Princess Mononoke, which got a spotty U.S. release to a handful of art houses and cineplexes back in 1999, is fortunately one of the Studio Ghibli films that have been making the rounds since early last year on newly-struck 35mm prints.
That’s right, on film. The fact that these are not being presented digitally is very specifically at the request of director Hayao Miyazaki who wanted them to be seen in a theater with light passing through them, film grain clearly perceivable, rather than reduced to a 1080p digital approximation. He’s a stickler as he goddamn well should be.
As with Miyazaki’s first feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, seeing Mononoke on the big screen in this country has been a rare event. Unlike more recent Ghibli films, which have received a solid marketing push from distributor Disney and Pixar frontman John Lasseter, Princess Mononoke was always an anomaly: a dark, not-so-family-friendly fantasy saga initially released by Disney subsidiary Miramax and rated PG-13. Its limited theatrical run was a disappointment to Disney, but was nevertheless something of a sleeper hit, playing to full houses in Albuquerque for weeks. I think I managed to see it four times at three different theaters. Then it vanished from U.S. theaters for 13 years.
Mononoke is one of the best fantasy films ever made. Its incredible attention to detail and earthy, naturalistic backdrops create a convincing secondary world in which the old gods are starting to fall before the might of the machine age. As Alibi reviewer Devin O’Leary pointed out in 1999, “The prevailing theme presented here is nothing less than mankind’s inevitable movement away from ancient, pastoral living to modern, industrial civilization.” That’s some heavy lifting for a cartoon, but this is no ordinary cartoon.
Clocking in at well over two hours, the scope of the film is awesome, its apocalyptic scenario rendered in broad strokes of violence and terror, tempered with quiet scenes of near-psychedelic mysticism. The iconic moment where protagonist Ashitaka first spots San (née Princess Mononoke), the wolf girl, sucking and spitting blood from the gunshot wound in her foster mother’s breast is one of the great visual shocks in cinema. The amorphous, Christ-like Forest Spirit (Shishigami in the original Japanese version) seems clearly patterned on the Great Prince of the Forest in Bambi (easily the best and most trippy of Disney’s animated features), yet the full effect as he appears in a distant glade is that something alien and magical is passing near, something truly from the realm of faerie—a high water mark hard to hit in any fantasy.
Devin again on Mononoke’s merits: “A carefully crafted script translation by Brit comic book writer Neil Gaiman (best known for his Sandman series) retains all of Miyazaki’s rich symbolism and historical context. The greatest testament to Miyazaki’s skill is that his characters never slip into easy caricature. For example: Had this film been made by Disney, Lady Eboshi [the antagonist] would have been portrayed as an evil, cartoonish shrew. Instead, she is a fully-faceted character—an admirably strong-willed woman who dreams of building a haven for the outcasts of feudal Japan. Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke are similarly portrayed as good people who frequently give in to their darker, baser urges.”
Princess Mononoke has never been available on Blu-ray, its 2000 DVD release is long out of print. Last summer I dragged my kids up to Santa Fe to catch a matinee when the CCA Cinematheque screened these same Ghibli prints, thinking that might have been my last chance. I’m happy Keif at the Guild (with some help from Mr. O’Leary) proved me wrong. But now this is possibly your last chance to see this film in glorious 35mm and I heartily recommend you do not miss it.