the forest, find the severed head, and return to the creature so that all returns to normal (this is the climax of the movie, to saying nothing of the two hours that lead up to those events). Make sense yet? Like many Japanese films, I was thoroughly entertained and it kept my attention, but the story seemed to be like one of those crazy dreams you have, where random nonsensical things are strung together into some crazy story that makes no sense when you wake up. I have to wonder what Japanese audiences think of the storylines from our movies, because it seems only films like Being John Malkovich would fit their narrative style.

It’s a fun movie, although its probably way too violent for what we consider to be a “children’s film” in the United States, and its strange how Disney bought the rights to Miyazaki’s movies and tried to Americanize them for their U.S. release. I don’t think the English translation really works. For example, the title, “Princess Mononoke” would make us think that this is name of the princess, but the Japanese word “mononoke” is actually a term for a type of spirit or monster, so more accurately, the film would be “the spirit princess” in English. An alternate translation they considered for this movie was “The Legend of Ashitaka”, which still doesn’t make sense, but probably conveys what you’re in for, more than “Princess Mononoke” does.

The film is a worthwhile experience, but its a real life example of “Lost in Translation”. To truly understand the allegory, themes, and ideas presented in the film, you have to be deeply familiar with Japanese culture and mythology. No amount of creative editing or translating will change that fact.

*** out of ****


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