Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.

Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Persepolis: coming-of-age film could be more honest about life under police state regime

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” (2007)

Adapted from the graphic novel, originally published in two volumes, of the same name, this is a coming-of-age fictional autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, done in mostly black-and-white animation that mimicks the style of the novel. Satrapi, known in the film as simply Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), grows up during a momentous period in Iran’s recent history which encompasses the last days and the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the brief democracy that followed under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first 12 years of Islamic theocratic rule during which time the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Supreme Leader (1980 – 1989) and Iraq under President Saddam Hussein invades Iran and the two countries are bogged down in a war that lasts 8 years. Although “Persepolis” primarily surveys Marjane’s early life and how she came to be the person she is, currently living in self-exile in France where she works as a graphic designer, the film also conveys something of how individuals manage to live and cope, though not very well, under the chronic stress of ongoing war and a highly repressive and brutal police state where grassroots political activity is outlawed.

The animation aims to humanise Iranians for a Western audience and show how easily we all can fall under repressive political rule; it also moves the narrative swiftly and efficiently, diving into little pieces of early 20th century Iranian history to make a particular point about how Western powers meddled in Iranian politics or how various members of Marjane’s family got into trouble with the authorities before moving back to Marjane’s life. This establishes the family and social background that made Marjane’s upbringing distinctive and perhaps unusual for a girl of her social class in Iran. Early on, the animation has a light-hearted comic-strip quality and the scenes are bright and happy: Marjane’s parents, called Ebi and Maman (voiced by Simon Akbarian and Catherine Deneuve) rejoice at the hated Shah’s removal which means that Uncle Anoosh is released from jail after a long period. Little Marjane quickly becomes close to Uncle Anoosh who tells her stories of his early life as a Communist supporter and his self-exile in the Soviet Union to evade the Shah’s agents. Unfortunately the brief democracy is hijacked by Khomeini in a March 1979 referendum when voters are given the choice between the monarchy continuing and an Islamic government (no other alternatives being considered) and 99% of the people opt for an Islamic government. Khomeini and his followers impose a narrow and literal interpretation of an ideal Islamic society on Iran. Soon Uncle Anoosh is arrested again and later executed. Not long after, President Hussein of Iraq sees an opportunity to steal the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and invades the country, beginning the long protracted war that resulted in nearly a million Iranian casualties. The animation follows the events in mood, becoming darker with entire scenes filling up with black as images of death appear and the film assumes a strong, depressive expressionist flavour.

Marjane’s relations with Ebi and Maman are clear-cut: Ebi is supportive and easy-going while Maman is the strict disciplinarian feminist who tries to raise Marjane to be an independent-minded girl. As war drags on and a bomb lands in their neighbourhood, killing a Jewish family Marjane knows, Ebi and Maman, fearing for the girl’s safety, send her to a French school in Vienna in Austria. Marjane’s time in Vienna is eventful: she goes from one boarding-house to another, falls in with a group of punks at school and has crushes on two boys who fail or betray her in some way. Her last months in Vienna are spent as a homeless vagrant after she angrily leaves a boarding-house and she ends up in hospital. This gives her an opportunity to escape Austria and return to Iran in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, the rest of the film details how Marjane tries to cope with everyday life in Iran and the pettiness of the morality police which force her into an early and failed marriage. Eventually, Marjane and her family conclude that she can no longer stay in the country and Marjane leaves Iran for good.

Persepolis” is not too bad as a stand-alone work though there are major flaws: there are details in the movie that seem irrelevant to the coming-of-age story and the movie’s pace can be so rapid that its treatment of what must have been significant episodes in Marjane’s life comes across as superficial and sketchy. The movie works best as a companion piece or introduction to the graphic novel, of which about 70% is present in the film. What the film does best is create a particular mood or atmosphere that can resonate powerfully with the audience; the scenes of war, death and of Marjane’s abject homelessness in the later months of her stay in Vienna are illustrated with large blocs of black that encroach on individual figures that might be illuminated with small spots of light. Fantasy scenes, history and dreams scenes come to the fore in ways they can’t in the graphic novel: characters fly in skies that look three-dimensional among fixed glowing stars; and Uncle Anoosh, as a youth, climbs through mountainous country in scenes that deliberately look like two-dimensional stand-up cut-outs, giving the impression of some kind of puppet show where the puppets have a life of their own.

Many details eliminated from the film are ones that might upset the general public: the film doesn’t mention among other things that while at school in Vienna, Marjane becomes a small-time drug dealer and then works as a waitress in a cafe where she is subjected to sexual harassment. There are other aspects in the film that need an explanation beyond what both the film and the novel can provide: why the Iranian government promotes a cult of martyrdom and sends teenage boys to “clear” minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and why the regime continues as a police state long after the war has ended and Khomeini has died. Later scenes of “Persepolis” in which Marjane sinks into a rut of constant partying, fighting with her husband Reza (whom she married young, to escape the morality police’s attention) and generally living a life lacking in direction, all of which collide in a tragic death of a party-goer after a party gets sprung by the police, and force Marjane to sever her ties with Iran and go into self-exile, seem rushed because certain details have been edited out and thus lack focus. Some voice-over narration by Marjane could have explained to Western audiences why young Iranians at the time engaged in an apparently mindless and potentially destructive hedonistic life-style (because of the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, possibly tortured, by the morality police) as a form of political protest. The episode in which Marjane becomes badly depressed, attempts suicide and recovers from her illness by becoming a gym instructor is treated in a patchy way and her fine arts education also gets rough treatment. The result is a film that becomes blander and less interesting in its second half and falls into stereotypical chick-lit territory in which one generation of women, represented by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), dispenses banal wisdom about being true to yourself and about marriage and divorce being part of normal life to the next generation.

