Touted as a breakthrough for Japanese anime, Princess Mononoke, directed by veteran Hayao Miyazaki, might claim some new subject matter for the genre, yet not any artistic gains or deeper moral treatment. Mononoke does not depart from any of the storytelling, character or pictorial norms of anime-which means that we still get a cut-and-dried world of good and evil, populated by a strong-and-silent male and a sexy villainness at the center, with giggly floozies, superpowerful demons, and countless, mindless soldiers at the command of the combatants. We still have concepts of drawing influenced by drably legible, Saturday-morning American television, and not by any indigenous styles, such as kano painting, ukiyo-e prints or Golden Era cinema. Miyazaki can be credited with importing a new, ecological theme to his filmmaking form, and along with it untypical, forested settings. Some of his backdrops sparkle prettily. But instead of taking this fresh material as his point of departure, he only submits it to the established codes of his trade, a lot like a proselytizer rounding up a new tribe of heathens to deliver the same old sermon to. People, forest animals and spirits go through the same complexity shredder that all anime subjects suffer: Scraped clean of ambiguities, sapped of individuality, they can work only as easy-to-identify types.
Princess Mononoke maps out the allegiances involved in a brewing conflict between man and nature in feudal-era Japan. The first blood is struck when young villager Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) slays a ferocious giant boar that charges at him unprovoked. The boar turns out to have been under the influence of a poison, which enters Ashitaka's body during his struggle with the beast. The poison will slowly consume him with hate and kill him, a village elder pronounces, but she advises him to travel afar in search of a cure. Ashitaka's journey takes him into uncharted regions of a nearby mountain; the benign but elusive Spirit of the Forest resides there, who may be able to help him. However, he encounters several adversaries in his path: the enormous wolf Moro (Gillian Anderson) and the aggressive, acrobatic human child that rides on her back, Princess Mononoke (Claire Danes); the regal but sinister Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), ruler of a heavily fortified ironworks town; and Lord Hasano and his army. Moro and Mononoke are leaders among animals in a defense pact that opposes human encroachment. Both Eboshi and Hasano feign joining forces to defeat the animals once and for all, but each secretly plots to wipe out the other. Eboshi has a clear advantage, however, in the primitive rifles her all-women foundry produces. The metal rounds that penetrate animal flesh are not only lethal, but carry a magical toxin that transforms ordinary forest creatures into demons. It was such a pellet, Ashitaka learns, that deranged the boar which attacked him.
Invited into Eboshi's compound, Ashitaka soon puts the pieces of the mass antagonism together, and initiates peacemaking measures that only confuse and alarm the workers. After making a long appeal to Mononoke in the forest, he has some better luck. Much of the remainder of the film concentrates on a battle of wills between Ashitaka and pro-war animals, who suspect Ashitaka to be a spy for the humans.
The metaphors and themes of Princess Mononoke make themselves crystal clear-unchecked industry pollutes the environment, indiscriminate destruction of nature is like waging a war, combat among ourselves is unproductive-and the stance of each character is just as easy to grasp. True to anime practice, women come in two types, prattling airhead (the iron workers) and sleek destructress (Eboshi). Though several figures alter their goals, their sentimental turns of heart are predictable, such as an indignant, human-hating boar discovering that not all people are so bad, after all. Even classic Disney characters like the Wicked Queen and Pinocchio show more impulse and contradiction. And while the best Disney films still teach us simple but delightful things about our lives and world, there isn't one conservationist idea in the tamely correct Mononoke that the adult audience didn't know already.