Magical girl transformations and a very different ending from the one shown in the Hayao Miyazaki anime classic.

Summer is normally when AAA anime movies are released in Japan, but 2020 is anything but normal. With coronavirus concerns leading to limits on theater capacities, many studios have delayed their debuts indefinitely (like what happened with the fourth Rebuild of Evangelion movie). There’s a silver lining, though, for those who enjoy watching anime on the silver screen, as Studio Ghibli has taken the opportunity to fill this void by rereleasing four of its films, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Tales from Earthsea, in Japanese theaters.

Studio Ghibli is promoting the event with the tagline “Once in a lifetime, Ghibli at the cinema,” which is kind of ironic since, with the exception of Earthsea, those are some most popular anime films of all time. Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away were all huge box office hits in their initial releases, and it’s a safe bet that a lot of the people buying tickets for the revival are seeing these anime for, at the very least, their second time in a theater.

But not our ace reporter Mr. Sato!

▼ Mr. Sato, looking a bit like a Ghibli character himself.

The very last Studio Ghibli anime that Mr. Sato saw in a theater was 1992’s Porco Rosso, and while he’s caught Nausicaa in its frequent broadcasts on Japanese TV, he’s never seen any of the other movies in the “Once in a lifetime, Ghibli at the cinema” lineup. “I sort of know what the main characters’ names are, just from hearing them in ads and stuff, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge,” he explained.

Realizing this was a chance to add to his (already considerable) knowledge of the world, and also to get paid to watch anime, Mr. Sato decided to attend a screening of Princess Mononoke. Before he left, though, we asked him to tell us what he thought the movie was going to be about, and so here is his imagined plot summary for the 1997 Hayao Miyazaki classic that he’d somehow never gotten around to watching in the 23 years since it came out.

“Ashitaka is a young man who lives in a village deep within the mountains. He’s a warrior who protects the village.

The village has no contact with the outside world, and its people lead lives deeply connected to nature. One day, a messenger arrives from a nearby castle, seeking to establish relations with the village. Following their customs, though, the villagers refuse.

In response, the castle sends soldiers to attack the village, so Ashitaka transforms into the Princess Mononoke to do battle with the invaders. A giant dog/lion spirit joins in the fight to help the villagers, and they are able to safely drive off the soldiers. Through their victory, the villagers are able to go back to their peaceful lifestyles, and there’s a nice, happy ending.”

▼ Princess Mononoke trailer

We won’t get into the specifics, for the sake of anyone else who hasn’t found the time to watch Princess Mononoke yet, but suffice it to say that’s not exactly what happens in the actual anime (though Ashitaka is a warrior, so, one point for Mr. Sato).

Now, after finally watching the movie, what does Mr. Sato think of it? “It was good, and interesting,” he told us after getting back from the theater, realizing that a lot of pre-existing fans will probably shout “Of course it is!” in response. He was kind of surprised, though, at how little San, the “Princess Mononoke” referenced in the title, does to move the plot forward, and actually felt like Ashitaka had the more dynamic role. But the character who left the deepest impression on him was Lady Eboshi. “She’s very complex” he remarked, citing how she can be seen as both a strong, compassionate leader and protector of humans who have been shunned by the rest of society and as a direct enemy of the living things of the forest.

So we can say that after more than two decades, Princess Mononoke still holds up. If you’ve never seen it before, the theater revival is a perfect opportunity, and now we’re also wondering what kind of results we’d get from asking Mr. Sato to guess the plots of Kyoto Animation’s theatrical anime, since they’re back in theaters too.

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Follow Casey on Twitter, where he still remembers when Princess Mononoke was being pitched as a Beauty and the Beast-style story with a giant sword-fighting cat.

[ Read in Japanese ]