Album Review: Jealous Gods (Poets of the Fall)

Never mess with dudes dressed up for a masquerade.
Never mess with dudes dressed up for a masquerade.

No one does love songs quite like Poets of the Fall. While it is easy to make the argument that they are little more than Depeche Mode updated for the 21st century (a sentiment which might send Martin Gore into apoplexy, since Depeche Mode is still releasing albums), with their philosophical waxings, occasional Christian imagery and revelations of infinite sadness that can only be trumped by love, I maintain that the Poets blend their artistic elements with their own idiosyncracies and are therefore worth a closer look. Jealous Gods is the Poets’ sixth album released since 2005, so at this point they have had plenty of time, space, and resources to find their art and voices, and they have created a comfortable album that holds few surprises for returning fans. In fact some of the tracks on Jealous Gods function best as continuations of songs from their previous album Temple of Thought, almost like counterpoints, or the response one might expect from a conversation partner if the Temple of Thought tracks were viewed as opening lines of dialogue. I’m thinking specifically of the title track “Jealous Gods”, which connects back to Temple of Thought‘s most weary track “Skin”, and also of “Brighter than the Sun” (one of Jealous Gods‘ high points), which echoes the previous title track “Temple of Thought” with magnificent resonance. But the Poets should be wary of resting on their creative laurels. One only has to check out the artwork on a few Cake albums to see the dangers of formulaic art.

Bright Spots

Nothing says soulful quite like a bowler hat.
Nothing says “soulful” quite like a bowler hat.
  • Track 5, “Hounds to Hamartia”, would be remarkable even if it didn’t have clean enunciation and tight instrumentation, for the simple reason that I haven’t heard anyone use the word “hamartia” properly since I took my last Classics class in undergrad.
  • Track 6, “Rogue”, is a decent guitar instrumental that happily skips along the line between the technical proficiency required for heavy metal speed, and the easy-to-follow lines and licks of a pop guitar solo. The introduction for this track reminded me of “FiXXXer” by Metallica, and coming from me, that’s a compliment.
  • Track 8, “Brighter Than the Sun”, drops some of the album’s best lyrical gems in the most off-handed way, such as a reference in the song’s chorus to the love given by the person the song is addressed to, raising the singer up until he is ready to be himself. Material like this makes me want to sit down with Marko for a cup of tea. Or perhaps a goblet of fire wine. Your call, Marko. Any time.
  • The album’s closing track, “Rebirth”, speaks just as eloquently of sadness, grief, determination and love as my favorite track off of Temple of Thought (“The Ballad of Jeremiah Peacekeeper”). This track would be a perfect 5 out of 5 if it weren’t for the reference to Tinkerbell. Poets of the Fall and Disney are kept in separate corners in my mind. The two should never mix.

Sun Spots

No, Marko, I will not let you burn.
No, Marko, I will not let you burn.
  • Not all of Marko’s vocals have the clean enunciation that grace “Hounds to Hamartia”. “Rumors”, “Choice Millionaire”, and “Jealous Gods” were all difficult to understand at times. “Choice Millionaire” particularly frustrated me, though I understood that its spoken word chatter was meant to be more noise than signal.
  • I found track 9, “Clear Blue Sky”, difficult to focus on and its lyrics seemed more generic than the Poets’ usual material. It was the album’s least gripping track and I missed Marko’s usual diamond-brilliant imagery.
  • Sometimes the Poets’ lyrics, while great material, raise questions in my mind that never get answered and this can get pretty frustrating for me. For example, in track 10, “Nothing Stays the Same”, the chorus is “When sorrow calls my name, I know nothing stays the same”; I found myself wondering, does this mean Marko gets sad because good things are impermanent, or does it mean that when Marko is already sad, he reminds himself that the pain is impermanent? I realize the answer is probably “yes”, but I wanted to hear that answer in the lyrics and I wanted that answer to be dwelt upon and explicated. Instead, I was left to do the heavy lifting of philosophical thought all by myself.

