Over two decades afters its original release, Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE remains a monumental achievement in animation, an enthralling adventure-fantasy whose traditional hand-drawn cells easily outclass much of the soulless computerized cartoons of today. Looking back, it is easy to see MONONOKE as part of a trend toward showing some respect for anime when releasing it for the U.S. market; in an earlier era, Japanese animation was typically re-edited and dubbed down to the level of a kiddie cartoons, but that was not the case here.
When PRINCESS MONONOKE first began appearing at press screenings in the United States in 1998, it was Japan’s official entry in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences category for Best Foreign Language Film, and U.S. distributor Miramax had picked up domestic distribution rights. This was good news to fans of anime in general and fans of Miyazaki in particular, because Miramax was in the habit of setting new box office records for subtitled, foreign language releases, with films such as LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and IL POSTINO. (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which came later, continued the trend.)
However, the Motion Picture Academy, against all good sense, failed to deliver a foreign language nomination to Miyazaki's brilliant animated epic. Without the statuette, or at least the potential of one, to use as a marketing hook on which to hang an advertising campaign, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein opted to abandon a planned release of the subtitled version in favor of taking the time to dub the film into English for release in 1999. Considering the quality of most foreign-film dubbing, especially of anime, this was a sore disappointment to those who had seen and fallen in love with the Japanese version. Thoughts of cartoony voices giving stiff line readings within the audible confines of a tiny recording studio sprang quickly to mind.
Fortunately, the expected debacle did not occur. Miramax hired a big-name voice cast (Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton), giving the American version its own sheen of respectability. Equally important, they hired author Neil Gaiman (Good Omens) to write the English-language dialogue, working from a translation of the original Japanese. Gaiman is a noted author in his own right, who has worked in diverse media, including comics (SANDMAN), television (NEVERWHERE), and even records (he collaborated with Alice Cooper on the concept for the album THE LAST TEMPTATION, and also wrote the tie-in comic book illustrating the story). Gaiman captures most of what was apparent in the subtitled version and even clarifies a few points for the benefit of Western viewers—while also making the whole thing sound natural in English, adopting a poetic, sometimes mythic tone in keeping with the film’s visual impact.
Purists might quibble over whether the result matches or exceeds the subtitled version. But it is a testament to the quality of the dub that any evaluation of the new version has to be based on weighing the relative merits of valid artistic choices. Whether or not one thinks English-language performances improve upon the original, one has to acknowledge that they are legitimate acting performances in their own right. In short, the fact that the film has been dubbed is almost no longer an issue: we’re not assessing a clearly inferior product whose only justification is selling tickets to those too lazy to read subtitles; rather, it is a faithful adaptation that was rendered into a new form for the benefit of its audience.
How was this remarkable feat achieved? Below, fantasy author Neil Gaiman explains why he took on the task, how he surmounted the inevitable difficulties inherent in the project, and what he thinks of the final result.
QUESTION: WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL REACTION TO THE SUBTITLED VERSION OF THE FILM?
Neil Gaiman: I was astonished. I was amazed by the film. I’d never see anything like that before. That was what got me to agree. I had expected to say no. When Harvey [Weinstein] asked me to write it, I wasn’t going to say no outright, so I said, “Send me a video.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to see this on video. I want you to see this on the big screen.” I said, “Oh…okay.” I came to LA., went to a screening room, sat down, fully expecting to come out at the end of the day and say, “I don’t think so, but thank you very much for asking me.”
The film started, and all of a sudden there’s a giant demon creature that turns out to be a giant boar but looks like a spider covered with snake-worms, and I was hooked. I sat there, and sat there, and sat, and came out at the end and said, “I have to do this. I have to be involved. This is so cool, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I love the gods, and I love the animals and monsters and the people. I love the complexity of the people and all the motives.”
