And now for something completely different. A week ago was the 20th anniversary of Princess Mononoke, an animated Japanese movie made by Hayao Miyazaki. The movie was shown as a special release in a few local theaters to commemorate the occasion. Miyazaki’s movies are all fascinating but Mononoke holds a special place in my heart because it was the first movie of his that I saw and it introduced me to his amazing work.
It’s a somewhat familiar story: a young prince goes on a quest to fight an ancient evil, meets quirky characters and the titular princess. (Skywalker anyone?) But the story is steeped in Japanese folklore and cultural traditions, which gives the story unexpected turns for an American audience.
Princess Mononoke herself is a wolf-riding bullet-dodging Valkyrie who has as much in common with a Disney princess as a sabretooth tiger does with a housecat. For all that gender roles in Japan are (stereotypically) more set than in the US, this movie gives us very empowered women.
The story also makes the audience reconsider good and evil. As the adventure continues, we see how there aren’t many true villians in the story, just competing agendas. Characters act in their own best interests or for the protection of their people but few characters are truly evil. The moral ambiguity makes the story more engaging and again, is something rarely seen in American pop culture.
I should mention that, as a bit of a warning, the violence in the story is graphic and brutal. Animation in Japan is not just for kids, and this movie pulls no punches, or swords or arrows or fangs. That said, it isn’t gratuitous either. War and battle are part of the world of the movie but not glamorized.
The dubbed version is fine but if you’re interested I’d recommend watching with subtitles. Some of the Japanese doesn’t quite work in English and it’s actually less distracting (I think) than the dubbing. This is an amazing modern-day fairy tale adventure.