If you’ve never listened to Poets of the Fall before, you owe it to yourself to check out something by them, but I’m not sure I would recommend Jealous Gods as a starting point. I’m also not sure whether my personal preference for Temple of Thought has a sound basis in artistic strength, or if it’s simply the case that Temple of Thought was the first Poets album I ever heard all the way through and people frequently hold onto a fondness for the first example they encounter of something destined to be a personal favorite. In either case, even if I don’t think Jealous Gods to be the Poets’ best work, it’s beyond decent and at $10.99 for a digital copy, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: Princess Mononoke

Can anyone explain to me why Princess Mononoke is titled “Princess Mononoke”? She’s not the protagonist of its story, she’s not even a very memorable character, and most of the time she is referred to by her mother wolf’s nickname for her, “San”, not “Mononoke” and definitely not “Princess”. What, precisely, is the deal here?

OK, now that I have gotten that out of my system, maybe I can write a better critique.

Princess Mononoke was released in 1997. By the end of my high school years (1999, I don’t mind dating myself) it had made its way to the shelves of my local video store, right next to Akira and the Ghost in the Shell movie. It will therefore be ever marked in my mind as one of those anime features used by mainstream culture to desperately assert that mainstream culture is hip, relevant, and “in the know” about geekdom. “I like anime! I’ve watched Princess Mononoke!” No, sorry, it doesn’t work that way. That would be like me trying to assert that I’m good with computers just because a long time ago an ex-boyfriend gave me a laptop with Linux on it and I used it for awhile. Except that analogy breaks down when you consider that Linux is a worthwhile operating system, whereas Princess Mononoke is not a worthwhile film.

Gasp! Did I just actually type that? But… but… it was put out by Studio Ghibli! And in 2004 a documentary was released called Princess Mononoke: Making of a Masterpiece, so it’s gotta be a masterpiece! Right?

Not a worthwhile film, my friends. Remember, Studio Ghibli connects back to Disney. When I want talking animals and heavy-handed morality, I can always watch Lion King or Pocahantas, and also have fun with some rousing musical numbers. I don’t need to pretend I’m earning geek cred. Princess Mononoke is paint-by-numbers. Allow me to explain in detail…

Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)

San and Eboshi go womano a womano.
San and Eboshi go womano a womano.

As I watched Princess Mononoke with adult eyes, it was clear to me that in creating its plot, the writers had cribbed from Joseph Campbell’s work on myths and had structured the film to follow the Hero’s Journey, complete with all twelve stages, almost completely by the book. The only element they fiddled with was the film’s denouement. The Hero’s Journey traditionally ends with a return to the “ordinary world” explored in the first stage, the one that the Hero is forced to leave. The Hero of Princess Mononoke is definitely Prince Ashitaka, and he never goes home to his village after completing his quest and receiving the deer god’s blessing to lift Nago’s curse, instead opting to live near to San’s forest with the humans who are already making plans to repopulate the decimated ironworks. The artistic choice to end the story this way troubled me, and I commented on it to my husband as we were watching it: “Why would he stick around there? The curse has been lifted, why doesn’t he go home?” My husband responded, “Presumably so he can see her,” referring to San/Princess Mononoke. And my response was that she was not worth it, he could find a partner back at his home village who would be much better for him.

The Hero’s Journey is a narrative structure that has stood the test of time. It has been used in many films that are honored treasures of Western cinema, such as The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. But the fact that Princess Mononoke‘s writers knew how to read and were capable of structuring their work around Campbell’s bullet points does not automatically make what they came up with a masterpiece. It is possible to have every single important element of visual design memorized, compose a still life so that all of those elements are employed in excellent proportions, and still come up with a crappy painting if you don’t have mastery of technique.

Another way of putting this is to point out that a poorly-written story about nuclear war can leave your audience cold, where a well-written story about failing a spelling test can leave them weeping.

Characters

It's sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn't talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don't talk.
It’s sad when the characters you care about most in a film are an elk that doesn’t talk and slightly creepy spirits with clicking, rotating heads that also don’t talk.

I did not care about the characters in Princess Mononoke.

Let me repeat for emphasis: I DID NOT CARE ABOUT THE CHARACTERS IN THIS FILM.

