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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
When asked which Hayao Miyazaki-directed Studio Ghibli film is my favorite (this surprisingly happens more often than not), I almost always reply with Castle in the Sky, the 1986 fantasy-adventure about two children and their search for a lost civilization of cloud people. In the number two spot, I almost always slotted Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s 1997 mega-hit about a battle between human ironworkers (headed by a charismatic and unconventional leader) and supernatural forest beasts (headed by vengeful and gigantic wolf). Walt Disney’s recent re-release of Princess Mononoke on Blu Ray, however, has swayed me once and for all. I’ve decided it is actually my favorite Miyazaki movie after all.
Re-watching the film over Thanksgiving break, I was struck at just how violent and dark the film is in places. This is a far cry from some of Miyazaki’s recent efforts, which have included more children-oriented projects as Ponyo (which I haven’t even watched all the way through more than once) and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (as an aside, I have not seen his newest and perhaps final film, The Wind Rises). I think Ponyo is an ok film, and I tend to find both Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle to be incredibly overrated (even if that word means almost nothing on the internet anymore). Princess Mononoke is a grand adventure, gorgeously animated and gargantuan in scope. I think it puts a lot of Miyazaki’s other efforts to shame in that respect, and it must have been an absolute beast to create, storyboard, and animate.
What I like about Mononoke is its world-building, something Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky also handled quite well. Ashitaka, a prince-type character from a far off village, is distinctly culturally different from the ironworking ladies and their idiot husbands in Iron Town, people who generally come from the dregs of society in bigger cities and thus act differently from the comparative hayseed that is Ashitaka. The leader of Iron Town, Lady Eboshi, is definitely unconventional, if only because she is a woman living and prospering in a man’s world, consumed by materialistic green but also matronly and revered by her lady workers. Her citizens and most loyal workers are prostitutes she has rescued from city brothels, and the male residents, who are treated with much disdain throughout the film, are either hired guns, glorified porters, or put-upon husbands of the lady workers.
If Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi are different enough, then the third faction of characters in Princess Mononoke, the gigantic, elusive, and supernatural forest creatures are almost wholly unique. The wolves, led by matron Moro, are perhaps the smallest but most vicious and powerful faction. Others include the boars, who tragically have rapidly become smaller and less intelligent as more and more of the forest is given way to industrialization. The forest-dwelling apes are regressing to near-cannibals, naively demanding to eat the human Ashitaka to gain his “powers.” The forest god, a large elk-creature who sometimes appears with a humanoid face, both gives and takes life in the forest. As the woods dwindle, so does the forest god’s elusive power over life.
In addition to Lady Eboshi’s workers and Ashitaka, there are also several other factions of interesting humans in Princess Mononoke. One is San, who is allied with the wolves after being raised by Moro. Jigo is a villainous monk who lent his riflemen to Lady Eboshi but who also has a secretive agenda of his own. Lady Eboshi and her workers also must face off against a local daimyo, who seeks to take the iron works and all of its potential money and power for himself. Princess Mononoke is filled with complicated and layered characters. In almost any other movie, these characters would be either completely black or white. In this movie, the only character who actually falls on that scale is perhaps Ashitaka, who is almost entirely good-hearted. And even he is done extremely well.
This is also an incredibly violent movie. Re-watching on Blu Ray, I was almost instantly reminded of just how violent and gross Princess Mononoke can be in places. There is a lot of murder presented here, and a lot of gruesome murder at that. I didn’t remember just how much amputation there is in this movie, for example. Characters get arms and heads lopped off in almost every major battle scene in the film. There is also a lot of blood, guts, and other disgusting, horrifying things (such as the demons that infest the boar gods). Princess Mononoke is one of the harder PG-13 films I’ve seen, and could arguably have been given an R rating for violence alone. Miyazaki has never made a more violent film, and his subsequent works even seem incredibly quaint by comparison.
Princess Mononoke also has something a lot of the more recent Studio Ghibli films somewhat lack. That is, this film has an incredibly compelling story. I was sucked in almost immediately, and could not take my eyes off the screen. The film is dramatic, adventurous, action packed, and never, ever boring. There is almost always something interesting or beautiful on screen to see. The forest is animated in an incredibly lush fashion. The creatures within it are magnificent to behold. The weird weaponry and odd bits of technology scattered throughout the film are also well designed. Some characters sometimes even seem to have unexplained supernatural powers (Jigo for example seems a lot stronger and more lithe than he looks), but it all works together so wondrously. This is a fully realized story and universe.
I can’t believe I forgot just how amazing this movie is. It is beautifully animated (mostly hand drawn, but CG-compositing was used in spots) and looks absolutely amazing on Blu Ray. There are really only two drawbacks to the Walt Disney Blu Ray release. The first is that the film is dubtitled, that is to say the film is both dubbed and subtitled using the Neil Gaiman-adapted script. This doesn’t necessarily bother me as I find Gaiman’s adaptation a decently good one, but it may bother Ghibli purists some. The voice acting over all is solid, particularly Minnie Driver as Eboshi and Gillian Anderson as Moro. Billy Crudup does a decent job as Ashitaka and Claire Danes is passable (at best) as San, but Billy Bob Thornton is miscast as Jigo, and for as much as I like John DiMaggio’s voice work (he’s Bender on Futurama for reference), he just doesn’t fit in all that well in this cast. Overall, the dub is a solid B-level effort, however (the soundtrack is amazing by the way – Joe Hisaishi’s work is fantastic).
The other drawback to Princess Mononoke is in its marathon-level length. The film runs 133 minutes, which is very long for an animated film, particularly one aimed at children (for as violent as the film is, its target audience is still ostensibly the younger crowd – feel free to disagree in the commens). The pacing can be a bit plodding at times, but there’s so much beautiful and interesting scenery that this problem is off set a bit (for comparison’s sake, Spirited Away runs 124 minutes but feels longer, because it isn’t as good – again, come at me in the comments if you want to). Still, a 120-minute run time would probably have been more palatable and more reasonable. Mononoke is not immune to blockbuster bloat, even if its bloat is more tolerable than most. Then again, I’m also glad that all 133 minutes of Princess Mononoke exist in the first place.
I think it is fair to say that Disney mishandled Princess Mononoke’s theatrical release in the US when it was unceremoniously dumped into a few hundred theaters in the Fall of 1999 under their imprint Miramax label (I also distinctly remember being pissed off by a C+ review from Entertainment Weekly, a grade they also gave The Matrix that same year – way to get those two right, EW!). I imagine the company was a bit scared of how violent and adult the film actually is. The Blu Ray release does right by Mononoke, however, providing audiences with an absolutely gorgeous and lush animated experience like few others. This is truly one of the best animated films released in the past twenty years, and isn’t given nearly as enough credit as Spirited Away or even Howl’s Moving Castle (one of my least favorite Miyazaki efforts). I can’t recommend Princess Mononoke enough, and its recent release onto Blu Ray disc gives all the reason one needs to track it down and check it out.