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Princess Mononoke (1997)

When director Hayao Miyazaki's seventh feature film was released in Japan back in '97, it became quite the phenomenon. Miyazaki's films had always been a big deal in his homeland, attracting mainstream family audiences and anime fans alike, but this was something else. It became the highest grossing film released in the country to date, Japanese-made or otherwise, so even Hollywood had to eventually sit up and take notice. This lead to Disney acquiring the rights to distribute Studio Ghibli's catalogue in the west, a deal that lasts to this day. However, it would be some years before Mononoke would actually make its English language début. Why did it take so long? It seems likely that Disney didn't know quite what they were getting into, and the more mature world of Mononoke took them off guard.

It's hardly surprising- if your only experience with Miyazaki is the infinitely adorable My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke will come as quite a shock. Dark, violent and frequently frightening for younger audiences, it's much more adult than many of Miyazaki's other works. The violence is much stronger than that seen in other Ghibli films, but it's what the censors like to dub "Fantasy Violence", and it's no worse than what you might find in Lord Of The Rings.  Nonetheless, it's no coincidence that it was ultimately released not under the Disney banner, but by their art-house subsidiary Miramax.

Not afraid to show the harsher side of nature, there's imagery here that will stay with you long after the credits roll.  That's not to say that it's an unrelentingly bleak experience though. Far from it, it's full of the sense of wonder that's found throughout the director's body of work. While some of the ancient forests spirits are threatening, there's still room for lovable creatures like the benevolent kodama and the spirit of the forest himself. And as always with every Ghibli work, the backgrounds are breathtaking.

Visually, Mononoke has aged spectacularly well. The visuals hold up perfectly and look as gorgeous today as they ever have, thanks to an excellent Blu-ray transfer. While Miyazaki's particular look may not be for everyone, it's impossible to argue with the technical expertise on display here. Although this was notably Miyazaki's first film to make any real use of digital animation, this was still largely produced in the traditional way. There are a few sequences here that could only have been produced with the aid of digital technology but they're incredibly well-integrated and brilliantly executed.

It sounds as good as it looks, thanks to another wonderful score from frequent collaborator Jo Hishashi. The film has an instantly memorable, and very fitting theme that suits the epic sweep of the story perfectly. This very well might be Hishashi's finest work.

It also presents us with a part of Japan's past rarely- if ever- seen on screen. Japanese historical fiction and fantasy alike normally concentrates on the feudal era, but here we see a time when the country we know as Japan is only really starting to come together.If you've grown tired of samurai and ninja  then this gives you a fascinating alternative.

Environmentalism is a theme that has run through Miyazaki's work going back to his first original feature Nausicaa of The Valley Of The Wind (based on his own manga of the same name). It's front and centre here- although it manages never to feel preachy. Modern concerns about the impact of humans on nature gels well with traditional Japanese Shinto-based ideas that everything has a soul.It's a deeply spiritual movie, and ultimately a hopeful one too. FernGully The Last Rainforest, it is not.

The characters are drawn with considerable depth, staying away from cliché. Pure-hearted Ashitaka aside, they are not depicted as simply good or evil. The script avoids painting in black and white,  and the character of Lady Eboshi, who could easily so have become a typical villain is instead shown to be a sympathetic character with believable motivation.

As a rule, the English language versions of Ghibli films produced by the House of Mouse have been exemplary. Produced with care, well written and acted, they've managed to avoid the stigma often associated with dubs. Even so, the English version of Princess Mononoke is a stand-out. With a script adapted by writing legend Neil Gaiman and a cast of 90's-era indie-cred stars, the adaptation suits the film perfectly.

From its spectacular opening to its moving climax, Princess Mononoke is an absolute classic. Despite a not-inconsiderable running time, it'll keep you transfixed throughout. In an already spectacular body of work it stands out as a singular achievement. Picking a favourite Miyazaki flick is a near-impossible task for a fan, akin to asking a parent to choose their favourite child. Even still, Princess Mononoke might just be Hayao Miyazaki's ultimate masterpiece.

PRINCESS MONONOKE is Available On Blu-Ray and DVD  in the UK from STUDIOCANAL and on  Blu-Ray and DVD in the US from Disney Home Entertainment.