Home > Reviews > PRINCESS MONONOKE (MONONOKE-HIME) – Joe Hisaishi


October 29, 1999 Leave a comment Go to comments

princessmononokeOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Japanese Anime – or Manga, as it is often mistakenly referred to in this country – has been the subject of something of a boom in recent years. Until the release of respected films such as Roujin Z, Space Adventure Cobra, Legend of the Overfiend, Wings of Honneamise and Akira, Japanese animation was widely regarded as merely being the stuff of Saturday morning kids shows: badly dubbed adventure cartoons starring wide-eyed characters surrounded by garishly colorful backgrounds. Since the genre’s migration west, big-screen Anime has slowly built up a devoted cult following, and has become a highly respected art form in its own right. Princess Mononoke, which is hitting these shores two years after it broke all the domestic box-office records, is touted as being the genre’s pinnacle.

Based on an ancient Japanese poem, the film tells the story of an age-old conflict between Lady Eboshi, the leader of the ruthless Tatara clan, and San, the Princess Mononoke, a human woman raised by wolves who acts as the defender of the Gods of the Forest whose homeland is being invaded by the unrelenting machinery of Eboshi and her minions. In the midst of this chaos San meets and falls in love with a young warrior named Ashitaka – a blossoming romance which could ultimately mean victory for Eboshi and the ultimate defeat of the Gods. After taking Japanese cinema-goers by storm in 1997, Princess Mononoke was snapped up by the Miramax company and became the first Anime to receive a theatrical release in the States. With a re-dubbed voice cast that included Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson, Princess Mononoke was received as a dramatic and technical triumph, with many critics citing composer Joe Hisaishi’s score as one of its standout elements.

Joe Hisaishi is held in as much esteem in his native country as Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams are over here. Hisaishi is an Oriental composer with a greatly Western style, meaning he regularly uses a symphony orchestra peppered with ethnic instruments and electronic effects to flavor his score. Until recently, I had only experienced Hisashi’s work through his regular collaborations with cult director Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano on films such as Boiling Point, Kids Return and Hana-Bi – and I hadn’t been overly impressed. However, favorable comparisons have been made between Hisaishi’s work on Princess Mononoke and that of John Williams and James Horner – and it is not difficult to see why. As befits the scope of the story, Hisaishi’s score is at times truly massive in scale, brimming with heroic orchestral passages, intriguing exotic and synthesised orchestrations.

The score is built around the epic sounding theme for Ashitaka, heard during ‘The Legend of Ashitaka’, plaintively in ‘The Land of the Impure’, grandly in ‘The Young Man from the East’ and at its best in the majestic ‘End Credits’, the finest track on the album. A mighty melody for searching strings and heroic brass which surges forth from a bed of electronic bass, the Ashitaka theme easily stands aside some of Hollywood’s finest creations as one the most beautiful refrains of the year. But, not content to rest on his laurels, Hisaishi bolsters the theme with several superb sub-themes, many of which regularly re-occur throughout the score. An attractive, pastoral motif for ethnic flute and orchestra is heard in many cues, especially ‘The Journey to the West’, ‘The Encounter’ and ‘Will to Live’, while a surprisingly warm and seductive guitar-and-orchestra theme acts as a motif for ‘Lady Eboshi’. A gorgeous but melancholy string ‘Requiem’ is afforded three performances, and the whole thing is capped off by the truly beautiful theme song for Princess Mononoke herself, performed by a solo flute in its instrumental version, and by Sasha Lazard with English lyrics in the penultimate track.

There are also several clever and surprising touches introduced by Hisaishi for no other reason than his own musical amusement, including the harsh metallic throbbing and undulating strings of the leitmotif for ‘The Demon God’, the amusing pizzicato and percussion interlude in ‘Kodamas’, the eerie electronic vocal effects of ‘The World of the Dead’, and the rhapsodic piano and string masterpiece ‘Ashitaka and San’ (which has vague stylistic similarities to Debbie Wiseman’s Haunted). There is also some excellent action material present, especially in cues such as ‘The Furies’ and the unrelenting ‘The Battle in Front of the Ironworks’, which is preceded by some absolutely monumental percussion work in ‘The Battle Drums’ which could easily put the famous Taiko drummers to shame.

This CD, released by Milan, is slightly shorter than the original Japanese version of two years ago, and has a different track order and cover art. But, even without the expanded Mononoke song or the missing cues, Princess Mononoke is still a massive effort from all concerned, clocking in with 32 tracks and at nearly an hour. I sincerely hope that, following the exposure Princess Mononoke is sure to bring his way, Joe Hisaishi is offered the opportunity to lend his talents to an American movie or two. There are many excellent musicians currently working in Asian cinema and, with the exception of Ryuichi Sakamoto and Kitaro, too few of them ever reach any kind of prominence on the world stage. Already in 1999 Princess Mononoke has generated enough of a stir amongst western score-watchers that many are already claiming it to be one of the best of the year.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Legend of Ashitaka (1:39)
  • The Demon God (3:48)
  • The Journey to the West (2:33)
  • The Demon Power (0:34)
  • The Land of the Impure (3:00)
  • The Encounter (0:50)
  • Kodamas (2:27)
  • The Forest of the Gods (0:39)
  • Evening at the Ironworks (0:39)
  • The Demon God II – The Lost Mountains (0:57)
  • Lady Eboshi (2:48)
  • The Tatara Women Work Song (1:27)
  • The Furies (1:28)
  • The Young Man from the East (1:25)
  • Requiem (2:22)
  • Will to Live (0:30)
  • San and Ashitaka in the Forest of the Deer God (1:39)
  • Princess Mononoke Theme Song (Instrumental) (2:08)
  • Requiem II (2:12)
  • The Battle Drums (2:45)
  • The Battle in Front of the Ironworks (1:26)
  • The Demon Power II (2:30)
  • Requiem III (0:54)
  • The Retreat (1:30)
  • The Demon God III (1:13)
  • Adagio of Life and Death (2:08)
  • The World of the Dead (1:28)
  • The World of the Dead II (1:33)
  • Adagio of Life and Death II (1:05)
  • Ashitaka and San (3:10)
  • Princess Mononoke Theme Song (written by Joe Hisaishi and Hayao Miyazaki, translated by Stephen Alpert, performed by Sasha Lazard) (1:20)
  • The Legend of Ashitaka Theme – End Credits (5:03)

Running Time: 59 minutes 30 seconds

Milan 73138-35864-2 (1997/1999)

Music composed and conducted by Joe Hisaishi. Orchestrations by Joe Hisaishi. Recorded and mixed by Masayoshi Okawa, Makoto Moramuto and Suminobu Hamada. Mastered by Masaaki Kato, Joe Gastwirt and Ramón Bretón. Album produced by Joe Hisaishi, Emmanuel Chamboredon and Russell Ziecker.

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