After 20 Years, “Princess Mononoke” Holds Its Own

Quick note: I’m writing this post in a Starbucks because the power is out at my house; the West Coast has been battered by harsh weather over the last several days and storm warnings are still in effect. Be careful out there, everyone.

Last night my girlfriend and I attended the 20th anniversary re-release of Princess Mononoke; it was her first time viewing and my second. Hayao Miyazaki’s films speak to me on a number of levels–the stunning, often breathtaking animation; the preservationist overtones that are implicitly and explicitly reflected; the resistance to traditional performances and expectations of gender.

The first time I watched Princess Mononoke was two years ago, when I was finishing up in college. I was on a serious Miyazaki kick at the time, having re-watched Spirited Away for the first time since childhood and being once again captivated and enthralled by Miyazaki’s wonderfully weird spirit world. I marathoned Mononoke alongside Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and My Neighbor Totoro all in rapid succession, to which I attribute my recent muddled recollection of the films. Suffice to say I was excited for a rescreening; that we got to see it in theaters was just icing.

Here are just a few things I discovered (or rediscovered) upon repeated viewing:

Scary…and Violent, Too: I had almost forgotten about this particular aspect of Mononoke, but I’ll definitely never overlook it again. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a family movie or for more mature viewers, but there are some seriously disturbing images and to be found here. Beheadings, dismemberment, and depictions of rotting demon slug-beasts abound; the crowd in our theater audibly gasped at the sheer suddenness of several of the gory moments. If you’re a parent of a small child, I’d recommend pre-screening this one.

Influence on Animated Cinema: To be fair, Princess Mononoke itself draws extensively on folklorish archetypes in its environmentalist narrative: a hero is bestowed with a curse that grants frightening powers; a human raised by animals becomes as a protector of the wild; a life-bestowing nature spirit that transforms into something twisted and destructive until a precious possession is returned. Even so, the stark similarities in how some of these themes have been repeated in cinema since–particularly among animated films by Disney–point back to the enduring strength of Mononoke’s legacy.

(Mostly) Good English Dubbing: I’m no purist, but I do prefer most of my anime subtitled with the original Japanese voiceover. I was unaware that the 20th anniversary screening was dubbed, but it didn’t take much enjoyment out of the experience. Studio Ghibli films have a reputation for quality dubs, and Princess Mononoke mostly lives up to that. Billy Bob Thornton is certainly an interesting choice for Jigo, but he contributes just enough dry humor into his dialogue that it somehow works. One gripe would be Billy Crudup’s performance–he’s a common-sense vocal compliment to Ashitaka’s character, but at times falls a bit flat and awkward on the delivery.

All in all, Princess Mononoke is very much the fine film and excellent Miyazaki entry I remembered it to be. Spirited Away does remain my favorite, due in large part to my fascination with “Alice in Wonderland”-style coming of age stories; I’m be first in line a few years from now when the Spirited Away 20th anniversary inevitably hits theaters. In the meantime, Princess Mononoke has given me an overdue reminder of the incredible canon of complex, political, and beautiful animated cinema that Miyazaki has given to us.

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