Princess Mononoke (

By:Jon Turner
Review Date: Saturday, February 16, 2002
Release Date: Tuesday, December 19, 2000

The Review!
Video Quality: ***** out of *****
Audio Qualty: ***** out of *****
Japanese Language Track: ***** out of *****
English Language Track: ***** out of *****
French Language Track: N/A
Packaging: ****1/2 out of *****
Menus: ***1/2 out of *****
Extras: ** out of *****
Content: ***** out of *****

Overall Rating: **** out of *****


Anything directed by Hayao Miyazaki is, in my opinion, a ***** classic. I can't tell which one is my favorite Miyazaki film, because all of them are so special in their own way. PRINCESS MONONOKE, his most successful film until the recent SPIRITED AWAY, holds a special place in my heart for many reasons. For one, I had the opportunity to see this wonderful movie during its limited release at the Angelika Film Center, and I cannot tell you how mesmerized I was by every single second of it. It is up there on my list of all time favorite films (along with his other films), and is, in my opinion, one of the best films Miyazaki has ever done.

Another reason it holds a close place in my heart is that it was my first Anime DVD and first real experience to the DVD environment. At the time I received this DVD, I owned an iMac which can play DVDs, although not as high a quality as a real DVD player can do. It really opened up my eyes - I have also become a DVD collector since.

VIDEO QUALITY: ***** out of *****
Wow. That's all I can say about the quality of the video. It is jawdroppingly breathtaking. The transfer is clean, with no grains or rainbows, the colors of an already stunning motion picture look even better on the DVD, and it's also in widescreen, so that you can see the film the way you can in a movie theater other than a pan-and-scan VHS. There are some film scratches on the opening credits, and at least two scenes, but these are very minor and easily forgivable. In addition, on the Japanese language track, the credits and titles are identical to those on the original un-dubbed print, making this a truly remarkable visual presentation.

AUDIO QUALITY: ***** out of *****
At the time I received the PRINCESS MONONOKE DVD, I didn't realize that DVDs are also known for having spectacular sound quality, but in this case, it is truly amazing. There are absolutely no digital pops anywhere on the audio track (unlike on the VHS), and the dynamics are remarkable and surreal. In comparison to the three audio tracks, the Japanese language track has a truly vibrant sound mix, particularly the music, while the English language track is somewhat softer. The French language track isn't as amazingly mixed, primarily because it's only 2.0, but from the brief spot-checking I did, it sounded solid.

JAPANESE LANGUAGE TRACK: ***** out of *****
I only listened to a little bit of the Japanese language track (as I tend to do on most Anime DVDs), but it earns my highest rating - especially since so many fans of the film requested for this track to be included on the DVD set. It is also richly mixed, as I mentioned previously, and that makes it a wonderful bonus.

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRACK: ***** out of *****
Unlike most Anime fans, English dubs don't really bother me as much (perhaps because I am a very open-minded person who likes it both ways), but this dub - produced by Disney - is one of the very best English dubs I have ever heard on any Anime title that I have seen so far. (The only other dub that's on the same level is Disney's excellent dub for KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE. I have yet to see the CASTLE IN THE SKY dub, though.) Although the sound isn't as dynamically mixed as on the Japanese language track, everything else about the dub is first-rate. Neil Gaiman's polished adaptation of Miyazaki's script takes occasional liberties and rewords the dialogue, but he still manages to recapture the spirit of the story very well. In addition, the voice cast, which includes Gillian Anderson, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, and Jada Pinkett-Smith, is well chosen and they do a fantastic jobs breathing their characters to life. Even the actors who fans claimed were "miscast" (Claire
Danes and Billy Bob Thornton) perform their roles admirably. Plus, there are some Anime dub actors in the additional voices credits who help balance out the big names, and they speak their parts respectably. In addition, the theme song (more on that later), is lovingly translated and performed with clear beauty by Sasha Lazard, moving one to tears upon listening. The result is a truly magnificent and first-rate English dub.

As you can judge by the rating, I only spot-checked the French language track, so I cannot rate it. I will say, however, that it didn't interest me all that much, although it *does* follow, from what I saw, the English dub script closely.

PACKAGING: ****1/2 out of *****
Not anything remarkable, but respectable. It is identical to the VHS cover, in that it features the critic's quotes and the sword fight with another warrior, and the back contents are identical as well. I have no real issues with the packaging here, except it doesn't mention anything about the Japanese language track. The reason? Disney originally wasn't going to have the DVD released with such a track (primarily because at the time, the DVD was not yet released in Japan), but petitions and requests from Anime fans changed their minds. They did include a sticker that mentions the Japanese language track on the packaging, though. There are no liner notes about the film anywhere, but I can forgive this.

MENUS: ***1/2 out of *****
Compared to some of the more flashier menus I encountered on some of the later DVDs I purchased, the menus here are pretty much basic. It does feature beautiful still images of the film, and they are anamorphic if you own a 16 X 9 TV (which I unfortunately don't), and the access times are slow but responsive, but they are not the strongest feature of the DVD.

