Princess Raccoon Review
One of the great directors of Japanese cinema, the films of Seijun Suzuki have always been far from conventional. Best known for his unique 1960’s gangster movies Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill, the legendary director is still making films at the age of 82 in a style that is uniquely his own. His latest film, Princess Raccoon, is a colourful fairy-tale based on one of the many Japanese mythology tales about tanuki - raccoon creatures that have the power to take the shape of humans. Filmed and directed as a stage musical or operetta, with heavily stylised and theatrical set designs drawn from that vast range of references, it all nevertheless adds up to a coherent, consistent and original piece of filmmaking.
The most beautiful person in the world is Azuki Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira), the King of Garasa Castle, as the Old Maid Virgin will testify. And she does, continually, to satisfy the vanity of the king. However, she warns him that he has a rival – things are changing and soon the King’s son, Prince Amechiyo (Jo Odagiri) will surpass the King’s beauty. The King won’t have that and has already banished his wife for the very same reason. So Priest Ostrich is duly dispatched to carry out the same punishment, banishing Prince Amechiyo to the Sacred Mountain.
However, to reach the mountain Ostrich and Amechiyo must pass through Raccoon Forest, where the creatures of the forest inhabit the shape of humans. Ostrich is captured by a couple of villagers who mistake him for one of the raccoons and prepare to make him into a soup. Amechiyo however is rescued by the beautiful Princess Raccoon (Zhang Ziyi). Love between man and raccoon is of course impossible and destined to be fruitless. Nonetheless, despite their differences in understanding each other and warnings from Princess Raccoon’s maid that “man is an epidemic” that threatens to destroy the Racoon Palace, the Prince and Princess fall in love. While they are together, they sing in perfect harmony and peace and love reign in the world. But it is not destined to last.
“Love between man and raccoon is of course impossible and destined to be fruitless”. Somehow in all my time of reviewing DVDs for this site I never thought I’d end up writing a sentence anything like that. But then again, I’ve never seen a film like Princess Raccoon. And that, primarily, has to be the only kind of judgement you can make about this film. Objective considerations about whether it is good or bad really count for nothing, since there is no comparable frame of reference for such an enterprise.
Oh, it’s easy enough to spot numerous cultural references, since the film abounds in various visual and musical appropriations – but rarely, if ever, have so many instances of high-art and low-art been mixed to such an unusual effect. Thus imagery and techniques from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête are mixed with scenes and a plot that plays out like a cross between Mozart’s The Magic Flute and the Japanese TV series Monkey. Van Gogh style paintings are used as backgrounds to colourful characters made up in Jeff Koons kitsch art poses. Kabuki, operetta and avant-garde theatre are mixed with pantomime and Jacques Demy musicals, filmed like a Michel Gondry pop video (Björk’s Human Behaviour comes very much to mind). And of course, its musical eclecticism is equally wide and all-inclusive, ranging from operetta and hip-hop to power-rock and calypso.
It sounds hideous, does it not? And I’m sure many people will regard it with horror and incomprehension, as many have also done with a couple of other recent Asian excursions into musical theatricality - Takeshi Kitano with Zatoichi and Tsai Ming-Liang with The Wayward Cloud. What both these directors managed to achieve however, was to bring these elements into their films in a manner that was uniquely their own and thereby bring something out of them that could not have otherwise been achieved by conventional means. Likewise, Princess Raccoon brings these elements into the cinema of Seijun Suzuki in a way that is unique to the director. There are no gangsters in this film, but fans of the director will recognise the stylistic traits easily enough and it seems an obvious extension from the theatricality of his last film Pistol Opera. A master of colour and composition, of mixing high-art and popular culture, Seijun Suzuki’s stylistic excesses in Princess Raccoon are camped up so far that they come out the other side as a unique concoction that is beyond definition and, I believe, criticism. It’s therefore pointless to try to analyse the plot or style and objectively present an argument either for or against it. It is what it is, and what it is, for better or worse, is Seijun Suzuki.
Princess Raccoon is released in Hong Kong by Mei Ah Entertainment. The DVD is not region encoded and is in NTSC format.
Although they have certainly improved greatly from the early days of DVD, Mei Ah’s Hong Kong releases still seem to have infuriating issues on otherwise more than acceptable transfers. This is certainly the case with Princess Raccoon. A film blessed with the most amazing cinematographic compositions, particularly in its use of colour, the image can often look exceptional – particularly as there is not a mark on the transfer. Considering the amount of photo manipulation going on, it may well have been shot digitally. However, the colours as they are transferred here are over-saturated, often bleeding over edges. The image is also rather soft, with a tendency to blur during movements on account of the interlaced transfer. This may be particularly noticeable and even problematic on a progressive display. On my PC the image was particularly difficult to watch, juddering and blurring with every camera pan. Attempting to de-interlace the image only resulted in excessive combing artefacts. On some setups however, it can be quite an acceptable transfer. Reportedly, the Japanese DVD edition is progressive and has a truer colour scheme, but it does not contain English subtitles.
Mei Ah’s DVD release includes both a Dolby Digital 5.1 and a DTS mix of the soundtrack for the film. The DTS mix is fairly robust and warmly toned, but doesn’t have the detail or the range you might expect. It’s relatively thin on the low-end sub-woofer level, and louder passages tend to crackle a little. The occasional pop can also be heard. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is pretty much the same and any differences in tone are minimal.
English subtitles are provided for the film, but not the extra features. The subtitles aren’t perfect – there are some awkward turns of phrase and some pigeon-English - but by and large they capture the essentials.
A series of Japanese trailers and TV spots are put together in a single reel. After a while they all seem to look very similar. Zhang Ziyi makes a personal recommendation for the film at the end, which is the only section that contains English subtitles. Incidentally, the colours for the film look more accurate in the trailer than the feature presentation on this DVD.
This is actually a long ‘making of’, with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with cast and crew on-set interspersed throughout. It covers everything from a nervous-looking Zhang Ziyi’s at what appears to be first meeting with a sprightly-looking 82 year old Suzuki where they check out her costume fitting, through to the actual filming of many of the scenes. Unfortunately, there are no English subtitles supplied for this feature.
A basic synopsis is provided in Chinese and broken English, as well as basic cast and crew information.
There is little point in judging a Princess Raccoon in terms of whether it is good or bad. Some people are going to love this, others will hate it with a passion. The only thing I can objectively say about the film, categorically and without dispute, it that it is colourful and stunningly beautiful to look at. The set designs are amazing, the costumes ravishing, the filming technique - mixing stage trickery with computer graphics – masterful and awe-inspiring. I think I can also say without any fear of contradiction, that you’ll have never seen anything like this – and for me at least that counts for an awful lot. I’m not a fan normally of Zhang Ziyi, but here she is perfect in the role of the Princess and has never looked better – so that might count as an awful lot for others. Whether you will like this or not I can’t say, but with similar baffling excursions into musical theatricality from a number of other eminent Asian directors – Takeshi Kitano and Tsai Ming-Liang and now Seijun Suzuki – you have to consider that they must be onto something. Or at least on something. Whatever it is, it’s all good as far as I’m concerned.