Princess Mononoke OST goes beyond being "just" an animated film score. It is a magnificent piece of musical drama with one of the most moving and memorable main themes you'll ever encounter.
The "Legend of Ashitaka" main theme is simply to die for, one of the top film score themes I've ever heard. Most often led by a beautiful assemblage of strings, the theme has all the feelings of adventure, dignity, and beauty that you could hope for. From its brief but endearing introduction in the first track, on through its further implementations throughout the score, the theme remains moving to the point that I often find myself closing my eyes and just soaking it in, even after many repeated listens. The theme bookends the score at beginning and end, where we are treated to an extended arrangement that finishes the album perfectly. I'd say without hesitation that the arrangements of Ashitaka's theme alone warrant purchase of the CD.
Like such classic adventure scores as Star Wars, Princess Mononoke boasts a memorable array of themes for characters and settings. Just as the Star Wars series includes themes for its various interesting creatures like Jawas, Ewoks, and floppy-eared dumb Jar Jar thingies, Princess Mononoke gives a subdued but just slightly zany theme for its Kodoma creatures.
Standing out from the rest is the demon theme for the villainous creatures in the film, which is introduced in track 2 "The Demon God" and reprised a few times later. Frighteningly indelicate strings and a menacing tribal beat are augmented by synthesizers to enhance the supernatural, dissettling mood.
Also demanding mention is the theme for Princess Mononoke. Relayed initially with lovely solo wind instruments and the string section, and later reprised by a wistful soprano vocalist, the theme is simple in composition but oh so pretty in its sad but dignified mood. One point of contention is that the English vocal version is abbreviated to only a minute and a half, whereas the original Japanese version is reportedly substantially longer.
As is the case with film scores, there are a number of tracks devoted more towards establishing mood than providing memorably melody. If there were one complaint some might have with the CD, it is that there is a string of such tracks gravitating around the latter portion of the disc. Some listeners might find themselves drifting away for a good many of those last several minutes.
Outright action music is fairly uncommon in the album. The most notable pseudo-action arrangement is "The Furies", which abounds with potent aggression and conflict. Then there's "The Battle Drums", which has an impressively melodic quality for a piece featuring only percussion, partially due to its varied, ethnic implementation.
As could be guessed, the use of ethnic, slightly tribal elements is fairly common in the album. However, despite the occasional ethnic elements and use of synthesizer, the score is without question a classic-style orchestral adventure at heart.
And what a classic-style orchestral adventure Princess Mononoke is! This is the only CD of Joe Hisaishi's work I've yet experienced, otherwise only having heard his music for "Tonari no Totoro" within the context of the film. After experiencing Mononoke though, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for his other works. With its extensive, varied array of memorable themes, the greatest of which is among my favorites ever, and its beautiful orchestral arrangements, Princess Mononoke is in many ways the ideal musical mix of adventure and drama.