Highlighting New Publications – Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess

Princess Mononoke (Bloomsbury)Editor: Rayna Denison
Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Table of Contents

When, on October 29, 1999, Princess Mononoke premiered in U.S. theaters, Hayao Miyazaki was not completely unknown to American audiences, but he was still far from being the worldwide-famous director that is now. And neither audiences nor critics really knew what to expect from the film itself, either. Of course, now, it is one of a few films, along with Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and probably My Neighbor Totoro, that often represent the idea of “anime” outside Japan. For that matter, it is also the most “frequently studied” Ghibli film – with, by my count, at least 34 unique “discussions” that have been published so far. And now, Princess Mononoke is the first anime that is the subject of a full edited collection of English-language scholarly essays (the two feature anime that have merited individual book-length studies are Akira and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away – with volumes in Bloomsbury’s BFI Film Classics series). So, what does Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess actually add to the literature – what is the reason for this book, and for its specific shape, form, and structure?

The first part of this question is very easy to answer – Rayna Denison, the volume’s editor, does an excellent job of outlining it in the opening chapter, “Introducing Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess: From Mononokehime to Princess Mononoke“. Mononokehime/Princess Mononoke, Denison notes, “became a ‘monster’ film event” and “marked changes in the Japanese animation industry” – as well as a major shift in the course of Miyazaki’s career, his standing as an animator and director, and his worldwide perception and status. Another factor that presents itself particularly well for analysis is the film’s “lasting global cultural presence”. And overall, its “verdant and varied cultural legacy and history” simply mean that open the possibility for a variety of different scholarly approaches.

These approaches, then, are organized into three broad groups – each of three individual essays. In the first, “Intellectualizing Miyazaki: Politics, Religion, and the Environment in Princess Mononoke“, the focus is specifically on Princess Mononoke in its entirety, and on its place in Miyazaki’s work. So, Shiro Yoshioka, in “Princess Mononoke: A Game Changer”, drawing primarily on contemporary Japanese press accounts, argues that in it, Miyazaki “questioned his production of entertainment films” and specifically set out to “engage with academic discourses on Japanese historical and cultural identity.” This, in turn – and reinforced by Princess Mononoke‘s success, led to an overall shift in the general position of anime in Japan. Eija Niskanen (“Deer Gods, Nativism and History: Mythical and Arhaeological Layers in Princess Mononoke“) makes the point that one of Princess Mononoke‘s major contributions to Japanese cinema is the way it expands the way that Japan has portrayed its own history on film and “challenges contemporary Japanese to rethink their relationship with the natural world.” And, Tracey Daniels-Lerberg and Matthew Lerberg, in their “To ‘See with Eyes Unclouded by Hate’: Princess Mononoke and the Quest for Environmental Balance” chapter, explore the ways in which the film highlights the futility of drawing simple distinctions and trying to build oppositions between the natural world and the “industrial” or man-made, the human and the non-human more broadly, spirituality and physicality, and even the more concepts of good and evil.

Strong female characters are key to almost all of Miyazaki’s films – and a significant part of the topic in the three essays in the next section. The first of them takes a deeper approach. Many scholars have recognized how Miyazaki is inspired by media depictions of and actual locations in Western Europe. But, Julia Alekseyeva is able to trace other influences as well – in particular, the 1957 Soviet animated film The Snow Queen (Снежная Королева). In her essay, which includes both a thematic analysis, and a study of how it was received in Japan, she specifically highlights what made it so attractive to Miyazaki, to the point where “Princess Mononoke can be interpreted as an homage to the Soviet film.”

Helen McCarthy, whose 1999 Hayao Miyazaki, Master of Japanese Animation: Films, Themes, Artistry was, for many people (myself included), really their introduction to any kind of critical writing on anime contributes “Teenage Wildlife: Princess Mononoke and Hayao Miyazaki’s Theory of the Feminine”, an argument that regardless of how Miyazaki approaches and depicts women, these approaches/depictions are still “viewed through the director’s masculine lens, and their utility is determined from an entirely masculine perspective.” Moreover, San, in McCarthy’s reading, is very much not a typical Miyazaki character – and although she is certainly the latest in a line of strong female characters, Miyazaki largely retreats from developing strong female characters in his next films.

