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Princess Mononoke Blu-ray Anime Review

10 min read

Princess Mononoke CoverA darkness has entered the land – with plenty of help from man.

What They Say:
The march of technology, embodied in the dark iron forges of the ambitious Tatara clan, threatens the natural forces explicit in the benevolent Great God of the Forest and the wide-eyed, spectral spirits he protects. When Ashitaka, a young warrior from a remote and endangered village clan, kills a ravenous, boar-like monster, he discovers the beast is in fact an infectious “demon god,” transformed by human anger.

Inflicted with its deadly curse, the young warrior sets out to the forests of the west in search of the cure that will save his life. Once there, he becomes inextricably entangled in a bitter battle that matches Lady Eboshi and a proud clan of humans against the forest’s animal gods – who are led by the brave Princess Mononoke, a young woman raised by wolves!

The Review:
The audio presentation for this film is definitely solid as we get the original Japanese language track and the previously created English language adaptation in 5.1 using the DTS-HD MA lossless codec. We also get a French 5.1 mix in Dolby Digital. The lossless tracks definitely give the film a lot of life, from the subtle sounds of the forest to the big action sequences, and it spreads that love around to a lot of places in the film as there’s some great directionality and depth to it. The film has a lot going on, especially with the cursed side of things with how those sound, and the usage of the forward soundstage to give it life really adds some creepiness to it. The dialogue side of it is standard Ghibli fare where it works the stereo channels well and we get the levels set really well with everything clean and clear no matter how low they talk, and it has a very appealing design to it overall. We didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Originally in theaters in 1997, the transfer for this film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The feature has the high production values that you’d expect and the transfer captures it very, very well. Colors are strong and rich throughout while the darker areas have its own strengths in the clarity of detail while still having the appropriate murky and darkness about it. The fine detail in the film in both character designs and backgrounds is strong throughout, which makes it easy to pause and soak in certain areas of it. The colors have a lot of people with some really vibrant areas that stand out more so because of particular scenes. I’m also once again just in awe of the fluidity of the animation at times as it’s just so smooth and wonderfully presented here.

The packaging for this release mirrors what we’ve seen with other films under the Studio Ghibli banner with the blue border, the embossed logos along the top and the overall design with the use of the familiar poster material. This means we get the murky background with the mountain and skies in brown with the logo over it as well as the English language cast while below it is the action piece with Ashitaka while some of the Kodoma are off to the side. The back cover follows the same pattern as other release as well with the upper left corner focusing on the extras included in the release while below it we get the premise summarized well. The few features from the show along the right showcases some good aspects of the film with a brighter look while the bottom finishes things out in the usual fashion with the technical information and the production credits above the standard block of logos and region coding. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.

After watching a couple of other releases from this batch, the menu design here is no surprise at all as it mirrors it in layout. The main background image gives us some time with Ashitaka and San with the wolves and Yakul that’s done in a soft form with a soft white background that it blends into. The right side has three images from the show that are bright and more colorful while the lower left has the menu navigation in purple with black text. The navigation is straightforward enough but requires a few screens in order to set it all up in the way that you like. It’s not bad, but it’s just more involved than it needs to be. Overall it’s all accessible and easy to navigate but it doesn’t really inspire or set the right tone for the film itself.

The extras for this release are pretty much what we saw back with the previous DVD release, so that’s not exactly a bad thing or unexpected. The release comes with the storyboard feature, which I still find to be fascinating overall in seeing the way the film is mapped out, as well as the original Japanese and English language trailers and the TV spots too. The release also brings us the featurette that explains a bit about the property for English language viewers as the cast talk about, which runs about five minutes. We also get the twenty minute piece that shows how the film made its way here to the US with its release, which was pretty radical at the time for an anime feature to get such a strong push.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
When it comes to the projects that Hayao Miyazaki chooses, it’s always interesting to watch the way he moves between original works and adaptations of other stories that catch his fancy at the time. With Princess Mononoke, it was lightning in a bottle at the time as the film did strong in Japan and was aligned with Disney’s growing interest in the studio for various reasons. What resulted from it was that the film made its way to North America for a limited engagement overall, but one that allowed many people to see the film outside of a film festival circuit on the big screen. I can still vividly remember where I saw it, the feel of the seats and presentation and the nature of the audience at the time as it was all big fans of Ghibli in particular and anime in general. It was a very memorable experience that comes to life every time I watch the film, which makes me glad Disney finally got around to giving this one a Blu-ray release here.

