Adventure Animation

The Untamed Spirit of a Blu-ray Review: Princess Mononoke

December 3, 2014Ben MK

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Dances with wolves...

A recurring theme among Hayao Miyazaki's movies is the topic of environmentalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in 1997's The Princess Mononoke. Considered by some to be a spiritual successor to his 1984 classic, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, the legendary writer/director's seventh animated feature is also atypically violent in its imagery, with its fair share of scenes depicting death and dismemberment, which ultimately makes it not only one of Miyazaki's more thematically resonant films, but also one of his most daring.


The Film Set in ancient Japan, during "the days of gods and demons", Princess Mononoke is a visually resplendent film that tells the story of Prince Ashitaka (Yôji Matsuda/Billy Crudup), one of the last surviving members of an ancient tribe called the Emishi. When his village comes under savage attack from a rampaging boar — transformed into a demon by a deadly, supernatural poison — Ashitaka springs into action, outmaneuvering the massive creature on his red elk, Yakul, and bringing it down with several well-placed shots from his bow and arrow. The victory is not without its price, however: Ashitaka is infected in the confrontation, causing him to embark on a journey Westward, from where the beast came, in a quest to find a cure for the poison before it claims his life.

Along the way, he encounters a rogue monk named Jigo (Kaoru Kobayashi/Billy Bob Thornton), who steers him towards the forest, where the Great Forest Spirit dwells; and he stumbles into the midst of a conflict between the forces of Lady Eboshi (Yûko Tanaka/Minnie Driver) and Lord Asano's samurai clan.

However, he quickly discovers there is a much bigger war going on. Ashitaka learns that Eboshi and her efforts to plunder the forest of its natural treasures were responsible for the boar's destructive rampage. Not only that, but her actions have also put her and the people of her industrial fortress — known as Irontown — at odds with the Great Forest Spirit and the creatures under its protection. Among them, the boar god Okkoto (Hisaya Morishige/Keith David) and his tribe of wild boars and the wolf goddess Moro (Akihiro Miwa/Gillian Anderson) and her pack of feral wolf cubs.

But Ashitaka finds himself intrigued by one of the forest's creatures in particular: San (Yuriko Ishida/Claire Danes), a human girl raised among the wolves as Moro's own daughter. Known by some as Princess Mononoke, she has taken it upon herself to rid her animal brethren of the human blight by vanquishing Eboshi once and for all. She may also hold the key to ridding Ashitaka of his curse; and so he makes it his mission to protect her, even if that means putting his own life at risk.

Miyazaki makes no bones about the story's pro-environmental message, allowing it to inform nearly every aspect of the narrative — from the tiny tree spirits (or kodama) to the magical healing powers of the Forest Spirit's watery sanctuary. In spite of that, viewers will rarely ever feel as if they're being preached to, as the movie plays out very much like a piece of authentic Japanese folklore, even though it's an original story conceived and written by Miyazaki himself.

Princess Mononoke is also one of Miyazaki's more serious works, similar in tone to Nausicaä, for aside from the character of Jigo and a couple of secondary characters from Irontown, there's precious little humor thrown into the mix — a far cry from the whimsicality of such films as Porco Rosso and Kiki's Delivery Service, especially when you factor in the often shocking spurts of violence that occur throughout the movie. Still, it bears Miyazaki's unmistakable signature through and through, with a clear emotional followthrough that serves the film well, all the way up to its poignant finale.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Princess Mononoke gracefully makes its North American Blu-ray debut with a thoroughly breathtaking A/V presentation that does justice to the film's stunning visuals and lavish sound design. From the many shades of green that bring to life the foliage of the forest to the primary colors — blues, reds and yellows — found in the characters' costumes, the hi-def image is bursting with lush hues, delineated by crisp line art and bolstered by deep blacks and bold contrast. Even better, there are no signs of image defects such as aliasing, macroblocking or banding to speak of.

On the audio front, we get a pair of Japanese and English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtracks (with optional subtitles, of course), perfect for reproducing the film's original theatrical sound mix, from the nuanced clicking noises made by the kodama to the wolves' ferocious growls. The tracks' dynamic range is impressive, especially when the LFE kicks in to support the more bombastic audio cues, such as those that accompany the beating of drums or fiery explosions. It's not too overpowering, though, allowing dialogue to remain intelligible and the stirring score by Miyazaki's longtime collaborator Joe Hisaishi to shine through.

Special Features In addition to a DVD copy of the film, Disney's Blu-ray release ports over the bonus features from the previous DVD release, upgrading most of them to HD in the process. There are just over three hours' worth in total, although 133 minutes of that can be attributed to the Original Japanese Storyboards, which, as with other Miyazaki Blu-rays, is the film in its entirety, presented in storyboard form with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 audio.

There are also 14 minutes of Original Japanese And English Trailers, comprised of seven trailers in total; 12 minutes of Original TV Spots, comprised of 12 TV spots; and one Original English Theatrical Trailer, running 2 minutes in length. The bonus features are rounded off with a 5-minute Featurette on the English voice cast (with appearances by Jada Pinkett-Smith, Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson) and a 20-minute piece called Princess Mononoke In The U.S.A. This last item is probably the most insightful of all the special features, as it documents Miyazaki's 1999 visits to the Toronto International Film Festival, Walt Disney Studios in L.A. and the New York Film Festival, with highlights that have him addressing the film's violence, talking about the characters' relationships and providing his opinion on the state of anime in general.

The Bottom Line Gorgeous, moving and with an action-packed third act, Princess Mononoke is the perfect example of how not just to tell an elegant story in animated form, but how to tell an elegant story — period. It remains just as relevant and as thought-provoking today as it was 17 years ago; and thanks to the spectacular audio and video afforded by Disney's Blu-ray release, it's just as impressive as any animated film produced this year — perhaps even more so. Even those who saw the film during its original theatrical run should prepare to be wowed, as the movie has never looked or sounded better. And though the special features don't quite live up to the same degree of depth as the main attraction itself, as a complete package, Princess Mononoke on Blu-ray is most definitely a keeper.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

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