Princess Mononoke (1997) もののけ姫

Country: Japan
Language: Japanese
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Running Time: 134 minutes
Starring: Yōji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yūko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi
Theme: Culture (Anime)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 8.4/10 | Metacritic: 76/100

Film Festivals:

Awards:
2001 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films: Saturn Award
1998 Awards of the Japanese Academy: Best Film, Special Award
1998 Blue Ribbon Awards: Special Award
1998 Mainichi Film Concours: Best Animated Film, Best Film, Reader’s Choice Award

Nominations:
2000 Annie Awards: Outstanding Individual Achievement for Directing in an Animated Feature Production
2000 Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards: Sierra Award for Best Animated Film
2000 Golden Reel Award (Motion Picture Sound Editors, USA): Best Sound Editing – Animated Feature
2000 Satellite Awards: Golden Satellite Award for Best Motion Picture, Animated or Mixed Media
2001 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – Nebula Award for Best Script

The main reason I chose this animation movie for one of my 50 films is because it would definitely be severe injustice to the huge cultural movement that surrounds anime in Japan if the genre is left out. Princess Mononoke (1997), to sum it up in one word, is epic, and that comes from someone who is not even an anime fan to begin with. The film is directed by animation visionary Hayao Miyazaki, who later went on to direct Spirited Away (2001) that clinched an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2002, and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) that was nominated for the same award in 2005. His latest work is Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). The prolific manga artist and prominent film animator has nearly five decades worth of experience, and this shines through in the sharp pacing and crisp imagery of the film, that also had a 1999 English-dubbed American release.

Princess Mononoke combines both historical elements—being set in the late Muromachi period of Japan—with the paranormal as supernatural beasts and spirits take centerstage here, much like all of his later works. The titular character is otherwise known as San, a human being adopted by a pack of wolves when she was abandoned by her parents as a baby. The self-righteous character is against the industrialization of the nearby Iron Town, run by Lady Eboshi, an authoritarian feminist leader who renders the men slaves and the women her aides. Feminist lines such as “Women are more intelligent than men” are reiterated throughout the show, for instance. The development of Iron Town means the forests have to be cleared to make way for more factories and buildings. Meanwhile, the forests are full of (very cute) diminutive tree spirits and a Forest Spirit that adopts the form of a deer reigns.

Miyazaki avoids moral simplifications as he opts not to take a stand for or against industrialization versus environmental protection in this struggle for triumph. His sympathies switching between both sides in a rather convoluted manner that would perhaps be clearer in a more straightforward story thread. The protagonist is Ashitaka, the “Chosen One” brought to the area because he was wounded and poisoned by the boar god whilst fending off the enemy to protect his hometown. He becomes the middleman between the two parties as he tries to seek a compromise between the environmental perpetrators with the industrialists, and is the ultimate victim of the hard-wringing battle for supremity between the two. I’m not sure whether the release of this movie has anything to do with the lead-up to the Kyoto Protocol that was released the same year, or was it sheer happenstance. But the environmentalist messages against global warming and the emission of greenhouse gases that started taking prominence in the 1990s make the release timely. Miyazaki also succeeds in not making Ashitaka the typical hero, revealing in an interview that, “Ashitaka is not a cheerful, worry-free boy. He is a melancholy boy who has a fate. I feel that I am that way myself, but until now, I have not made a film with such a character. Ashitaka was cursed for a very absurd reason. Sure, Ashitaka did something he should not have done – killing Tatari Gami. But there was enough reason to do so from the humans’ viewpoint. Nevertheless, he received a deadly curse. I think that is similar to the lives of people today. I think this is a very absurd thing that is part of life itself.” (Toyama, R., 1997).

The movie is ranked 6th on seminal film critic Roger Ebert’s Top Ten movies of 1999 (apparently he only managed to catch to English-dubbed version). He writes, “Animated films are not copies of “real movies,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.” (Ebert, 1999). The critical and box office acclaim garnered by the movie is significant because it marked a shift away from the Disney monopoly into the other ancillary markets of Japanese anime, and other animation films by the up-and-coming studios of Pixar and Dreamworks.

