Reading Mononoke-hime

Fittingly for a twentieth anniversary collection of essays on a single, much-loved film, Rayna Denison’s just-published Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess (Bloomsbury) throws in everything but the kitchen sink. In the sense that it went mainstream and has been the focus of widespread appreciation, Princess Mononoke has generated a vast amount of secondary materials. Through critical acclaim, corporate backing and foreign sales, Hayao Miyazaki remains the best-represented anime director in translation in his own words, which boosts him in terms of scholarly access – it’s not only easier to sell a Miyazaki book to publishers, but also to readers and even contributors.

And this is an impressive bunch of contributors, featuring some of the sharpest minds working on anime today. Shiro Yoshioka examines the position of Princess Mononoke within Miyazaki’s work, noting that is very success may have forced him into a compromising niche, turning him from an action director into an eco-pundit. Eija Niskanen pokes around Japanese archaeological sites in search not only of Miyazaki’s inspirations, but the gaps in knowledge that he imaginatively filled with his own designs and ideas, noting in the process that the film defies traditional notions of what a “period film” should be like – a samurai movie with no samurai in it, showcasing the also-rans of Japanese history. Julia Alekseyeva provocatively but persuasively argues that Princess Mononoke is a prolonged homage to the Soviet film The Snow Queen, which Miyazaki saw in his shop-steward days. Both Helen McCarthy and Alice Vernon argue for Miyazaki as a feminist storyteller, seeing in his work echoes of the Maid, Mother and Crone of Robert Graves and the “heroine’s journey” of Maureen Murdock, and in Vernon’s case, asking whether the pragmatic, driven Lady Eboshi is a threatening vision of what the future holds for the heroic San.

Other chapters review cunning ruses in stunt-casting, not only of the film’s A-list voices, but of Neil Gaiman as the script adaptor, examining both the promotional value of these decisions and the nuances they introduced to the English-language version, the marketing of which is carefully analysed from the perspectives of posters, trailers and featurettes. Refreshingly, Denison has assembled writers who are not only prepared to dive into appreciations of the film itself, but overlooked elements as its critical reception (for which Emma Pett wades through over 800 reviews), and the long tail of its merchandise. The result is an impressive meeting of Princess Mononoke minds, although at £80 hardback and £55 on the Kindle, Bloomsbury seemingly lacks faith that the film’s much-mentioned blockbuster status will translate into a wide readership.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #173, 2018.

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The Price is Wrong

I was in the post office sending off a translated script, when the man behind the counter said: “We can’t just send it to America Small Packet Rate, we have to know how much it’s worth.”

“That depends,” I said. “The Writers’ Guild say it’s worth £18,000, the Institute of Translators and Interpreters say £12,000, in France it’s a thousand pounds a throw, and The Company That Shall Remain Nameless won’t pay for it at all because they’ve got someone who does it for 50p and a bunch of grapes.”
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Lost in Translation

The top ten reasons why anime are “lost in translation”…

10: Lip Sync and Line Length
Lip Synchronisation, known in America as “fitting the flaps”, is a means of ensuring that the sound of the words being spoken matched the lip movements of the onscreen speaker. This can often lead to the addition of words on the spur of the moment in the dubbing studio – in erotic horror like Return of the Overfiend, this usually means the use of the F-word as a bonus adverb, adjective and noun! Subtitles normally suffer from the opposite problem – the deletion of parts of a script in order to make the lines fit a pre-determined length. Subtitlers must take into account not only the meaning of the line, but the reading speed of the average viewer…

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Nebulous Achievements

It’s sweet of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) to award a Best Script Nebula to Howl’s Moving Castle, but hopefully the anime community will take it for what it is – a very belated recognition of a supreme talent. In my opinion, Howl is nowhere near Miyazaki at his best; it often plays like a committee’s attempt to reverse-engineer his greatest achievements. It’s more likely that Howl gets its award for being cosily familiar to the voters – one of those weird Japanese cartoons, but based on a book by an English-speaking author, and directed by that nice old man who made all those great movies in the 1990s that the voters mainly ignored. It is notable that the only anime to previously get a nomination from the SFWA were Princess Mononoke, which had Neil Gaiman credited for the script adaptation, and the subsequent Spirited Away, whose Oscar victory was inescapable. It is also notable that a large number of the SFWA voters are in Japan this month at the Yokohama Worldcon – perhaps they were booking their flights at the same time as they filled their ballots, and figured it couldn’t hurt.
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