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Princess Mononoke: Collector’s Edition

Studio: GKIDS / Shout! Factory

May 13, 2019 Web Exclusive
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A young prince—the last of a proud and dying tribe—leaves his village, never to return. A curse burns within his right arm, placed there by a demon that would have wiped out his people had the prince’s arrow not brought its life to an end. Like the beast he slayed, a hate-fueled poison will gradually corrupt his body, destroy his soul, and finally kill him. His only shot at ending the curse will be to find the origin of the iron ball—a crude bullet—that pierced the beast’s flesh and was the cause of its rage and infection.

At a long journey’s end, the boy prince comes upon an industrial village: a walled society known as Irontown. Its population is a high mix of outcasts—lepers, and former prostitutes from nearby brothels—who have strip-mined the nearby forests for its minerals. They operate the bellows that fuel the fires which smelt them down into bullets and firearms: a new but effective weapon against a tyrannical emperor and his murderous samurai. To prosper, the denizens of Irontown must get at the ore buried deep under the wooded mountains surrounding them. The forest, though, is haunted by spirits and gods: massive, oversized and intelligent animals who will stop at nothing to protect their home. Among them lives a human girl, rumored to have been orphaned and raised by a pack of wolves, who has a blood thirst for the Lady leader of Irontown. The people in the village fear the girl, and is known among them as Princess Mononoke: the princess of the forest spirits.

This is hardly the expected setup for an animated fairy tale. When we first meet its titular princess, she’s sucking blood from the wound of an injured wolf. Our prince has a murderous, demon-possessed arm. This is a failm with no clear-cut delineation between good and evil: every character has their own reasons for fighting, both good and bad. The closest thing the movie has to a “villain” is the strong, female leader of a prosperous, hard-working population, and one who’s taken it upon herself to be caretaker of society’s unwanted people. No, Princess Mononoke is far from your average animated tale.

Released in 1997, Princess Mononoke was a turning point for its director, the master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Unlike most of his prior features—save notably for his first masterpiece, My Neighbor Totoro—it’s not inspired by European fairy tales and literature, but entrenched firmly in Japanese history and folklore. It’s also decidedly not a children’s story, like much of what had come before. (Mononoke is rated PG-13 for gore, and is violent enough that it’s being animated rather than live-action could have been what saved it from getting an R rating.) At two-and-a-quarter hours, Mononoke is an epic fairy tale made for adults. Where adult animation was in no way a new thing by the late ‘90s – especially in Japan – Mononoke’s maturity is an emotional one, with multi-sided characters and varying perspectives on right and wrong, rather than one derived primarily from adult subject matter.

Princess Mononoke is a must on Blu-ray. Not only is its storytelling rich, but even more so is it visually breathtaking. It’s arguably one of the pinnacles of hand-drawn cell animation, outdone perhaps only by Studio Ghibli’s own Spirited Away a few years later. In high definition you can wholly appreciate the work that goes into such a laborious process, the precision of every frame, and Mononoke‘s stunning color palette. This is one of those movies that all the fancy equipment in your home theater setup was made for.

This is the second of Studio Ghibli’s films to receive a lavish collector’s edition treatment under the GKIDS label, and we feel that what you get in this limited version justifies the bump price over their standard release of the movie. The Blu-ray is packaged in a heavy-duty slipcase, in a square format—resembling a deluxe music box set—with the movie’s wonderful soundtrack, which has long been unavailable on CD in the U.S., and a 40-page book filled with film stills, a director’s statement, an informative (and personal) essay by critic Glenn Kenny, and poetry penned by Miyazaki about each of Mononoke’s characters. These are great additions to the previously-released extra features on the disc itself, which include a movie-length storyboard presentation and behind-the-scenes footage from recording sessions by the well-selected English voice cast. The best on-disc featurette is a Japanese-language documentary about Miyazaki’s 1997 press tour for the U.S. release of Mononoke; we watch the director fidget uncomfortably through interview after interview, but he gives less-guarded (and slightly more informative) answers than we’d hear in a more prepared setting.


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