Finding the words

Japan's blockbuster 'Princess Mononoke' presented a rich, animated world that might have been lost in the translation. Instead, a skilled intepreter bridged the cultural divide for American audiences.

November 29, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

When Disney acquired the American distribution rights to Hayao Miyazaki's animated film, "Princess Mononoke," it seemed the studio had a guaranteed hit on its hands. An epic adventure set in feudal Japan, "Mononoke" (pronounced moh-noh-noh-keh) was a huge hit in its home market.

Viewers would line up around the block to see the film and then get back in line to see it again. "Princess Mononoke" spent eight months in Japanese theaters, earning more than $150 million at the box office -- an astonishing feat for a country with half the population of America and only one-tenth the movie screens.

"Princess Mononoke" was the most successful Japanese film ever made and, until the release of "Titanic," the overall box office champ in Japan. Even better, it had been written and directed by Japan's most gifted animator, a visionary whose work had become familiar to Americans in the 1990s through the heartwarming and breathtakingly beautiful children's films "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service."

Trouble was, translating "Princess Mononoke" into an American success story wouldn't prove as easy as it first seemed.

For one thing, "Princess Mononoke" is not a children's film in the classic Disney formula. There are no cute sidekicks and none of the regular comic relief Disney kids expect. Instead, the film presents a world that is as grown-up as it is gorgeous, a place in which beauty and cruelty live side-by-side, where violence and vengeance are woven into the very fabric of day-to-day existence.

Set in the Muromachi era (1336-1573), the film depicts a Japan on the verge of modernity, whose people are just beginning to realize that they may exert their will on the world around them. The action starts when Ashitaka, the prince of a remote eastern village, incurs a curse while protecting his village from a rampaging boar god.

Hoping to learn what caused the boar to go mad, he heads west, where he stumbles into a war between Lady Eboshi, leader of the Tatara "Iron Town" and its metal works, and the gods of the forest. In particular, Eboshi is bedeviled by the wolf-god Moro and her human "daughter," San. San is a fearsome warrior for the wolf gods, and the people of Iron Town, believing her possessed, dub her "Princess Mononoke." (In Japanese, "mononoke" means "an evil spirit.")

Ashitaka, seeking answers, befriends Eboshi and the people of Iron Town and falls in love with San. He seeks both peace with the forest gods and happiness for the people of Iron Town. But the forest gods want to stop Eboshi's townsfolk from mining iron ore for their foundry, while a neighboring lord named Asano wants to steal Eboshi's ironworks for himself. Worst of all, the Emperor of Japan has commanded Eboshi to hunt down the great deer god of the forest, whose head is reputed to grant immortality to its owner.

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" this isn't. Complex and convoluted, "Princess Mononoke" offers no easy answers for Ashitaka, San or Eboshi. Moreover, much of the film's emotional power derives from the way it shifts the audience's sympathies from one character to another without telling the audience which one has the "right" worldview.

But the biggest stumbling block to bringing "Princess Mononoke" to America is that the film is so utterly Japanese. From the intricacies of samurai-era politics to the mythology underlying the film's animal gods, "Princess Mononoke" is built on cultural references that may make immediate sense to Japanese viewers but are completely foreign to Americans.

The challenge for the team that translated "Princess Mononoke" was to retain the character and feel of the original while making the story and situations accessible to Americans. It was hard work, make no mistake. But as Neil Gaiman, who wrote the English adaptation of the script, points out, there was also a time when nobody thought Americans would like sushi, either.

In many ways, Gaiman was the ideal man to make "Princess Mononoke" understandable for U.S. audiences. Though he is neither American nor an expert on Japanese culture, Gaiman understands storytelling.

A 39-year-old Englishman, Gaiman made his name writing comic books, and his greatest work, "Sandman" -- a quasi-mythic tale of Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming -- is a veritable celebration of tales well told. To acclimate himself to the world of "Princess Mononoke," Gaiman familiarized himself with both Miyazaki's work and with the tradition of Japanese folk tales.

As he tells it, however, the trickiest thing about adapting Miyazaki's film into English had less to do with storytelling than with the mechanics of animation.

The `flap count'

Dubbing animation into English involves more than merely finding equivalents for foreign words. In order to be convincing, the dialogue must match the opening and shutting of the characters' mouths -- a factor animators call the "flap count."

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