Reviewby Zac Bertschy,
Heroic prince Ashitaka encounters a demonic beast - a giant boar overcome with rage and fury, transformed into a writhing mass of leeches. He's cursed by the beast, a black mark on his arm determined to kill him unless he can find a cure, the search for which puts him in the path of San, a girl raised by the old wolf gods that reside in an ancient forest. The natural world San fiercely protects is under attack by the forces of Lady Eboshi, the matriarch of Iron Town, where humanity's progress grows at the expense of the old world. Nature and humanity clash in a battle for dominion of the land.
There was a brief moment where Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke was the top-grossing film in Japan. It came out in the summer of 1997 there, and it was an instant phenomenon, its box office glory stolen mere months later when James Cameron's Titanic toppled it. Since then it's been bested several times more, most notably by Miyazaki's next film, Spirited Away, which made so much money domestically in Japan that beating its current record seems impossible. That film also went on to be the first animated work from Japan to score an Academy Award, and is now generally the first film most people mention when Miyazaki's name is brought up. It's a testament to the power and beauty of Princess Mononoke, however, that even without award statues and box office kingship it remains steadfast in the imaginations of millions, a worldwide inspiration, and in my estimation, still the finest film Hayao Miyazaki ever made.
At its core, it's no wonder this film was such a crowd-pleaser in Japan on release. In a sense, Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki's Lawrence of Arabia; it's a big sweeping spectacle, wide-scale entertainment enjoyed best on a massive screen that can envelop you in the film's world. As a story, it's a solid construction, perhaps the most straightforward of Miyazaki's films outside of Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso - free of the narrative rabbit trails and nonsensical plot developments of his later work like Ponyo or Howl's Moving Castle. The lead characters - cursed prince Ashitaka, wolf-raised San, and Lady Eboshi, the leper-healing, forest-wrecking leader of Iron Town - all contain shades of light and dark. They're given room to breathe and grow, subtly evolving along with the story's flow, each contributing to the themes in meaningful ways. It's deliberately paced, slow but with purpose, never dull, with masterfully animated action sequences exploding just when they need to. Joe Hisaishi's score feels like an evolution of everything he's done before - the booming main theme unmistakably characterizes the film as a Big Deal before it really gets going, and the otherworldly tones present in the deep forest scenery feels like a perfected version of what he was going for back in the 80s with the electronic score for Nausicaä. Of Miyazaki's work in the last 15 years, it stands out as perhaps the most cohesive, the most fully-realized.
In many ways, Princess Mononoke is a retread of themes Miyazaki has been exploring his entire career. He first tackled the relationship between man and nature - in a much simpler fashion - in 1984's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and the similarities between that film and this one are many, to the point where people often call Princess Mononoke a remake of Nausicaä. It isn't quite that - rather, it's a distillation and refinement of the themes at work in Nausicaä, a dramatically more measured approach to the idea that man and nature need to coexist peacefully by an artist whose attitude towards it has clearly changed over time. If Nausicaä is about mankind embracing the raw, dangerous natural world wholeheartedly, acknowledging its place as a conservation-minded participant in the natural cycle of things rather than claiming dominion over it, Princess Mononoke is about finding compromise between these two realms and recognizing the needs of both. Frankly, it's an improvement on the groundwork Nausicaä laid down; a more carefully considered take on the subject, a more complete story, with characters whose roots are grounded in reality. San never walks on a sea of communing giant boars and saves the ancient forest from mankind's cruel hand; instead, the rugged natural world of old with no place for humanity gives way - albeit violently - to a landscape that invites careful compromise and peaceful living.