Miyazaki has often touched on themes of the environment and man’s connection to nature in many of his films and it’s done in a bit more of a blunt way here, though it works well enough as it fits the period properly. Taking place in the Muromachi period of Japan’s history with some supernatural elements added to it, we get a land where things are in a state of flux. Our lead in Ashitaka introduces us to a young man who has to leave his village in exile to deal with a threat to the area after he becomes infected by a cursed boar. Things in the forest area are under threat as man has grown and conquered more over the years and is starting to make bigger strides in altering the landscape of his surroundings. This is shown here in the form of Iron Town, where Ashitaka ends up coming across, where a woman named Eboshi is harnessing a furnace in order to build weapons and more to secure themselves against threats. To get the materials they need though, they have to clear trees in the forest to dig deep down to get the iron ore they need.

What’s we also get introduced to are a couple of competing tribes of animals within the forest, such as the apes, the wolves and the boars themselves. All are threatened by the advances of man, but aren’t sure what to do. The apes have fallen to darkness and are becoming cruel and violent as they try to replenish the trees but men keep yanking them out. The boars see themselves as needing to act before they’re reduced to being just dumb animals as their influence wanes. The wolves are a bit more thoughtful and nuanced as we get to see just their leader, Moro, and two younglings. But Moro is different in the fact that she’s also raised a human girl named San over the years after San’s parents offered her up to Moro in exchange for their own lives. That has her not between two worlds, but not fully of the wolves and nowhere close to being in the world of man.

Honestly, it’s easy enough to see the path of the film, especially when we’re introduced to the spirit of the forest, a creature which transforms from one form to another at the changing of the light of the world. With Eboshi wanting to eliminate him in order to reduce threats to her people and the other tribes with their own plans, there are a couple of competing but similar goals in place here as it focuses on how man is making his advancement into civilization while essentially burning the ground behind and ahead of him. Ashitaka is trying to find a way to save everyone, as he gets familiar with lots of people in Iron Town and sees that they’re good people, but just taking the wrong path. He becomes drawn to San and even goes so far as to claim he wants to spend his life with her after their few meetings. And he wants to save the various creatures of the forest so as to have a rich landscape for all to partake in. Ashitaka provides a simple version of our general view of wanting to do good in the world and ease the pressures, but he’s also mostly reactive in just trying to stop others from their plans rather than truly offering another way. Not that Eboshi would listen as she’s hard set on eliminating the spirit of the forest. Luckily, Eboshi isn’t portrayed as a simple bad person, even in just being misguided, as we see all the good she does as well. But as is the case with many Miyazaki works, it all comes down to wanting to find a harmony with nature rather than the hard struggle against it.

While I may sound a little dismissive of the plot of the film, it’s far from that. It’s simply familiar. The trappings are what sells it, though even that is a little “standard fare” Miyazaki in a lot of ways. But it’s Miyazaki at his best as there’s such a rich layering to things here with all the details of how the world works with the various characters, the places they reside in and the back and forth struggle of it all. Ashitaka’s home comes across as intriguing, but is left in the dust after the first few minutes, but it adds to the overall work. Iron Town gives us a lot of characters in small doses, but they feel very real and relatable as it progresses and we see them struggle with what’s going on. The same can be said of the various animal races as well. San, in a way, is the hardest one to really connect with as she has some decent time but is simply a part of the ensemble here, which is the best way to view this film. She’s an important part of the overall richness of the film though, as she provides our connection to the wolves and the boars, as well as the spirit of the forest. Through her, we get to experience the wonder of the world as Miyazaki sees it, and it is beautiful.

In Summary:
Though not my favorite of the Studio Ghibli library, Princess Mononoke is definitely an important part of it as it represents when the films began to gain a lot more acceptance in North America. With a solid cast for the English language adaptation and the overall push it began, it’s something the warrants attention for what it achieved, but it also warrants it because it’s a very well put together story with solid characters, a real sense of meaning about it and some strikingly beautiful and haunting animation. There’s plenty of reasons this film has so many admirers around the world and this presentation of it is definitely something that will please most with what it does, and just to finally have it in such a high quality form. It’s definitely one of the jewels of the Ghibli collection.

Japanese DTS-HD MA Language, English DTS-HD MA Language, French DTS-HD MA Language, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Princess Mononoke in the U.S.A., Original Japanese Storyboards, Original Japanese Trailers, Original Japanese TV Spots, Featurette

Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: B+

Released By: Disney
Release Date: November 18th, 2014
MSRP: $36.99
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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