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Is it just me, or is the typical anime score usually pathetic?  Usually, they are endless synth dronings that end up sounding like cheap eastern disco (i.e. the typical Final Fantasy video game score.)  I'm sure there are a few gems buried in the rubble, but I never expected to find anything substantial.  Until Princess Mononoke came along.  Now, originally I came in with low expectations, but as soon as the epic opening track was over, I knew I had found the exception to the rule.  Joe Hisaishi has crafted a fantasy masterpiece worthy of any Hollywood movie, with piles upon piles of themes, most in the vein of a lush James Horner melody (but without the ripoffs).  Wait, I take that back.  One of the main themes sounds in its first half like a verbatim reworking of Horner's Braveheart main theme, which in turn is derived from Holst's Jupiter movement from The Planets.  But other than that, the entire score is original, with at least one new theme popping up every track.  The only real downside I can see is that some of the underscore tracks begin to sound the same, and most of this isn't really complex, except for portions of the action music.  But don't go in just for the action music - although it's good, we've all heard it before.  However, to keep it interesting, Hisaishi continually inserts subtle Eastern instrumentation - it sounds like his equivalent of Horner's pan pipes, etc.  But back to the "regular" tracks, they begin to become somewhat, dare I say it, Boring.  Maybe I've got a short attention span, but I really don't see the appeal of lush, romantic string themes every track (what I refer to as orchestral pop music.)  But still, (and I know I say this every other review now) Princess Mononoke provides one of the better (not best) scores of the year.  The thematic material is varied and (usually) interesting, with over 5 recurring themes.  That's not to say there aren't other themes - in fact, just about every track introduces a new one.  Oh, and for those of you still wondering what this album is, it's the score to a really good anime movie that was recently imported to the States by Miramax for a limited release.  Milan did us the courtesy of releasing the score almost identically to the Japanese release with improved artwork.  Overall, die-hard Horner fans (if they exist) will definitely jump for Mononoke, and others fond of lush music with a twinge of Eastern elements should definitely check it out.


Track by Track Analysis:

1. The Legend of Ashitaka (1:38)
The first track introduces the main theme to Princess Mononoke, which is actually in two parts.  The first element is a low, ominous motif for low strings that will later pop up by itself.  The second half (the actual theme) is, as you've probably guessed by now, a sweeping string-laden masterpiece that perfectly captures the spirit of the movie.

2. The Demon God (3:51)
For me, this was one of the main highlights to the score - a good action suite.  After a few seconds of dark ambience, a pounding ostinato for tribal drums begins, which later introduces more of the dark opening motif.  The best part of the cue are the string runs that come at various intervals - racing, dissonant, and frenzied.

3. The Journey to the West (2:32)
We're now back to the typical Horner-esque surroundings, and after a few minutes of lush background music for strings and woodwinds, a new theme appears on some kind of ethnic flute (a little too close to pan pipes for comfort.)  This is the Braveheart-derived theme, which still sounds great.  The second half is fully Eastern, scored for a while completely with ethnic instruments.  The cue ends with another huge statement of the Braveheart motif.

4. The Demon Power (0:36)
A short action/suspense track, this begins with a short reprise of the frenzied string runs, which the rest is somewhat based upon.

5. The Land of the Impure (2:59)
This turns out to be mainly a lush underscore track, with the highlight being the pizzicatto opening.  Hints of various themes show themselves, including the Ashitaka theme.

6. The Encounter (0:51)
After a short introduction with synth voices, we get another statement of the Braveheart motif scored for ethnic instruments.

7. Kodamas (2:26)
Probably the low point of the album (so far), this seemingly underscores something about cute forest creatures (run for your lives!)   It's heavy on Eastern synths and pizzicatto strings.

8. The Forest of the Gods (0:39)
A short, mystical string interlude with ethnic synths at the end.

9. Evening at the Ironworks (0:39)
Here's another annoying track - synth ethnic instruments performing an upbeat version of the Braveheart theme (I'll start calling this the forest theme, although I'm not sure that's what it is.)

10. The Demon God II - The Lost Mountains (0:56)
This is a short reprise of the Demon God march, including the dark theme that opened the album.  Unfortunately, the string runs are gone.

11. Lady Eboshi (2:48)
Another of the typical underscore tracks, based on the forest theme.  However, the underscore from Princess Mononoke beats nearly all of the bland American underscore put out recently, both in listenability and complexity.

