avatar, mononoke, and… yes… kevin costner

So after I was done watching Avatar, my friend said to me, “Wow, that was like an anime movie.”

Mmm… what could you possibly mean? I mean, the last anime movie that I watched was Summer Wars. That (real) anime movie was about family and overcoming one’s limitations. It has nothing to do with planets, mining, or ecological concerns. Oh, wait, I get it. It was set in a virtual space using– ah– avatars!

My friend looked at me as if I was trying to describe the plot of Code Geass R2 to him again. “And so he makes his little sister his slave, a la Princess Leia and Jabba, but only as a ruse for his gay lover to penetrate him with his royal sword while donning his old Pizza Hut delivery costume.”

Mmm… okay. If we’re talking about virtual representation, it has to be the greatest anime movie about this topic: Ghost in the Shell. Much like how Jake can move across bodies with high-tech wizardry, the Major can do the same. Technological interpretations of “soul.”

That’s not it either?

Let me think. Has to be the greatest anime movie of the late 90s: Princess Mononoke. I don’t need to watch it again to know what happens. I’ve seen it more times than the cute girl with the ponytail in your old high school civics class has seen Titanic. It’s a great movie, and Miyazaki’s greatest chance to penetrate the American market and make anime something other that “Sailor Moon with those boom anime babes that make me think the wrong thing.” (I enjoy using the word “penetrate” almost as much as “rack”… “Tomoki racked to the magazine rack featuring models with huge racks.”)

Sure, the environmental lesson is anything less than subtle, but the characters are compelling… Ashitaka’s blight, San’s determination… and no character is single-sided (oh, unlike, oh, let’s say… Avatar where all the characters are caricatures). Lady Eboshi isn’t just some greedy woman lusting for gold. She has nobility in that she uses her enterprise to feed, cloth, and defend the whores that she’s freed and the lepers that she tends to. Moro isn’t just some wolf defending her turf; she has years of hatred and lethargy etched into her bones as if she was just biding her time, knowing and accepting the end.

But what really drives the movie is that Ashitaka never accepts his fate. He always listens and weighs the situation, which causes the people around him to do the same. When he first meets San, she tries to kill him… even though he was too tired to fight back, he puts up some meager resistance, just to tell her… “You’re beautiful.” She drops her guard. Saves his life. And the story goes from there.

At the end, Ashitaka and San try (and fail) to convince both sides to stop this idiotic battle. But Eboshi wants her iron. The animals want their revenge. Ashitaka tries to reason with Eboshi, but she does what she needs to do. San tries to appeal to the animal spirits, but their hurt and hatred burned too deep to listen. (Of course, this is nothing like Jake and Grace trying to stop the humans and na’vi from killing each other.) Of course, all that death… just brings more sorrow. (Applies to both movies!)


Awesome Elk is Awesome

When a movie works, it’s like an orchestra humming along like Chiaki’s S-OK. Everything has to be right– the plot, the settling, the characters, the pacing, everything, and there’s nary a dull or uninspired moment in Mononoke. Toss in Miyazaki’s little touches of charm, like the little kodama spirits or the awesome elk Ashitaka rides around in. Like how a great orchestra can float you out of your seat and move you to where the music wants to take you, that movie does it with its solid storytelling. Yes, Studio Ghibli’s use of prettiness helped too. The animation, soundtrack, and– gasp– dubbing even holds up today. Wonderful movie. If you haven’t seen it, screw Avatar– go see Mononoke.

(You’ll get the same, uh, basic plot setup. Except much better characters and storytelling Mononoke. And they’re both fake– one drawn with tablet and pen, one with powerful rendering farms.)

Still lost in thought about the brilliance of Mononoke-hime. My friend said, “With all that cartoony fighting, it sure felt like an anime!” Great. Summer Wars? Ghost in the Shell? Princess Mononoke? Nah. DBZ was probably the right answer.