EXTRAS: ** out of *****
This is probably the weakest feature of the DVD. There aren't much extras here, but there are merely three. For fans who will listen to the Japanese language track, the literal translation (i.e. the original text as it is translated) subtitles are featured. It is interesting to play it along with the English language track to tell the differences with the dialogue in both versions (as is common on most DVDs), though. The other two extras are a theatrical trailer (where the announcer mispronounces Miyazaki's last name and Mononoke) and a short, but interesting featurette where we get to hear comments from Jada Pinkett-Smith, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson, Neil Gaiman (only one from him, unfortunately), and Jack Fletcher, the voice casting director for the film. The quote I found interesting was how Pinkett-Smith explains having to keep up with the pace of the Japanese dialogue during the dubbing process, and how Fletcher responds that it pays to have experience in Shakespeare and rhythm. Unless you also count the credits on the Japanese language track in their original, unaltered form, this is all you get in the extras department. No "making-of" featurettes, not anything else extra, just what's there. Oh, well. Can't have everything, huh?

CONTENT: ***** out of *****
To get on with the film itself, PRINCESS MONONOKE tells the story of a battle between the forest gods and humanity, and in the midst of this battle is Ashitaka, a prince who is forced to kill a Demon to protect his village, and is inflicted with a deadly curse because of that. On his journey to clean his wound, he meets a couple of characters, including the opportunistic monk, Jigo (who wants to capture the head of the Spirit Of The Forest - a large deer-like creature who causes plants to grow - and die, with every step it takes), the elegant Lady Eboshi (who is guilty of destroying the forest, yet caring for her people), and Princess Mononoke herself (aka San), a girl raised by wolves who despises all humans because of the terrible things they've done to the forest she lives in. Only a chance meeting between the latter character can probably change the fate of the world, but will it happen before it is too late? I'm not gonna tell you here, because you'll have to find out.

As you can probably tell, PRINCESS MONONOKE is hardly kid's fare (You DID see the PG-13 rating, didn't you?!), as there are bursts of violence. For example, in two scenes, we see Ashitaka battling Samurai soldiers of Lord Asano, by decapitating and amputating both by either arrow shots or sword strikes. Then, of course, there's the bloody and frightening appearance of the Demon God (a huge, grotesque mass of writhing bloodworms and two red eyes), many battles, and a bit of blood at times. But even these moments are not overdone, nor are they gratuitous. (A good thing for me, too, because I don't like to get sick from watching movies of this kind, like AKIRA, NINJA SCROLL, and WICKED CITY. ^_^) For those of you who think that the violence in the film is useless, I include a quote from Hayao Miyazaki's essay for this film: "We depict hatred in this film, but only to show that there are more important things."

The story is a complicated one, dealing with issues of hatred, war, and love in the midst of a cruel battle. But more importantly, it handles the values of "good" and "evil" in a way that most animated films in our country haven't been able to do. Most films take the easy way out and make their story the typical one where good always overcomes evil and reduces these issues to stereotypes (no offense to any such film), but PRINCESS MONONOKE does better than that. It shows the complexities of humanity, in that the characters are both good and evil - rather human. Lady Eboshi, for example, is responsible for destroying much of the forest (and for shooting the Boar God which changes Ashitaka's life forever), and is content to drive them out, yet she is doing this for the sake of her people (bandaged lepers and brothel girls), who, we find out, are outcasts. Another complicated character is San, the girl raised by wolves who is determined to destroy all humans... or die trying. But when she is rescued by one particular human (yes, it's Ashitaka), she begins to have a conflict - she feels feelings for him unlike any she has felt before, yet she still is unable to forgive humans for the things that they have done. It is characters like this that make the film stand out from most animated movies.

Some critics and Miyazaki fans have complained that Ashitaka was dull and uninteresting, however I disagree. Ashitaka is one of the finest heroes to ever grace the screen, and his quest is so engaging that one cannot help but like him. He's no one-dimensional character; he is a being who struggles to avoid being cursed by evil, and it's not easy. When he kills the two samurai, his mark grows bigger, and it threatens to tear him apart. And consider *this* as an act of heroism: his counter to San's attempt to kill him with a knife is just a compassionate one: "Live... You're beautiful..." He doesn't join forces with either the animals or the humans, he just attempts to make them live in peace - even if his attempts are not always so successful. This is what makes Ashitaka such an appealing character in the film, and not just another cardboard-cut "hero" in other animated films (Disney's HERCULES for example). And *that* is saying a lot for a character that spends th!
e !
most time on the screen.

The animation is spectacular, considering the limitations of animation in Anime - there are a couple of computer generated effects that work beautifully with the cel animation without being out-of-place. (Check out the scene where plants grow from the ground, and the movement of the Nightwalker!) In addition, the backgrounds are lavish and richly detailed, and the characters are imaginatively designed, particularly the Forest Spirit, the Nightwalker, and the Kodamas, tiny, cute little mushroom like figures who, although brief, some of my favorite characters in the film. The animals are realistically drawn, and menacing, too - they're not cute animals you'd see in a children's film, but savage monsters who would threaten to kill any human. In my opinion, the animation in this film blows other stunners from Japan (AKIRA in particular) out of the water. Even though AKIRA was super smooth, it created a gritty atmosphere. PRINCESS MONONOKE is more colorful, vibrant, and it depicts the ecological dangers of nature, and that is what makes it superior to AKIRA.