“Persepolis” could have been a more forceful film; the animation lends itself readily to tackling topics like war, the waste of young lives, suicide and living in a police state in a no-nonsense way through one person’s point of view that a live-action film might not be able to do. The simple cartoon style enables the events portrayed to be scaled to both the personal level and a more political global level; the animation format has a flexibility that the live-action format lacks. Satrapi might not have been politically active or aware in her young adult days but could have tackled this aspect of her life with honesty; audiences would surely understand if the reason was that she found everyday life too stressful and intolerable due to the conditions created by the Islamic Republican regime.  This could have been the film’s most powerful message: while repressive governments may damage people physically through torture or exile, their worst effects are psychological through depression and mental illness, and social because they deform and corrupt important social and cultural institutions as evidenced in Marjane and Reza’s hasty short-lived marriage.

Mary and Max: claymation film labouring under plot aimed at both adults and children but failing both

Adam Elliot, “Mary and Max” (2008)

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Source: www.artabase.net

This is a poignant film about how friendships can be made between social misfits and how they thrive and survive under the most trying and difficult of circumstances. The use of claymation, in both black-and-white and sepia, allows Elliot to tackle issues of mental illness, loneliness and being an outsider through the 20-year penpal relationship of the titular characters, Mary Daisy Dinkle and Max Jerry Horowitz, in a way that treats such problems and their consequences with some distance and respect while not over-dramatising them to the extent that they become trivialised. The warmth that develops through the friendship and the humour, much of which is obsessed with and uses poo as plot devices, act as an antidote to what could have been a very depressive and dark film.

The friendship begins in a non-descript suburb in Melbourne, Australia, when 8 year old Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore), lonely and neglected by both her parents and the kids at school, and having been told by a relative that babies in Australia are born from the bottoms of glasses of beer, wants to know how babies in America are made. She contrives to snatch part of a page from the New York City telephone directory at the local Australia Post office when her sozzled mother Vera, caught shoplifting stationery, quickly whisks her out and away from the enraged postmaster. Amazing that Mary could find the New York City phone directory in a small Australia Post office outlet in Melbourne in 1976; maybe there was a small colony of Manhattanites settled near that outlet at the time. Choosing a name and its corresponding address at random, Mary writes and posts a letter to Horowitz (voice: Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely Jewish-American man incapacitated by numerous past traumas and his inability to relate to others. Discovering a shared love of chocolates and outsider status, over time the two readily bond and offer support – Max advises Mary on how to deal with bullies at school – though each letter from Mary brings negatives as well as joys for Max as he is forced to relive past childhood terrors and memories of failed jobs while reading each new missive; one letter puts him into such distress that he ends up in hospital for 8 months. During this early part of the film, while Mary is an innocent child, the narrative is at its most charming and amusing, and the sentiment and whimsy are not too apparent.

As Mary grows up and, buoyed by Max’s support and advice, becomes a confident woman (now voiced by Toni Collette), the source of Max’s problems is revealed – he has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism – and the film becomes sombre as the main characters start to move further apart and the narrative wades into the dark territory of depression and suicide. Minor characters die in ways that angle for cheap laughs – Vera, drinking herself into a haze after her husband’s death, mistakes embalming fluid for liquor – and the plot twist that comes when Max angrily rejects Mary for researching and publishing a book on Asperger’s syndrome for her postgraduate degree, using him as a research subject, whacks issues of depression, rejection and near-suicide onto viewers so quickly compared to the gentle pace of the film’s early half that everything seems very forced as though we have to be taught a hard lesson on life’s sorrows. The film’s flaws become more irritating – Barry Humphries as a didactic narrator using a mock-storybook style is especially annoying and drags the action down – and the sentimentality, especially when Mary becomes pregnant and has her baby, becomes cloying.

The animation is not bad with little evidence of CGI effects (it looks crude but the raw quality accentuates the film’s quirky charm) and this leads me to think that if Elliot had handed over the script-writing and the basic story-line to someone else and had concentrated on the technical aspects of the movie, it would have been so much more improved with a bulked-up and tighter plot that would dispense with the narration and which would be less repetitive in its later half. There would be a greater variety of jokes and other forms of humour to counteract the gloom, with not so much reliance on toilet jokes, and also to emphasise and contrast with Elliot’s message of how life can be cruel and you just have to deal with the cruelty with all its pointless randomness. Claymation films such as this are demanding in terms of the time and labour taken to get each little character right and each scene story-boarded and set up correctly so it’s worthwhile for animators to delegate the job of writing good scripts and screenplays that they can work with to capable writers to justify the expense and effort involved.

As it is, “Mary and Max” is an oddball film with appealing characters who are not lacking in warmth, gentleness and humour but who are forced to labour under a plot that can’t decide perhaps whether to pitch at families with preteen and teenage children as its target audience or to adults prepared to watch claymation films on their own merits – so it targets both groups. A big mistake: trying to be all things to all people is sure to result in something that fails to please everyone.