"Princess Mononoke"
Studio Ghibli "Princess Mononoke"

The Art of Princess Mononoke: A Film by Hayao Miyazaki

Viz: $34.99, 224 pp.

When Princess Mononoke debuted in the US in 1999, animators and anime fans already knew Hayao Miyazaki’s work, but the general public did not. Mononoke was the first of his features to receive a wide release in the US. “Art of” books were not yet standard publications: Hyperion/Miramax released “The Art of Princess Mononoke” to stimulate interest in the film.

Viz is re-issuing the book with a new translation by Takami Nieda, and they’ve added some previously unpublished material. To keep the volume at 224 pages, the editors removed critic Mark Schilling’s introduction. Although it was interesting, the Introduction seemed both dated and unnecessary. Miyazaki’s films may not have found as large an American audience as they deserve, but his name and work are familiar to anyone interested in the art  form. 

Nieda’s translation feels more vivid and closer to the original Japanese text. In the series of poems Miyazaki wrote about the main characters, Schilling translates the lines about the hero as “Ashitaka who loved the people./ Ashitaka who loved the forest./ Ashitaka who saw with eyes clear and bright.” The version in the new edition is the one that appears in the recently published book of Miyazaki’s writings, “Turning Point:” “Though cruel fate toyed with him/ How deeply he loved people and the forest…/ How clear were his eyes…”

The stills, animation drawings, layouts and background paintings attest to the skill and talent of Ghibli artists, many of whom would work on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, et al. But the real stars of the book are Miyazaki’s own enchanting sketches—pencil and watercolor studies of characters, scenes and actions. Frédéric Back once commented that as much as he liked Miyazaki’s films, he wished they looked more like the director’s own drawings.

The most interesting addition is the “Production Diary August 1994-June 17, 1997” by Kazuyoshi Tanaka of the Production Desk, a position that seems to correspond to A.P.M. Tanaka chronicles the trials and triumphs of the creative process, adding personal asides and worries that give the journal a lively intimacy. Early in the production, Miyazaki takes a group of key artists on trip to the forest in Yakushima in southern Kyushu for location scouting. After visiting an enormous cryptomeria tree, the crew enjoys a traditional dinner amid glowing fireflies.

But as the  pace of production accelerates, these enjoyable preliminaries give way to the stress and crises familiar to anyone who works in animation, but with individual twists. When a shipment of cel paint arrives, no one at Ghibli has the equipment to move the crates, which weigh 700 kilos (over 1500 pounds). A crew has to break open the crates and move the paint by hand. In January, 1997, with only six months left on the production, producer Toshio Suzuki asks Miyazaki if he’s satisfied with the storyboards. The director announces he’s thought of a better ending and will change them. 

In the background, Tanaka frets endlessly about hours, quotas, work flow, schedules, personnel and the looming deadlines. It’s oddly reassuring to know that producing animation involves the same problems, whether it’s at Disney, Pixar or Ghibli.

Anyone interested in Miyazaki’s work or animation in general will want the new edition of “The Art of Princess Mononoke,” and they’ll want to re-watch the film after reading it. The book also provides a reminder that 1999 was an exceptional year in animation history, when the Academy should have awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. In addition to Princess Mononoke, the candidates would have included Tarzan, Toy Story 2 and The Iron Giant--a field that could excite anyone who loves the art form.

Princess Mononke cover