Hayao Miyazaki is an amazing Japanese animator and filmmaker. His films include Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbor Totoro, and Howl’s Moving Castle among other legendary pictures. I can safely say I have enjoyed most of his films but unfortunately only owned a couple at the time of writing this review. That’s why I was quite astonished when this collector’s edition of Princess Mononoke came across my desk. I was ready to dive in with both feet and re-visit this movie that I had not seen since, well, almost twenty years ago.
In ancient times, the Land lay covered in forest. Here dwelt the spirits of nature from time immemorial.
A tree falls in the forest, and we get a glimpse of the being who caused the disturbance. The creature is covered with worms and gallops towards an unknown destination. Meanwhile, a young prince named Ashitaka (and last in the royal line until he sires a child) is on the hunt riding his majestic elk, Yakul. However, when he figures out that the birds and animals are quiet and no longer around, he knows that something is wrong.
After returning to his nearby village, he climbs the structure of the lookout to get a better vantage point on the situation. There is something ominous in the distance, and it poses a serious threat. The creature eventually makes it to the exterior walls and attacks them. Within seconds, he explodes through the stone and makes his way towards the village. We also get a closer look at the creature and recognize him to be a pig that is surrounded by worms; a demon by all practical accounts.
The prince tries to stop the demon despite being warned by others to not do so. He is able to shoot him in the eye and then again in the face. Unfortunately in the midst of battle, worms attack Ashitaka’s arm, and the residual acid permeates the skin. The only saving grace is that the shots from the boy’s bow is enough to put the pig out of commission, permanently. The Oracle of the village arrives to help Ashitaka and check on the dying demon. Before the demon perishes, the pig proclaims that he will have his revenge.
Later that night, the Oracle reads the stones to determine Ashitaka’s fate and future. The prince takes off his bandage to show his cursed arm. The Oracle says that he will die, but perhaps if he journeys west he might be able to find the source of the evil and lift his curse. The elders are not permitted to see him leave, so they do not face him. The young prince takes that as his cue to leave on his dangerous journey.
Ashitaka soon comes upon some fighting between two groups of humans. Seeing the fighting makes his cursed arm shaky, and then one of the men decides to attack. He is able to defend himself with his bow but finds the results a bit more than desired. Two arms fly off one of the adversaries, a head off another. Upset over taking another’s life, Ashitaka leaves the battle and comes upon an old man known as Jigo, a con man posing as a monk.
Jigo tells the prince that he should seek out the Great Forest Spirit, a being that appears as the Deer God during the day and a giant night-walker by well, night. Our scene shifts to a couple of giant wolves who attack the opposing army. The wolves are able to defeat many of the samurai but also suffer injuries of their own and retreat back to the forest. Nearby, the prince travels in the forest and comes upon two more people who appear to be close to dead. However, in the corner of his eye he sees a girl who is tending to the wolves’ wounds. The girl is simply known as San, formerly Princess Mononoke, who will change Ashitaka’s life forever.
There is a bigger story here as well; the compound that Ashitaka comes upon is known as Irontown, where the women are essentially lepers and the men are outcasts from other settlements. A woman named Lady Eboshi runs the small city and has delusions of grandeur, as she wishes to overtake the forest so she can expand her iron making. However, San and the forest gods are doing everything they can to prevent that.
But it must be stressed here, that this is not a simple battle of good versus evil. Lady Eboshi is not inherently a bad person. She takes care of her people and is fair and just among her workers. San or Mononoke is fighting for the forest and nature, but she is also willing to kill humans to have her revenge. Even the Deer God itself can suddenly become a harbinger of death when the night sky falls. It is all of these layers that make up a moving story.
There are many subtle stories and themes. The relationships between the men and women of Irontown are only explained around the edges, but there looks to be a whole another movie that could be made based on those interactions alone. As you might guess, there is a romance of sorts between Ashitaka and San, but it is far from a traditional boy-meets-girl scenario. The concept of duality is another theme that is subtly presented in this movie of how many of the characters are often wearing two masks.
The film is shown in a 1.85:1 widescreen picture. A lot of animation has always suffered from simple backgrounds or the use of a single color to make up for the detail present in the foreground. Princess Mononoke is the complete opposite of this. There is detail on top of detail on top of detail. A jagged rock in this film has more detail than some well known animated film characters. As an example, the detail of the many Kodama (tiny forest spirits) is off the charts, as each one seems to be a little bit different than the other.
This is further enhanced by the reference like presentation of the Blu-ray disc. The color is breathtaking, and it is an absolute pleasure to watch this disc with or without any music or words being played on the screen. An absolutely horrifying character such as the demon pig looks picturesque as he crashes through a giant wall. Usually nature is one unifying concept, but with the use of detail and mastering found in this Blu-ray, it becomes a multitude of ideas and characters that operate under that umbrella.
