The Movie (5/5)
There are movies out there that I like to call “game changers.” These are movies that I’ve watched at critical points in my life that have helped redefine what movies have meant to me in a significant way; Lawrence of Arabia played a huge role in defining how large of a scale a character drama can be while maintaining a rather singular focus, Star Wars and its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back helped define what movies can do with special effects and a solid balance between crisis and fun, and so on and such forth. At the core of my list of game changers, which has been quietly curated since my days as a high school student is Hiyao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, his 1997 animated epic that depicts a massive conflict between man and nature for control of the Earth’s resources. A film that I first watched during my formative years as a tenth grader, it changed my perception of what could be accomplished with an animated film.
Princess Mononoke is the story of Prince Ashitaka, a man who is forced to leave his home after being cursed by an ancient demon. Seeking a means to lift his curse, he heads westward into mainland Japan, where he becomes trapped in the middle of a conflict between an industrialized village and the ancient spirits that rule the nearby forest. He finds himself torn by his allegiance to the needs of man and his love for San, adopted daughter of one of the ancient forest gods, forcing him to choose a side in the epic battle that will decide the future of Japan.
Princess Mononoke might be the most ambitious piece of work director Hiyao Miyazaki has ever committed to the screen to date; it features a large cast of characters with complex motivations and desires, a heavy dose of Japanese mythology that roots the film firmly in fantasy while maintaining a human set of ideals and rules, epic battles and confrontations that rival the best live action period pieces, and some of the greatest hand drawn and painted animated sequences ever committed to film. It is possibly the most forward of Miyazaki’s films concerned with our ever expanding control and exploitation of our natural resources, but does so in a way that is both respectful of its audience and allows for a gripping narrative that is bathed in ambiguity. Neither side of the conflict at the heart of the movie is free of sin, making it all the more interesting to observe the rationalizations the use to justify force against one another.
Beyond the ideas that Mononoke tackles and its scope and scale, it presents us with Miyazaki’s potentially most interesting protagonist in Prince Ashitaka. Exiled from his home and driven by a moderately selfish desire to save himself from the devastating effects of the curse laid upon himself, he attempts to balance allegiances throughout the film not to either side in this particular conflict, but to individuals from each side that have done right by him in his quest. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in saving the village of Iron Town from devastation by the creatures of the forest, but wishes to protect select members of the town that showed him compassion; he doesn’t necessarily want to save the forest, but is compelled to do so in order to develop a romance with the wolf princess San, and save himself from the ancient curse that is bestowed upon him. He is both selfless and selfish in his motivations, giving him a human quality that many protagonists in animated films, even Miyazaki’s, sometimes seem to lack.
This kind of internal conflict leaks into the supporting cast as well. Take, for example, Lady Eboshi, the defacto leader of Irontown; she dedicates her life to taking care of the disabled and rescuing brothel girls from their den, but is forced to charge down and hunt gods into extinction to serve her people. Or San, whose childhood spent with the creatures of the forest blinds her to the idea of compromise with, or even to relate to her own species. There are also a fair number of one dimensional characters who don’t exhibit such intrigue, like the monk Jiko who is only driven by a lust for power and money, or the creatures of the forest such as the wolf god Moro or the boar god Okkoto, but they serve as spring boards to help realize and develop the characters who face such challenging conflicts throughout the film.
The film’s complex themes and characters are brilliantly realized through some of the finest animation ever drawn by hand. Massive landscapes and busy towns full of life are visualized through detailed line work and beautifully saturated color. The film’s production, which was as ambitious as the narrative it attempted to present, was the first Studio Ghibli animated feature to utilize computer generated graphics, and even digital painting techniques when the Japanese premiere loomed over the horizon, if only for minor sequences in the film. It results in a wonderful synergy between hand-drawn and computer art to help create some of the more fantastical elements of the film, such as the demon spirits that emanate from Ashitaka’s arm at certain key points in the film. The film’s color palette runs on the cool side of the spectrum, but is wonderfully saturated. It creates a film in which every frame could be plucked out and hung as a painting with its detail and colors.
