Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke ★★★★½

Like Kurosawa before him, Miyazaki is a mater of capturing action who deplores violence in all its forms. Certainly by the broader standards of anime, the gore in this is fairly tame, but for a certain kind of '90s kid whose only introduction to anime before this was likely Pokémon and DBZ, the sight of an arrow casually lopping off both of a guy's arms and pinning them to a tree flopping like meat in a butcher's window was like getting shoved through a door. Action here is always fluid, always precisely structured to follow everything from the blunt force of musket fire to the delicate slashes of razor-sharp knives. And when the film incorporates computer-animation to pull off some of the more complex movements of the otherwise hand-drawn film, practical considerations merge with artistic execution, as the CGI-boosted elements tend to be used for the most supernatural aspects (demonic worm-like protrusions undulating over possessed animals, the hyper-fast movement of an arrow fired by the himself-possessed hero) to stress how alien they are from the natural order.

For a long time I was reluctant to revisit this, suspecting its status as The One That Introduced Ghibli to America might mean it was simpler in its environmentalism and pacifism than the subtler shadings found in everything from Nausicä to The Wind Rises. But of course this is every bit as ambivalent and even-handed even in moments of disgust and despair. Every character is given enough sense of being that even a flagrant villain like Lady Eboshi comes across as a hero with only the slightest adjustment of angle (we meet her as the deforesting, god-hunting madwoman but could so easily have first encountered her as the benevolent leader who has made a supportive and strong community that takes in abandoned women and outcast lepers). And even the unambiguous pro-nature slant does not preclude the incorporation of mystical, folkloric efforts that sidestep Manichean good/evil notions to capture a way of the natural world completely beyond human comprehension or moral judgment.

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