12. The Tatara Women Work Song (1:28)
Remember when I said that Track 7 was the low point of the album?  I was wrong - this is.  It's an embarassing New Age-ish song for Japanese chorus singing an offshoot of the forest theme, with completely synth backing.  Do yourself a favor and avoid this track.

13. The Furies (1:28)
This is a great track - it almost makes me forget the previous one.  It's a militaristic action cue not based on any thematic material - one of the best parts of the score.

14. The Young Man from the East (1:25)
This is almost a verbatim reprise of Track 1, including the dark opening motif and lush Ashitaka theme.  The ending is slightly different, though.

15. Requiem (2:21)
This is probably the darkest of the themes - just as its name implies.  Another great aspect of the score.

16. Will to Live (0:31)
A short recap of the forest motif mainly for pizzicatto ethnic strings and flutes.

17. San and Adhitaka in the Forest of the Deer God (1:39)
Probably the most mystical track we've had so far, this is composed of high strings and synth voices.  The forest theme appears again in its native orchestration near the end.

18. Princess Mononoke Theme Song - (Mononoke Hime) Instrumental Version (2:08)
We get yet another great theme - a yearning, woodwind-driven melody that sounds a lot like the other main themes, although I like this one better.  Oh, and this arrangement kills the vocal version.

19. Requiem II (2:13)
Another reprise of the dark Requiem theme.

20. The Battle Drums (2:46)
Interesting - an entire track devoted to tribal drums.  And it never wears out its welcome, which surprised me.

21. The Battle in Front of the Ironworks (1:25)
An uneasy, dramatic action cue that's one of the best things we've heard so far.

22. The Demon Power II (2:29)
A reprise of the short Demon Power track, which expands upon the material found there.

23. Requiem III (0:55)
See track 19.

24. The Retreat (1:30)
A dark, rumbling ambient track driven by strings.  One of the musical ideas, for horns, is the most dissonant thing we've heard so far.

25. The Demon God III (1:13)
Surprisingly, The Demon God III isn't really based on the other Demon God music - instead it takes the dissonant horn idea to the entire orchestra.  The only hint of its predecessors is the last 30 seconds, scored with the march rhythm and Legend of Ashitaka theme.

26. Adagio of Life and Death (2:08)
As its name implies, this track is a tragic theme for strings.

27. The World of the Dead (1:27)
Whoa - I was taken completely by surprise by this track.  Hisaishi has composed some of the most unsettling music of the album here with glissandi for synth voices.  The orchestral sections are secondary, but they continue the march rhythm of The Demon God.

28. The World of the Dead II (1:32)
After a short, terrified statement of the forest theme on ethnic flutes, the overwhelming dissonance of the previous track takes over again.

29. Adagio of Life and Death II (1:06)
A reprise of track 26.

30. Ashitaka and San (3:11)
Out of all the lush tracks in the score, I think this is my favorite.  It's based on a solo piano version of the Mononoke theme song with huge orchestral accompaniment.

31. Princess Mononoke Theme Song (Mononoke-Hime) (1:20) performed by Sasha Lazard
I was expecting great things from this track, but it's pulled down by several things.  First of all, the lyrics definitely lose something in the translation - they turn into one of the most cliched, pointless, and repetitive poems I've ever heard in my life.  Second, the orchestration is just TOO simple.  Hisaishi made great use of a simple orchestration throughout the score, but in this track it sounds dull and lifeless.  That said, the vocal performance by Lazard is great, and the second half is almost worthy of the rest of the score.

32. The Legend of Ashitaka Theme (End Credits) (5:02)
For the end credits, Hisaishi composes an orchestral fantasia on his lush Ashitaka theme.  Although it's in the expected string arrangements, the composer puts it through several interesting variations, making it yet another highlight of the score (how many times have I said that in this review?).  Surprisingly, the album ends on an unfulfilled note.

In the end, I was won over by this score and really enjoy its majority.  I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many faults in it, and I can safely recommend it to almost all score fans.



 
Princess Mononoke: The Final Score
Music Rating 9/10
Packaging/Liner Notes N/A
Orchestral Performance 9/10
Length 9/10
Sound Quality 10/10


Princess Mononoke is Copyright 1999 by Milan Records.  Review Copyright 2000 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.