“Princess Mononoke”: Hayao Miyazaki Interview

BEVERLY HILLS, Sept. 22, 1999 — One never expects a film legend to be pulling out chairs for reporters.

But Hayao Miyazaki does, in such a quiet, unassuming way that makes him appear more banquet host than director of one of the highest-grossing films in Japan.

So it’s no surprise that the soft-spoken, 58-year-old filmmaker seems bewildered by not only the phenomenal success of “Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime)” but America’s fascination with his anime films, such that Miramax plans to release “Mononoke” with English-language dubbing on Oct. 29.

The story, drawn from folklore, follows a young warrior prince named Ashitaka, who kills a demon boar in the forests of Japan. But in doing so he is cursed, and must find its cure before it kills him.

The journey takes him to a mining colony led by the regal Lady Eboshi, who provides for her people but is bent on destroying the forest gods, who protect the land she is trying to raze for industrial purposes. Her enemy is Princess Mononoke, a young girl raised by wolf gods who hates the human race. Ashitaka finds his mission is to facilitate peace between humans and nature.

But it’s not your run-of-the-mill cartoon actors taking on the task. Claire Danes voices the title role of the angry Mononoke; Billy Crudup (“Without Limits“) plays Ashitaka; Minnie Driver is Lady Eboshi and Billy Bob Thornton voices Jigo Boh, a pragmatic monk. Other stars lending their words are “The X-Files” Gillian Anderson and Jada Pinkett Smith.

Even with a star pedigree and a refurbished script by DC Comics creator Neil Gaiman, Miramax promises a faithful presentation of the film. Miyazaki says he puts his trust in the studio, but drew his lines.

“We talked about the conditions,” Miyazaki said through a translator. “No editing, but they would be able to dub the film. And also regarding the music, the basic idea was to maintain the original music score.”

So what does Miyazaki think about the new production? He doesn’t.

“To tell you the truth, I have not seen the English dubbed version done by Miramax,” Miyazaki said. “And I actually really don’t think I’m going to watch (it)… If I start watching their version, I may start making all these comments.”

That’s because Miyazaki’s film stands as a masterpiece on its own. Upon its release in summer 1997, “Princess Mononoke” went on to gross more than $150 million in U.S. dollars at the Japanese box office, topping “E.T.” and “Jurassic Park.” Only “Titanic” has made more.

But while “Mononoke” was a breakout success, it wasn’t his first. Miyazaki’s first feature as a director was “The Castle of Cagliostoro (Lupin Ill Cagliostoro no Shiro)” in 1979. Its success at the box office was followed by “Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa)”; “My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)”; and “Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyubin),” which became the biggest domestic box-office hit of 1989 and was rated the #1 home video of 1998 by Entertainment Weekly.

“Mononoke” was a three-year labor of love, mostly hand-drawn cels and only 10% computer imagery. Miyazaki appreciates the fluidity computer animation allows, but still prefers a paintbrush to a mouse. “Computers are really just an electronic pen or pencil, and I like regular pencils better.” He laughed. “I know that John Lasseter [director of “Toy Story”] likes the electronic pencil.”

But differences with Disney films don’t end there. Although it is an animated feature, “Mononoke” is too violent for the kiddie crowd. Miyazaki agrees, estimating kids over 10 are of appropriate age. But the director says that while violence is a part of human nature, films portray man’s aim to conquer it.

“What I really try to achieve is to question if human beings will be able to conquer hatred. And in terms of conquering, I don’t think I actually won. But also I feel like I didn’t lose, either.”