Amazing Anime

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Set in medieval Japan, Mononoke imagines a war involving several bands of humans--and a more desperate battle between man and the environment. Ashitaka (given voice in Neil Gaiman's American adaptation by Billy Crudup), the youngest survivor of a vanishing tribe, is gored by a demon boar that is a protector of the great forest. His wound will kill him if he can't solve the mystery of his curse. He meets Eboshi (Minnie Driver), ruler of Iron Town, and her fiercest foe, San (Claire Danes), or Mononoke, which means spirit. They want to use him or escape him, as the forest gods and demons rise for a showdown that everyone is fated to lose.

There's lots of rancorous chat--as much squabbling as the Hundred Years' War, and with the same stench of anticipated defeat. In the title role, Danes is too shrill, lacking in nuance, a Princess Monotone. But there are images to pry open jaded eyes: the boar, cloaked in wormy tendrils, slithering over the landscape like a killer Koosh ball; a god-deer that causes flowers to spring up when its paws touch the earth. Miyazaki is a magic maker too, creating a fresh, complex, doomed universe--Tolkien meets Kurosawa.

The two main cavils about Mononoke are that it is too bloody (the battle scenes feature many decapitations and dis-armings) and that at 2 hr. 13 min., it is nearly an hour longer than most cartoon features. "We had to confront the issue of violence head on," Miyazaki says. "Children already know all too well the violence that resides inside them and the violence that pervades the world around them. If we wanted to speak out about this question, we had to incorporate realistic violence in the film. I also agree it's too long. If only I were more blessed with talent, I could have made a shorter movie."

The animaster's great coup may have been to impose his will--that the film not be cut--on Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax. Weinstein is notorious for his itch to trim foreign films to suit the faster American pulse; he reads a sonnet and dreams of a couplet. Says Weinstein: "It's a genius movie. Could it be streamlined? Yeah, and it could be more accessible as a result of cutting. But Miyazaki is like Kurosawa or Sergio Leone--one of the greats of international cinema. The very idea of cutting is anathema to a director of this importance."

Anime may never saturate the U.S. market as it has the Japanese. But to brainwash kids into Pokemania, to get Cameron and Coppola looking eastward and to win a pledge of hands off from Harvey Weinstein...well, it's a start.

*Chara is a cartoon character. CB, from the japanese word for small, suggests child's body; it is often used as a prefix. Kami is a god or goddess. Can Can Bunny is the title character of a manga series. Mecha refers to any kind of mechanized hardware--a gun, a robot, a spaceship. SD means super deformed. Kaiju is a monster. OAV stands for original anime video (one not made for theaters or tv). Otaku is an obsessive fan or collector--an animaniac. an OST is an original sound track.

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