It was back in 1963 that Hayao Miyazaki graduated from Gakushuin University with a degree in Economics and Political Science. However, instead of pursuing a career in the family airplane business, which was expected of the young man, he steered his career towards his one true passion-- drawing. Five years prior, Miyazaki found himself inspired after seeing Japan's first feature-length color anime "Hakuja Den", and over the years, he gradually honed his drawing skills, including the depiction of people, which he had always had difficulty with. Starting with his first stint at Toei Animation, Miyazaki unerringly developed and evolved animation over the course of three decades into an art form in his native Japan, rightfully earning the title of 'the Walt Disney of Japan'.
Throughout his illustrious career, his iconic characters and films have found their place in the zeitgeist of modern Japanese culture. He is probably best known for "Tonari no Totoro" ("My Neighbor Totoro"), which saw a limited North American release in 1994. This simple yet touching story concerned itself with two sisters who are befriended by a gentle forest spirit while their mother is ill (this film was also semi-autobiographical film, as Miyazaki's mother was bedridden during much of his childhood from tuberculosis). Another one of his films to see a stateside release was "Kiki's Delivery Service" ("Majo no Takkyuubin"), a coming-of-age story that revolved around a young witch stranded far from home. Despite being a direct-to-video release, Disney gave this 1989 film the royal treatment by utilizing the voicing talents of Kirsten Dunst and the late Phil Hartman (who both appeared in "Small Soldiers"). In 1992, Miyazaki unleashed "Kurenai no Buta" ("Porco Rosso"), a tongue-in-cheek adventure set in Italy during the 1920s, which featured a pig that flew airplanes. In contrast, his 1995 film "Mimi o Sumaseba" ("Whisper of the Heart") was a much more serious and mature offering, a romance in which a junior high school girl becomes intrigued when she sees the same boy's name on all the checkout cards of the books she borrows from the library.
Miyazaki's most recent masterpiece is "Princess Mononoke" ("Mononoke Hime"), which grossed more than $150 million at the domestic Japanese box office in 1997, holding the all-time record for box office receipts (even beating "Titanic"). Based loosely on Japanese mythology, "Princess Mononoke" is an animated fable that takes place in the 14th century in which the forces of nature are pitted against the ambitions of man and industry.
The story begins when Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup of "Everyone Says I Love You") stops a giant boar covered with worms from attacking his village. Ashitaka soon learns that the boar was actually an animal god that had been possessed by demons. Furthermore, Ashitaka is inadvertently poisoned by the evil flowing through the boar's veins, which is slowly spreading throughout his body. With the hopes of finding a cure before the poison kills him, the young prince goes westward in search of the source of the evil.
After befriending a monk (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton of "Sling Blade") and a treacherous journey through the open countryside, he comes to the edge of a great forest where Lady Eboshi (voiced by Minnie Driver of "Good Will Hunting") has established a village with a large ironworks. Unfortunately, Ashitaka soon learns why the boar god became possessed as he finds himself in the midst of a terrible and costly war. It seems that Eboshi's industrial endeavor has come at a price, with the animals in the neighboring forest being gradually exterminated by Eboshi's soldiers armed with the weapon of choice, gunpowder. Faced with extinction, the various animal gods of the forest, such as Moro the wolf god (voiced by Gillian Anderson of "The X-Files"), begin attacking the encroaching humans, further escalating the violence and bloodshed. In addition, the animals have a human fighting alongside them, a young feral girl named Princess Mononoke (voiced by Claire Danes of "The Mod Squad"), who will stop at nothing to kill Eboshi.
"Princess Mononoke" is by no means your average song-and-dance Disney musical. Those expecting a relaxed afternoon with the kids may be shocked by the level of on-screen violence, including scenes in which numerous characters are decapitated or dismembered (interestingly enough, this film was cited as being an influence on a serial killer in Tokyo who dismembered several schoolchildren). However, like "Saving Private Ryan", the violence of "Princess Mononoke" does not serve the purpose of 'mindless visual eye candy'-- it is there as a statement against 'cartoon violence', depicting the horrible consequences of hatred and aggression. Likewise, there are no clear-cut 'good' or 'bad' characters in this film, as the characters' actions are based on their own perspective and values. As a result, the central conflict of the film, man vs. nature, is not simply a matter of 'good' overcoming 'evil'-- instead, the characters must overcome their own prejudices and agendas to find an uneasy middle-ground. In many ways, "Princess Mononoke" is thematically-similar to Miyazaki's "Warriors of the Wind" ("Kaze no Tani no Nausicaa"), a 1984 anime in which a girl finds herself caught between rival factions trying to rebuild war technology in a post-apocalyptic world.
Like all of Miyazaki's work, the animation is pristine and often breathtaking, particularly the sharply realized action sequences. The care and attention to detail that Miyazaki's pays to each animated cel is the result of the master animator single-handedly drawing every single frame in the film. Those who believe that only the workshops at Disney can create vivid landscapes and dynamic characters with a paintbrush should certainly see the artistry at work here.
Unfortunately, given the adult themes and visceral violence interwoven into the film, "Princess Mononoke" may not be entirely appropriate for the young ones. Young attention spans will also be challenged by the subtly told story, the somewhat pedestrian pacing, and the running time in excess of two hours. However, older children and adults will probably be intrigued by the complex story elements at work in what appears to be no more than a juvenile diversion.
Japanese anime has unfairly been seen in the West as 'kids fare', with its preoccupation on long-legged schoolgirls fighting crime (such as "Sailor Moon"), giant robots (such as "Voltron"), or outer space adventures (such as "Star Blazers"). As "Princess Mononoke" illustrates, Japanese anime can also be the vehicle for telling stories that can inspire and educate audiences of all ages. Furthermore, in the hands of a master craftsman such as Hayao Miyazaki, anime can also become an art form in its own right.