It's Miyazaki's great epic. If nothing else, look at the running time. He'd been planning to retire after this, except that in the end of course he didn't. Developing the story and characters took him sixteen years and it cost more to make than any other anime film until that date. The grand total was 2.4 billion yen, or approximately 20 million US dollars, but it also became the highest-grossing movie in Japan until Titanic knocked it off the top spot a few months later. This is a seriously big film.
Personally I also think it's a failure. It's epic, breathtaking and other big words, but it's also a bit boring. Tomoko doesn't really like Miyazaki these days, regarding his more recent films as ill-suited for children, but I have a feeling that it's this one she really has in mind. Spirited Away
and Howl's Moving Castle strike me as pretty inoffensive. Princess Mononoke is the one that's weighed down with an unlikeable cast, lots of bloody violence and a dour, preachy ecological message.
Frankly, it's no fun. Impressive, yes, but I didn't really care what happened to anyone in it.
We'll start with the setting. It's a historical set in the later years of the Muromachi period, which I presume means we're in the era of Warring States. It's the 16th century, give or take a bit. This means we've got a political landscape of samurai, war, death and other such boring stuff. Oh, you could certainly make a decent action anime out of all this (e.g. Inu-Yasha), but Miyazaki's telling a story about how war and industry is destroying the planet and how the road to salvation lies in learning to live in harmony with nature. It's the same message as Laputa, basically. These battles aren't exciting. On the contrary, they're the annoying squabbles of idiots who frankly need shooting for the good of the species. Admittedly Miyazaki's such a master of his craft that on a visual level at least his battle scenes always look good, but they all suffer from the same basic problem. I DON'T CARE.
Then we've got the protagonist. Here's what Miyazaki has to say about him. "Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done - killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans' viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself."
It might be significant that as a result, Ashitaka is one of Miyazaki's very few male protagonists. He's also a young man of this historical era, which is to say that he's boring. He's taciturn, he shows no fear and he has no personality. He fights. Good for him. He gets poisoned by black wriggly pollution-tentacles for his troubles and goes off on a quest to save the planet, but the most incredible thing about his farewell scene is how it manages to be so uninvolving. I don't think I'd have reacted if twenty arrows had nailed Ashitaka to a tree. Eventually he gets to be cool, but that's only after a good fifty minutes and it took the arrival of women and magical creatures to give the film enough kick to let Ashitaka get there.
Oh, and "Ashita ka" could be interpreted as Japanese for "tomorrow?" Mmm, yes, an ecological fable in which the hero's name is The Future. That's a bit too cute for me, Hayao.
It does seem that Miyazaki prefers female characters, doesn't it? Princess Mononoke and Lady Eboshi are cool, while I went a bundle on the mouthy ex-whores who do the metalworking in Iron Town. They go against the usual Japanese stereotypes and they're fun. Mononoke (or San) is particularly refreshing, being a human girl of Buffy-like speed and strength who's been raised by a wolf-god and hates other humans. Our introduction to her is when she's sucking infected blood out of a wolf's side like some kind of vampire and then running off with it, which is always fun.
The real reason you'll be watching this film though are the magical creatures. The little mushroom men with those rattling heads are every kind of awesome and my favourite thing in the film. They're just a throwaway, really, but they're cool and they don't go around killing people, which is always a relief. Then you've got mega-wolves, elephant-sized wild boars and spooky man-eating apes. It's the same appeal as King Kong's island. Welcome to the Land that Time Forgot. However the weirdest of the lot is the spirit of the forest, which doesn't resemble any kind of prehistoric beast so much as it does something out of Neon Genesis Evangelion
. That's only in its transmogrified form, though. That last and most powerful of the film's gods is a bit too freaky to be cool, really.
The film has no jokes, despite the fact that Miyazaki can be really funny when he wants to be. It also makes it even more obvious than usual that Miyazaki's characters' faces often tend to look the same. Obviously I'm not calling him a bad artist, but merely suggesting that his interests as a draftsman tend to lie in areas other than human physiognomy. Check out the three girls to whom Ashitaka rides up at the start of the film to say that there's a slime pollution demon coming, for instance. They might as well have been triplets.
Disney and Miramax deserve a few brickbats for their Western release of this film, incidentally. They wanted to cut back the running time and edit it down to be a PG, which Miyazaki rightly refused. He'd been burned like that before. They then packed the dub with expensive famous names who didn't always do a very good job, then released it to only a few cinemas for a short run with little or no advertising and then complained when it did poorly at the box office. Compare that with how it did in Japan, for instance. Originally they weren't even going to put the original Japanese soundtrack on the DVD. Personally I found the English subtitles annoying, with their tendency to over-explain things and not infrequently just make shit up. "Can you save the girl you love?" Can you sod off and die? They also have a habit of trying to smooth away any unfriendly-looking bits of Japanese culture that might have been a stumbling block for Western audiences. I can better understand that, but that doesn't mean I like it.
It's spoon-feeding. Quite often I'd turn off the subtitles altogether, despite the fact that my comprehension of the raw Japanese was far from 100%.
All that said, I can't simply dismiss this as hippy wank. I like the unexpected sophistication of its forest politics. This isn't just virtuous forest creatures against nasty humans. The animals are capable of being every bit as stupid and self-destructive as the people, while Lady Eboshi is at once a destroyer and a saviour. Similarly the ending is over the top, apocalyptic and very nearly a deus ex machina, but to my surprise I quite like it. You can't argue with Miyazaki's sincerity, anyway.
This film is a stunning achievement. Even if I don't much like it, I can still admire the hell out of it. It's an epic historical fantasy of unparalleled scope and awesome effort and craftsmanship. For starters Miyazaki personally checked each of the 144,000 cels in this film and redrew some or all of 80,000 of them. It's also the film that turned Miyazaki into a juggernaut at the Japanese box office, bigger than practically anyone else ever. However I don't think it's for everyone. It's got this peculiar structure that's going to turn off a lot of people, including me and I dare say especially including children, and it can get violent sometimes. One or two scenes I'd almost call gruesome. Miyazaki clearly poured his heart and soul into making this film, but personally I'd use the results as evidence that that isn't always a good thing.