How Princess Mononoke Escaped Disneyfication (Topic)

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How Princess Mononoke Escaped Disneyfication


In 1996, Studio Ghibli and its parent company Tokuma Shoten hired American Steve Alpert as the head of the international animation company. Working closely with Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the "foreign resident" has played a key role in making the studio a well-known company around the world.

After so much time on the job, Alpert wrote a memoir titled “Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli,” which details his experiences with Miyazaki and Hollywood executives [including the notorious Harvey Weinstein] and overcoming his cultural divide to properly adapt films. In this exclusive excerpt from the book, published on Polygon, he writes about the complexity of translation and the challenges that author Neil Gaiman faced in writing the English version of the screenplay for Princess Mononoke.

Translating Japanese is difficult. The main problem in the film industry is that no one checks the translations. Another problem is that the Japanese love English and are too happy with its version. They are much more tolerant of language errors like native speakers. It seems that the problem is being solved by itself and no one is offended. What could be wrong?


I was confident that the translations of Studio Ghibli films would be done correctly. I have an academic background and have always wanted to be a translator [of poetry and novels]. Getting it right was a matter of personal pride. In addition, the language in Ghibli film scripts has a depth and artistic beauty that deserve a proper translation. But then the question arises, what exactly is the correct translation?

At a minimum, of course, you want to avoid outright mistakes. Also, you want the translated dialogue to sound natural to those who speak Japanese. This is doable, although not all native speakers agree that the translation sounds natural. But what about phrases and words that only Japanese people use when there are simply no equivalents in other languages? Or Japanese words that even Japanese people find it hard to understand, namely Hayao Miyazaki likes to use in the titles of his films?

Disney was our US distributor. One problem we didn't anticipate was that Disney would use translations to “fix” alleged issues with the movies themselves. For Disney, translation meant being able to change anything that they thought the commercial audience in America would not like. They filled the silence with dialogue that was not in the original script. They added phrases to fill in storylines they found obscure. They changed the names to sound more American. And of course, we would have made many translation mistakes that a native speaker would catch.


Lively discussions took place about how the Ghibli films will be translated. Lawyers attended, and Disney and Ghibli agreed on a process. The guidelines were agreed. The first English-language version of Ghibli's film, filmed under the new rules, was Princess Mononoke.

The process of creating an English version of Princess Mononoke began in New York with a meeting at Miramax. I've heard that Miramax is very interested in learning how to dub foreign films into English. At that time Miramax was the main monopoly of the best foreign language films in the United States. They thought their films would be more widely distributed and viewed if they had well-thought-out dubbed versions, not just the subtitled versions preferred by art house fans.

The production team that was assembled to create a dubbed version of Princess Mononoke gathered for their first scripting meeting in New York. No one on the team had any real experience of making a dubbed English version of a film. Writer Neil Gaiman was hired to write the English-language script. He flew in from his home in Minnesota. Miramax sent him a rough working copy of the film, which he watched and studied many times in order to arrive at the meeting knowing him thoroughly. The Miramax staff assigned to the film also watched the anime several times to determine the issues they wanted Gaiman to solve in their script.


Hayao Miyazaki gave me a short list of what to know, do or don't do when creating an English dub. I showed this to the group. Miyazaki's comments ranged from global issues to concerns about certain details that he was sure no one else would care about or even notice.

Here are some of the items on his list:

  • Don't try to translate the title; this is not possible
  • No modern language or slang.
  • Choosing good voices is important.
  • Asitaka is a prince. He speaks well and is formal; old-fashioned for its time.
  • Emishi are people who never got to modern Japan: destroyed and disappeared.
  • Lady Eboshi's people are of a very low class: outcasts, ex-prostitutes, crooks, pimps and lepers. But she's not - she's from a different class.
  • Jiko-Bo says he works for the emperor. The Emperor is not the person you have an idea of today. He lived almost in poverty and made a living selling his signature. Who does Jiko-Bo really work for? We do not know. He has a document signed by the emperor, but that doesn't mean anything.
  • Things that look like rifles are NOT rifles. Rifles are different. It's more like a portable cannon. DO NOT translate them as rifles. These are not rifles. Don't use the word "rifle" at all.

