Princess Mononoke Anime Review
US Release By
In ancient times, the forces of man and the gods of the beasts are beginning to clash over the forests and their natural resources. When young Ashitaka, the prince of an isolated village, kills a rampaging boar god, he is afflicted with a curse. In a matter of time it will kill him if he cannot find a cure. So, he travels away from his home to find the cause of the boar god's curse and hatred of humans. There he finds humans fighting not only amongst themselves, but a town of outcasts where the soil is mined for iron. The people of this town are determined to take the resources from the forest near them, but that forest is the home of the forest god, and is protected by the wolf clan. There is also one human who fights with the beasts--San, the Princess Mononoke. Ashitaka seeks only to find answers, but he soon finds himself in the middle of an epic struggle.
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Anything Hayao Miyazaki puts his hand to is all but guaranteed instant anime classic status, but Princess Mononoke deservedly ranks among the masterpieces of the medium, and in my opinion of cinema in general. It is a serious--yet beautiful--allegorical tale that doesn't take any easy ways out and paints a more complicated picture than movies that try many times harder than it apparently does. The feel is earthy and the solid plot populated with interesting, well-developed characters. Mononoke's only significant flaw is that it is very much an alternate retelling of Nausicaa, but it distinguishes itself from that film by the drastically different setting and murky morality. Unlike most "man versus nature" stories, the comforting black and white answers that make things easy are nowhere to be found. It is also, as expected, a visual feast, though instead of the breathtaking flight sequences of most of Miyazaki's films the visual treats consist of beautifully realistic natural settings and sharp, gritty action.
Princess Mononoke may not be without flaw, but it's certainly close, and it manages to be entertaining, mentally engaging, morally complex, and beautiful to behold in almost every way. It is the most "mature" of Miyazaki's films, and is in serious contention for the position of his greatest work.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
While anything Hayao Miyazaki puts his hand to is all but guaranteed anime classic status--whether deserving or not--Princess Mononoke deservedly ranks among the masterpieces of the medium, and in my opinion of cinema in general. It is a serious yet beautiful allegorical tale that doesn't take any easy ways out and paints a more complicated picture than movies that try many times harder than it apparently does.
Just because Princess Mononoke is a large-scale allegory doesn't mean that the story and characters are nebulous or broad; on the contrary, the feel is surprisingly earthy and the story is quite solid. The characters are equally well-developed: Their motives are not superficial, and the distinction between who is good and bad, what is right and wrong, is neither clear nor simple--at times, it's not even readily discernible.
While the film superficially looks like one of those "evil mankind versus good nature" stories, it is thankfully not nearly that simple (much less so than Nausicaa or Pom Poko), and the telling of the tale is both engrossing and thought-provoking. Don't sit back and expect to have the lines drawn for you--comforting black-and-white answers are nowhere to be found. Here the nature-destroying "bad guys" have lives and do a lot of good things, and the embodiments of nature are bitter and full of very human flaws.
Writer/director Miyazaki's reputation was built on beautiful, fanciful "children's" stories, but Princess Mononoke is most decidedly not intended for kids--it stands out as easily the most "mature" production in his filmography. The themes are familiar, but there is a harder edge than even Nausicaa had, and the violence is considerably (and surprisingly) more graphic than any of his other works.
I can really only find one flaw with the film, and that is its lack of originality. Not originality in general--there are few movies like this--but originality for Miyazaki; it's immediately obvious that the basic story and theme is very similar to Nausicaa. Of course, that's not exactly a bad thing, considering how loved Nausicaa is. While it would have been interesting to see Miyazaki try some new subject matter, the very different take on an essentially similar story and characters clearly differentiates Princess Mononoke from its predecessor--the feel is more down-to-earth, the action more gritty, and the situations and characters much more complex.
Artistically, Miyazaki fans need not fear; the story may be complex, but that doesn't mean that Miyazaki's extraordinary talent for artistic beauty is in any way dimmed. On the contrary, this is in many ways his most beautiful movie to date. It is different from his previous works in that the locations are much less fanciful, and the startlingly violent action is smaller-scale. It is similar in that he takes the simple, realistic locales and draws an amazing amount of beauty out of them. The renderings of grassy fields, fertile valleys, and dark forests are true works of art in and of themselves, as is the almost-familiar Japanese architecture. The characters, both human and animal, are, likewise, exquisitely crafted and rendered. Although the character designs are no stretch for Miyazaki--their looks are mostly taken from Nausicaa (though some of their personalities are quite different)--they are as pleasing as ever, and the character animation is, as you'd expect from Ghibli, flawless.
As for action, don't expect many of the sweeping chases or breathtaking aerial sequences of other Miyazaki films, but the action is equally striking in a more down-to-earth way. One thing you might want to pay attention to is the very effective use of open space. Due to gunfire and arrows, much of the action takes place at long ranges, and the sense of distance is impressively realistic and gives a unique feel to several scenes.
