Princess Mononoke, directed by Hayao Miyazake, Tokuma Shoten/Nippon Television Network/Dentsu/Studio Ghibli/Miramax, Japan, 1999 (U.S. version), 128 mins.
Hayao Miyazake's Mononoke-hime (1997; released in the United States in 1999 as Princess Mononoke), the sixth feature film for his Studio Ghibli, built on the success of his child-oriented anime, extending back more than a decade. The Japanese animation industry, powered in part by its close relations with the export of television shows for children and the toys and games crazes of the 1980s, had turned in the late 1980s to themes more suited to young adults. The international success of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira in 1988 and Mamoru Oshii and Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell of 1995 had paved the way for higher production values, the assimilation of digital technologies into traditional hand-painted cel animation, and increasingly convoluted narrative lines.
Immensely successful in Japan, where it was only outgrossed by Titanic, the film raises special challenges for the theory of cinema. The animation form has traditionally been seen as childish and has received proportionately little critical attention, while Japanese product aimed at television sales had acquired a reputation for shoddy technique, often due to the practice of farming large proportions of the handcraft out to overseas animation factories, notably in Thailand. Miyazake's film is extremely well crafted throughout, essential if the film was to succeed on the big screen. Several innovations helped, including the use of specially-written software to make three-dimensional digital animation look more like traditional cartoons.
Princess Mononoke's themes of struggle between environmental and mechanistic forces at a formative moment in Japanese history seem not only to have chimed with audiences, but to have echoed in the cartoon form the dialectics of technology and nature. Evoking the environmental ethics of first peoples, the film seeks to reconcile technological progress with a mystical understanding of the forest as stronghold of nature. The very unnaturalness of the medium, including the necessity to invent sounds for the various cartoon creatures that inhabit the film, give the movie a greater depth and deeper conflicts than the wishful ending would suggest. And the success of the film challenges cinema theory to address two of its major weaknesses: the first being the audio component of audiovisual media and its articulation with the visual; the second, the distance between photographic and graphic depiction.
Digital theorist Lev Manovich observes that the rise of digital cinema makes contemporary audiences aware that cinematography is a brief excursion in the history of animated pictures. From such specialized formal analyses, cinema studies can hope to derive new paradigms for understanding relations between recording, inventing, representing, and communicating in an increasingly global media society.