Then there were questions from Miramax.

“This guy, Lord Asano, who is he? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who did the samurai work for? Why did they attack the village? Why are they attacking Lady Eboshi? She's bad, right? Who is this guy Jiko and who does he work for? Why does he want the head of the Deer God? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Why is God Deer - God? Is this some kind of Japanese mythology? Is he a good god or a bad god? ”

I explained that Miyazaki doesn't have good or bad guys in his films, but he tries to take a closer look at human nature. I told them that I didn’t know for sure if there were clear answers to their questions, and that part of Miyazaki’s intentions was for us to think about it or be satisfied with the uncertainty without knowing for sure.


One woman with a pronounced Brooklyn accent asked, “So why do they call this guy, Asitaka, a prince?”

Neil Gaiman replied: "Because he is a prince"

“Yes,” she said, “but how do we know he's a prince? He lives in this dirty village in complete wilderness. His clothes are rags. How can he be a prince?

"We know he is a prince because everyone calls him" Prince Asitaka. " He is a prince because his father was a king and he will be king when his father dies. The filmmakers told us that he is a prince. It is as it is, "Gaiman said.

Maybe due to the fact that Gaiman is British, he likes the concept of a real prince or princess more, and he did not perceive the images of Disney princes and princesses. The debate between Gaiman, who claims that a prince can remain a prince despite his limited circumstances, and a woman from Miramax, who argued that audiences would not accept a prince with a country kingdom and bad clothes, continued:

Gaiman: Look, the fact that he's a prince is very important to the story. This is part of his character. I believe this is what Mr. Miyazaki decided. We must adapt this film for an American audience, not change it.

Miramax: But the audience will not understand that he is a prince.

Gaiman: Of course they will. The audience isn't stupid. If it were, there would be no point in showing the rest of the film.

We moved on.

Gaiman's original script was amazing. Dialogues adapted smoothly. Things that were clumsy in direct translation from Japanese took on the power they had in Hayao Miyazaki's original version. Things that worked well in Japanese but not English have been tweaked to restore the liveliness that direct translation lacked. For example, in one scene, Jiko-Bo complains that okayu [rice porridge] tastes like hot water. It sounds convincing enough in Japanese, but sickly in English. Gaiman rewrote the translation as follows: “This soup tastes like horse urine. Diluted horse urine.

Gaiman also made changes to suit Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax. These were changes that Miramax's production team believed helped American audiences understand things that weren't clear in Miyazaki's original version. Jiko-Bo's enigmatic motivation, not specified in the film, was clarified for the English version by the line: "The Emperor promised me a palace and mountains of gold for the head of the Deer God." The relationship between Jiko-Bo and Lady Eboshi also gained some clarity when Gaiman added the lines: “The Emperor ordered you to kill the Deer God at once. He doesn't want to wait any longer. Do you think the Emperor cares about your pathetic little ironworks? " There is nothing in the original version of Hayao Miyazaki's film even remotely close to this or what they imply.

Gaiman found it difficult to make these changes. But at the same time, he had his own orders from Miramax, and Harvey Weinstein's main task was to make the film available to the general American public. Gaiman's problem was to walk the blade between what Harvey wanted and what was Hayao Miyazaki's film.


In Gaiman's first script, Miramax got the artistic side of what they wanted. At the same time, Gaiman did not understand that Miramax would take the script and make changes to it without consulting him. Gaiman and Miramax independently revised the script without communication. Ghibli had a final say on the finished script, so Gaiman's script was ultimately chosen.

This is only part of the story from Alpert's book, which has yet to come out, but the bottom line is that thanks to Gaiman's efforts, we got the version of "Princess Mononoke" that we deserve, without any undue influence from Disney. Also read our first material from Alpert's book on how difficult it is to work with Hayao Miyazaki himself.

The Topic of Article: How Princess Mononoke Escaped Disneyfication.
Author: Jake Pinkman