Don’t get me wrong, Prince Ashitaka was a decent guy. I liked how he did his best to solve problems with words instead of violence; it was cool that he tried to reason with a demon that looked like it was made of Thread from the Dragonriders of Pern books, and it was also cool that Ashitaka was deeply affected when his cursed right arm caused the deaths of enemy redshirts, instead of writing them off as acceptable casualties. But Ashitaka is almost too good of a person to be cared about. He comes across as a cardboard cutout. It’s the same reason that the heroine of Gone With the Wind is Scarlett, not Melanie; the same reason that the heroine of Little Women is Jo, not Beth. When the protagonist displays foibles and weakness, the audience cares about them more.

As for the other characters… San irritated me as the Noble Savage. I didn’t understand why Ashitaka fell for her; he claims she’s beautiful, but the brothel women at the ironworks looked more beautiful to me. Speaking of the brothel women, their idol worship of Eboshi, as well as that of the lepers, also irritated me. Eboshi was obviously capitalizing on their marginalized position in society to put them in her debt so that they would not dispute being put to ethically questionable ends. If Eboshi really wanted to help them, she could have fought to improve their standing in society in many different ways without exploiting them. It kind of reminds me of arguing that the Hoarders TV show is doing something good because it helps its subjects get treatment afterwards. If you really want to help hoarders, don’t put their condition on display as entertainment to the mainstream while you’re doing it.

Eboshi also irritated me as a one-dimensional villain. For about two seconds during the denouement it seemed she might have learned something from how her story played out, but literally the next sentence to come out of her mouth crushed that hope. And Jigo, the Emperor’s emissary, doesn’t even display those two seconds of potential. The talking wolves, apes, and boars were all right as characters, I suppose, except for the fact that I couldn’t get over the fact that they were talking in the same language as the humans they claimed to hate. I wanted them to either stay silent or communicate in a spirit language that would have sounded dramatically different from Japanese. And that didn’t happen. So really the only characters that didn’t irritate me were Ashitaka, whom I still didn’t care about for reasons elucidated in the last paragraph, and the animal characters that did not talk (Yakul the faithful red elk, and the slightly creepy kodama that twist their heads on their necks to make clicking sounds). Hardly the makings of a masterpiece.

Themes

Don't mess with the deer god.
Don’t mess with the deer god.

The central theme of Princess Mononoke is a question that is posed by Ashitaka more than once, in conversation with different characters: Is there a way for humans to live in harmony with nature? Ashitaka never gets a straight answer when he asks this question. Either the scene cuts away immediately after he asks it, or his conversation partner moves on to another conversation point as if he never asked it. Since the script writers chose not to give an explicit answer to the question in dialogue, the audience is left to search for implicit answers in the narrative and artistic choices. The overwhelming answer provided by these implicit means is No. There is only one character in the entire story who tries to create harmony between the humans and the forest spirits that personify nature: Ashitaka himself, and the village elders who send him on his quest at the start of the film acknowledge that he is the last hope of their dying people. The forest spirits and humans in conflict that Ashitaka encounters on his quest and attempts to mediate between end the film just as locked in that struggle as they were when Ashitaka found them. San, the character that the audience instinctively turns to in order to complete Ashitaka’s attempts to form a bridge, wants no part in the role of peacemaker. The human who represents the Big Picture interacting with the film’s events, Jigo, is not touched by those events in any way, and gives every indication of being ready to perpetuate the war against nature in other forums. No harmony to be found.

What a depressing theme! I’m reminded of the small boy in The Princess Bride who asks his grandfather, when given reason to believe that the villain of the book is going to win, “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this for?” The best way to have avoided this phenomenon would have been to structure the story so that San returned to Ashitaka’s original village with him, replete with knowledge on how to revitalize the village so that its people could continue to pass on the reasoned and balanced approach that Ashitaka learned there. To do this there might have needed to be a flash forward to a later stage of the denouement, because San would probably not have been willing to leave her forest initially, but I think eventually she could have come around. Giving the viewer a little hope goes a long way.

In conclusion, I don’t think Princess Mononoke deserves classic status and I wonder if the main reason it has gotten the attention that it has, was having a good publicity campaign and plenty of hype when it was released. Enough hype to get it into the collections of every mainstream movie rental company that needed to have something to fling in the direction of anime-hungry geeks, to keep them at bay. You want good anime? Check out some of the series that are out there, like Speed Grapher, Basilisk or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.

Overall Rating: 2.0 out of 5.