For at least fifteen years, the world's animators have looked in awe at the films of Hayao Miyazaki, who makes animated story films at his studio in Tokyo. Disney's "Mulan" animators called their own film an homage to Miyazaki. Two years ago he completed what's been called his masterpiece, "Princess Mononoke," and it's been bought by Miramax for distribution in the United States, with the original Japanese voices now dubbed by some well-known American actors.
Cel animation is one of those gloriously difficult arts, like the weaving of a silk Turkish carpet, say, or the illumination of a medieval religious text, that could, in the wrong hands, take several lifetimes to complete. You can get an idea of the complexity by trying to count the numbers of animators, painters, pencilers, colorists, in-betweeners, and the practitioners of half a dozen other necessary animation crafts if you stay after the movie and watch the closing credits of any animated film.
Cel animation, as opposed to computer-generated effects, requires that each frame -- 24 frames per second, 1,440 for each minute, almost 170,000 for a film the length of "Princess Mononoke," must be separately sketched, outlined, painted, and completed in all the colors and with all the content and movement that will both tie it to the frames before and after, and yet be just different enough to simulate the movements of whatever people, animals, objects, tree leaves, or blades of grass are needed for the scene it appears in. As it happens, much of the movement in this film is what's called step-printed, where the cels are changed every two frames instead of every single one. But most of the film is still single-framed, and it is exhausting just to have to think about it. Originally Miyazaki did much of the work himself, though now he has a studio full of artists and technicians.
The story of "Princess Mononoke" was written by Miyazaki, and although it is meant to be a kind of neo-medieval epic it is the least successful part of his creation, full of great sequence openings and fascinating characters, who unfortunately are not connected well enough with each other, so that the film's plot moves by little fits and starts, sometimes even doubling back on itself and changing its characters' personalities. These self-contradictions almost eviscerate the power of the film. forcing them to act against what we thought was their own best interest. I don't think this is a fault of the translation, but of the conception itself.
The story begins as young Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) saves his village from an attacking boar-demon, who is covered with thousands of wormlike tentacles that touch Ashitaka and infect him during the fight. The village seer tells him that he now will slowly sicken and die from the infection. She also tells him that far to the west is a forest princess who has the power to restore harmony to the country, and he sets out to find her before he dies.
Along the way he meets Jigo, a cynical monk (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton), and Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver), who has created an iron city staffed by prostitutes, who forge new rifle-like weapons from the iron. Lady Eboshi is both an exploiter of the forest for the wood she needs for the iron-making, and a benefactress of her workers. Miyazaki seems to want her to have it both ways, and we never get a clear sense of just how she fits into the concept of the film.
At this point we meet the princess, San (Claire Danes), who has been raised in the forest by wolves and hates humans; and we also meet the leader of the non-demon boars, along with a troop of gorillas. It's all much too much for the film to sustain, and there never is any consistency about what each individual or group needs or wants. There is a final battle, of sorts, between the demons and the non-demons, but what power it might have had is vitiated by the confused writing.
The film, however, is amazing to look at. Diametrically opposed to the Disney style, nothing is cute here. There are no cartoon stereotypes, no pratfalls, no wisecracks from second bananas. The story is taken seriously, the characters, whether human or animal, are all articulate, and the animation is so real you have no difficulty suspending disbelief. Visually, at least, it is masterful and can stand as a supreme work of animation.