Princess Mononoke – Review

When someone brings up the directorial works of Hayao Miyazaki, three works tend to be discussed first, the adorable and innocent My Neighbor Totoro, the Academy Award-winning Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, an over two hour long fantasy quest without a real “bad guy”, doubles as an environmental film, triples as an anti-war film and also happens to be a masterpiece. Princess Mononoke is the among the first wave of Studio Ghibli films to be being re-released by GKIDS (distributed by Shout! Factory) on 2-Disc Blu-ray and DVD combo pack starting October 17th.

The Film

The film follows Ashitaka, a warrior, who saves his village from a demon who has infected a giant boar God, Nargo, but gets infected himself in the process. After being banished, Ashitaka sets off upon his majestic red elk to try to find the Great Forest Spirit who could bring life or take it away to help relieve him of his curse. Along the way he finds himself torn between the people of Iron Town, a gun-happy mining community who had terrible lives until they built where parts of the forest once stood, the animal Gods who lived there first but grow weaker by the day and the titular Princess Mononoke, (a symbolic mocking nickname meaning monster or spirit) actually named San who was raised by the Wolf God, Moro, he represents a melding of worlds whether she likes it or not.

There are many characters in the film that want the Great Forest Spirit for their own reasons and even if they don’t the other character’s motivations tend to be entangled with the characters that are off looking for the Great Forest Spirit anyway. The motivations become clear from character standpoints but there is no true person who is completely wrong in this story so that, as well as the fact that there are so many characters and plotlines to keep track of it, may be harder to process for some than others. When Lady Eboshi, the matriarch of Iron Town asks Ashitaka what he’d want he simply replies “to see with eyes unclouded by hate”. That is one of the biggest messages of the film. Yes, there is an environmental message in the film about how we need to be better to the animals and earth around us but Miyazaki’s well-documented pacifism is clear in this feature. We are meant to learn not to hate our fellow man or beast. We are all selfish, and stupid but we all have our reasons for that, to begin with. Life will only become simpler once we let go of hatred. One of the miracles, among many, in Miyazaki’s filmmaking, however, is telling that kind of message in a compelling, entertaining way and not sounding preachy while doing it.

If you expect cute animals and magic in this film because of Miyazaki’s lighter fare you may be a tad surprised by the kind of story this is, including the violence included such as decapitation and arms being severed however don’t be too afraid as this film does feature quite a bit of magic involved too, such as the Kodama spirits that signify the health of the forest, the Forest spirit’s Nightwalker transformation and Ashitaka’s elk, Yakul (or Yakkuru in the Japanese version).

The American Dub of the film feature’s a script adapted by author, Neil Gaiman, and performances by 90’s Hollywood stars Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Billy Bob Thornton. Most of the actors give these parts all they have in them and work very well despite the obvious constraints they are working against dubbing the film rather than creating a character from scratch. Keep an ear out for Futurama and Adventure Time‘s own John DiMaggio in an early role to as the gruff bodyguard Gonza and the always fabulous Keith David as the opening narrator and blind boar God, Okkoto!

The film totals 2 hours and 15 minutes long, something that Miyazaki himself admits in one of the extras is very long. The length however long for animation has since become more or less the norm for feature-length run times in the past 20 years. Even if that change in culture hadn’t happened the experience breezes by you in what feels like an instant.

The Disc

In 1999 Princess Mononoke was first released in North America via Miramax films which were then owned by The Walt Disney Company. Around the time Disney sold Miramax they reshuffled the ownership so that they still handled the rights as opposed to selling them off. In 2014, the curiously branded “Disney Presents: A Studio Ghibli Film” Blu-Ray of Princess Mononoke was released. It was a fairly respected release but not an altogether perfect one.

Packaging

While I am not a fan of all of the new covers of the Ghibli cannon I can’t express how much better this cover is then the one Disney has been using for almost 20 years. Gone is the boring yellowish gold tint on Iron Town above an awkward action shot of Ashitaka and in its place is a lovely shot of San atop one of the wolves early in the film. The spine takes a bit of that shot and adds the GKIDS logo and a Studio Ghibli one featuring a Chibi-Totoro. It will not match the blue and gold Disney-Ghibli releases at all but should look nice and uniform next to other GKIDS titles. Early pressings of the film include a slipcover.

Video

The GKIDS Blu-ray release of Princess Mononoke has looks stunning. The colours pop and the lines look as crisp as they possibly can. The feature is shown in 1080p HD in a Widescreen frame of 1.85:1. The included DVD copy has the same size of the frame but looks poor in comparison to the stellar Blu-Ray. The colours on the standard definition look muted and pail while the video looks fuzzy almost as if it’s buffering video.

Audio and Subtitles

The audio on both the Blu-Ray and DVD is good with the Blu-ray edging out the DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 with DTS-HD 5.1. You have the option of listening to the film in English dub, French Dub or the original Japanese.

On both the Blu-Ray and DVD feature subtitles in French or English but two kinds of English subtitles are listed. The viewer can choose between watching the film with English subtitles that are literal translations of the film from Japanese or the so-called ‘dub-titles’ that transcribe the words that Neil Gaiman wrote for the English dub of the film. The ability to see both is quite a treat that was previously unavailable.

Bonus Features

A tangible extra begins the bonus list as an Exclusive 8-Page Booklet is included within the case. The booklet includes an introduction written for the 2013 Japanese release of Princess Mononoke by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, a statement about the film from Miyazaki prior to the film’s completion and some art from the film. It is a nice addition but not a reason to double-dip.

The first extra on the disc is a substantial one. You are given the ability to watch the complete film, in the language of your choosing, in Black, White and yellow storyboard form. This is a nice touch and interesting to see how detailed some storyboards are compared to pretty barren ones elsewhere in the film. This feature is available in HD.

Princess Mononoke in USA is a behind the scenes featurette detailing Miyazaki’s promotional tour throughout North America. I say North America because one an outline of the US disappears from the screen, we seen the Toronto, Ontario skyline as he promotes the film at the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. He also visits Los Angles and New York premieres on the trip with a varying degree of delight and annoyance depending on who is talking to him at the time. The feature is narrated in Japanese but features subtitles in English or Japanese running constantly so people who understand either to be able to follow along. This was the biggest surprise that GKIDS didn’t drop from Disney’s release (unlike many John Lasseter focused features on other Ghibli re-releases) as it is a very Disney heavy feature. Among other Disney content in the extra, a large chunk of the feature is Miyazaki taking a tour of the Disney Studios meeting animators and looking at the progress being done on Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Sweating Bullets (which later became Home on the Range). This is a terrific extra and fascinating look into who Hayao Miyazaki is as a man. Spectacular choice keeping it on the disc.

Less essential is Behind the Microphone a standard definition promotional puff piece with interviews from the American Dub cast and crew that looks like it was ripped from a VHS.

The disc closes out with a long series of trailers and TV spots used to promote the film in 1997 and 1999 in Japan and the US in varying qualities of condition.

Final Thoughts

In the included booklet Hayao Miyazaki says “I am not attempting to solve the entire world’s problems […] Even amidst hatred and carnage, life is worth living”. This is prevalent in the marketing that tries to emphasize the ‘will to live’ angle of the story which when combined with the other important messages of Miyazaki, intriguing characters, lovely music, and magnificent animation creates an opus that demands to be owned. If you do have Princess Mononoke on Blu-Ray already, this release corrects some mistakes from the previous release, such as lack of literal subtitles but if you do not have it already, GKIDS release improves upon the Disney release without losing anything.

VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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