Despite the high quality of all of Studio Ghibli's output it wasn't until Miramax released Princess Mononoke back in 2001 that they started to get the recognition they deserved. Princess Mononoke was a bit of a departure for director Hayao Miyazaki, and now, five years after it first hit the shelves in the UK, the film is being given a welcome reissue courtesy of Optimum Asia.
The film is set during a time of great
change in feudal Japan, a time when new technology challenged the old ways of
thinking and living. In a remote tribal village a young prince called
Ashitaka embarks on a quest, he has received a deadly curse after slaying a boar
god which had become a rampaging demon, and journeys to find out what had caused
the god to change in the hope that it will help him lift the curse. His
journey takes him to Iron Town, an industrial settlement run by the modernist
Lady Eboshi which is embroiled in a conflict with nature itself. Eboshi's
deforestation and the acrid smoke that rises from her settlement has angered the
ancient gods of the forest, and the wolf god Moro and her adopted human
offspring San will stop at nothing to destroy Iron Town for good. Both
Eboshi and San - the titular Princess Mononoke - are fighting for what
they believe is right, but are things ever that clear cut? Ashitaka
refuses to take sides, instead wishing for the conflict to end and peace to be
restored, but the scheming monk Jiko has other ideas. He seems to be
fuelling a conflict for unknown ends, and with Eboshi desperate to kill the
gentle Forest Spirit to save her people, and the ancient boar god Lord Okotto
joining the battle to restore the old order, it seems that Ashitaka will have a
very hard job to stop outright war.
As mentioned, Princess Mononoke is a real departure for Hayao Miyazaki, his films for Studio Ghibli have generally been uplifting coming of age tales or snapshots of innocent youth, but with this film he returns to the darker ecological drama of his early career. The film shares a lot of similarities with the classic Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind, both films contain peaceful protagonists and complex counterpoint characters, as well as interesting ecological messages. However, what Princess Mononoke does is take the moral ambiguity of the characters to a new level as, apart from arguably Ashitaka, none
of them are really clear cut good or evil. Eboshi may be ruthless in her pursuit of the gentle Forest Spirit but she is driven by the desire to stop Moro and Okotto killing her people, many of whom are women she has rescued from a life of prostitution and slavery. She is not an evil person, it's just her view of the future clashes with that of the ancient gods, who feel their power waning in the face of progress and want to prevent their own destruction as much as that of their home.
It's this interesting premise at the heart
of Princess Mononoke that makes it a very good film. Nothing is
clear cut, the film lets you make your decisions - is Eboshi's goal of
empowering her people by giving them the strength to no longer live in fear of
nature sufficient excuse for the devastation she is wreaking on the forest?
Are the gods struggling to preserve the environment or are they struggling
simply to preserve themselves and their power? The film throws up many
interesting ideas and questions but before you think this means that it's a dry
and overly philosophical tale think again. Despite the decidedly
tone Miyazaki doesn't compromise on the action, and from start to finish
Princess Mononoke is probably his most epic and action packed film.
The frequent and superbly choreographed action scenes are delivered with a pace
and verve that is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's work, and this action and
thought provoking story is backed up with some truly stunning animation.
Visually Princess Mononoke is amongst Studio Ghibli's best works,
care and attention ooze from every scene, the animals are lifelike and
realistic, the forests verdant and beautiful.
To be honest there is little in the film to criticise, although it should be noted that it is a lot more violent than pretty much any of Miyazaki's previous films. The violence is cartoony but is still quite surprising, and the Forest Spirit is a bit crap to be fair, but these minuses are more than outweighed by the pluses. Princess Mononoke is a challenging film with great characters, particularly Lady Eboshi and the scheming monk Jiko, which backs it up with an intriguing story. It is genuinely creepy in places and feels a lot like an ancient piece of folklore. It is strange but it's like watching a legend rather than a fantasy film, there is a degree of earthy realism
in it that makes it seem like an old tale rather than a new one. This is probably it's greatest achievement, many films have tried to create this feeling but I can think of none that has managed it as successfully. The historical setting gives it a sense of inevitability too, history dictates that man will forget the old gods but instead of this ruining proceedings it instead provides a really poignant sense of destiny, and Miyazaki somehow still manages to imbue it with a beautiful feeling of hope.
Princess Mononoke may not appeal to all viewers as it is darker and more violent than many of Miyazaki's films, and also taxes the grey matter a lot more. The film challenges you to make your own decisions and creates a human cast with no really unsympathetic characters, whilst the story is thought provoking and balanced. The music and visuals are great, and the high profile English dub cast put in an excellent performance which easily matches the original Japanese dub in terms of quality. The film is a unique experience, it has aspects familiar to fans of Japanese cinema but no other film matches its sense of sheer imagination tempered with realism. Miyazaki packs a lot of meaning into a film that is on the surface a highly enjoyable dramatic actioner, and because it works on more than one level it will appeal to a wide range of viewers. It is a work made outside of the directors comfort zone yet succeeds in being a remarkably intelligent film that remains entertaining throughout, Princess Mononoke is a true work of genius.
As with Optimum's other Studio Ghibli Collection DVDs Princess Mononoke carries a Japanese trailer reel, a Ghibli Collection trailer reel and full storyboards. The press release also lists a behind the scenes featurette as an extra, but it doesn't appear to be on the review copy we received. No doubt this will be restored for the retail release though.