Our review of Princess Mononoke (1997) (Blu-ray), published November 29th, 2014, is also available.
"Now watch closely, everyone. I'm going to show you how to kill a god."—Lady Eboshi
In nearly every corner of the world except America, Hayao Miyazaki's name is mentioned in the same breath as Walt Disney. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime or "monster princess" in Japan) broke all box office records in Japan and currently stands as the most successful domestic film to date (beaten only by Titanic). A masterful fusion of strong characterization, intense action, stunning art—all wrapped around a mature critique of our relationship to nature—this film may very well be one of the finest animated features ever made.
Facts of the Case
In a remote village in feudal Japan, a dying tribe (the Emishi, an indigenous tribe of Japan now extinct) lives at peace with nature. One day, the village is brutally assaulted by a frightening creature, a boar god corrupted by sinister magic and transformed into a monster. Ashitaka, a young warrior, puts the great beast out of its misery, but not before sustaining a terrible wound on his arm, which bubbles with supernatural putrescence. Fearing Ashitaka's corruption, the villagers send him out to find the source of the boar god's wound—where did this mysterious iron ball come from?
Far from home, struggling against his own corrupted body, Ashitaka finds himself embroiled in a battle between two forces. In a budding industrial town, Lady Eboshi employs freed prostitutes, former serfs, and even outcast lepers to build a human empire that will civilize the wilderness with iron and guns. In the forest, wild gods gather their strength to fight back, led by a beautiful but savage girl who has chosen to give up her humanity and side with the animals. Her name is San, the Princess Mononoke.
A lot of reviews for this film will preface their arguments with the "surprising revelation" that cartoons are not just for children. Duh. Bugs Bunny was full of wartime references and sexual innuendo. Winsor McCay drew a hyperrealistic account of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1918. That having been said, let us talk about Hayao Miyazaki.
Since his break from studio-controlled work in the early 1980s, Miyazaki has been Japan's foremost anime artist. But his work is little known in this country, apart from a handful of films. Castle of Cagliostro, his first feature, is available from Manga Video, and the elegant My Neighbor Totoro is available from Fox, but only on VHS. A couple of years ago, Disney bought American distribution rights to all of Miyazaki's films produced through his own studio (Studio Ghibli), except for the mournful Grave of the Fireflies (directed by his friend and longtime producer Isao Takahata—it is currently available from Central Park Media). Disney was given a few ground rules, including a clause that forbade them from tampering with the films' contents and a restriction that prevents them from marketing the films under the Disney name. The first release from Disney was well distributed: Kiki's Delivery Service was made available in both dubbed and subbed (this one is harder to find) editions. A promised dub of Laputa: Castle in the Sky (a wonderful children's adventure film) was meant to follow, but has yet to appear.
Ironically, the films most comparable to Princess Mononoke have yet to appear in English. This most recent and most mature feature (meant to be Miyazaki's swan song, but he has postponed retirement and has a new film due this July) invites close comparison to the environmental themes of his first independent feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. But what appeared in that film as a strongly anti-humanist approach to the problem of environmental destruction (implying that the human race may need to perish in order for the world to truly be safe), becomes far more complex in Mononoke. Lady Eboshi (voiced in the dub by Minnie Driver) is an intelligent and well-intentioned character: her drive to raise all humanity up through technology and culture is admirable, if her actions are rather misguided. In turn, the forest gods, driven to a state of war against the humans, no longer care about compromise or communication. They too only seek to survive and control their territory, even if their only recourse is violence. The territorial battle between these two sides places Ashitaka (dubbed by Billy Crudup) and San (Claire Danes) in the middle. Both tread a fine line—part human and part "nature"—which suggests that the real solution lies in collapsing the very binary distinction between the two sides: fusion rather than dominance.
Strong female characters are also notable in this film. Indeed, most of Miyazaki's films focus on female protagonists (the notable exception being Porco Rosso, which satirizes the excesses of "masculinity"). Although here, Miyazaki plays a male character (Ashitaka) off between the two antagonistic women, adeptly balancing the film's character triangle as Ashitaka moves between the two worlds of the forest and the town.
For this American release of the film, Disney hired fantasy writer Neil Gaiman to polish the translation into a script that sounded more natural in English. His work here is pretty good (even Miyazaki is said to prefer Gaiman's "Spirit of the Forest" to the more literal "Deer God" for the—well, forest spirit hunted by the humans). Curiously, Disney provides subtitles with both Gaiman's script and a literal translation from the Japanese, in case you want to compare. Alternate audio tracks offer the original Japanese voice-work (not listed on the package, since Disney actually decided to add it at the last minute) and a French dub. The Japanese soundtrack is, of course, excellent, and with the Gaiman-scripted subtitles, you can have the best of both worlds.
The voice work for the American dub is pretty good, at least compared to the usual quality of American anime dubs. Gaiman's script is well timed to allow the voice performers to emote without having to rush their lines to match the animation. Claire Danes does not have quite enough edge in her voice for San, but she does a solid job with the character. Minnie Driver is most impressive as Lady Eboshi, giving the character the right level of power and thinly veiled menace. Most of the other voice actors hold up well, with the possible exception of Billy Bob Thornton, who sounds rather stiff and out of place as the conniving monk Jigo. Although I must admit, his voice seems to be mixed better into the soundtrack than it was in the theater (where it projected forth like he was in another film altogether).
The transfer is fantastic: 1.85:1, enhanced, with a crisp Dolby 5.1 soundtrack. While not as pristine as some of Disney's own recent releases (which because they are stored digitally, can be dumped straight to DVD without a film scratch in sight), the print preserves the rich, deep tones of the theatrical release. Miyazaki's artistry is particularly apparent in the depth of detail in the lush layers of green forest and warm streams of light. Memorable visual details stand out: curious, rattling tree sprites, animals with realistic weight and strength, complex emotions evident on the characters' faces. San's first encounter with Ashitaka in the film is especially striking: he spots her across the river, sucking poison from the gunshot wound of her wolf-mother Moro (voiced with eerie solemnity by Gillian Anderson). She stares for a moment—a silent pause that speaks volumes—and forcefully spits out a stream of blood. At once noble, beautiful, and savage, San is a dangerous but enticing mystery to Ashitaka from this first moment of eye contact. Neither will give ground easily.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps the only weak spot on this disc is the extras. I am glad that Disney went back and delayed the release in order to restore the Japanese soundtrack, but they should have also taken the time to add more features. The five-minute "featurette" is little more than a puff piece, showing only a few seconds of Miyazaki at work and instead showing too much of the American voice actors gushing about how great Miyazaki is. Well, if he is so great, show us more of him! A more thorough look at his work would have been great promotion on Disney's part for future Miyazaki releases. Well, assuming we will ever get to see any more of them. A theatrical trailer (full frame) is also included.
Princess Mononoke is more than a stunning artistic achievement. It also provides a complex exploration of the uneasy balance between our human culture and our status as members of a natural environment. Hayao Miyazaki is as great as they all say he is—and this film more than proves it.
Disney is ordered by this court to release the rest of the Studio Ghibli films—not only Miyazaki's work but his collaborators as well—posthaste. And no more skimping on the supplements either. Miyazaki is hereby blessed by both gods and men, which proves at least they can agree on something. Maybe there is hope for us yet…
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Scales of Justice
• Original Japanese soundtrack
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