The audio tracks are DTS HD 5.1 in Japanese and English (French Dolby Digital 5.1 also included) . English (SDH and original) and French subtitles are provided. Sound effects are wonderful, and again drawing on the example of the Kodama, the wonderful little clicks fill the speakers (and will probably haunt the rest of your days). Surrounds are frequent, and the viewer will feel the immersion of the forest as the movie opens up around you.
This is also present with the music of the film, hence why the soundtrack is so popular and thankfully included with this collector’s edition. Dialog is clear, and whether you prefer the original Japanese or the well known English cast, you should be able to hear a quality presentation. The subtitles do a great job of keeping pace with the frequent dialog exchanges and only seemed to lag once or twice during the film.
Feature Length Storyboards 2:13:28 : An interesting feature, but this is the entire movie (complete with voice and sound effects) in storyboards. I would imagine that this be difficult to watch straight through for over two hours, but skipped around a scene here, a scene there would be quite the fascinating study.
Princess Mononoke in USA 19:55 : We travel with Hayao Miyazaki to a variety of places in Canada and the United States. It starts with the Toronto Film Festival. We get a brief few words from famed critic, Roger Ebert ,where we also talk about how this film is not for the children due to its depiction of violence. Then its off to Los Angeles and to the Disney animation studio. Of course, at the studio the workers are in awe of the legendary animator. I would be too, I imagine. Our final stop is at the NY Film Festival, where he takes in more of the sights.
Behind the Microphone 5:13 : From US voice actors’ perspective, we get a short featurette about how it was to voice these characters. Jada Pinkette Smith, Billy Crudo, Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, and the one and only Billy Bob Thornton join us for brief bits.
Original Theatrical Trailers 16:36 : There are eight different trailers here. Most of it is also in 5.1 surround as well, which is really fun to hear. There are trailers in Japanese, ones in English. There are a couple called Film Promotion which run longer than the standard trailer. The final spot is an English dubbed trailer with bits from Princess Mononoke in USA mixed in with the actual trailer.
TV Spots 13:32 : Thirteen spots here, again of all types. Fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, English, Japanese, and even a French spot if you want something different. The Film Promotion bit shows up here too near the end. The last one is a real treat, as we get the rare 2-minute TV trailer spot, which somehow did not make the US audience show up in droves. But then again, a late 90’s American crowd probably had no idea how to comprehend a complex anime such as this. (And for the record, back then, I’m not sure I did either)
Audio CD: On the second disc, we get roughly 65 minutes and 33 audio tracks to enjoy. Due to the way this disc is housed inside the packaging (I will fully detail this in a minute here), I would highly suggest that if you intend on listening to this CD a lot that you go ahead and rip it in the format of your choosing. Fantastic music, and perfect for listening to on a lazy Sunday afternoon (or perhaps even to start your day).
I have provided some pictures at the end of my review in case my words don’t make sense. This release is bigger than your standard Blu-ray package as you see in my first picture; thicker, too. It’s basically a slipbox, and inside the slipbox are two books. There is a glossy book with many great-looking shots from the movie and even some poetry from Miyazaki that he wrote to convey his meaning of the film. The other book is a very durable and thick piece of cardboard with a first page being a splash screen and then the two holders for the Blu-ray and the audio CD. While this foam cardboard should hold up over time, the plastic for the discs I think will eventually break down (mostly because it’s way too hard to get these discs out unless you are very careful).
This set is very much one of those that sit up on a shelf somewhere to be admired by others. If you love the movie and want to view it often, it might actually be worthwhile to have a second copy, whether it’s the old Disney release or the basic re-release put out by Shout Factory. Amazing-looking set, just not a practical one.
Princess Mononoke is one of the greatest anime films of all time. It is also as I found out one of the most difficult films to really explain to somebody else, as my wife prompted me the night after I finished my viewing. It certainly was not that I did not want to explain it to my better half; it was how do I explain such a complex movie in the span of a couple of minutes? Sure, one could go “Guy with a cursed arm comes upon a girl in the forest protecting nature from humans.” But that doesn’t really cut it, and that would probably be the description I would have used in my 20’s when I did not know any better.
This collector’s edition is gorgeous. The packaging and extras are beautiful, and it would be a great piece for anybody who is a fan of the film. The disc itself is fantastic, as the detail of the video presentation is practically dripping off the animation cell. The audio is done well, and the only negative to be found is perhaps the on-disc extras. My recommendation would be to absolutely get this set provided you have an extra copy somewhere that you can use for your regular viewing. Then whip out this one once every couple of years when you need something extra special. I look forward to Shout releasing more of these; hopefully Howl’s Moving Castle is next. Enjoy.