DID YOU SEE SOME COMMON GROUND BETWEEN THE FILM AND YOUR WORK THAT MADE YOU THINK NOT ONLY “I WANT TO DO THIS” BUT “I CAN DO THIS”?
I felt I could write these people, but more important I felt I could write the gods, these giant animals, without ever going Disney.
WHAT WAS THE NEXT STEP?
I was given a raw script translation, and I translated the translation into lines that people could say. What they gave me was the subtitles, essentially—slightly expanded, but “here, word for word, is what people are actually saying in Japanese.” That was very interesting, because you’d run into a number of phenomena. For example, some things would be untranslatable. Sometimes you would want to “elegant” the translation. I was trying to explain to somebody the other day: the jokes are really hard to translate, because they don’t—not quite. Why something is funny doesn’t necessarily translate. You have to go and find something that is the emotional equivalent.
SO THERE WAS A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF CREATIVITY, NOT JUST MECHANICAL TRANSLATION.
There was an enormous amount of creativity in the job. If it had just been a matter of taking the script and tidying up the language to make it sound more like dialogue, that would have been easy. The fun for me was that all of these people are different; they have different characters and different voices.
THERE WAS SOME ISSUE WITH MIRAMAX ABOUT RETAINING THE JAPANESE FLAVOR IN THE DIALOGUE, SUGGESTIONS THAT YOU REPLACE “SAMURAI” WITH “WARRIOR.”
That got a bit silly for awhile. “Samurai” they left; we got to keep “samurai.” We lost “sake”; “sake” became “wine.” We lost “Japan,” interestingly enough, and we even lost China—at one point [in the original version] they talk about these guns that come from China.
DID YOU HAVE TO BE REAL CONCERNED WITH SYNCHRONIZATION, WRITING DIALOUGE THAT MATCHES HOW LONG THE CHARACTERS’ MOUTHS ARE MOVING?
It’s not even a matter of how long they’re moving their mouths. It’s a matter of matching exactly. People have been asking if we reanimated it. There are two schools of thought coming out from the film. School of Thought #1 is that we reanimated the mouth movements. School #2 is that they must have made two different versions at the same time.
IN JAPAN, IT’S STANDARD TO POST-DUB ANIMATION, SO CLEARLY IT CAN BE DONE.
What is interesting is that we actually match the mouth movements better than the Japanese one did, only because what would break suspension of disbelief for an American audience is much more than for a Japanese audience, so we had to be closer.
The delight with PRINCESS MONONOKE is we set a new standard for dubs. You get different responses from fans, because you get different types of fans watching it. One are the people who have seen the original Japanese film many times; sometimes they love it, and sometimes they have stuff they miss from the Japanese version, in terms of performances. In the Japanese one, for example, the part of Moro, the giant wolf, is played by a transvestite, a female impersonator; it actually sounds, frankly, like a fairly deep-voiced male actor, although Moro the wolf is a female. So they sort of remember a very deep, growling kind of voice. Now, we have Gillian Anderson, and we don’t try to recreate that voice. There was no attempt to recreate that. There was no attempt to tell Gillian Anderson, “Do it in a deep voice like a bloke” or anything. The idea was, we have Gillian Anderson, and she’s wonderful and astonishing, and she’s really, really good. We did that all the way through. Billy Bob [Thornton]does not sound like the Jigo from the Japanese version. But on the other hand, Billy Bob as this wonderful, sort of used car salesman—this little wild card forever fiddling stuff behind the scenes—is terrific.
YOU HAD TO FILL AMERICAN AUDIENCES IN ON BACKGROUND INFORMATION THAT WOULD BE OBVIOUS TO JAPANESE VIEWERS. FOR INSTANCE, WHEN ASHITAKA CUTS HIS HAIR, IT SYMBOLIZES THAT HE IS NOW “DEAD” TO THE PEOPLE OF HIS VILLAGE.
