Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997) was the first of several Japanese animated films to make a real impact Stateside, alongside such genre classics as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. I was lucky enough to catch Mononoke theatrically during its very limited 1999 domestic run...not because I was particularly invested in the director's work (yet), but simply because movie theaters in the area rarely showed anime. Not surprisingly, the film's epic scope, fantastic visuals, and colorful characters quickly captured my attention...and unlike the majority of anime I've seen before or since Mononoke, this movie still holds up extremely well. Simply put, the film's accessible but ambitious approach to storytelling and visual design are still extremely impressive more than 15 years later.
Our title character isn't the focal point of Mononoke, at least not initially. The bulk of our journey follows Ashitaka, a skilled archer and Emishi prince who departs from his village after killing a demon who wounds him during their battle. The injury gives Ashitaka supernatural fighting abilities with a death sentence; eventually, the accursed wound will infect his entire body. During his search for a cure, he meets a number of questionable characters: first is Jiko-bo, a seemingly helpful travelling monk who points Ashitaka towards a forest spirit. Lady Eboshi, ruler of Irontown and a skilled weapons manufacturer, meets Ashitaka after he rescues some of her men. Most importantly, he meets the elusive San, a young girl who travels with a clan of wolves in the massive forest surrounding Irontown. Lady Eboshi, who threatens the forest and surrounding environment with her iron manufacturing, refers to San as "Princess Mononoke" (very loosely interpreted as "spirit and monster"), but Ashitaka knows immediately whose side he belongs on.
The film's environmental message is heavy but not overbearing, leaning towards cynicism by insisting that the human race may never live at peace with nature. Yet Princess Mononoke can be taken at face value and still enjoyed as a highly original and visually ambitious production. Featuring limited use of CGI to enhance the film's beautiful hand-drawn animation and striking backgrounds---as well as a terrific score by frequent Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi----it's as beautiful to listen to as it is to watch, and your choice of how to interpret it just makes Mononoke more timelessly relevant. If you've only limited yourself to a handful of Japanese animated films, this should be one of them.
Originally released on Region 1 DVD back in 2000 by Miramax, Princess Mononoke was delayed the first time around after fans complained about the lack of a Japanese audio track, which was included (along with properly translated subtitles) at the last minute. Almost 15 year later, someone forgot to remind Disney about those subtitles...because we're treated to separate DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks in Japanese and English...but the only subtitles available seem to replicate the English dub. This is a definitely a missed opportunity (and a deal-breaker for some), but the A/V improvements are substantial and we also get a few "new" bonus features from various international DVD releases over the years. So this is far from a definitive release...but aside for the subtitle snafu, it's an improvement across the board.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Overall, this 1080p transfer for Princess Mononoke looks excellent on Blu-ray, perfectly supporting its expert craftsmanship. Framed at the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, image detail and color reproduction is much improved over the respectable Miramax DVD transfer. The crisp line work, limited CGI effects, and stunning backgrounds also mesh well together. Digital imperfections---excessive noise reduction, compression artifacts, etc.---are either kept to a minimum or undetectable, though small amounts of banding could be seen on occasion. Either way, what's here is very satisfying and I'd imagine that die-hard fans should be pleased with this upgrade. The included DVD Copy is noticeably softer (and looks to be a reprint of the 2000 edition), but I doubt anyone buying this combo pack will care.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are from a DVD source and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.
Viewers can choose between the original Japanese 5.1 track or a capable English 5.1 dub (featuring the likes of Gillian Anderson, Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, William Robert Thornton, and more), and both are presented in DTS-HD 5,1 Master Audio. Sonic detail and fidelity are much different on certain occasions; as with the 2000 DVD, the Japanese is more dynamic, rich, and aggressive, especially in regards to the score and action sequences. Dialogue and music are well balanced without fighting for attention, channel separation is strong on occasion, and the film's more active moments create a wide and convincing sound field...although a few scenes could've used more LFE, as the Ghibli logo makes more of a impact than the explosions. A DD 5.1 French dub is also included for our Region A friends up north.
As for the subtitles...well, here's where it gets a little more disappointing (and confusing). The main feature includes optional English, English SDH, and French subtitles, and neither of the first two options correctly translates the original Japanese audio. Yep, they're "dubtitles", even though Miramax's original DVD included both versions...but for whatever reason, the English and SDH subtitles don't always match up. The SDH captions appear to be a perfect representation of the English dub, while the standard subtitles are worded differently on occasion and omit some of the English dialogue. If a more seasoned fan of Princess Mononoke can shed some light on this situation, let me know.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above in DVD form, the basic menu interface is smooth and simple to navigate, offering separate options for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection and bonus features. Trailers, logos, and warnings must be dealt with beforehand. This two-disc release arrives in a dual-hubbed eco keepcase with a promotional insert, a Digital Copy Redemption Code
(with Rewards Points), and a foil-enhanced matching slipcover similar to Disney's previous Ghibli releases.
Surprisingly, we get a few new supplements for this Blu-ray release (although the menu advertises them as "original DVD bonus features"), but they're more along the lines of vintage promotional pieces. The best of the bunch is "Princess Mononoke in the USA"
(19:54), a 1999 document of Hayao Miyazaki's Stateside tour promoting the film. Footage from several premieres is shown throughout the US and Canada, as well as a trip to Disney headquarters. A handful of original and alternate Trailers
is also included (more than 15 minutes' worth) in English and Japanese, although one of them is nearly five minutes and contains plenty of spoilers. Interestingly enough, we also get a Storyboard Reel
that plays during the film and includes lots of Miyazaki's original drawings. It's worth noting that these supplements were already included on international DVD releases...but if you only own the Miramax disc, they should be new to you.
Of course, the 2000 DVD extras are also here, including a brief Featurette with members of the English dub cast, as well as another Trailer in English. These are here for posterity's sake but barely worth a once-over. All the bonus features are presented in English, Japanese, or both, and include forced subtitles for translation purposes only.
Princess Mononoke is a visually stunning, accessible, and thought-provoking slice of Japanese animation that remains in the genre's top tier more than 15 years after its original release. It's a sprawling and epic adventure loaded with intrigue, mysticism, and a few potent bursts of grisly action, all framed by some of the finest hand-drawn animation in recent memory. Disney's Blu-ray is unfortunately something of a missed opportunity: the "dubtitles" are a half-step backwards for anyone who favors the original Japanese audio, but an impressive A/V upgrade definitely softens the blow a bit (and we even get a few international extras this time around!). Unless you plan on importing a copy from another region, this is still a safe bet...providing the dubtitles aren't a deal-breaker, of course. Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.