Last, but not least is composer Joe Hisaishi’s incredible music, which is the glue that often holds Miyazaki’s productions together at the seams. He comes out in force, delivering an emotional score that is full of epic string numbers, bombastic percussion driven pieces, and a wonderful use of sonic contrast to help add the bow on top of an already strong piece of cinema. His score is an excellent extension of our main characters, what they’re feeling, and what they’re up against. It’s a score that you could listen to in isolation and easily visualize each scene it’s paired with from the film.
Like many of the films that I hold dear to my heart, I could gush for hours about Princess Mononoke. It’s one of those films where it’s so hard to pick and choose what to put in a review, which themes to put forward over others, and which characters to put up on a pedestal. It’s a beautiful movie full of rich characters who fight a battle that serves as a poignant metaphor for what we face today as humans on our planet. It takes itself and it audience seriously in presenting a mature, visceral animated experience. It’s a film that I believe truly changed the way both American audiences and critics approached Japanese animated films, and sets the bar incredibly high as a point of comparison for other animated features, both before and after its 1997 theatrical release in Japan. It’s a game changer in every sense of the word.
Notes about the translation: Princess Mononoke was localized for release in the United States by Miramax. In order to make the film more appealing to American audiences the film was translated and then adapted by author Neil Gaiman into an altered screenplay which was used for the dubbed English soundtrack. It features an all star cast that includes Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thorton, Gillian Anderson, and John DiMaggio. This version of the script features some lines that feel a bit stiff, and some of the voice acting is particularly troubling, especially that of Claire Danes as San and Billy Bob Thorton as the monk Jigo. As a result, some of the magic is lost as a sum of the dubbed soundtrack’s parts. It was the first major studio effort to localize a Studio Ghibli production, and has aged somewhat poorly, especially in comparison to its much newer peers, such as the dubbed audio tracks for Howl’s Moving Castle or Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind. It’s a great way to expose new viewers to the film, but if you find that something was lost in translation on your first viewing, I implore you to check out the original Japanese language track with English subtitles, as it is a more faithful representation of all that this ambitious film has to offer.
The Video (4.5/5)
Princess Mononoke was primarily drawn and painted by hand, and then photographed on 4-perf 35mm film with spherical lenses. It was drawn in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as is traditional of Japanese animated productions. Sourced from a 4K scan and restoration of the original film, it is presented on Blu-ray in 1080p resolution, in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
I have watched Princess Mononoke countless times on both Japanese Laserdisc and American DVD, as well as seen a dubbed 35mm print of the film when a local theater ran a series on the works of Miyazaki here in Rochester. I was so eager to get my hands on the Blu-ray master of this film that I imported the Japanese Blu-ray at great cost, nearly a year before it hit our shores here in the US. The result is, for the most part, absolutely worth the upgrade from previous formats. Line detail and background art is super sharp, revealing details in the busier sequences and drawn textures that were previously much softer, especially during the sequences set in the forest and in Iron Town. The image is graced with a light layer of film grain, and has been cleaned up and stabilized, eliminating much of the gate weave and print damage that has graced standard definition releases of the film. Color, especially during daytime sequences is outstanding, showcasing saturated greens, bright blues, and earthy browns. During nighttime sequences however, black levels are a little weak, and occasionally contrast doesn’t seem quite as strong as memory serves from previous screenings of the film. It is however, nothing problematic, just worthy of note.
The Audio (4.5/5)
The Japanese Blu-ray release includes not only a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and LPCM 2.0 stereo presentation of the Japanese language track, but also several languages known to many, and some known only to monkeys. For this review, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Japanese track and 5.1 Dolby Digital English track were used. For the rest of the included languages and subtitles, check below.
