BluRay/DVD Reviews

PRINCESS MONONOKE

By • Nov 30th, 2014 •

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I need to start this review by noting that there is an enormous and glaring flaw with this release that must be addressed before anything else; the complete lack of an actual English subtitle translation. To give some backstory, back in 2000, Miramax Home Entertainment delayed what was going to be a dub-only DVD of this film to include both the original Japanese audio and a newly translated English subtitle track that gave a much more literal and accurate translation than the dubbed version. The English dubbed version took liberties not only with dialogue, but also in renaming characters and locations to make the film more palatable to an American audience (more on that later).

This new Blu-Ray, and the accompanying DVD copy included, does not feature the translated subtitle track. Instead it features what is referred to as a ‘dubtitle’ track; a straight transcription of the English dub presented as if it’s an accurate translation of the Japanese original.

Fans have been fuming over this and for good reason; not only were the translated subtitles on the now-almost-15-years-old Miramax DVD, but the Japanese, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese Blu-Ray releases have this translated subtitle track as well. It’s baffling and frankly inexcusable that Disney didn’t put this subtitle track onto this new Blu-Ray, and I hope that a replacement program is in order in the near future.

This discrepancy alone is enough to make me say that you shouldn’t buy this disc until this problem is fixed. I would have cancelled my order (even though I’ve been waiting for an American Blu-Ray release for years) but I had already promised to review the Blu-Ray before this came to light.

As for the film itself, it is one of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterworks, one of the best animated features ever made, and arguably one of the best films ever made. I first saw this film 15 years ago during its first run in US theaters. This was back when I lived in Georgia, so seeing an ‘art house’ movie meant you had to drive 45 minutes to your nearest ‘art house’ theater. I was just 11 years old, and this was the first time it really hit home for me that movies could be more than just entertainment.

The story of PRINCESS MONONOKE involves a young man named Ashitaka from a reclusive and sparsely populated tribe who is poisoned by a demonic, seemingly possessed boar. Banished from his village and told the poison will soon kill him, Ashitaka sets out in hopes of finding a cure. Along the way he finds out that the poison that is slowly killing him is also giving him superhuman, and in some cases supernatural, powers. The source of the poison turns out to be a tainted bullet, made in a village that also functions as a huge ironworks. The ironworks is run by the fiercely ambitious Lady Eboshi, who believes it is humankind’s destiny to conquer nature. Eboshi’s endgame in conquering nature is to kill the Shishigami, a kind of forest spirit, the head of which is said to grant eternal life. At war with the ironworks and Eboshi is San, the titular ‘Princess Mononoke’, who was literally raised by wolves.

Even though it boasts an incredibly dense story (the above synopsis doesn’t mention several major plot threads and characters), the film moves along at a brisk pace, punctuated not only by fantastic action sequences, but also quiet moments that draw you further into the film. Within the 134-minute runtime, not only do we have a compelling story and cast of characters, but the world they inhabit truly comes to life with astonishing visuals and a beautiful music score by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi. The film is tantalizingly close to perfection, and truly deserves the praise it has accumulated over the last 15 years.

Unlike so many other works (especially animated ones) about the fragility of the environment and our obligation to care for and nurture it, this film never becomes maudlin or preachy. The forces of nature we see are mostly benevolent (the aforementioned Shishigami), but sometimes become frighteningly violent. The human characters at the center of the story aren’t easy to pin down either. Lady Eboshi, who at first comes off as a villain, shows a caring, charitable side in that all of the women that work for her ironworks were rescued from brothels, and she runs a home for lepers. This ambiguity is one of the film’s greatest strengths, and there’s plenty of it to go around.

So often with films, and especially with Japanese animation, the visuals are far more interesting than the story or the characters. PRINCESS MONONOKE on the other hand has jaw-dropping visuals to compliment an already great story and characters. Character animation is near-perfect, and even though the film was made in 1997, the integration of CG elements (mostly the writhing, worm-like mass covering the possessed animal gods, and a couple of landscape shots) is virtually seamless, owing to the careful planning Miyazaki put into his work.

Miyazaki was well-known at this point for his intense perfectionism and autonomy on projects. Not only did he direct and write the film, he also storyboarded every shot (which is very unusual in animation), and personally corrected or revised 80,000 of the 144,000 animation cels used on the film.

PRINCESS MONONOKE was given a lavish dubbed version for its American theatrical release in 1999, which was produced by Miramax Films. The cast includes Billy Cruddup as Ashitaka, Claire Danes as San, Minnie Driver as Lady Eboshi, with the supporting cast fleshed out by Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, Keith David, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Voiceover veterans John DiMaggio, Rob Paulsen, and Tress MacNeille also show up in smaller roles.

Celebrated author Neil Gaiman adapted the translation to be more palatable and coherent to an English-speaking audience, including changing the names of a few locations and concepts (for instance, the Shishigami becomes The Great Forest Spirit, the ironworks becomes Iron Town). I actually recommend people watching the movie for the first time go with the dub, as it truly is more palatable, and gives a little more reference on the cultural and mythological elements at work. That being said, it isn’t perfect; there’s some expository dialogue that could easily have been trimmed, and a tendency to overplay the comedy. Overall though, it’s outstanding for an English dub, and most of the dialogue sounds natural instead of having the stilted, ‘translator-ese’ feel of some Ghibli dubs. The original Japanese version is the better of the two, with a stellar cast populated primarily by actors not known for voice-over work, with the real standout being Akihiro Miwa as San’s adoptive mother, the giant wolf Goddess Moro.

This new Blu-Ray is the best the film has ever looked or sounded on home video, and is a definite step up from previous DVD iterations. Both the English and Japanese tracks have a 5.1 mix, which mostly stick to the front channels except during larger action sequences). The picture quality is fantastic, doing justice to the film’s lush visuals. An interesting anomaly is that all traces of the film’s distribution previously being handled by Miramax have been removed from the ending credits, and on the supplements (in fact, the English ending credits have been completely redone for this Blu-Ray release!). Speaking of the supplements, they’re pretty slim, with carryovers from the 2000 Miramax DVD, and trailers from the film’s Japanese release. Sadly, this disc doesn’t include the extensive and often fascinating behind-the-scenes footage that could be found on some of the older Japanese DVDs (possibly because there’s no translation of it; you can still find quite a bit of this footage on YouTube).

For those who want to know more about the making of the film, Viz recently republished the excellent THE MAKING OF PRINCESS MONONOKE, which features an exhaustive amount of material on the film’s production including complete storyboards and background paintings. Also available, and for the first time in English, is PRINCESS MONONOKE: THE FIRST STORY, which details Hayao Miyazaki’s very early concept for the film back in the early 1980s, ideas from which were used in NAUSCIAA and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO.

PRINCESS MONONOKE is easily in the top tier of animated features, and one of the greatest films ever made. This Blu-Ray is a disservice due to the subtitling error, and I’m hopeful Disney will offer a replacement disc in the future.

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