Friday, April 8, 2022

Film Club Featurette: Princess Mononoke (1997) 2:14:00

"Now watch closely, everyone: I'm going to show you how to kill a God."

Sunday, 10 April marks a very special evening for our scrappy little Phnom Penh Film Club, as we reach for the challenge of reconciling a work of unqualified cinematic brilliance, with our natural expectations for an animated picture ostensibly for children. It is time, then, for Hayao Miyazaki's epic tale of forced redemption, guerrilla stewardship, and unrequited love, *Princess Mononoke*.   

Genres are always more difficult to circumscribe than people generally give them credit for (Is Guy Ritchie's *Snatch* a comedy? Is Jordan Peele's *Get Out* a fright-flick? Is M Night Shyamalan's *The Village* a fright-flick AND a comedy?). But never does this issue kindle as much uncertainty as with the designation of a "childrens'-" or "family movie." We've seen kids' movies in which gremlins are exploded inside microwave ovens, and we've seen family movies in which Japanese would-be kamikaze pilots are murdered at close range in the act of trying to cut a mango open for a friend. And the thing of it is, even those examples are making it too easy -- because, of course, it's not the gratuitous vignettes in a children's movie that make a person lean back and scratch his head, at least if it's a good movie; it's the gravity of the subject matter, and how that subject matter is more generally conveyed. Gunshots and microwave explosions aren't what keeps an adult engaged in an engaging picture. Story, is. 

Enter Hayao Miyazaki, the font of Japanese feature-length animation prowess who, for more than forty years now, has been deftly and cheerfully defying the conventions and prejudices of his chosen medium. And, in the process, he has brought to all of us some of the most soberly grown-up storycraft the world has ever seen. By turns Miyazaki's Faberge Eggs of emotive brilliance have favoured us with lessons about self-reliance, self-sacrifice, the impermanence of love, cross-cultural empathy, living in the present, dying with dignity, standing up for what's right and, sometimes, even recognizing that the impetus to stand up for what we *think* is right can lead us to a raft of unsavory and unintended consequences. 

Often these lessons are so delicately packaged in a Miyazaki film and so adroitly inter-woven that extracting and identifying them is only practicable after the end credits have finished with their roll. And very generally this is the entire point, even for the most life-weary grown-ups in the theater. Against expectations we were entertained, yes, but -- against experience -- we were really shown something.  

And then, then one time, and just as we're sure we've got a handle on the model and the man, Miyazaki re-situates himself at his drafting table, pours another piping cup of oolong tea, and fires-off a movie that manages somehow to cover all these themes at once. This is Princess Mononoke. A movie in which the armed salvation of a sprite-filled forest kingdom weathering the ravages of progress doesn't even feel like it's the point of the damn thing by the time it's over, really. 

Of the many attributes that make Miyazaki films so distinctive and so superlative, none is better-exemplified by this film than the boldness with which he embraces complicated plot-lines. No Miyazaki picture could be considered emblematic of the man's efforts if it did not include this trait, the B- and C- stories rippling along beside the main premise like babbling streams along a woodland hiking trail, the confluences and interactions of those stories feeling as unforced and inevitable as the fallen-tree footbridges that ford the streams. 

Neither does our maestro filmmaker shy from difficult emotional situations and unhappy turns. Not every one of the endearing and sympathetic characters in a Miazaki movie survives. There is no progress through the sophisticated conflicts of the picture without prices to be paid. There is lust, there is anger, and the good guys don't always win or for that matter even do the right thing -- though they just *might* when that last big moment comes along. 

Make no mistake: Princess Mononoke may be an animated film; it may be principally about kids; it may have an ostensibly child-like premise with which to deliver an ostensibly one-dimensional message about humankind's appropriate place in the world. But friends, Princess Mononoke is a movie for everyone, notably including grown-ups. Or at least grown-up lovers of great movies, anyway.

I hope everyone will plan to join us Sunday, 10 April, at 6:31pm for our screening of this timeless and unhurried gem of love and its many truest meanings, of social comment without sermon, of greed, and envy, and selflessness, and finally of hope. Movies don't always pluck even one of these motifs with anything like this degree of virtuosity; come to the screening on Sunday and marvel at the apparent effortlessness with which Miyazaki plucks them all.  

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