(PS– I wrote and rewrote this post quite a few times… originally, I wanted to review Dances with Wolves, since, you know, Avatar completely ripped off Kevin Costner’s greatest work about American Indians. Same. Damn. Story. Kevin Costner gets sent to the Indian wilderness to spy on them, he befriends them, falls in love with an Indian girl, the cavalry attacks the Indians, and then Kevin Costner leads the Indians against the cavalry. All for a crappy piece of land. What the fuck am I missing from the 1990 movie except 3D glasses? I think it’s because it’s 2009… no one under 25 has watched Danced with Wolves. Outside of Mystery Science Theater 3K. Yes, I had to stretch it to make it seem like Mononoke was the model… that’s not true. It is Dances with Wolves. But I would need to watch Dances with Wolves again to write a post about it, and I don’t feel like going to Blockbuster to ask, “Hey, you guys have Dances with Wolves in stock?” like a complete and utter psychopath.)

(Thinking about it more… Dances with Wolves did win a shit-ton of Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Costner. Maybe Cameron should rip off more old movies.)

(Though I am looking forward to Cameron’s next movie… about a futuristic baseball team that gleams life lessons from the stored “ghosts” of A-Rod, Jeter, and F-Her. Omafuyu-sama, I sure love sports nicknames sometimes.)

(PPS– “Pandora”… I keep imagining a desert wasteland filled to the brim with guns of all colors… white, green, blue, orange, and especially delicious delicious gold.)

(PPPS– longtime readers know that I’ve been dying to write a Princess Mononoke post since I started this blog.)

26 Responses to “avatar, mononoke, and… yes… kevin costner”

  1. Yep, I’m 20 and could still tell that it was a total rip on dances with wolves. They didn’t even try to make the Navi anything besides Native American. Oh well there’s something to be said for 2D characters, at least they didn’t have to spend time developing them. I mean they had more important stuff to do: That’s right they had to spend more money animating cool looking creatures.

  2. I’m 18 and have seen Dances with Wolves, about 1/4th of the way through the movie I knew it was a complete and utter rip off, but a very enjoyable one. Now, how about them Cornhuskers, poor Arizona, never knew what hit them. (I talk about sports too much)

  3. What, no comparisons to FernGully?

  4. LOL, man I enjoyed your post about the avatar lol. And I’m 27, I never seen Dances with Wolves and I will never now that I know about the plot of it lol. First thing first, you are the only one I read that SHIT on the movie and I am applauding you for it. If anything, Cameron should got the plot from The Last Samurai. But don’t get me started that the last samurai happened to be a white guy. Still a good movie despite of it :P

    Now Princess Mononoke is Really good movie and so is Spirited Away. I guess I need a really captivating movie these days lol

  5. You’re only saying that because it was dances with Smurfs in South Park.
    Since when does kevin costner attack the cavalry? All he does is get rescued, they run away and its the end.

  6. Hey, I’m 21 and I’ve seen Dance With Wolves!

    >>What the fuck am I missing from the 1990 movie except 3D glasses?

    My thoughts exactly.

  7. South Park called it weeks ago. It’s Dances with Smurfs

  8. Some of the scenery in the movie was very reminiscent of Castle in the Sky, Laputa.

  9. It’s the end of the year, yet still no Best of the year posts?

  10. Hehe thats the first thing I thought as well when it turned out the plannet was called pandora. I think Pandora is the latest fad among naming planets. Good thing though those mechs in avatar weren’t constantly screaming: “Oh look I’m dancing, I’m dancing!

  11. Avatar = Fern Gully.

    But CG, and the dude gets big instead of small.

    Story-wise, that’s all there is to it.

  12. While I quite enjoy Avatar, Princess Mononoke is obviously the true masterpiece here. Avatar’s technique sure is something special. However, Princess Mononoke easily beats it with more compelling characters, better imagination, and far greater impact on the viewers.

  13. Yea Mononoke is still just amazing. Only Disney could pull people like Billy Bob Thorton and frik’en Jillian Anderson to do cartoon voice work. (I really like to see an animated X-men feature with this kind of talent.) I mean hell, when I see Watchmen now I get Dr. Manhatan and Ashitaka mixed up. In conclusion I’m not going to pay to see Avatar. I don’t get the hots for giant blue people who aren’t Klan.

