Princess Mononoke Review
Whilst defending his home town, young warrior Ashitaka (Billy Crudup, Yoji Matsuda) is wounded by a demonic wild boar that he blinds and shoots before it reaches his village. Appealing to the demon within the boar to leave his tribe in peace, Ashitaka is rebuked with a, "You filthy humans. Know my pain and hatred!" before it dies, its flesh flowing into the ground and leaving only a skeleton. With one arm now infected by the same demon who was inside the boar, Ashitaka, on the advice of his elders, leaves his village in search of a cure for the curse that has stained him, travelling west in the hope of, as he puts it, "seeing with eyes unclouded by hate."
As Ashitaka continues on his journey, he hears of the forest spirit Shishigami and of a cure to the curse within him but spotting a fight between humans and the wolf gods, Ashitaka realises that the land is being torn apart by the spirts of the forest and by the progress of humanity. Aiding two soldiers injured in the fight, Ashitaka takes them through the forest where he sees the wolf gods and young San (Claire Danes, Yuriko Ishida), a young girl raised within the wolf clan and who also fights alongside them, which has her known as Princess Mononoke. Returning the two men to their village, he meets Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver, Yuko Tanaka) and learns of the war, Ashitaka learns of the war that is ongoing between the forest spirits and her ironworks. Knowing that as his war escalates, it will threaten the life of Shishigama and his own cure, Ashitaka looks to reconcile the ironworks to the forest but, to his disappointment, sees it erupt into violence. As Ashitaka continues his search for Shishigama, so too do the Emperor's assassins, guiding humanity deeper into the forest and to a final stand by the animals against them.
Princess Mononoke is a difficult film to write about. As mentioned in my review of Porco Rosso, Mononoke is, to describe it rather flippantly, more spirit-guff from Studio Ghibli, here taken further than ever before. Ashitaka, San, the Lady Eboshi and Jiko (Billy Bob Thornton, Kaori Kobayashi) all talk of the spirits and gods of the forest throughout. None of this is helped by the English dub, though scripted by Neil Gaiman and well-received, is much wordier than the English subtitles for the Japanese language track suggests. Breathless from having to explain just too much, this leaves Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver and Claire Danes rushing through their dialogue in the manner of the dubbed delights of Monkey.
Then, of course, there's the animation itself, which isn't particularly impressive at first, least of all the demon boar, a mess of squirming snakes. Although, to be fair, it does get much, much better soon after. Finally, one can't even argue that it's for children as it's amongst the most violent of animated films, never moreso than in the graphic decapitations, the severed limbs and the hacking to death of villagers by rogue samurai. Not, one might think, a classic Studio Ghibli production.
But then there are moments in the film that are nothing less than wonderful. An epic film, Princess Mononoke uses its great length to allow its action to ebb and flow, contrasting scenes of great violence with ones of quiet contemplation. A gunfight on the side of a mountain is followed by the near silence of the forest and of Ashitaka guiding two porters to safety. Their panicking is silenced by the quiet sounds of San tending to the wounds on the wolf gods, leaving her face smeared with blood, which produces what is perhaps the most arresting image in all of Studio Ghibli's work. This is then followed by the ghostly appearance of the Kodama in the trees, whose strange faces and odd clicking accompany Ashitaka through and out of the forest.
These are not isolated incidents and so, later in the film, an attack on Iron Town in which Ashitaka is injured is followed by his quiet recuperation in the lakes of the forest, in which he lies as San awaits the arrival of the forest spirit. Though seamlessly integrated into the film, it is this moment in Iron City that is the bridge between the two halves of the film, the first of which aligns the various elements in the film whilst the second sets out to resolve them. Hence Ashitaka's second injury - the first occurs following his fight against the demon boar - sees him also armed with a knowledge of the opposing sides. On one side are the humans in Iron Town and the advance of their industry into the forest whilst, on the other, the animals occupy the land on its outskirts. The gorillas, armed with only a little ecological knowledge and with nothing more than rocks only see Ashitaka as food, whilst the boars are unthinking in their arrogance, leaving the wolves as the wisest of species but who are few in number, too few to actually make a difference.
What's best about Princess Mononoke is how Miyazaki realises his story without seeking to simplify it, to not leave it as a story coloured in strokes of black and white. Lady Eboshi may, for example, be seen as evil for her exploitation of the forest and for her being used by Jiko but for her caring of the lepers and the brothel women, she's actually a gifted leader of men and women. Similarly, whilst San can be seen as the heroine of the piece, she's too impetuous to be truly heroic, too lacking in foresight. The failure of the animals to protect the forest may be seen as her failure to bring animalkind with her. And Ashitaka? Maybe heroic but maybe only looking for a cure for the infection that has cursed him.
Rare it is that an animated film, so often written as it is drawn, in bright bold colours, is as subtle as this. More surprising even that it is so and yet so epic, taking in great battles, a siege, the destruction of a forest and the warring species of animalkind. Against a backdrop of life in the 14th century, Princess Mononoke is as determined to bring wartime and the industrial age to the world of animation as to have it reflect small moments of wonderment within the silence of the forest. It is, then, not only a superb adventure movie but also a thing of stunning and remarkable beauty.
Like the rest of the Studio Ghibli releases from Optimum, Princess Mononoke is interlaced and although a good setup can go some way to accounting for that, this does look a little drab and some of the colours are off. Comparing it to the R1 Alliance Atlantis/Miramax release of a few years ago, the difference is clear. There, a wolf actually looks like a wolf and is, for want of a better word, wolf-coloured. Here, it's an off-white, actually dirty-looking colour that, although sharper than the R1, isn't otherwise as good. The screenshots say more than my words so...
Miramax R1 Release
This R2 Optimum Release
Miramax R1 Release
This R2 Optimum Release
As for the audio track, Princess Mononoke is one of the R1 and R2 Studio Ghibli releases that I prefer watching with the Japanese language track enabled as it sounds much less rushed and with a more complementary set of actors. Claire Danes, for example, sounds too bratty for San whilst Billy Crudup is far too dull for Ashitaka. Similarly, the subtitles translating the Japanese language track are much better than the 'dubtitles', showing a certain sparsity of language in preference to the wordy English script.
As well as the Studio Ghibli Trailers (11m49s) that are common across all of these Optimum releases, there are also trailers for Princess Mononoke's Original Japanese Release (6m46s), which are of poor quality, being heavily artefacted. It's also worth noting that there's a fault on the Studio Ghibli trailers in that they're split into two titles but that the audio track from one is repeated on the other. Whisper of the Heart is, therefore, scored by music familiar to anyone who's seen Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind whilst the torch songs of Porco Rosso accompany the visuals from The Cat Returns.
The main extra, as with all of these Optimum releases is the Alternative Angle Storyboards, which, as I've said before, may well be interesting enough to dip into but not over the two-hours-plus of Princess Mononoke. And it is this length that leaves these storyboards looking very poor indeed with there being a lot of pixellation in the image. This may be unsurprising given Mononoke's 133-minutes (PAL-speed) but could have been avoided had Optimum chosen to present the storyboards as have Disney on their Ghibli releases in Region 1, on a second disc.
The individual parts of Princess Mononoke are often unimpressive but together, they make for an astonishing, remarkable piece of work. Where it lies in your order of preference of Studio Ghibli's works will, of course, depend on your own point of view but I put it second after the slight but very charming Kiki's Delivery Service. It's unfortunate then that Princess Mononoke is still waiting for a definitive release on Region 1 and on Region 2, leaving this alright but not as good as one would want for this epic and wonderful piece of animation.