Princess Mononoke was director Hiyao Miyazaki’s first foray into 5.1 theatrical surround sound design back in 1997, and Studio Ghibli’s second feature film to use discrete surround sound. As with his willingness to embrace digital techniques in his visuals, Miyazaki worked with his sound design team to create a truly unique experience that has been recreated here in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Dynamic contrast is strong and effective, comfortably moving from the powerful booms of the bass drum that opens the film, to the more intimate moments shared between San and Ashitaka during the middle act of the film. Dialogue is locked to the center channel, and most crowd noise and sound effects register through the front stereo speakers. Surround activity is mostly reserved for the film’s larger scale action sequences, allowing the film’s score to fill the room in between battle sequences quite naturally. In comparing the DTS-HD Japanese track to the lossy Dolby Digital English track, I felt the dynamics were a bit more punchy in the original Japanese presentation. Otherwise, besides the English being presented in a compressed format, they were fairly comparable experiences.
Special Features/Packaging (4/5)
The Japanese release of Princess Mononoke has been brought to Blu-ray by Walt Disney Home Video Japan in a sleek evergreen colored digibook design. The front artwork features a minimal design that highlights the Kodama featured prominently in the film, which is placed underneath the film’s title in large block lettering. There are also logos to ensure that prospective buyers know this is a Blu-ray release, and that it is part of the Studio Ghibli collection. The back features no artwork whatsoever, leaving all of the technical information and credits for the release on a sticker that graces the plastic sleeve that the digibook is meant to be kept in. Upon opening the release, there are a few included materials on the left side which include a registration card, a few ad pieces from Walt Disney Home Video Japan, and a pamphlet for the release that includes some information about the film in Japanese and two full color reductions of the film’s original theatrical posters. It may not be a particularly busy looking package design, but the materials it was constructed out of and the overall style make it feel like it is still a prestige release.
On to the extras:
Complete Screenplay – the first significant extra included is what appears to be a complete screenplay/layout of the film in its original Japanese. It reads from right to left, and covers each individual shot of the film as planned during its pre-production phase.
Storyboards – a complete collection of the storyboards used to create the final animated sequences as seen in the film. They are presented in sequence, complete with camera pans and edits to help the animators visualize what the final product was to look like.
Mononoke Hime in U.S.A – a 20 minute documentary that chronicles the experience of bringing Princess Mononoke to a western audience. It includes his meetings with journalists and critics after showing the film at festivals, and his visit to Walt Disney Studios who partnered with Studio Ghibli on the English release. This has been prepared for an English speaking audience, complete with English subtitles printed into the image.
TV Spots and Theatrical Trailers – a massive collection of 19 TV Spots and trailers from both the original Japanese and Western releases of the film, as well as the Japanese re-release of the Western version of the film.
Assorted Trailers – a collection of trailers and ads for other animated productions released in Japan by Walt Disney, all presented with Japanese subtitles in their original language.
Princess Mononoke, or Mononoke Hime in the original Japanese has been released to Blu-ray in Japan with a surprisingly accessible collection of extras for a Western audience. The inclusion of the complete storyboards for the film, as well as the documentary chronicling its release in America and Canada makes it a must own for those fascinated with the construction of Miyazaki’s animated films.
Technical Specs (click for technical FAQs)
Region Coding: None
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
LPCM 2.0 stereo (Japanese)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (Japanese)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Finnish)
Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo (German, Korean, Chinese)
Japanese, English, French, German, Korean, Chinese
Runtime: 133 minutes
Princess Mononoke is not just on my list of game changers, but is also my favorite film ever made. It’s cast of rich characters, engaging human drama, and incredible action blockbuster sensibilities are perfectly matched with incredible animation, sound design, and one of my favorite soundtrack scores ever recorded. Thanks to the folks at Studio Ghibli and Walt Disney Home Video Japan, it has been released in Japan is a gorgeous digibook package. Paired with an excellent 1080p video transfer, excellent audio, and a decent serving of insightful extras, this release of the film feels like a truly prestigious release. Is it worth it over the standard US Blu-ray release? My gut tells me probably not, but for ravenous fans of the film such as myself, it was worth shelling out a decent chunk of change to get a shot at such a great release of the film nearly a year before American Blu-ray collectors could. RECOMMENDED for deep pocketed fans of the film in 2017, but everyone else ought to just pick up the US release, for the sake of convenience.