  14. It’s true that Avatar ripped off a ton of movies, but hey that’s what happens when you use a ‘universal story’ like that. Sort of like how Star Wars ripped off a ton of other stories too, but in the end both stand on their own as pretty awesome movies. Not saying that Avatar will have the overall cultural impact of Star Wars, but at least Roger Ebert though the impact of the special effects were just as powerful.

  15. Best Avatar post on the net!

  16. ha ha ha…I would have never watched Dancing with Wolves if it wasn’t for my US history class….quite enjoyable it was.

  17. But this way, if it’s a success, we might get Battle Angel Alita…

  18. The movie that I made the connection to first was District 9. Right down to the enemy commander taking on the main character and getting owned.

    I’ve long ago dropped the plot of the movie as the most important ingredient. In reality, every possible plot combination has been done before. Go to TVTropes.org if you don’t believe me. What makes the movie is the individual characters that are taken along for the ride. How do they react? How do they interact? Are they interesting? I think that is the point of Jason’s post. Avatar (and many, many others) had a bunch of predictable stereotypes. Mononoke at least tried to explore the inner motivations of the characters. Basically it was a world full of gray moral choices made by equally gray characters, and that is what makes it much more interesting.

    Another example is Mirai Nikki. Honestly, would you have (continued to) read it without Yuno? Case closed.

    But, in the end, I still liked Avatar. When it comes right down to it, movies are meant to entertain. Sometimes I want something thought provoking, wanton action scenes, Ron Burgandy, or apple loving gods and their companions (notebooks and mercantilism optional). To me, the worst movie is the one that bores me.

    @Tarage: It took me 5 tries to finally see Avatar. I think it will be successful. I’ve also heard that both Avatar and Alita are to be trilogies. Now THAT is thinking big!

  19. lolz guys guess what is next from cameron…battle angel…guess what its about….gumn….rofls

  20. I don’t think that it is enough of a defence of Avatar’s story that it is ‘universal’, indeed most stories can be boiled down to the seven (nine?) basic plots, or so Tv Tropes has informed me after studying there website for too long. What is so shameless in Avatar is how blatently the plot elements are borrowed from other movies, especially Dances with Wolves. The fact that no events in the movie even attempted to subvert this structure or bing anything new to the table is a real criticism.

    However this original blog post is not so much about individual plot points but about character and themes. When you look at back at the earlier Miyazaki movie Nausicaa you seem the same ‘green message’ but portrayed in very clear terms with “good nature vs bad humans/industrialisation” yet when he constructs Mononoke the message is different. Things are not portrayed in such simple terms, there are characters on either side of this debate with reasonable concerns and in the end neither side is crowned the true victor, they have to live in some uneasy truce. Avatar, apart from lacking fleshed out characters, lacks this nuance to it’s message. The corporation and it’s mercanries are completely evil and the Navi are totally in the right. This is far too simple a message for such a complex problem. This did not stop me thinking that Avatar was a visually spectacular movie or even entertaining, but they are certainly the problems that it carries.

  21. Despite that large plot “copy-paste” hurdle and a good few other irritating things in Avatar, I still enjoyed it. It was pretty darn, well. . . pretty, with good action, some genuine laughs and an ending that didn’t have me putting a screwdriver to my head. It’s nice to read a post on this blog that isn’t about an anime I haven’t watched.

    Man though, what hasen’t Tvtropes taught us?

  22. TVtropes has not taught us how to gain more time in a day. It just takes time away…seeming instantly. One minute you are checking something the next its six hours later. It was just one more page.

  23. Guys, I think the less we talk about FernGully the better.

  24. Huh. And here I was thinking Avatar was like Pochahontas.

  25. Bang on, Jason. I would also add that Avatar threw in a healthy dose of Ursula LeGuin’s “The Word for World is Forest” – basically that crossed with Dances with Wolves. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar. No excuses. I could see the flaws. I just enjoyed the ride.

  26. Since your friend was talking about japanese movies, what about Last Samurai?

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