Sunday, September 13, 2009

Princess Mononoke

The last thing Disney ever would have expected to see from the man responsible for lighthearted fare like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service was a hauntingly beautiful yet morally complex and sometimes violent epic targeted toward an adult audience.  In fact, they were initially reluctant to release Princess Mononoke; campaigns from fans on websites such as encouraged them to change their minds.  Handing off the film to its arthouse subsidiary, Miramax, Disney commissioned a highly-acclaimed writer, Neil Gaiman, to pen the English script, and spent an estimated $2.1 million to produce what would be one of the most high-profile yet hotly debated dubs ever recorded. It was a daring gamble that unfortunately proved to be financially unsuccessful. Either because Mononoke was too difficult a movie to sell to American audiences (what with its "shades of gray" approach and occasional graphic violence) or because Miramax didn't know how to market such a film (only a few newspaper ads, and the small theater count in question were test markets), the film received only rave reviews but dismal audience attendance.

Somewhat unfairly, there are a number of fans who blame the failure of Mononoke in the United States on the dub. Despite being mostly praised (in fact there are places who consider this one of the best dubs of any Anime), naysayers tore into Miramax's dub, crucifying it for its casting and/or decisions, and loudly declaring that the Japanese version is the only way to watch this film (or any of Miyazaki's movies, for that matter). In fact, to this day, there are still viewers who hate this dub.  For example Ghibli Blog's author condemned as a "ridiculously overrated" travesty, while other anonymous internet reviewers say that the voice talents are so distracting that they ruin the film. (It should be noted, however, that most of these people said the same thing about not only the first two Disney dubs, Kiki and Castle in the Sky, respectively, but for any other dub Disney made for Ghibli.) This is unfortunate, because Princess Mononoke is, in the opinion of this author, one of the finest Anime dubs ever made, ranking up there with my favorite Ghibli dubs, Kiki, Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, and Whisper of the Heart.

This dub, in addition to Kiki and Castle, was helmed by ADR veteran Jack Fletcher, a respected voice director who has gone out of his way to provide quality, painstakingly synched (if sometimes eccentrically cast) dubs, even though many cite Gaiman as the major hero behind the dub. His task was to cast capable actors, including some of his regulars such as John DeMita, Julia DeMita, Matt Miller, K.T. Vogt, etc. and carefully time Gaiman's words to fit the mouth movements... in a way that the audience never even suspects that it is dubbed. This is done very skillfully, to the point that Mononoke may not even be called a dub at all. Indeed, this author has fond memories of being dazzled by both the film and the dub the first time he saw it at the Angelika Film Center in New York City.

Before I get into Gaiman's script, I continue my evaluation of this half-maligned, half-praised dub with critiques of the performers who lent their vocals.

ASHITAKA (Billy Crudup) -- Like Nausicaa, the lead character of Princess Mononoke is a courageous and compassionate young man who begs for a peaceful method to handle conflict while struggling with a curse that threatens his life. It is tempting to portray this character as a mono-dimensional hero, but Billy Crudup has the sort of voice that steers around that pitfall. It is a very calm, natural tone that works for Ashitaka's character, never once falling into "generic" or stiff territory. His acting, too, is quite exceptional for a first-time voice-over job. He never feels uncomfortable for the moments where he has to raise his voice, and handles any potentially laughable moments in a way that is very skillful. It is interesting to note, too, that at the time he recorded his part, Crudup did numerous things to get into character--galloping around the studio with a bow, lying down, etc. This adds a realistic touch to his performance, which, in the case of this film, works efficiently well.

JIGO (Billy Bob Thornton) -- A common criticism even in the most favorable of reviews for the dub is in the casting of Thornton as the sneaky, opportunistic monk who is simply "just trying to get by", if not for his performance itself. Not having seen the original Japanese version, I cannot make any comparison to how he fares to that (nor do I care to), I personally have to take a different perspective. It is true that Thornton's southern drawl often stands out and that there are a few instances where it seems a little odd to hear him. However, what ultimately comes through is in the cynicism and attitude for the character, without ever making him into a moustache-twirling villain. Even at the action-sequences he handles himself expertly. Referring back to the accent, I felt it only succeeded in adding a depth of dimension to the character in the same way that Anna Paquin as Sheeta in Castle did; giving one the feeling that Jigo is from a different country. Little touches like this in the Ghibli dubs are another major attraction to my appreciation for them. All in all, Thornton's performance may not be the strongest of the dub, but it is very underrated.

LADY EBOSHI (Minnie Driver) -- Contrary to the other star names, Driver has had experience in voice work prior to her being cast in this dub, namely Jane in Disney's Tarzan.  Compared to that character, however, this is a much more ambiguous (and I may argue, better) role for her. She also has an Irish accent, which lends an authoritative quality to her role as a leader of her people. Her performance is one of the most natural and fitting in the dub, sounding stern and cold, yet caring and considerate at the same time. She handles Eboshi's fighting scenes and yelling moments in a way that never veers into overacting. (The latter style of acting would work well in a simplistic fairy tale where there is a clear-cut villain, but for a film as complex as this, where there are no major "villains" or "heroes", it would be a mistake.) It's a wonder that audiences don't remember her very well as Eboshi; this is one of her finest roles. Period.

