Hayao Miyazaki is justifiably regarded with the same degree of infallibility that was once relegated to Walt Disney in the 40's. Put simply, he can do no wrong. It is little wonder, then, that Miyazaki is widely considered to be Japan's answer to old Uncle Walt.
Miyazaki's portfolio is literally a textbook of 'How To Make Great Animation'; Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, My Neigbor Totoro, Laputa: Castle in the Wind, and his latest masterpiece (and the subject of this review), Princess Mononoke.
Covering many of the same thematic territory as 'Nausicaa', Princess Mononoke is primarily a fable of the eternal conflict between man and his natural surroundings. At the film's start, we are introduced to Prince Ashitaka, a warrior of the exiled Eshibi people of Northern Japan. In short order, an enraged demon attacks the Eshibi village. Ashitaka slays the beast, but is wounded in the process. It turns out the creature was not a demon at all, but one of Japan's ancient animal spirits, infected and twisted by a strange metallic sphere found in its remains. Ashitaka, his wound bearing the spirit's curse, is exiled from his village and tasked with tracking down the source of the strange metal ball. Ashitaka accepts his fate with stoic certainty, and leaves his village to discover the source of the curse.
Ashitaka's journey eventually leads him to Iron Town, a walled frontier town located just outside the border of a great primeval forest. The forest is inhabited by elder animal spirits who are determined to stop the encroachment of humanity into their sacred forest under the leadership of a mysterious Wolf girl. The leader of Iron Town, the enigmatic Lady Eboshi, is driven to destroy all the animals and drive them from their home so that she and her people may reach the iron ore beneath the forest's virgin soil.
This is just the bare surface of the film, which should give you a taste of its true scope. This is an epic film, filled with beautiful and evocative images of nature in all its glory. Miyazaki and his animators have done a wonderful job capturing the beauty of the natural world, from the swaying of tree branches filled with hundreds of tiny, clacking tree spirits, to vast grassy plains and mountain valleys filled with streaming sunlight.
Lest you think Princess Mononoke is all sweetness and light, there is quite a bit of violence amidst the beauty. This is certainly not a film for kids, despite the fairy-tale surroundings. There are more decapitations and amputations than in most horror films... a great deal of blood is shed before the story's resolution. On top of that, rather than fall into the usual 'good vs evil' morality displayed by 99% of all entertainment media, we are treated to a wonderfully refreshing, and perhaps more realistic, ethical lesson. The film's 'villains' more often than not have semi-reasonable justificiation for their actions, leading the viewer to see that none of them are truly 'evil', they simply have differing viewpoints. Even the animal spirits, which in a usual Hollywood production would be characterised as noble and courageous, are here shown to be nearly as shallow as their human counterparts, only seeking the short-sighted goal of destroying their enemy by any and all means.
Princess Mononoke is a true classic of anime, right up there with Akira and Macross. Some people might get bored during the 'down-time' when nobody gets chopped into kibble, but I found the film to be thought-provoking, and visually stunning.