At the time Princess Mononoke was produced, some hard-core anime fans were worried about the coming tide of computer-assisted animation; not so much 3D objects, but computer coloring and compositing of traditional, frame-by-frame animation. It seemed like the harbinger of the apocalypse when Miyazaki's studio Ghibli, masters of cel animation, began using computer techniques and even 3D animation for some backgrounds. The fear turned out to be completely unfounded--the computer techniques are only noticeable in that Princess Mononoke looks as beautiful as anything Ghibli has ever done. It maintains an artistic, handcrafted look while utilizing computer animation where it is most effective--with subtle moving backgrounds that can be more smoothly animated with computers. The result is barely (if ever) noticeable and quite beautiful.
Both the original Japanese version and the high-profile English dub are quite good. I think the Japanese acting and casting are somewhat better, but you won't be disappointed by all the big-name actors in the dub. Billy Kudrup (Ashitaka) in particular delivers a solid performance, and most of the other characters (even minor ones) are quite good as well. I was a little wary of the very different vocal take on the wolf god--she has a rumbling, masculine voice in Japanese--but Gillian Anderson does well in the limited role. I wasn't terribly fond of San--she sounds a bit too modern--but the only performance I was really disappointed by was Billy Bob Thorton's. Not only was he a poor choice for the role and acted with too much indifference, but somehow an ancient Japanese monk with a Southern accent just doesn't seem right. In all, though, you won't go wrong with the dialogue in either language.
This was essentially the first of the great anime productions to see broad, if limited, theatrical release in the US, and there couldn't have been a better choice. I, at least, found it a little difficult to believe initially that a Miyazaki production could be serious, realistically violent, deep, thought provoking, and a visual work of art on top of it all, but Princess Mononoke is all of those things, and it is in serious contention for the position of his greatest work (I personally preferred Nausicaa by a hair). It may not be without flaw, but it's certainly close and it manages to be entertaining, mentally engaging, morally complex, and beautiful to behold in almost every way.
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Much like Miyazaki's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
Notes and Trivia
Princess Mononoke is an original concept by Hayao Miyazaki, who also wrote and directed the film.
For those wondering about the setting, the movie theoretically takes place in Japan some time during the 15th century, a feudal period before the country was unified. The general scenery and architecture are based on fact. The rest takes significant liberties with the reality of the time; aside from the fantasy elements, the musket-like guns used probably did not exist, the creature Ashitaka rides is entirely fictional, and while Ashitaka's isolated tribe is based on an actual ethnic group, they had been wiped out or assimilated by the time the story theoretically takes place.
Released theatrically in the US by Miramax, Princess Mononoke grossed a few million dollars in relatively limited release. At the time of its release it was the all-time highest-grossing film in Japan, a title later taken by Titanic, which was later one-upped by Miyazaki's Spirited Away.
Princess Mononoke was also, at the time of its production, the most expensive anime film ever made, with a budget of about 2.4 billion yen. In comparison, this is over twice as much as Akira's budget, and thanks to Japan's near-zero inflation rate, little adjustment is necessary to compare the figures.
Princess Mononoke was the first stage of Disney's deal to release Ghibli films in North America in completely uncut form (Miramax is a division of Disney, for those unfamiliar). Disney has since released almost all of the Ghibli catalog either in theaters or direct to home video. The "absolutely uncut" stipulation in the deal was certainly a boon to Miyazaki fans--that is almost certainly the only reason all the violence in Princess Mononoke was left intact in the US release. It was apparently spurred by the treatment Nausicaa saw in a very early US release as "Warriors of the Wind," a dub-only video release that drastically edited the film, changed characters' names, and altered the plot. That movie is usually cited as the reason that Castle of Cagliostro (and some Lupin III TV episodes) was the only Miyazaki production to make it to North America until quite recently.
US DVD Review
Miramax is known for handling unusual material, and they did a pretty good job with the movie itself, but I was skeptical about how their eventual video release would be. Surprisingly, the DVD is a fine piece of work. On the down side, there are essentially no extras--just some trailers. On the up side, the actual movie is as good as anybody could ask for; the video is very sharp and vivid (though not quite perfect on close scrutiny), there are fine Dolby 5.1 soundtracks in both Japanese and English, an English dub transcription track, and a real, live, literal translation of the original Japanese (important, since it is somewhat different from the English script).
As an extra (and extremely pleasing surprise), if you're watching in Japanese, you get the original version; the opening features the original Japanese text overlay (with translation in the subtitles) instead of the voiceover used in the English version, the title is in Japanese, and the Japanese credits are intact (with major voice players translated in the subtitles, although they did leave out a few). Not fancy, but as far as solid productions go, this disc is near-perfect in my book.
Maturely themed and relatively (though never gratuitously) violent, it appropriately earned a PG-13 rating.
Violence: 3 - Several relatively gory animal deaths and a fair amount of quite serious human violence as well.
Nudity: 1 - Essentially none.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Indirect romance and generally mature themes.
Language: 1 - Nothing of note.
Staff & Cast
Original Japanese Cast
Ashitaka: Matsuda Youji
San: Ishida Yuriko
Lady Eboshi: Tanaka Yuuko
Gonza: Kamijou Tsunehiko
Jiko: Kobayashi Kaoru
Old Woman: Mori Mitsuko
Toki: Shimamoto Sumi
Kouroku: Nishimura Masahiko
Wolf God: Miwa Akihiro
Okkotonushi (Boar God): Morishige Hisaya
Kaya: Ishida Yuriko
Cursed Boar: Sato Mitsuru