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[whitespace] Princess Mononoke
Pokémon Must Die: The regal heroine of 'Princess Mononoke' marshalls her troops.

Flower of The Swamp

Put aside Pokémon; forget lowest-common-denominator anime--Hayao Miyazaki's 'Princess Mononoke' is movie mythmaking at its best

By Richard von Busack

IT'S DROLL that Pokémon's nasty past as an epilepsy inducer has somehow been conveniently forgotten. One of the only clues to this phenomenon--hidden, as if in secret code--appeared on The Simpsons when a glimpsed TV episode of Japanese Seizure Robots sent the family into convulsions.

The little pest hasn't knocked anyone over recently, but those flashing eyeballs seem to have hypnotized the kids of America. And if you had ambiguous feelings about children before, just wait till you've received a 20-minute-long Amway-style promotional lecture from a kid about the different values of their Pokémon cards. This week's TV Guide entered the market with its reprehensible "get all four collectible Pokémon covers" scheme placed right by the supermarket cashier so that captive parents will be wheedled into buying not one but four copies of the same magazine by their urchins.

Pokémon represents the most popular edge of Japanese anime in America. The much-vaunted adult animation, though, isn't much better on the whole. What we can get here theatrically seems to be just bloodier and sexier--because, as little Pokémon could tell you if he could speak English, it's what the market will bear.

Admittedly, anime doesn't arrive here under the best of circumstances. We get the sensational ones because sex sells; and we get them cut, revised and dubbed. Much of the erstwhile adult anime I've seen has been fairly rotten: the moronic characterizations; the kind of breakaway-bra exploitation that died out in American film 20 years ago; the dubbing by L.A. vocal "talent," drawling Keanu Reeves-wise with boredom.

This may be an exaggeration, but you know Sturgeon's Law, and besides, the general awfulness of anime is one of those sweeping statements that's true and yet paradoxically false in points. For example: Humanity is evil, and yet there are many smashing people around.

The flower of the swamp is the work of Studio Ghibli, whose magnum opus, Princess Mononoke, has just been granted an American release. It is the finest anime I've seen. The slaved-over graphics of medieval Japan are matched with a story of complexity. Ghibli's earlier work is being celebrated in a November-long retrospective at UC-Berkeley's Pacific Film Archives and in a new book, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation by Helen McCarthy (Stone Bridge Press; $18.95).

With his partners, the late Yoshifumi Kondo and Isao Takahata, Miyazaki ran a studio as a craftsman in a world of cold commerce. The name Ghibli is a desert wind and also a 1930s Italian aircraft--Miyazaki is fond of aviation.

Ghibli's work has only recently been easily available in the West. According to McCarthy, Miyazaki had a bad experience with American distribution when his epic Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) was slashed and redubbed, then retitled Warrior of the Winds and released in 1985 to general ennui.

After that experience, he refused Western distribution. His work was introduced to the populace here with My Neighbor Totoro (1988), which was released on Fox Video in 1994 . A bus-sized cat and a friendly, grave giant troll named Big Totoro comfort a family with an ailing mother and a befuddled father. The success of this cartoon, beloved by parents and children alike, interested Disney in distributing Studio Ghibli's other work.

Princess Mononoke (1997) is different in mood from the playfulness and sweetness of My Neighbor Totoro. In its home country, it was second only to Titanic at the box office. The Miramax release here represents the first time an anime has had an English script by a name writer: the co-writer for the English version is fantasist and cartoonist Neil Gaiman.

The film is an animist work of art. It tells of the decline of the animal spirits in the forest as they fight a desperate war against the first stirrings of industry in medieval Japan. The struggle is embodied in the troubled friendship between a cursed and dying exiled prince, Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup), and a feral girl who rides with wolves, San (voiced by Claire Danes).

Billy Bob Thornton does the voice of a friendly but ruthless monk with an agenda. The anti-heroine, Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), runs Irontown, a rifle factory built atop a fortresslike smelter that's denuding the hillsides of timber and ore. At the center of the conflict between man and animal is a strange, shape-shifting creature: a horned Forest God with the power to cure or kill.

BECAUSE OF THESE ambiguous characters who are never completely what they seem, Princess Mononoke transcends the Care Bear level of ecological discourse. The animals are suspicious of Prince Ashitaka, and they're never completely mollified by him. Ashitaka, greatly drawn to the savage warrior girl, is himself a pacifist. Human sympathies complicate his mission of peace between the animal gods and the Irontown citizens.

Though it's destroying the countryside, Irontown provides a refuge for social rejects: lepers and ex-prostitutes. (Princess Mononoke is rated PG-13, not for small children. The older children are going to need a quick explanation of the word "brothel" used here more than once. Try "nightclub.")

The film's success in Japan has caused Miyazaki to be called "the Walt Disney of Japan." According to McCarthy, likening Miyazaki to Disney "says more about our need to label creative talents in ways we find acceptable than about Miyazaki and his work."

Princess Mononoke's landscapes, modeled on the UNESCO nature refuge in the south part of the island of Kyushu, have an uncute, primordial quality that goes back to Bambi, made in Disney's riskiest, most financially profligate days. The film's big difference from the current Disney product is that Miyazaki isn't trying to wow the audience every moment; the film takes in mystery, silences, dual meaning to tell its story.

Princess Mononoke--the word means "beast-spirit"--is more morally aware and tricky than anyone has come to expect from full-length animation. In interviews, Miyazaki has been quick to acknowledge the political side of his work. He's said that his Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was inspired by the mercury spill at Minamata. And Miyazaki's film about a floating castle, Laputa, is set in Wales during the coal-mine strikes of the 1980s.

Critic Roger Ebert suggests that Miyazaki's real strength is restraint, a quality missing from animation worldwide today: Ebert says, "He doesn't insist, he doesn't underline, he doesn't hammer his points home." Then I'll follow Miyazaki's example and not hammer home the deeper qualities of this ambitious, beautiful cartoon.

The exoticness of this very pagan tale is that it criticizes violence while understanding why violence happens. That it's anti-aristocratic--pointing out that today's samurai was yesterday's thug--while recognizing nobility where it can be found. That it opposes environmental degradation--without presuming that Nature is our friend.

McCarthy prefers to liken Miyazaki to Kurosawa--himself a Miyazaki fan. Although the battle sequences remind a viewer of Ran and Kagemusha, I'd compare the animator instead to Mizoguchi in his humane, even heroic, treatment of courtesans. Unlike the Pokémon merchandising typhoon--or the similar Kurosawa-derived Star Wars mythos--Princess Mononoke specializes in the unknowable and the unsimple. Here's a story not to stun the imagination of youth but to stir it.

Princess Mononoke (PG-13; 134 min.), an animated film by Hayao Miyazaki, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

The Pacific Film Archives is located on the UC-Berkeley campus, on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. The Studio Ghibli program includes Porco Rosso (1992) and Only Yesterday (1991) on Nov. 13; My Neighbor Totoro (1988) on Nov. 14; Castle in the Sky, a.k.a. Laputa (1986) and Grave of the Fireflies on Nov. 26; Whisper of the Heart (1995) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) on Nov. 27; and Pompoko (1994) on Nov. 28. Call 510.642.1124 for details.

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From the November 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. MetroActive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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