Most of the film's themes are explicitly stated in the second volume of Miyazaki's collected writings and interviews, Turning Point: 1997-2008, which features a number of interviews about exactly what the film's supposed to mean, and it's here where the real magic of this film is articulated. In the interviews, Miyazaki talks about creating a natural landscape that feels primal and ancient - the birthplace of the natural world, the beginning, imagery that lives inside the dark places of our shared cultural knowledge. That he managed to create that scenery so spectacularly and completely is the film's triumph; that 'ancient and primal' feeling is something you're inescapably absorbed in. It's in nearly every corner of the movie's aesthetic; the way the giant moss-covered trees intertwine in a labyrinth of centuries-old undisturbed veins. The way the rage-possessed boar's wriggling black mass of leeches swirls around in a ballet of hatred that doesn't feel like it could've been animated by human hands. The way the old forest gods - the giant wolves and boars - slowly move their massive jaws to communicate, their eyelids half-shut, creaking words heavy with the weight of history slowly pouring from them. Miyazaki describes the Kodama, the cute little rattle-headed forest spirits, as "something that seems like it would exist in a forest that old" - these are images that flicker in the back of your subconscious, a part of your psyche still curious about the magical underpinnings of the world presuming that of course, something like the Kodama would be here. Their concept has been given shape before, but never like this, an image so in tune with the feeling he's trying to evoke that your brain says "yes, of course, that's it" to this thing that doesn't exist. And in a reflecting pool in the serene center of this cradle of life, the forest god - an indelible image, strikingly surreal, with giant antlers and a human face. The ancient forest imagery in Princess Mononoke is its own visual language, tapping in to something that looks almost alien but feels like such a deeply-rooted part of mother Earth that your emotional response is as if you're seeing where you came from for the first time. It is a sublime representation of the beating heart of the natural world, and Miyazaki's best work as an artist.
Disney's bluray release is an absolutely gorgeous presentation that is, visually, the best way to see this film shy of a freshly-struck 35mm print run by an expert projectionist. For over a decade we've been stuck with that awful old Miramax DVD, cursed by a bad transfer, and now we finally have a presentation worthy of the film. Unfortunately, the bluray falls down in a number of other ways; on the original Miramax DVD, there was an included "literal Japanese translation" subtitle track that fans forced on Disney back in the day. The plan then was to include a transcription of Neil Gaiman's adapted script as the only English subtitle track, but thanks to a petition (imagine that!) we had both Gaiman's script and a subtitle track that was more faithful to the original language, but that option is completely absent from this release. It's a shame, considering Gaiman's script is adequate at getting the story across and bringing the characters to life, but it's missing the strange, old-time language the film uses to evoke the period and mood. It's a different experience with the literal translation, and that it isn't on this disc (the included DVD in this combo pack uses the exact same menus as the old Miramax disc, with the 'literal translation' option ripped out) is a big mark against it. It isn't quite dubtitled - the subtitles do change when you switch to the Japanese language track, and they've removed lines added for the dub and changed a few other sentences (the "are you selling soup or donkey piss?" line appears no matter what you do) but largely it's just the dub script.
That old dub - packed with Harvey Weinstein-approved Miramax superstars of the 90s like Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, and Billy Bob Thornton, still holds up pretty well, although like most other Ghibli dubs everyone's speaking in hushed monotone, going for naturalism but sounding a little flat. The decision to cast Gillian Anderson as barking wolf god Moro remains the most baffling choice, but it isn't so distracting as to take you out of the film. Personally, I've always liked this dub in spite of some of the decisions they made back then, and it sounds great on this bluray.
The only extras are standard definition holdovers from the original release - nothing new, none of the new stuff from the Japanese BD, which also has much cooler cover art than the "Ashitaka fights a disembodied arm" ugly hodgepodge from the 90s reused here yet again. I suppose we should be thankful that it isn't the bizarre "giant golden coin" thing they put on the theatrical poster for the American release. If picture quality is your only concern and you're cool with the dub, this is cheaper than the Japanese BD and looks great. If you want the experience of watching it with the intended cadence and tenor of ancient times, you're out of luck.
While the release itself is flawed, it's worthy of celebration that a film of this beauty and magnitude is finally available in a resolution befitting its prestige. It's the sort of movie that wraps you up in its aesthetic, searing iconic images into your mind, the kind of artistry that blends itself with deep emotion to create something truly unforgettable. It is the pinnacle of Hayao Miyazaki's artistic capability and one of the finest pieces of cinema in history.
Overall : A+
Story : A+
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : A+
+ One of the best films ever made.
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