NYFF '99: Miyazaki, God of Anime, Comes to America with "Mononoke"
by Andy Bailey
The sage-like, white-haired man of few words that is the Japanese anime god Hayao Miyazaki creates elegant, almost Zen-like films "to please the hearts of my 10 year-old friends," as he modestly declared during a press conference in support of his latest feature, "Princess Mononoke," an epic-caliber fantasia about 14th-century humans at war with animals and forest gods over diminishing natural resources. Set for release by Miramax in late October after it debuts at the New York Film Festival on September 26, the allegorical Mononoke exerts such a firm hold upon your senses that you almost forget you're watching animation. You might even swear Kurosawa had risen from the grave to try his hand at anime.
Exuding beauty and grace from virtually every cel in its 135-minute duration, "Princess Mononoke" possesses the sweeping scope of a vintage samurai epic while still retaining the wide-eyed, childlike innocence of past Miyazaki classics like "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service," both dubbed in English for the American kid-vid market, making Mononoke equally suited for adults and children despite a few decapitations and some bursts of gore here and there. Rare, however, is the 10-year-old attention span in America today that can palate a two-hour plus cautionary tale steeped in Japanese folklore and classical mythology that's also entirely bereft of fast-food tie-ins and saccharine sing-alongs. "Mulan" this ain't, though "Mononoke" clearly influenced that film with its fierce warrior child protagonist who's so compassionate toward nature.
Unfairly christened the Walt Disney of Japan, the 58-year-old Miyazaki is best known among anime cultists for his startlingly realistic nature scapes -- delicately rendered rolling clouds, undulating fields of grass, gentle sheets of rain, all of which recall the paintings of Rene Magritte minus his surrealist trompes l'oeil. Miyazaki is a master animator and a superior storyteller who "just sat at my desk and drew for three years," in his own humble and sparse words, to create the $30 million, predominantly hand-drawn "Mononoke," which Miramax has vulgarized only slightly for English-language audiences. "Sandman" creator Neil Gaiman was enlisted to overhaul the dialogue, lending it a more Western vernacular; his lines were then read by a handful of major Hollywood stars, including Minnie Driver and Gillian Anderson. In one early scene, a scheming monk with a boil on his face -- immediately recognizable as the voice of Billy Bob Thornton--compares a bowl of soup to "super donkey piss" when it was once merely dismissed as too watery.
Anime purists can breathe a sigh of relief, too, as Miramax's "Mononoke" hasn't been reduced to Disney donkey piss. Miyazaki's circle of life cuts a much wider and more complicated swath than feel-good animated dreck of the Katzenberg era like "The Lion King." This animator is not trying to sell you a cheeseburger or save the rain forest as much as he's ever so subtly seeking to reinforce the fact that deforestation is why cheeseburgers exist in the first place. And the adorable Casper-like forest sprites that occasionally fall from trees during "Mononoke" like delicate cherry blossoms, might well make great cuddly toys for your tots, but it's unlikely we'll see the Kodama alongside Jar-Jar and Tarzan at FAO Schwartz come Christmastime. Granted, a single, hideous English-language power ballad in the vein of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" blares over Mononoke's closing credits, by which time you've been so transported by the film's earthly, positive and compassionate message about respecting nature no matter what that you barely notice the musical atrocity, you've long forgiven Jada Pinkett-Smith's out-of-place Atlanta twang and Claire Danes' monotone shopping mall drawl. You're already out the door and on your way to hugging the first tree you can find.
What's so interesting about Hayao Miyazaki's uncanny ability to elevate his style of animation to the level of film art--and don't even think about calling "Princess Mononoke" a cartoon -- is that he's dismissive of cinema in general and claims not to watch movies much at all. He professes admiration for John Ford, another nature-obsessed master, an influence that shows through in Miyazaki's frequent use of wide open spaces to dwarf his predominantly outsider characters. It's probably safe to assume that the filmmaker hasn't seen "E.T." -- he's drawn his own version, in fact, and it's called "My Neighbor Totoro" and it will melt your heart in the same way Spielberg's 1982 feel-good hit did, and it's animated. One wonders what Miyazaki's production house, Studio Ghibli -- the subject of a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art -- might have contributed to forthcoming should-have-been-animated features like Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, or the doomed-to-Hollywood Harry Potter franchise, had Hayao & Co. ever agreed to work outside Japan. Which you just know he'd never do.
"Mononoke" has emerged as one of Japan's top-grossing films, second only to "Titanic," but you question the good-natured epic's dubious fate in the crowded, spiritually vapid American marketplace, where most viewers would prefer to get scared shitless than experience transcendental grace through Japanese animation. During the press conference Miyazaki finally confessed that he made his films as a means of "controlling violence and hatred" in society. You read about kids slipping into seizures while watching Pokemon cartoons but you know Miyazaki's films would have the opposite effect if American kids would only take the time to watch them. They might actually make them sit still for a change.
[Andy Bailey is a freelance writer living in New York City whose articles have appeared in The Face, Movieline, Time Out New York, among other publications.]