Raccoons (the movie's not-quite-accurate translation of tanuki, which explains why the "raccoons" usually look like humans) and humans are not meant to fall in love, but that is what Princess Raccoon and Prince Amechiyo do shortly after they meet. Although Princess Raccoon speaks a language Amechiyo has never heard before, the language of Cathay (aka China), he can understand her - this is either due to their love for each other, or maybe it's the reason why they fell in love with each other, I wasn't quite sure.
Their love has many obstacles. First, Amechiyo's father, Azuchi Momoyama, is incredibly vain. He has heard that his son's beauty will soon eclipse his own, so he's determined to either banish him to dangerous Mount Kairasu, just like he banished Amechiyo's mother, or kill him. Second, Hagi, a raccoon like Princess Raccoon, doesn't approve of the love Princess Raccoon feels for Amechiyo. She's sure Amechiyo will do something to bring Princess Raccoon to grief.
While trying to protect Amechiyo from his father, Princess Raccoon is badly injured. Amechiyo almost dies trying to get the only thing that will save her life, the Frog of Paradise, and really does die when he later confronts his father, whose face is now marred by the curse that struck him when he harmed Princess Raccoon. In her grief over Amechiyo's death, Princess Raccoon kills herself. Happily, all ends well: a vision of Amechiyo's mother from Mount Kairasu (who now either is Kannon or maybe calls upon the power of Kannon) and the croak of the Frog of Paradise bring Amechiyo and Princess Raccoon to life again, so they can live happily ever after.
I saw a preview of this movie on one of the DVDs I own, and I thought it looked like a bright, fun, strange musical comedy. I don't know how well it was received in Japan, but, from what I've read, Westerners either love it or are left cold by it. I'm in the latter group. There are some things I liked about this movie, but, for the most part, I kind of feel like I wasted my money.
I don't let myself move on to a new DVD until I've at least written a synopsis for the one I just finished, which is the only reason why I've seen Princess Raccoon twice. It took me that many viewings to get the movie straight in my head - the first time I watched it, I was often confused. Actually, even after two viewings I still don't know what happened during a few parts of the movie. For instance, what was with Princess Raccoon and the raccoon trap? She wasn't caught in it, I don't think, so why did she scream? Was it meant to be a symbol, rather than a literal trap?
The whole movie just felt like a mess. The mix of musical styles was interesting, but the other oddities...not so much. I didn't like how choppy everything seemed. I don't know the proper film terminology, but a good example of what I'm talking about happens during the beach scene, when Princess Raccoon and Azuchi Momoyama are battling each other. Azuchi Momoyama slashes through Princess Raccoon's pink shawl (or whatever it was - I just remember it being bright pink)...and then suddenly he's chasing after her through the tide. I haven't seen many Japanese live action films, and this is the only film by this director that I've seen, so, who knows, this might be part of his style. Even if it is, it was distracting, and it made it seem like this movie was created by a film student who was trying to make something "artsy."
Zhang Ziyi, who played Princess Raccoon, was lovely and had a few cute moments. Joe Odagiri (Amechiyo) seemed nice enough, and watching him in the extras really made me like him. Actually, the main reason why I liked most of the characters better the second time I watched the movie was because I watched the extras before seeing the movie again - it was more about finding the actors appealing than finding the actual characters appealing. The characters in this movie are like the movie's set: pretty and bright, but basically flat. There was no character development. At all. Princess Raccoon and Amechiyo fell in love right away, for no real reason other than that both of them were good-looking and Amechiyo could understand Princess Raccoon even when she spoke Mandarin. Unfortunately, although Zhang Ziyi can cry beautifully with the best of them, she and Odagiri had little chemistry, nothing that could make up for what the story itself lacked.
It was like the director wanted to play around more than he wanted to make a good movie. Several of the sets are brightly colored and beautiful creations, most of the costumes are really good (I loved nearly everything Princess Raccoon wore), the play-like look allowed for a few interesting moments (like my favorite, when Amechiyo announces that he will find the Frog of Paradise and the Raccoon Palace opens up to reveal the set for Mount Kairasu), and whether you like them or not, the songs will probably stick in your head.
Unfortunately, other things made it really hard to sit back and just enjoy the movie. Ostrich Priest was a joke that went on way longer than it should have. I already talked about the choppiness issue. The completely green-screened backgrounds were distractingly obvious - yes, scenes like the one where Princess Raccoon walked around in a Japanese painting-style rocky waterfall background and the one where Princess Raccoon and Amechiyo tap danced on the path by bright blue flowers were interesting and sometimes pretty, but I spent way too much time noticing that the backgrounds were CGI instead of actually enjoying the scenes.
The preview I saw had all the things I liked about this movie: bright colors, great costumes, and fun music. However, the lack of interesting characters and the movie's overall messy feeling made it too hard to like it.
Only one: a "behind the scenes" documentary with footage from the filming of this movie and interviews with the cast and crew.
From taking a Japanese culture class and from years of watching anime, I was able to deal with at least some of the cultural references. Someone without even that much knowledge would likely be even more confused than I was during my first viewing of the film - unfortunately, the DVD extras do not include Japanese culture explanations (check out the Gravitation or Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi DVDs for examples of good explanatory notes).
- Pom Poko (anime movie) - If you'd like something else with tanuki in it, you might want to try this. I haven't seen it, but, from what I know about it, it has a very strong environmental theme.
- Memoirs of a Geisha (live action movie) - ...or other films starring Zhang Ziyi. I've listed this one because it also has romance in it, although it is very, very different from Princess Raccoon in terms of mood and style.
- Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi (anime TV series) - Be warned, this one has nudity and occasional crude humor. I added this one to the list because, like Princess Raccoon, it's bizarre, all over the map in terms of referencing other things, and has a happy ending (although in my post on this show I argue that the happiness of the ending is debatable). In this show, two best friends who will soon be separated by the closing down of the shopping arcade where their families have worked find themselves transported into one weird alternate world after another.
- Emma (manga) by Kaoru Mori; Emma (anime TV series) - If the romance in Princess Raccoon intrigued you and you'd like something else in which two mismatched people fall in love, despite disapproval from others, you might want to try this. In this romantic series set in England, the mismatch is due to social class - Emma is a maid, while William is a member of the gentry. I prefer the manga, although the anime is quite nice.
- Inuyasha (manga) by Rumiko Takahashi; Inuyasha (anime TV series) - This series kept popping into my mind during my second viewing of Princess Raccoon. It's not that they have a lot in common - Inuyasha is about a girl from present day Japan who ends up being transported into feudal Japan and must find shards of a powerful jewel with the aid of a half-demon and others she meets along the way. Like Princess Raccoon, it has lots of very Japanese elements, but I think it's also much more accessible for those whose knowledge of Japanese culture and folklore is nonexistent or shaky. Like Princess Raccoon, it has moments of goofy humor, action, and even a bit of romance. This is an enormously long series, which can be a bit daunting, but I know the anime has aired on the Cartoon Network before and may still be available on TV.