It is Muromachi period Japan (the 15th century), and the relationship between man and nature is in a constant state of change. Even the old gods of the forest are in danger, as humans start taking control of the land from them.
On one side is proud Lady Eboshi and her iron-making settlement of Tatara Ba, where outcast men and women make new lives for themselves forging tools and weapons of iron ... which requires vast quantities of wood to produce.
Opposing them are the animal gods, among them the Wolf God Moro, her two sons, and her adopted human daughter San, the Princess Mononoke, who has renounced her humanity to fight for the forest.
Both sides have honorable motives ... and into this fray comes Ashitaka, an Emishi ("barbarian") from the North, who seeks respite from a curse inflicted by a corrupted Boar God who attacked his village. His efforts to bring peace between the gods and humans is countered by the greed of Imperial agents and samurai, and the pride of the opposing parties themselves. But at what price does pride come, when the very land is at stake?
Princess Mononoke is one of the highest grossing films in Japanese history, and newspapers and Internet sites have been singing its praises ever since it came out. Naturally, when I had the opportunity to view a fansub of this, I had to see it, even if it was a fuzzy third-generation tape.
I was impressed.
Princess Mononoke is a film that stands right among Miyazaki's (and Studio Ghibli's) best. As an animation, it's technically astounding, with lush forests and fire-lit villages done with the same amount of remarkable detail, and the CG sequences (mostly dealing with the Shishi Gami, God of Life and Death) are simply sparkling. This is top-of-the-line stuff, and it's a treat for the eyes and ears. (I can't wait to see this thing in the theaters!)
Acting is very well-done, and all the leads do a fine job. Lady Eboshi, despite her pride, is sympathetic because of what she has done for the people in her village. San finds herself drawn to Ashitaka, though she has despised humans all her life as an adopted Wolf God. Ashitaka's sense of justice leads him to try to get the humans of Tatara Ba and the gods to find some sort of peace. The characterization is well-done, if a little less fleshed-out than most Ghibli productions, but it's still better than most of the stuff out there. (Interestingly enough, actors in Ghibli films tend to be drawn from the live-action pool, rather than veteran voice actors.)
However, this is one movie that is decidedly story-based. And what a story it is. From the first scene between Ashitaka and the cursed God he must defeat to protect his village, to the ending, it's gripping and absorbing, with plenty of action and more than enough intensity to keep the viewer locked into the film. The musical score (by Joe Hisaishi, of course), complements the film quite well, and I really can't think of a single thing to really complain about this film. (But then again, being an avowed Studio Ghibli fan does place a bit of a bias on my review, doesn't it?)
I have since seen this movie in the theaters, as well as on DVD, and I'm happy to say that, while the dub job isn't universally perfect, I found most of it to my liking. The unorthodox choice of Billy Bob Thornton as Jiko Bo struck a lot of fans the wrong way, but I rather enjoyed his take on the character. Minnie Driver's rendition of Lady Eboshi was absolutely astounding, and Billy Crudup is serviceable as Ashitaka. On the other hand, I wasn't too keen on Claire Danes as San. More than once, she delivers lines that are far too flat for the emotions being expressed on the screen. Overall, though, it's a decent dub job and worth viewing for a change of pace.
Miyazaki Hayao has proven himself yet again a master in his trade, and his work deserves no less than the highest praise I can give it. However, do keep in mind that this isn't the usual Ghibli film, and those expecting a slow-paced film a la Totoro or Porco Rosso will be rudely surprised, but on its own merit, Princess Mononoke stands on its own, and stands tall, at that.
While this isn't my absolute favorite Ghibli film, it is still loaded with plenty of Miyazaki magic, and remains head and shoulders above the competition. Really, what did you expect? — Carlos Ross
Recommended Audience: Definitely on the violent side, with scenes that would definitely scare younger children and give older children and the squeamish pause. (For a while, I almost thought I was watching Ninja Scroll, not a Miyazaki flick.) This isn't your typical Ghibli film, but mature audiences will probably enjoy this film. (Miyazaki's target audience, according to the FAQ at nausicaa.net, is "anyone older than 5th grade." That sounds about right.)
Version(s) Viewed: VHS, raw Japanese; prerelease fansub; 35mm theatrical print, English dub; R1 DVD
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Princess Mononoke © 1997 Tokuma Shoten
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