After recently reviewing several Miyazaki films and taking a hard look at each, it became clear that the consummate anime director does things differently than anyone else in the business. His stories, characters, even his designs are uniquely his own. Princess Mononoke continues in that vein of creativity, but it also stands out among Miyazaki's films in its brooding tone. It is a masterful work, and a real treat to see.
Set in feudal Japan, Mononoke follows the story of Ashitaka, a brave young man who is cursed while defending his village from an attacking boar demon. He departs for the forest, where perhaps he can be released from the boar's hex that will eventually kill him. His journey eventually takes him to a thriving city called Iron Town. Lady Eboshi, the guardian of the city, has destroyed the surrounding forests in order to make room for her people. At once vicious and caring, she has an enemy in a feral-like human, San, that they call Princess Mononoke. (Roughly translated, this is Princess of the Spirits.) San is a part of the wolf clan, having been raised by the wolf-goddess Moro, and she desperately wants to save the forest and its spirits. Ashitaka gets caught in the middle of the the struggle between the two sides, and the gods of ancient Japan lie in the balance.
What makes Mononoke such an incredible film is not the animation, which is mostly wonderful yet occasionally stiff. It's not the dialogue, either--though much better than any dub I've seen, it's still occasionally off. What is so amazing is the depth of the characters and the realistic grounding to an essentially supernatural tale. It's compelling that the person we'd like to make the villain of the piece treats lepers as individuals and buys the "contracts" of whores so that they can start new lives for themselves. There is no clearcut evil here, though one character who starts off harmlessly enough becomes a clear menace by the end of the piece. Even the spirits of the forest, who are clearly the victims here, can be seen as petty and argumentative. It's the careful line that Miyazaki walks between cautionary tale and adventure epic, and the audience is the better for it. And the ending...can't spoil it, but it is possibly one of the most satisfying in recent memory. It far excels Nausicaa's problematic climax, which it resembles in some ways. For being an environmental tale, it never feels preachy, which is a milestone in and of itself. There is very little here not to like.
One word of caution: the film is by far Miyazaki's most violent to date, and it includes a couple of very realistic beheadings from a distance, as well as a few flying limbs in battle. It's not particularly bad or grotesque, but it is realistic violence. Thus, the PG-13 is appropriate.
The verdict: this is a must-see film. As it wanders its way across the country, make sure to see it in the theater. This is a test of anime's viability in the mainstream market, so make sure to go, and bring a friend too.
Princess Mononoke -- violence (some mildly graphic), mild language -- A