REVIEW: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke is a Studio Ghibli film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki that follows a young man who searches for a forest spirit that can lift his curse, one that was inflicted upon him by a possessed demon boar. This is one of Miyazaki’s darker films, depicting the way in which human progress often comes at the expense of nature, as well as at the expense of other humans. 

The key players in this film and what make it worth watching are a young woman named San who was raised by wolves, and Lady Eboshi, the woman who runs a nearby town where her ironworks provide the primary source of income. Eboshi actively seeks to rid the forest of San and the wolves in order to expand her town and presence as a threat to other villages. The forest is represented by the Deer, Wolf, and Boar Gods, who seek to protect their home and clearly voice their hatred for humans. The way the relationship between humans and the environment is particularly compelling, with demons being created by the violence perpetrated by the humans of Irontown, and Eboshi justifying her actions as Irontown provides a safe space for sex workers and lepers. Eboshi is the clear antagonist of the film and is driven by greed, but I find it interesting that she also sees the forest as a source of evil, and believes San was corrupted by the animals in the forest. I always find it interesting when an antagonist is more interesting than the protagonist – Ashitaka is a little boring – and I also really enjoyed how the forest was essentially a living creature, represented by the Gods and San, all acting defensively with reason to hate the humans. 

Another aspect of the film worth noting is the animation. Studio Ghibli is known for its whimsical background and character designs, and Princess Mononoke continues this trend, but also incorporates more violent imagery to go along with its themes. There are several fight sequences in this film, the best being a confrontation between Lady Eboshi and San early on. I particularly loved the animation for San’s movements, how quick and aggressive she ran and fought, and how acrobatic her technique was at the same time. One of my favorite shots from the film is in this scene: it is from San’s point of view as she charges head on at Eboshi, who remains centered in the frame as the townsfolk scatter out of the frame.

I also loved the design of the demon that Ashitaka fights in the beginning of the film and again, I love the movement. The way it crawls is terrifying and the tendrils coming out of its body are disgusting yet mesmerizing to watch (click the image to see for yourself). 

There is so much to appreciate about Princess Mononoke – its themes, characters, technical aspects, and more. It is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films and perhaps one of their more underrated films – and I highly recommend it. 

PREVIEW: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke is a 1997 Studio Ghibli film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film takes place somewhere between 1336-1573 AD, during Japan’s Muromachi period, but incorporates the fantasy elements Studio Ghibli is known for. Exploring themes of the environment – primarily humans’ relationship with and their dependency on nature – the film follows a prince who finds himself wrapped up in a conflict between the forest spirits and a nearby town. 

I have grown up watching Studio Ghibli films but was always afraid to watch Princess Mononoke because of the more violent imagery compared to that of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. While Miyazaki is known for these children’s films, he often touches on themes of war, such as in his film Porco Rosso. About making Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has said: “I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After [Porco Rosso], we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?” I watched Princess Mononoke recently and loved how it touched on heavier topics, with a hopeful ending that at the same time is not escapist, and does not undo all of the strife that had been depicted throughout the film. I highly recommend watching this film, especially in theaters. 

Princess Mononoke will be playing on Friday, February 4 at 10pm as part of the Michigan Theater’s Late Nights series. 

REVIEW: Drive My Car

Drive My Car is a Japanese film based on a short story of the same name from Men Without Women, a collection of short stories by Haruki Murakami. The film follows theater actor Yūsuke Kafuku as he directs a production of Uncle Vanya by Chekhov two years after the death of his wife.

I have had some exposure to Murakami’s work, having previously seen the film Burning, which is based on another of Murakami’s short stories, and having read part of his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I really enjoyed Burning, how slow and meandering it felt while building and maintaining a quiet sense of tension and mystery. I found out Burning was based on a Murakami story after I realized Drive My Car reminded me of it, in terms of pacing but also the way in which the female characters were perhaps quite evidently written by a man. I have only read part of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle because I thought three manic pixie dream girls was maybe too many, but after watching the entirety of Drive My Car, I do want to return to the novel and see what Murakami has to say. 

It turns out that Murakami’s works are worth sticking out to the end – especially Drive My Car. Once we get past Murakami’s formulaic introductions of a lone, troubled male protagonist, and the sultry and promiscuous women in his life, we uncover a central theme of grief. Though this overall message of the film is not particularly revolutionary or unheard of, it is the way in which it is expressed that makes it worth noting. I ended up reading the short story after watching the film, and I really liked how writer-director Ryusuku Hamaguchi emulated the almost nonchalant delivery of the short story’s message. Though the film has more dramatic moments, it’s the slow buildup to get to these moments that feels faithful to the source material. The film feels like a natural development and continuation of Murakami’s original story. 

Furthermore, the film reminds us that when our words fail us, we can find and express ourselves through art. For Kafuku’s wife it is through her screenplays, and for Kafuku and his scene partners, it is through performance. And the film also reminds us that we can find solace in knowing we are not alone in our grief, even if it is through a temporary companionship. Drive My Car doesn’t move you to tears, but I like to think it doesn’t need to.

REVIEW: Cowboy Bebop: The Movie

Cowboy Bebop: The Movie follows the crew of bounty hunters aboard the Bebop as they chase after a biological terrorist who intends to wipe out the human population of Mars with an unknown pathogen. The film takes place between episodes 22 and 23 of the original anime series, and was released three years after the original series’ conclusion. 