In “Beyond Girlhood in Ghibli: Mapping Heroine Development Against the Adult Woman Anti-Hero in Princess Mononoke“, Alice Vernon specifically examines the character of Lady Eboshi – not the film’s protagonist, but rather, an “antagonist as heroine”. Crucially, she plays several roles over the course of the film in relation to the other main characters, as well as to secondary ones – she is a warrior, a nurse, a protector of the abused, and “San’s adult Other” and her “possible future”. In this, Vernon notes, Lady Ebosh is both a representation of the potential that is available to young girls, and a driver towards an emphasis on “more mutual, beneficial female relationships” in subsequent Ghibli films – and perhaps in other anime as well.

Of course, as per the title, “understanding” Princess Mononoke also requires looking into what it became outside Japan – the theme of the book’s final three chapters, under the heading “A Transnational Princess: The Adaptation, Promotion and Reception of Princess Mononoke“. In the first, “The Translation and Adaptation of Miyazaki’s Spirit Princess in the West”, Jennifer E. Nicholson compares the original Japanese script with the one prepared for Princess Mononoke‘s dubbed release in the U.S., with both specific translation choices, a preference for “over-explanation of characters or narrative events”, and in general, a “different cultural tone”. She also identifies differences in the tone that the Japanese and American voice actors use in certain scenes – obviously changing the meaning or emphasis of some phrases or lines. Ultimately, as per the title of the chapter, the U.S. release of the film is sufficiently different from the Japanese original to be considered an adaptation, not just a translation.

Laz Carter’s “Marketing Mononoke: The Daihitto Becoming Disney” is an interesting and relatively unusual example of paratext analysis – looking into just how Princess Mononoke was presented to Western audiences, via posters, trailers, an official website, and later, supplementary materials included with its DVD release. She demonstrates, for example, how both the original poster for the film and the original theatrical trailer largely de-emphasize its Japanese origin, as well as Disney’s involvement in the release, while making prominent the participation of major Hollywood actors, how the interviews with the cast and other DVD extra further put the film into a context that would be familiar to Western audiences, and how similar promotional strategies, highlighting the major actors, were also employed on the film’s official website.

Closing the collection is Emma Pett‘s chapter, “Homer, Ovid, Disney, and Star Wars: The Critical Reception and Transcultural Popularity of Princess Mononoke“. How did both professional critics and amateur reviewers respond to the film, and how have these responses evolved or changed since its original release? When it was first released, she finds, the published reviews largely noted just how different something like Princess Mononoke was from what was normally expected of feature-length animation – and especially Disney animation;  at the same time, side-by-side comparisons with Disney films were frequently not favorable. On the other hand, fan reviews frequently took an opposite view, praising the film precisely for how different it was. One more aspect of Princess Mononoke’s critical reception that Pett identifies is the way it is now accepted as a “cultural touchstone” and a “legitimate part of the animation canon” – with specific mentions in other reviews of both animated and live-action films. For that matter, it has now also found a place with references in sculpture and other art, and perhaps most meaningfully, alongside discussions of other films that are not animated or not Japanese in general-interest publications.

Ultimately, my own thoughts are already on the volume’s back cover. “The essays in this book, brought together by a leading expert on the work of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, are a wide range of critical approaches to one of the most acclaimed, memorable and visually striking animated films ever made. Both first-time viewers and long-time fans will appreciate these clear, elegant and well-argued explorations of Princess Mononoke‘s themes, production history and reception around the world.”

[Ed. note:

The only supplementary material to the volume is a short annotated Guide to Further Research.

So far, the only review of the volume that I am aware of is by Andrew Osmond, on AlltheAnime.com.

When the volume was still being prepared, the publisher invited me to review the manuscript and provide a comment. I then received a complimentary copy of the book.]

 

 

 

 

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