References

Eberts, R. (1999, October 29). Sun Times: Princess Mononoke review. Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19991029/REVIEWS/910290303/1023

Toyama, R. (1997). An interview with Hayao Miyazaki. D. Goldsmith [Ed.] Retrieved on November 1, 2010, from http://www.nausicaa.net/miyazaki/interviews/m_on_mh.html

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Taste of Cherry (1997) طعم گيلاس

Country: Iran
Language: Persian, Dari
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Running Time: 95 minutes
Starring: Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari, Safar Ali Moradi

Theme: Death

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 83%

Film Festivals:
1997 Cannes Film Festival

Awards:
1997 Cannes Film Festival: Palme d’Or
(tied with Shohei Imamura’s Unagi)
1998 Boston Society of Film Critics Awards: BSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film
1999 National Society of Film Critics Awards: NSFC Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Nominations:
1999 Argentinean Film Critics Association Awards: Silver Condor for Best Foreign Film
1999 Chicago Film Critics Association Awards: CFCA Award for Best Foreign Language Film

Abbas Kiarostami is a defining figure in Iranian cinema, the prolific and versatile 70-year-old director not shying away from controversial issues or avant-garde cinematic techniques in his massive repertoire. Ten (2002) for instance, highlights the socio-political landscape of Iran through the eyes of a woman as she drives through and speaks to ten strangers in Tehran over several days. There is no forgetting Shirin (2008), too, a movie featuring a series of simple close-up shots of female faces as they appear to be watching a film that can only be heard through dialogue in the background. Their raw visceral emotions are captured all too naturally in the film that premiered at Venice International Film Festival.

Though being released over a decade ago, Taste of Cherry (1997) is no different in terms of its stance. The film deals with suicide, a cause célèbre that is frowned upon in contemporary Islamic societies as it goes against Muslim beliefs, yet widely embraced by terror extremists today in its martyr acts. The protagonist is Mr Badii (Homayon Ershadi), and the camera becomes a voyeur in a cinema vérité technique that is used to document the moments leading up to Mr Badii’s eventual demise. But this death is only implied and not shown on the camera. We don’t see his body, and the audience is left to decide for themselves what happened in an open ending that throws up a lot of moral principle disputes surrounding professionalism towards a job that is paid for versus one’s own values and beliefs. Will you participate in burying a random stranger who has commited suicide—because he has given up on himself and the world—in a business dealing that sees a lot of money at stake?

And this is what happened in the minimalist film. Mr Badii drives through a city suburb looking for someone who could carry out the task. The irony is clear – there are innumerable unemployed laborers clambering at his car asking whether he was hiring any as he drives through the city. At every traffic junction, there are bound to be some laborers who approached Mr Badii, the implication of the luxury of owning a car in Iran at those times. Yet he fends them off and opts not to speak to them. He has his eyes set only on particular strangers to whom he has acquired a liking and the right feeling to. A greater paradox is how Mr Badii appears to have it all with the wealth he possesses but yet decided to end it all, in contrast to the unemployed laborers who meander on with the everyday fruitlessness of their lives.

There is the cowardly, young cadet who gladly accepts the ride of a stranger but was so frightened about the job that he flees from the car despite being in the middle of nowhere. There is the religious seminarist who preaches on and on about his religion’s point of view against suicide, but to no avail. And there is a taxidermist who once contemplated suicide, and it is this character—who has been there and (almost) done that—whom can best empathize with the feeling of wanting to end it all.

Many long takes comprise of the shot, and the movie meanders along a leisurely pace that does not feel draggy, primarily because of the reflections that it encourages. Erstwhile, long-range distance shots are interspersed with proximity close-ups that create a jarring contrast in the perception of the size of an individual in contrast to the magnitude of the world.

It is frustrating from the audience point of view as Kiarostami totally shirks away from revealing the reason behind Mr Badii’s suicide intent. But this creates manifold consequences. First, from the perspective of the film, it does not allow the audience any leeway to create a judgment of Mr Badii for his decisions to end his life, of whether his motivation is a valid one or not. He is “relentless” (Santas, 2000) in not revealing his reasons, and the triviality of this motivation is cast against the greater deed of commit suicide, and we see Mr Badii meander through the final desolate moments of his life. More importantly, the film encourages the audience to reflect and look upon oneself as a judgmental soul. How often has one’s judgment impeded one’s view from the bigger picture, or colored one’s point of view against the actions of an individual? That is, indeed, my biggest takeaway from watching this minimalistic film, rather than the moralistic dilemma faced by Mr Badii throughout the film. And this, is perhaps what makes the film so powerful and so deserving of the Palme d’Or it clinched at Cannes 1997.

References

Santas, C. (2000) Concepts of Suicide in Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry. Retrieved on October 1, 2010, from http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/00/9/taste.html.