Ice Cream For Crow, or How to Sell a Mononoke Salad to a Junk-Food Eating Public

Mononoke Hime was a landmark film, hurling Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into blockbuster status in Japan and earning praise and acclaim around the world.  In the United States, anime was building from the ghetto of the fansub underground to a more mainstream acceptance.  Hollywood was honestly trying to understand this strange film genre, these complex, adult, contemporary movies that also happen to be animated.  And so the sensibilities started to shift, if only a little.  Warriors of the Wind was out; Akira was in.

No doubt Disney was counting on Miyazaki to create another My Neighbor Totoro, a gentle cartoon that could be easily sold to parents and small children.  Instead, they were surprised with the complex, brooding and violent Mononoke.  Fortunately, Miramax was a part of the Disney empire and would be the ideal channel for Ghibli's first great American premier.  And so we end up with these twin posters for Princess Mononoke.

You'll immediately notice the trappings of a major Hollywood production, with the celebrity actors whose names are heralded in bold type.  This was unprecedented for an anime film.  Up to this point, anime dubbing was considered an afterthought, something to be shuffled off during the coffee break without much effort.  The injustices of Warriors of the Wind were past, but progress was still painfully slow.  Anime still needed to be amended, sanitized, fixed.  The form was not yet fully respected in the eyes of American producers and executives.  It was really only Akira that forced this perspective to change at all; and even then, anime would continue to remain in the art-house ghetto.

Within this environment, Princess Mononoke was a great leap forward.  It was by no means perfect, and in many ways, the years have not been kind to many of the actors' line readings, or to Neil Gaiman's refurbished script.  They tried their best, yes, but they were still bound to old notions and old stereotypes:  Cartoons are only for kids. Japan only makes cheap junk.  People only watch movies for the special effects.

Disney and Miramax are stuck with a movie they cannot understand, and they struggle to find a way to sell it to a public notoriously hostile to foreign animation (they're still hostile in 2011).  How to convince Americans fed on John Ford westerns, video games, and Star Wars that Princess Mononoke is a movie worth seeing?  There is heroism and villainy, but no real heros or villains, certainly not in the simple, melodramatic sense.  There is no white hat versus black hat.  Mononoke is a meditation on the nature of violence, of man's desire for destruction, of the doomed relationship between man and his world.  Everyone suffers.  Everyone loses.  The movie does not end with a triumph over a foe, or even an understanding of some saccharine moral lesson.  Issues are debated, nothing is resolved - even moreso than in the Nausicaa film.  Instead, ikiro; "we must live."

Again, how do you sell that to the American moviegoing public?  It's almost impossible in live-action, to say nothing of animation.  In this country, Animation Is A Baby-Sitter, and to this day it remains trapped within the Chuck E. Cheese world of primary colors and formulaic, repressed simplicity.  This is the archetype of a culture in decline.

The story of these Princess Mononoke movie posters is the story of this struggle.  You can see that uncertainty in the first poster, especially.  What does it convey?  What does it reveal about the story?  Does the coin motiv have any meaning?  Who is this title character?  Instead of the Japanese tagline, "Ikiro," we see standard Hollywood cliche.  What does that tagline even mean, anyway?  What does that have to do with this picture?  Nothing...but it's a familiar refrain and so it makes people feel safe.  Americans are easily startled by the strange and the new, and comforted by endless repetition...repetition...repetition...

The second Mononoke poster is, to my eyes, a great improvement.  At least we have a little art direction at play, a little texture and color.  Note how the lead character is no longer San, the Mononoke Hime, but the boy Ashitaka.  Now the cheesy tagline makes a little more sense.  The pose promises action and excitement, a giant fortress, prisoners to be rescued.  And there's just enough room at the top for the obligatory critic's quote that name-drops Star Wars.  "The Star Wars of animated movies!"  Whatever that means.

The idea that a foreign movie should be treated honestly and respectfully, without any need to sanitize or censor or simplify, was an alien notion in the late '90s.  It remains so today.  But the movie business is, in the end, a business.  It's easy to point to the producers and script writers and executives for dumbing down the movies.  It's easy to critize junk food merchants. But it's much harder to look in the mirror and face the one who's endlessly consuming junk food.  Ice cream for snow?  No.  Ice cream for crow.


Katie said...

Harsh. Just wondering, what about Neil Gaiman's refurbished script don't you like?

mikebrns15 said...

You know, Daniel, every time I read one of your fantastic articles that take this approach - that Americans are too stupid to understand things that must somehow be ingrained in the souls of people of other cultures (specifically, Japanese), it angers me. I've stated this in the past, and I'll say it again - I think you give far too little credit to the American people.

The problem with American movies - at least, the modern ones - is that producers - the ones with the money - don't make decisions to dumb down scripts for Americans, but rather decide to dumb them down for what they perceive as "America's tastes." That's why we have independent film. Never forget that, underneath the veneer, Americans have dreams (and souls) just like everyone else.