GONZA (John DiMaggio) -- Lady Eboshi's right-hand man is a very gruff man with a fierce temper and a violent impulse.  This also marks the first major Ghibli role that John DiMaggio lands himself with; his other appearances include a soldier in Castle in the Sky (instantly recognizable when he screams "Let's get up there now!"), and Ryutaro in Pom Poko.  All that DiMaggio has to do with this particular character is to growl, act tough, and display a minor side of buffoonish-ness. He does this very well, and it is interesting to note that he has also played other roles in dubs directed by Jack Fletcher. The same is true with the following character...

KOHROKU (John DeMita) -- An outcast like many of the other people Eboshi takes in, Kohroku is something of a "comic" character, in that he provides most of the movie's funny moments.  These originate not only from his fear of the obviously harmless little kodamas, but from his broken arm.  His best line in the film is also the funniest:  "My arm... it... it doesn't hurt!  It's HEALED!!!  Aggh!  No, it's still broken!"  (Later on he gets to grumble, "Hey, watch the arm!")  The humor in his character is in no small part thanks to John DeMita, who, prior to this dub, played a comic character of a different type, Balgus, the airship commander in the lesser-known Final Fantasy:  Legend of the Crystals.  His character here doesn't have the bluster of the former role, but he still manages to induce laughs in the way he obviously relishes playing Kohroku.  It is also the only Ghibli dub in which he has a significant role.

TOKI (Jada Pinkett-Smith) -- The wife of Kohroku, a sometimes bossy but caring brothel girl, is the film's other "comic" character; when we first meet her she (playfully) scolds her husband for getting his arm broken and making her concerned for him.  This is summed up in the line, "Don't you 'little flower' me, I wish the wolves had eaten you!  Then maybe I could have found a real husband!"  Pinkett-Smith does an excellent job of delivering this line, with just the sort of exasperated-ness and sassy attitude the character requires. Yet she doesn't "overact", either, as Toki's other moments, aside from this humorous exchange, involve operating the bellows at Iron Town or assisting the other brothel girls in defending their town from invading samurai. In those moments, Toki is more serious, and brings a bit of a "tough" quality which makes her character very memorable. Jada manages these other scenes quite well, never sounding flat or uninspired. In fact, I never swore that she was playing against type at the time I saw the film until I watched the behind-the-scenes featurette. Only afterward did I detect a bit of a "Bronx" accent. Not that it distracts from the character, it's a bit of an oddity, but in a way it adds to the role, too.

SAN (Claire Danes) -- After Thornton, Danes' performance of this deeply hateful young woman who finds herself torn between her desire for vengeance against humans and newfound affections for Ashitaka is often signaled out as the weak link of the whole dub. Her voice is more "harsh" compared to the rest of the cast, but in a way this also works in favor of her character. In fact, Danes' best scenes are when she is in action, expressing rage, and experiencing awkward feelings around Ashitaka. Detractors have said that she makes San sound like a petulant, whiney brat, but I disagree; there's a "raw" quality to the performance that comes through, in a way that illustrates the savage-ness of her character. Even when she is talking normally, there is a touch of anger in her voice that expresses her uneasy feelings about trusting a human. Which isn't to say that her performance isn't without some issues; there are a few cases where she misses a line or two, and at least one moment that feels a bit forced (the scene where she whines how she hates all humans to Moro), but otherwise, this is a performance that gets more flak than it deserves. Not the best of the entire dub, of course, but more than passable.

MORO (Gillian Anderson) -- It is interesting to note that in the Japanese version of Mononoke, this seemingly benevolent but ferocious wolf "goddess" is voiced by a male.  With the dub, however, it was decided to go in a different direction, and so Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame was chosen.  Oddly, her performance has also been criticized, and I really can't understand why. She brings a lower-toned, matriarchal quality which brings out Moro's motherly side, and yet her voice also contains a touch of bitterness. This is expressed well in the scene where she tells Ashitaka how she listens to the sound of the forest dying and of her desire to "crunch that gun woman's head in my jaws". The grittiness that Anderson supplies to this line is chilling. Viewers will also notice that Anderson's voice is both backed by wolf-growls and electronically amplified. This is to establish the "beastly" aspect of the character. It is also interesting to note that Moro never moves her mouth as she "talks"; all we see on the screen are the character's facial features shifting positions through each line. I've always found this a nice touch.

OKKOTO (Keith David) -- As great as the performances in Mononoke are, the actor who steals the show (the standard for Disney-Ghibli dubs) is the one who is not even advertised.  The man in question is Keith David, better known for his work as Goliath in Gargoyles.  His deep, baritone chords are lent to the only other significant "talking" animal character, a blind boar god who, although wise, also finds himself about to be corrupted by hatred. David brings a stoic yet powerful quality that fits the character so naturally that one wishes he had more lines. (His voice is also amplified, like Anderson's.) Indeed, the only other time we hear his voice is at the beginning of the movie, where David provides a brief prologue, setting up an "epic" tone. It is, without question, the best voice in the whole dub.

