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Princess Mononoke

Buena Vista Home Video

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki

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Review by Damon Houx                    

When Japanese Anime master Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke debuted in Japan in 1997, it was the second biggest film ever to open in that country, only surpassed by the worldwide juggernaut that was Titanic. But when Mononoke finally made its way to American shores two years later, it was released under a storm of controversy.

Picked up by Disney's specialty studio Miramax, Mononoke arrived theatrically in a dubbed version, with voices provided by actors with a cachet of indie hipness (Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson), and adapted by comic book auteur Neil Gaiman. Miramax had picked up the film under contract not to cut a frame, but were this not in the provisions of the agreement, they would have — and in fact tried to (as reported on the Internet Movie Database). Serious Anime fans on these shores rejected the Americanized Mononoke because of the dubbing, preferring to buy bootleg tapes of the Japanese original, and by attempting to make the film more American-friendly, Miramax actually alienated the one audience they needed for the invaluable word-of-mouth promotion that all successful films enjoy. After all, unlike Miyazaki's earlier My Neighbor Totoro — or other imports like Digimon or PokemonPrincess Mononoke's appeal was not to the under-12 set, and parents weren't going to drop their children off at some weird foreign cartoon, no matter how much critics raved about it. It was a classic Catch-22, and Mononoke floundered at the box office.

If DVD fans have learned anything since the format arrived in 1997, it's that DVD releases can cleanse all sins — directors can restore footage lost via studio-imposed cuts, and unrated versions of films can appear as well. But for Princess Mononoke the battle continued. When it was released on VHS, it again was only available in the dubbed version. And again, Anime fans felt burned. When the DVD was announced without the Japanese language track, fans protested and sent Miramax a petition, which could have arrived at the Mouse House stillborn. Disney/Miramax already does a pretty poor job of releasing imported films of Anime and Hong Kong action (every Jet Li and Jackie Chan film released by them has been dubbed, and many edited to near incoherence). But — surprisingly, shockingly even — the studio listened to their consumers, and the original Japanese language track was added (in DD 5.1, no less) with a literal Japanese translation, alongside the English dub track.

But despite the general success, the petition was a hollow victory. It may not change Disney's overall policy towards foreign titles, and other glaring errors in their catalog probably won't be corrected. Frankly, it's silly when fans have to beg a company to release a product correctly, and it probably will happen again and again. But the Mononoke DVD is a victory. Without it, the DVD edition of one of the best animated films ever made would be a sham.

Miyazaki's film tells the epic story of a Cambellian hero named Ashitaka, who is forced out of his village because of a curse put on him by an angry boar god who he fought and killed. Needing a cure for the growing curse, which is making his violent acts fatal, he stumbles on the village (led by the Lady Eboshi) where the boar god came from, finding Eboshi and her town warring with the spirits of the forest, most notably the wolf gods, who have with them a human daughter San (aka, Princess Mononoke). The bullet that turned the boar into a demon was made in this village, but Ashitaka was asked by his village to view things "with eyes unclouded by hate," making him some sort of impartial observer. Lady Eboshi's people are stripping the forest for iron to make bullets as the forest is trying to replenish itself, creating a standstill — the humans know that the world wants iron, and Lady Eboshi is using ex-prostitutes and lepers to help make guns and bullets. But the outcasts of society have a place in her world, where she takes care of them. Meanwhile, the gods want Lady Eboshi's town gone, but if her people aren't there, other humans will move in. Ashitaka tries to observe all of this fairly, but he can't because he's falling in love with San. And his curse is getting worse.

One does not expect such political machinations or Renoirian shadings from most animated films, but whether one agrees with the decidedly environmentally friendly messages of Princess Mononoke or not, there is no doubt that Miyazaki's epic tale is a bravura masterpiece of animation. In every reel something shows up that can awe the viewer, be it the little spirits in the film that show up for no reason, or the subtle shadings of the animation (one of the women in the village keeps adjusting her robe while working a billow, to be modest for the attractive Ashitaka), to the epic battle between the boars and humans. As maligned as Lucas' Phantom Menace was, it is films like Mononoke that show what the godfather of modern sci-fi was missing, and what audiences were hoping for, as the battle sequences in Miyazaki's film are almost as good as those Kurosawa staged in Ran, and they are just as awe-inspiring. The thoughtful plot is more intelligent than most live-action films, and though animation may be considered kiddie fare, Miyazaki tells the complex tale without ever pandering. His animation shows a freshness and a beauty that seems missing from Disney's more recent efforts (which don't have Walt's magic anymore), and accompanying the lush and epic imagery is Joe Hisaishi's music, who could be considered the Japanese equivalent of John Williams. Hisaishi's work here is soaring and majestic, which makes an interesting comparison to his work with Takeshi Kitano. It's regrettable that Mononoke wasn't the crossover hit that it should have been, because it should have helped mainstream moviegoers to understand why so many Americans are fanatical Anime fans.

As previously noted, the Miramax DVD release here in Region 1 offers the English-language dub or the original Japanese track (also included is a French dub), and all things considered, the American dub actually is pretty good — most of the voices are acceptable, outside of a misplaced actor or two (Claire Danes seems the most awkward). But Miyazaki is a master of getting voice artists to do just as he wants, making the original Japanese track smoother and more complete. And that is essential — even a mediocre dub can ruin animated films. Marquee actors call attention to themselves, and when that happens the viewer often can't become fully engaged with the film, picturing the actors in booths by themselves instead. The DD 5.1 soundtrack is impressive in any language, and Hisaishi and Miyazaki get a good fusion of worlds here. The disc also comes with a featurette and a trailer, both of which spotlight the re-dubbing, but since the film is so well presented, the die-hard or the newcomer won't be disappointed with this release.

— Damon Houx

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