Miyazaki populates the movie's world with a variety of engaging characters, raises a number of difficult questions, and refuses to give simple answers to any of them. Such intricacies quickly entice the viewer, but, even if they were not present, he would still be so fascinated by the stunning animation with which the director has brought his vision to life that he would, inevitably, lose himself in the film.
The tale Miyazaki tells in Princess Mononoke is itself captivating, but it is greatly enriched by its subtleties, which is rarely the case in cinema. The director presents the moviegoer with a universe filled with difficult choices which, very often, do not have easy answers. For instance, he makes it clear how actions that are morally praiseworthy when looked at from one perspective may be reprehensible when seen from another. He even manages to remind the viewer that an action's being right or wrong does not necessarily depend upon the supposed moral worth of the person towards whom that act is directed. A hurtful deed is shown to be as potentially reprehensible when committed upon a wicked person as it is when done to one who is virtuous. Such meditations are not, however, included in the film in a heavy-handed or overtly didactic manner but are, instead, subtly and unintrusively incorporated into the structure of the narrative itself. In fact, the presence of such quandaries gives the movie a depth it would not have had without them.
Moreover, as is often the case in Miyazaki's films, the characters of Princess Mononoke are not divided between those who are good and those who are evil. Eboshi, for example, is Mononoke's enemy, and her desire to destroy the ruling spirit of the forest is portrayed as being wrong, but she is not an unsympathetic person. The viewer can see the motivations for her actions, and he can admire her for her protection of the weakest and most victimized members of society. The spirits of the forest, by way of contrast, though they are the most sympathetic of the film, are not kindly and benevolent. They are wild, brutal, and carnivorous. The director deserves considerable credit for not reducing them to anthropomorphic lumps of treacle, and for making the viewer feel for them in spite of their harshness. Miyazaki has created a complex world inhabited not by epitomes of good and evil but by individuals with both virtues and faults.
What is more, the animation of Princess Mononoke is beautiful, as it always is in Miyazaki's films. Characters are rendered with sensitivity, and the world they inhabit is frequently breathtaking. There is not a single a moment in the film that is not intoxicatingly beautiful. The forest in which Mononoke dwells, however, is particularly stunning. The director imbues it with a sense of tremendous age and mystery, which, in turn, arouses in the viewer real feelings of awe, of a humbling, trembling sense of smallness before something of immense and dangerous grandeur.
I should mention at this point that if he wants to appreciate the subtleties of Miyazaki's vision which have been noted above, the viewer is far better off watching the Japanese language version of Princess Mononoke than the English dub. I have no bias against dubbing. If I do not understand a language, there is no reason why I should listen to dialogue in that language while reading subtitles. I do not accept such arguments as the assertion that I should hear what the director intended that I hear, because I will not. If I do not know French, then, if I am read a line from a poem from Baudelaire's Flowers of Evil, it will be to me something like, "Le plucoque de vreux, je vlé tréçaux la suque saunzure. Ouà, Trômelle, dinnols huî sancout. Lixé louêt peti coupûre." Obviously, Baudelaire wrote no such line. If I do not know the language, I hear gibberish. Anyone who, in similar circumstances, claims to hear more than a jumble of nonsensical noises should ask himself what it is that he is hearing. What is more, subtitles are a distraction. They draw the viewer's eyes away from the images of the film, and this cannot but reduce his appreciation of that film. This is not to say that I am an advocate of all dubs, however. More often than not, the dubbed version of a film is far inferior to the non-dubbed version. When this is the case, the viewer is better off reading the subtitles. Of course, subtitles too can be poorly done. All things being equal, a dubbed version of a film is preferable to a subtitled version. The problem is that, as a general rule, dubbed dialogue tends to be inferior to subtitles. This is certainly the case with Princess Mononoke. The English voice actors give consistently irritating and frequently dreadful performances. Mini Driver (Eboshi), in particular, overacts with such gusto I was dumbfounded by her ineptitude. The performances of Claire Danes (Princess Mononoke) and Billy Crudup (Ashitaka) are little better. Billy Bob Thornton's performance as Jigo is actually decent, but his accent is horribly distracting. I cannot emphasize enough how bad the English dub is. It severely compromises the quality of the movie.
There is little to complain about in Princess Mononoke, other than the work of many of the English voice actors, but, sadly, the film does not have the magic, that particular elusive quality, that would make it great. This should not, however, prevent anyone from enjoying the movie. It is certainly worthy of a place in Miyazaki's oeuvre.
Review by Keith Allen
Allen. All rights reserved.