Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Princess Mononoke

 Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin.  I watch a movie and blog about it, because it's something to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  This time, from my collection, I'm grabbing Princess Mononoke.  This is in my notes at December 10, 2017.

Continuing with my new Studio Ghibli acquisitions, we move on to the first film where Miyazaki said he was done and retiring, Princess Mononoke  When it first debuted in Japanese theatres in the 1997, it was a monster hit.  It stayed at the top of the box office for months.  The only thing with the power to dethrone it was Titanic.  And with box office numbers like that, Disney signed a massive distribution deal with Studio Ghibli to start releasing their stuff in North America. 

It looked like Disney's distribution deal was off to a good start.  It started with a VHS release of Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service in the fall of 1998.  It was a best seller and won a lot of critical acclaim.  For a 9-year old film released straight to VHS, it even made a few critics' "best of 1998" lists.  Seemed like Disney and Ghibli would be an ideal partnership.

Until Disney actually watched Princess Mononoke and began readying it for a theatrical release.  No doubt Disney was expecting something fun and family friendly like Kiki's Delivery Service, or Miyazaki's earlier work, which had already developed a cult following in North America, My Neighbor Totoro.  Instead, they got a bloody and violent fable about medieval Japan ripe with themes of environmentalism and man's place in nature.  So, since Disney owned Miramax at the time, Disney passed it off to Miramax and said, "It's your problem, bub."  Miramax proposed to Studio Ghibli that they should edit the film to make it more family-friendly.  Ghibli's response was the gift of an antique samurai sword with a note that simply read, "No cuts." 

But Miramax tried.  They assembled an A-list voice cast for the dub, including Clare Daines, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, and Jada Pinket-Smith.  Legendary fantasy author Neil Gaiman was brought on board to pen the English translation.  That really excited me, because thanks to my friend's love of The Sandman, I was really starting to get into Gaiman's work.  I've read interview with Gaiman over the years concerning his work on the film.  He originally described his job as simply punching up the dialogue, to make it sound less like a Saturday morning cartoon.  He shared a tale of hearing that, when his dub was initially screened for test audiences, it scored low marks across the board and he was asked to try again.  After watching the dub, he realized it was not what he had written at all.  After confronting the director of the dub about this, the director explained that Gaiman's script was largely unusable, and that the director had rewritten it himself.  See, when it came to writing a dub, no one had explained to Gaiman the concept of lip flaps, and that the dialogue had to be written to match the movements of the characters' mouths.  With this new knowledge, Gaiman sat down with the director and together they wrote something usable that still had Gaiman's trademark flair. 

The last interview I read with Gaiman about the film, someone at a Q&A asked him if the film would have been a bigger hit if Miramax had been allowed to re-edit it.  Gaiman said, "Probably, but then you'd be sitting there asking me if the uncut version would ever be released." 

Miramax slipped it into theatres with little to no promotion in the fall of 1999.  It had a very limited release, and soon disappeared.  It hit VHS in the year 2000, where I finally was able to rent it and watch it for the first time.  And then, in 2001, with my very first DVD player, well, it wasn't in the first batch of DVDs I bought, but it was definitely in the second or third. 

Set in 16th Century Japan, we meet our hero, Prince Ashitaka, the ruler of a remote village.  One day, his village is attacked by a demon.  The demon turns out to be a cursed boar god, and before he dies, manages to pass the curse onto Ashitaka.  While the curse gifts Ashitaka with superhuman strength, it is also slowly consuming him, and will kill him.  They discover that the god had been turned into a demon by an iron ball that was lodged in its flesh.  Willingly going into exile to save his village from the curse, Ashitaka begins tracking the demon to its origins, in the hopes of finding a cure. 

What Ashitaka finds is a pretty literal war on nature.  On one side, the Lady Eboshi, the ruler of Iron Town, a massive iron foundry.  And on the other, San, the Princess Mononoke.  Raised by Moro, the wolf god, San now leads the remaining gods and their massive beasts against Eboshi.  As the medicine woman in Ashitaka's village told him to "see with eyes unclouded," Ashitaka spends time with both camps to learn their point of view.

Which adds to the film's complexity.  We get to see both sides, and there's no clear cut hero or villain.  Yeah, Eboshi has pissed off the gods of old by clear-cutting the forests to get to the iron ore, but she does so much good.  She rescues prostitutes and puts them to work in her foundry, where they earn a living wage.  She hires lepers, where she bandages them and washes their wounds and gives them work in her engineering department where they design these brand new weapons called "muskets." 

Meanwhile, we see that San and Moro are simply fighting to preserve their homeland and their way of life.  Honestly, watching it again tonight, it reminded me so much of the debates we have over pipelines these days.  Statistically speaking, pipelines are still the safest way to transport oil.  Their construction and maintenance put people to work.  But...is it worth the environmental devastation should one leak? 

However, things don't get better with the arrival of Jigo, a mercenary monk who tries to play both sides against the middle.  The Emperor has placed a bounty on the Deer God...the great god of the entire forest.  Allegedly, possession of the head grants immortality.  Eboshi is quick to ally herself with Jigo, as it will rid her of the gods, and curry favour with the Emperor, and a little empirical protection will help defend Iron Town from the nearby, raiding shoguns.  It soon falls to San and Ashitaka to try to strike a peace and find a balance between technology and nature. 

I'm glad I upgraded to Blu-Ray, because man, does it look nice in HD.  I still amaze at the rich, dense mythology that Miyazaki created for this film.  I've seen it dozens of times over the past 15 years, and I still grapple with it.  And in this day and age, it's good to see an environmental tale where there are no clear-cut heroes and villains.  And I still deeply adore that Joe Hisashi score. 

And one last thing before I go.  I had no clearer "Yup, I'm in Japan" moment than when I came home from work one night and there it was on TV.  Just the plain ol' Saturday night movie.  Wild.

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