I have never seen the original Cowboy Bebop series, but I still very much enjoyed the film and felt like I was keeping up with the story, characters, and world. The film throws you right into the world without much exposition, but I prefer that a film won’t drag out an introduction. There were some moments where I was unsure if I was missing some context or if I was just a little confused about the storyline, but nothing was too big of an obstacle in my overall comprehension of the film. The film does not rely heavily on the lore of the original series, which allows new audiences to enjoy the film alongside long-time fans. 

I was most impressed by the film’s soundtrack, art, and action. Yoko Kanno, the original series’ composer, returned to score the film and perform the soundtrack with her band. The soundtrack elevated the atmosphere of the film, whether it was upbeat rock instrumentals in action sequences or subtle, more moody music as the crew chases after the bounty. 

As for the art, I thought the backgrounds were particularly worth noting – they were all incredibly detailed and drawn from interesting perspectives and angles. I liked the use of bold but less-saturated, almost matte colors. I also really enjoyed the character designs, specifically for Spike and Ed. I found Spike’s ridiculous height to be amusing, especially in the montages of him walking through crowds. I think his design is very clever, with his long and lanky stature contrasted with his suave and easy going demeanor. On the other hand, I loved Ed’s ridiculous way of moving around – the way she flails her limbs and entire body around while moving can be likened to a wet noodle. I loved how the animation showcased both that Ed is a child and a genius – for example, there is a scene where she is hacking into a database to retrieve crucial information for Spike as sea creatures swim across the screen and attack the windows that pop up. 

The action sequences are perhaps the most impressive, not only because of the accompanying score but of the moves the characters use in their fighting styles. None of it is overly gorey, but there is just enough gore that you recognize how brutal the fights are. I’ve found that in recent action or superhero films, there is a lot of mindless fighting and shooting at faceless and nameless CGI antagonists, but the action in Cowboy Bebop feels more believable – you can better understand what it would be like for Spike to slam your face into a handrail than if he was shooting at you while flying through the sky on alien spacecraft.

Though Cowboy Bebop isn’t the genre I typically gravitate towards, I had a very enjoyable time watching it. I am interested in exploring the series, but for the time being I thought the film did an excellent job of introducing me to the world of the series.

PREVIEW: Cowboy Bebop

As part of the Michigan Theater’s Late Nights Series, Cowboy Bebop: The Movie is playing tomorrow at 10pm. The film, alternatively known as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, is set between two episodes of the 1998 anime series, though it was released in 2001 after the completion of the series. The film follows Spike Spiegel and his crew of bounty hunters as their spaceship, Bebop, land on Mars in 2071 chasing after an ex-military officer turned biological terrorist. 

Several staff members of the original series returned to work on the film, including director Shinichiro Watanabe, writer Keiko Nobumoto, character designer/animation director Toshihiro Kawamoto, composer Yoko Kanno, as well as the voice actors. The film received some mixed but generally positive reviews from critics when it premiered, with the most praise for the score. It is interesting to compare the reception to the film compared to the recent Netflix live-action series, which was helmed by different creators but did bring back Yoko Kanno. As someone who has not watched the original series, it seems that there is generally more encouragement to watch the film instead of the live-action series in order to watch a continuation of the original that actually preserves its spirit and quality. 

Tickets are on sale for Cowboy Bebop: The Movie on Friday, Jan. 7 at 10pm!

REVIEW: Last Night in Soho

Eloise/Ellie/Elle is a student at the London College of Fashion with a penchant for having visions of the past. Ellie moves out of the college’s student housing and into the upstairs room of an elderly woman’s home. There, she begins to experience 1960s London when she sleeps, and is led toward a young aspiring singer named Sandie’s rise to fame. However, as Sandie discovers the journey to fame is not the glitzy, glamorous life she had expected, Sandie’s past begins to haunt Ellie in the present day. 

Last Night in Soho is Edgar Wright’s first psychological horror film, and this is evident. Though the film is populated with impressive visuals of beautiful and vibrant neon lighting and Sandie’s reflections being replaced by Ellie, Wright relies on a single technique to deliver all of his scares. Because of this, the climax of the film is not as effective since at that point, I had seen the same visual used over and over again in the previous scenes. 

That being said, the beginning of the film is particularly strong, and not just because it is better than the end by default. The audience is introduced to 1960s London as Sandie and Ellie do, and the late night club scene Sandie leads us through is dazzling and sinister all at the same time. However, I will say that the plot/writing of the film relies heavily on the visuals – it sometimes feels as if Wright had inventive ideas for stunning visuals and snappy editing techniques and fit the story to the imagery he had in mind. 

Though the film is so technically impressive, I question some of the writing in the film. For example, Ellie just kind of happens to be a fashion student. Yes, it is clear the film is about the dangers of romanticizing the past, however some of the logic behind the progression of the plot is questionable. It feels like Wright knew where he wanted to start and end the film, but he struggles at some points along the way. 

Aside from the visuals, a lot of credit must be given to the two lead actresses for carrying the film’s momentum. Thomasin McKenzie perfectly encapsulates Ellie’s naive, shy, and thoughtful nature, and Anya Taylor-Joy carries herself with grace as usual as Ellie’s more confident foil. Though the two actresses never share any dialogue despite being in many scenes together, McKenzie expertly portrays Ellie’s despair as she witnesses Sandie’s fall into the rabbit hole of show business. 

Overall, Last Night in Soho is more style over substance, but it is still a refreshing watch and the technical aspects are what make the film worth watching.