Joe Hisaishi's musical score also deserves special mention; it uses a full orchestra and synthesizers for a classical-new age feeling, but it's all the more wonderful for it. It gives the movie the soul that it needs, from the rousing theme of Ashitaka to the furious, aggressive battle themes. The highlight of the music is the beautiful theme song which is played over the closing credits. This song is simplistic, but it is difficult to listen to without shedding any tears (I am almost in tears whenever I hear this song). It's one of the most beautiful I've ever heard in any animated film to date. In terms of saying which version is better (the Japanese version sung by Yoshikazu Miera, or the carefully translated English version performed by the ravishing voice of Sasha Lazard), I think both versions stand out.

An interesting part about the movie is how the animals TALK. They do not move their mouths in sync with what lines they say, but that makes them all the more mesmerizing. And it should be noted that just about every line they say is backed up by animal sound-effects in the background. (This is particularly noticeable with Gillian Anderson's role as Moro - every line she says is accompanied by wolf growls. I'm not sure if this had to do with recording equipment techniques, but this is really amazing!) I'm not sure if this was true for the original Japanese version, but this makes PRINCESS MONONOKE all the more hooking as a film.

The ending has been harshly criticized as much as the English voice cast has (I personally think this is foolish, because this is Hayao Miyazaki, the master of Japanese Animation who's doing this movie. He can do *no* wrong.). I won't go into detail about the ending here, so I'll just include a quote from Miyazaki, again "We are not trying to solve global problems with this film. There can be no happy ending to the war between the rampaging forest gods and humanity. But even in the midst of hatred and slaughter, there is still much to live for. Wonderful encounters and beautiful things still exist." If this is the kind of movie Miyazaki was intending to make, then he has succeeded in his job, and then some (it could very well be the last film of this type we ever see from him, because he said that it would be the last time he would ever "make a film in this way again". SPIRITED AWAY, his follow-up to PRINCESS MONONOKE, is a lighthearted girl's adventure along the same lines of MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO and KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE).

PRINCESS MONONOKE was a tremendous success in Japan (in fact, it was the biggest box office grossing animated film in that country, until it was overtaken by James Cameron's TITANIC, and of course, later on SPIRITED AWAY), but it received little attention when it was released in the US (in a limited release on October 29, 1999). Why did this happen? There are a vast number of reasons. Perhaps it was because of marketing mistakes (Miramax and Disney probably didn't know how to market an animated film that was hardly kid's fair) that few flocked to see it. (A similar thing happened to another stellar animated film released that year, Warner Bros.'s fabulous THE IRON GIANT.) Or maybe it was that some disliked it because they thought it was too "preachy". (PS: It is NOT.) Or maybe it was because some were baffled by it. Or probably, it must be that most otaku, who still prefer the original Japanese versions, acted the same way as they do with most English dubs - passed them off as inferior. In addition, even though the critics were overall enthusiastic about PRINCESS MONONOKE, few critics panned it for one reason or another. Whatever the reason, PRINCESS MONONOKE's box office gross was a far cry from that of its Japanese gross. I find all of this hard to believe, because, like I said, PRINCESS MONONOKE is one of the most beautiful animated films I have ever seen.

Will PRINCESS MONONOKE get the recognition it deserves in America? I pray one day that it will. It's more complex that any other animated film that has ever been made in our country, and it could be the only one, too.

In closing, I suggest that you give PRINCESS MONONOKE a look. I recommend it very, very highly, as you can judge from the rating below, and it holds a place in my heart (as do Miyazaki's other ***** films). This movie is more than a classic. It is a masterpiece that deserves a life and reputation anywhere. It's just too good to not receive such one. Just watch it with "eyes unclouded" by judgment, and you'll see what I mean.

OVERALL RATING: **** out of *****
Overall, the DVD is a delight. Even though it suffers in the Extras department, everything else that's on here is anything a fan of PRINCESS MONONOKE could ever ask for. I tip my hat to Miramax (and yes, Disney) for pulling off a first-rate treatment of Hayao Miyazaki's wonderful classic on DVD (and I pray, perhaps vainly, that we'll see more of his films released on DVD in the future). If you haven't already gotten this DVD, take my advice: Get it. Immediately.

Review Equipment
TEAC AG-V8520 Audio/Video Surround Receiver, Samsung TV, Phillips DVD711 Player, and Acoustic Speakers

Mania Grade: NA
Audio Rating: N/A
Video Rating: N/A
Packaging Rating: N/A
Menus Rating: N/A
Extras Rating: N/A
Age Rating: 13 & Up
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: Buena Vista Home Entertainment
MSRP: 32.99
Running time: 134
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Princess Mononoke