In the Japanese one, they are talking about other things, and he goes and cuts his hair, puts it on the alter, goes out, and never comes back to his village. As far as most Americans are concerned at this point, he’s just given himself a haircut, possibly because it’s going to be a slightly long trip. You want people to get the same amount of information that they would have got.
WAS THERE A TRADE-OFF? DID YOU HAVE TO LEAVE OUT OTHER DIALOGUE TO MAKE ROOM FOR THESE NEW BITS OF INFORMATION?
Rarely. Mostly no. There was very little that got left out. You change things for effect. At one point they’re talking about women and how they have to stay and guard the town. The captain of the guard says, “Don’t worry about our ladyship. I will protect her.” One of the women in Japanese turns to him and says, “Useless!”—and everybody laughs. Which is fair enough, but it doesn’t take you terribly far in doing the translation. You go, “Why is she saying ‘useless’? Why is this so funny?” So I have her go, “Even if you were a woman, you’d still be an idiot!”—and everybody laughs. Now, we lost the word “useless,” but we had the laugh and the context.
YOU WROTE FOR THE CHARACTERS, NOT THE ACTORS, SINCE YOU STARTED BEFORE CASTING WAS COMPLETE.
Basically, although Claire [Danes] was in there from the beginning. I knew pretty early on that if I wasn’t going to get Minnie Driver, I would get Helena Bonham Carter, and if I didn’t’ get Helena Bonham Carter, I’d get Kristen Scott Thomas, if you see what I mean. It was going to be one of those. Lady Eboshi was going to be icy and British. Actually, Minnie is astonishing. She gives Eboshi a level of ambiguity that is astonishing.
AFTER ALL THE WORK, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO SEE IT WITH THE NEW VOICES IN THERE?
Wonderful, although the point where it really became great was just seeing it with an audience. That made me very happy.
WERE THERE ANY SURPRISES IN THE AUDIENCE REACTION? DID THEY LAUGH IN ALL THE RIGHT PLACES?
They laughed in all the right places. And in a couple of places I still haven’t figured out why they laugh. It’s like when the heads go flying: audiences always laugh, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. It’s funny and there’s a moment of rejection.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN DOING SIMILAR JOBS?
I can’t ever imagine doing it again. It was wonderful. If Miyazaki asked me to, I probably would, and if a movie came along that was even cooler…but how many of them are there going to be? I’ve been asked a lot since, especially from Japan, where they say, “MONONOKE HIME [the film’s Japanese title] was the greatest Japanese animated movie—we want the guy who did that.” So I get a lot of requests, but I have no real interest in doing it again.
THAT’S QUITE A COMPLIMENT. IT SHOWS YOU DID RAISE THE BAR ON THE QUALITY OF DUBBING.
Let me say, the person who really did raise the bar—I may have done it in terms of script quality, I like to think—but the dub itself is Jack Fletcher, who was the dubbing director. He is the reason why we match the lip movements even more accurately than the Japanese did. He is the one who took every line and… Fundamentally, it’s all my dialogue. Every once in awhile, there are little bits where I go, “How did that happen? I don’t get it.” I was asking them last night, “Why did the little girl in the village become explicitly his [Ashitaka’s] sister? I didn’t think she was in the script they gave me, and she certainly wasn’t in the script I wrote.” And nobody seemed to know where that had come from.
But mostly you got the lines that I wrote, fiddled with very slightly by Jack to make them work, if you see what I mean. Sometimes, you get my dialogue perfectly. One of the reasons I love all the Gillian Anderson-Moro stuff so much is it’s mine, dammit, all mine. Which I really do like; it makes me very happy. At that point, that’s what you’re hearing, because we didn’t have to match lip movements, so you could actually hear the rhythms of my dialogue. That was great.
The hardest thing, as a writer, was coming up with a line of dialogue that was absolutely beautiful, powerful, brilliant, elegant, poetic, fine, and then…only if the character had moved their mouth one more time, I could have used it!
Copyright 1999 Steve Biodrowski
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