Madman Entertainment/AV Channel .
R4 . COLOR . 134 mins .
M . PAL
Hayao Miyazaki is the name above names in the fantastical world of Japanese anime. His films combine a compelling narrative, great characters and brilliant animation; not unlike the American Pixar animation studio. Princess Mononoke is arguably his most well-known film, responsible for his immense world-wide fanbase. Since its release in 1998, Miyazaki has gone on to win an Academy Award for his most recent effort Spirited Away.
Ashitaka: On a Mission from God
Princess Mononoke follows the journey of warrior-prince Ashitaka on his quest to purge himself of the deadly Tatarigami curse, handed down from a fallen boar-demon. Exiled from his home settlement, Ashitaka begins to search for the great forest containing a cure from this terrible ailment. He arrives to find the forest engaged in a trecherous war against the Tataraba colony, headed by the proud and ignorant Lady Eboshi. She pioneers the development of metalwork, founding an iron-forge beneath this ancient forest and the animal gods who inhabit it.
Stranded in the middle of this conflict is San, the Princess Mononoke. Abandoned as a poor baby, San was taken in by the wolf-god Moro and raised among her wolf-cubs. Ashitaka quickly becomes torn between saving San, alongside her forest-dwelling family; and the Tataraba mining settlement in terrible danger from giant, angry, renegade boars.
The complexity of Princess Mononoke does not stop in its tightly-woven narrative. The characters of Ashitaka, San and Lady Eboshi are very well rounded and developed, standing as noble people who differ in their perception of importance and wealth. Lead animal-characters Moro and Okkoto (head of the boar clan) are presented as real people, feeling compassion, anger and forgiveness at appropriate moments. To combat most western cinema, Princess Mononoke essentially contains no villain. No character can be compared to the archetypal evil of Darth Vader or Lord Sauron; as each one of them is as three-dimensional as any contemporary human. This significantly eases this films ability to connect with its audience, presenting a wide range of characters “trying to do what they feel is right”.
While there is no ‘villain’ character to speak of, each character does represent a stereotyped element of society. Ashitaka is the conflicted pacifist, seeking pure peace between man and animal. San is the militant, stubborn ‘leftist’ member of the animal community; and Eboshi is an advocate of technology, pushing the natural world aside to welcome a new age of iron. These beautifully developed characters push Princess Mononoke’s strength as a film, and as a strong allegory on the ever-present conflict between nature and technology – or simply on the ‘balance between nature and man’. Miyazaki develops this strong extended metaphor as a comment on contemporary society, as well as the history of mankind. The destruction of nature to welcome the dawn of technology is certainly not a foreign concept, and Princess Mononoke captures this perfectly.
The Land of Mist and Fog
Unlike most films with a ‘message’ on society, Princess Mononoke manages to remain subtle enough to ease its audience to accept, or challenge, what is being presented without it feeling threatened or imposed upon. The film contains a strong enough narrative to be successful, independent of the inherent ‘deeper meaning’. Each different audience will interpret this film differently, adding to its complexity and ultimate success.
Above all, the quality of animation is exceptional. Amazing detail in character facial expressions and incredibly vast forest landscapes are among two of the fantastic facets of this film. On a large monitor or projector, this film is spectacular.
This film is great, there’s no two ways about it. It will stand the test of time, presenting itself as a classic of two dimensional animation in fifty years time. However, an incredibly large potential audience is pushed aside with the simple fact of its Japanese origin (and subsequent language). Miramax US have rounded a star-studded group of actors to provide an English dub, featuring Billy Crudup, Clare Danes, Minnie Driver and Billy Bob Thornton. This effort is excellent, with each voice actor capturing the essence of their character fluently (especially Minnie Driver). While this dub is admirable in its effort, it doesn’t compare to the original Japanese soundtrack. Those who enjoy subtitles, or don’t mind either way will be greatly rewarded with this original recording.
The most important aspect of an animation on DVD is its colour quality and reproduction. Thankfully, colours are brilliantly presented in vivid clarity and boldness. Unlike the R1 release, the colours on Madman’s latest release are much closer to the original Japanese source (however, whether or not that’s a problem is purely up to the viewer). Never do colours bleed or over-saturate, which is often a problem on Disney DVDs.
Elk and Tree Spirit, forever united.
The only major problem with this release is its high level of aliasing. In almost every scene (with reasonable levels of movement), some aliasing is present. It is distracting at first, but it quickly becomes forgotten and accepted as part of the animation. Some edge enhancement is present too, but not as prevalent as the aliasing.
Apart from the aliasing, this is a great transfer (take a look at a screen-capture or two for reference). Hopefully a special-edition will surface within the next few years fixing up these minor errors, producing a top-quality disc.
Madman have certainly delivered in the audio department, providing the exceptional English dub in Dolby Digital 5.1 as well as the original Japanese soundtrack again in 5.1 surround. Both soundtracks are quite similar, apart from the obvious language difference; however there are a few minor variations.
Tree Spirit from the East
The Japanese soundtrack is considerably louder than the English one, which seems to have been recorded at a significantly lower volume to most Dolby soundtracks. Peripheral ambient noises, as well as sound effects like patter of feet, seem much more defined in the English version. To combat that, the Japanese soundtrack’s music is recorded with much greater clarity, and maintains a steady, strong volume throughout without dampening the voices of the characters or the score.
Surround and sub channels are used very frequently, and to fantastic effect. The brilliant score will often burst through rear channels in times of peril, along with distant voices or subtle ambiance. The subwoofer rumbles to life in mass stampedes of animals, as well as providing an essential bass element to the score.
Both soundtracks provided are of very high quality. I’d recommend the Japanese track purely as it’s the original and infinitely more authentic, but for those who don’t warm to subtitles the English dub provided is more than adequate and definitely not inferior in terms of reproduction quality.
Only one real special feature has made it onto this disc, and it will either never be touched or received with delight. This is quite disappointing, considering the Madman’s previous effort put into other anime titles.
The Princess of Wolves is not happy...
As an alternate angle to the entire film are a complete set of original storyboards, developed primarily by Miyazaki himself. If you’re a fan of storyboards this is an absolute treat, as they provide little snippets of detail that’s often overlooked as well as alternate sequences that were scraped. However, most will lose interest fairly quickly – as the storyboards are no match for such a fantastic film! The occasional glance at them will prove rewarding, but not two full hours worth.
Alongside the storyboards is a few original Princess Mononoketrailers, as well as some promotional propaganda from Madman.
If you’ve never touched Japanese animation, this is definitely a good place to start (along with Miyazaki latest, Spirited Away). Princess Mononoke contains enough action to engage those keen on sprawling animated fury, and enough drama for subtle filmgoers to enjoy the experience. This is unquestionably one of the greatest animated features in existence.
O radiant Deer God, grant me but one wish?
Unfortunately Madman haven’t put the same effort into this release as they did with Spirited Away, receiving a DTS soundtrack and bonus extra-features disc. However, this disc does suffice and will certainly give your home theatre a workout. A few more extra features from the mouth of Hayao Miyazaki would have certainly been well received. Thankfully both language tracks were presented, which will please those who don’t sit well with reading such a visual film!