I don't think there's anything wrong with Gaiman's translation or the English line readings - in fact, I'll admit I prefer the English dub on this particular film. I think niggling over minute details, such as what we call the Tatari Gami, is petty, and does a disservice to the film and its audience. Regardless of how I choose to view this film, it still leaves me questioning the choices and compromises mankind has had to make in its path of progress...the fact that I may have missed a few minor concepts by only watching the film in English doesn't change the profound effect this film has had (and continues to have) on me.

In any case - please keep up with the great content! Glad to see you back in action after a considerable amount of time away.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@mike: Excellent points all around. The question of who is to blame for the "dumbing down" of the movies, the Hollywood studios, the filmmakers, the producers, or the American public, is an endless mystery. I suspect the debate will never end.

In my younger days, I've been quite cranky about dubbing (vs. subtitles), and it's one area where I'm working to mellow out a little and relax. As long as everyone enjoys a movie, it shouldn't matter what language they hear. And as I mentioned when my posts on Warriors of the Wind, anime dubs in the US have vastly improved since the 1980s.

For this post, my goal was to be sympathetic towards Miramax and their work on the Mononoke dub. It was, after all, an unprecedented move on their part, and they spent a great deal of time and money that they never earned back at the box office.

I really need to write a post or two about Neil Gaiman's script for Mononoke. I watched the movie last night, in fact, because I haven't heard this soundtrack in many years. My opinions reflect the impressions left on my mind over time, and we know how memories have a way or mutating and distorting. All of which is to say I find a lot to appreciate about the Mononoke dub. It has a certain literary flow which is very different from Disney's later Ghibli dubs.

Of course, I also have my own list of issues with the dub, my own personal quirks, really. But I was pretty fine with things back in the late '90s. I'll have to add this topic to my to-do list.

As always, I enjoy the compliments and the constructive criticisms alike. They help to keep me honest.

greentea said...

While animation may not quite be over the 'babysitter' image in the States, I think we are getting more sophistication in content, even if it's only little by little. Fantastic Mr. Fox, I think, is a very good example. So should've won instead of Up, in my opinion.

And what's hard to understand about 'The Star Wars of animated films'? Star Wars was a big epic adventure, and a huge hit, and so was Mononoke.

Cory Gross said...

Jeez man, I'm not even American and I'm finding these rants tiresome. Do you have anything positive to say about Ghibli that isn't a backhanded slap to Americans?

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with John Ford Westerns?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Okay, it's now official: this post did not come out the way I wanted, and should have been thought out a little more. And it certainly should have been less bitter and judgmental.

Here's what I think were the greater questions in my mind as I was writing about the Miramax poster designs: How do you sell a foreign movie like Mononoke Hime to an American audience, how do you sell Japanese anime to Americans in the late '90s, and why should compromises be made to the art in order to reach that audience?

And then there's the history of anime in America, which struggled for years to earn respect. It's easy today to forget just how alien this idea of anime was. It is a paradigm shift in the art form, and now what was once seen as a universal language has emerged with many different voices. We have to relearn how to communicate (now there's a topic for discussion).

And then there's the question by art-house and foreign movie fans: Why must any compromises be made at all? Why should the filmmakers try to meet the audience halfway? Shouldn't the audience be responsible for knowing about the world around them? What's not to understand? I think what lies behind this is the frustration of failing to connect, to communicate.

I don't know why I mentioned John Ford. I like John Ford. He's one of the great American filmmakers. Heck, Princess Mononoke is a child of Ford and Kurosawa. And I like Star Wars, too.

Okay, then. We're going to try this again and do a better job next time.

ItchyScratchyUrr said...

can't use words like china? master and commander was originally set against the americans- director comments in 300 he had to argue to keep the 'pursians' being called the pursians.. this cultural conditioning does not stop at anime me thinks. it is a scary thought if this is the regualar turf a creator has to fight over- i bought blue sky once (original name: wonderfull days) the english/american release cut out a fantastic sharron apple type holgraphic musical performance out of an anime that had no appeal to younger viewers because it had a bit of boob in it! this is at a time when you could find a hentai triligy compolation sitting in plain sight in the anime section!
but this is the work of individual arseholes or marketers rather than creater/dubbers i bet, akira got a great re-dub for its renewal, and i find most english/american dubs have done well to keep my eyes on the action. Some like Nausicaa and Whisper of the Heart will always be japanese for me- as long as we don't get drowned in pokemon (this sort of thing is possibly more worrying these days- a deluge of crap anime and a mass of 'i like anything anime so i watch all things anime got hold of me once) Anime too, can be made for specific cash cow purposes but most movies remain as individual art pieces to be appreciated by those who can. Surely by now the worl has got the message:We Want/Love anime! (uncensored please)

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