Other minor characters in the film also deserve a shout-out:  John Hostetter as Ji-San, the bearded, grizzled elder who spots the bloodworm-covered boar god from the top of the watch tower at the beginning of the movie.  I've always loved his voice (he can be heard in Kiki and Castle as well), and it's hard for me to imagine hearing anyone else but him voicing this character. Whoever plays the Wise Woman who informs Ashitaka of his fate is also well-cast, speaking with a natural tone.  Tara Strong has a very small part at the beginning as Ashitaka's sister (altered from fiance in the dub so that audiences will feel more comfortable about Ashitaka's affections for San), Kaiya. It is a lovely performance.  And keep an ear open for the ubiquitous Tress MacNeille, who speaks in a tone not much different from what she uses for Osono or the wife of Pazu's boss as one of the leper women.  The bandaged leper, Osa, is also memorably raspy and frail, despite being in only one scene.  The combination of traditional animation and anime voice actors in Fletcher's dubs for Ghibli movies are something that I've always liked.

Whoever told you that Neil Gaiman's script for Princess Mononoke is a "poorly translated", "dumbed down" affair that "butchers the film" should seriously think again. Gaiman spent a lot of time researching the Japanese cultural aspects that are so prevalent in the film, working closely with both Ghibli and Miramax to get each line just right. His efforts are very much commendable; the resulting ADR script is a poetic accomplishment that not only sounds smooth and natural, but does an admirable job of bringing what would be a difficult story to translate to audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture. There are places where some of the terminology is altered; the "Great Forest Spirit", for instance, was the Deer God in the original Japanese, or, if you will, shishigami.  Miyazaki himself is said to have preferred Gaiman's translation, as it conveys a sense of importance to the audience that a literal one would not.

Also notable are a few places of additional dialogue.  While Kiki and Castle's otherwise entertaining ADR scripts had a lot of added-in humor (something which fans are still very up in arms about, even though I've enjoyed both tremendously), Gaiman provides brief descriptions on some parts that would obviously be lost on an American audience, notably the scene where Ashitaka cuts off his hair before leaving. This helps connect viewers who would otherwise be confused by the scene. There's also Jigo's expression of disgust, "are you selling soup or donkey piss", which was, in the original script, "this soup tastes like hot water!" The latter line has caused criticism, but Gaiman's occasional liberties are never out of disrespect to the original and don't harm the film in any way. It was obvious that this guy cared about the quality of Princess Mononoke in his work, and it's a shame he has not adapted any more Anime scripts.  I can only imagine the possibilities....

This is also the only Fletcher dub which does not make much alterations to the music.  While Kiki received extra pieces of music (as well as new OP and ED songs) and Castle got a spectacular (and arguably superior) rerecording of its glorious score by the original composer, the only changes to the music in Mononoke are to the vocal tracks.  The "Tatara Women's Work Song", which occurs about midway through the film, is sung into natural English, but it's heard so softly that one wouldn't even notice. And like everything else in the dub, it fits so seamlessly that it never calls attention to itself. Better than this still is the handling of the theme song, with the operatic vocals of Sasha Lazard. Her voice is hauntingly gorgeous and she does a wonderful job of delivering Gaiman's translated lyrics for this song. It is heard twice in the film; in the cave scene and just at the start of the closing credits. This song always makes the hair on my skin tingle.

Many people credit John Lasseter for being the major force for these English versions, yet Fletcher's contributions also deserve a shout-out. His goal for the Princess Mononoke dub, as well as Gaiman's, was to set a new standard for dubbing... something which would have almost been unheard of in 1999. Yet the combined efforts of these two men don't deserve to be tossed aside in favor of the other dubs; over the years, the Princess Mononoke dub as well as Fletcher's other two Ghibli dubs all hold up surprisingly well even in an age where quality dubbing is the standard.  That pretty much sums up the entire dub in general.


  1. Once again, great job. I have to point out, though, that I didn't think that Billy Crudup gave it his all, as some of his lines sounded somewhat wooden. I much preferred Alison Lohman's Nausicaa from her respective movie, as she sounded a lot more organic (even if some of her early shouts sounded a bit hoarse.)

  2. I actually didn't detect many wooden lines from Crudup the first time I saw the film, but if there were, they weren't very noticeable, because I really liked the calm composed nature he provided the character.

  3. I watched both the English and Japanese versions of this movie back to back and while I prefer the Japanese version I actually did think the English version did a better job with the lip-snching and I guess at some point during the voice over sessions Miyazaki decided there were a few places he didn't want daiolog, resulting in a few instances where the characters mouths move but no sound comes out.

  4. I'll admit I was a little upset when Miramax decided to translate over Yoshikazu Mera's lyrics. But to be fair Sasha Lazard did just as good of a job.

  5. Ghibli Blog's Author sounds like a pompous, basement dwelling ads who just wants to find something, ANYTHING to bitch about with these dubs.

  6. As for the dub, I consider it on par with the Kiki and Spirited Away Disney Dubs as one of the best ways to watch Miyazaki's work.