It’s a film that defies description — Hayao Miyazaki’s otherworldly animated feature Princess Mononoke is at times violent, at times thoughtful, always beautiful and completely mysterious. Painstakingly made over the course of decades, it nearly ended Miyazaki’s career.
The film tells the story of a terrible curse, a prince searching for a cure, and the fight between forest nature spirits and humans who seek to exploit and destroy the world for their own gain. Miyazaki began the writing process in the 1970s, but if he had made it then it would likely have been a very different film. By the time he was ready to go into production on the story, he had been changed by real-life trauma.
One of the primary influences on the movie was the war in Yugoslavia, which devastated Miyazaki to see. He commented later that it seemed as though humans never learned from their mistakes, and were trapped in an endless cycle of causing each other to suffer. Another influence was his experience with people living with leprosy. The unnamed illness in the film is a direct allusion to the way that lepers were forced to live, exiled and shunned by others.
After having learned about war and disease, Miyazaki said, he couldn’t possibly make an innocent upbeat film that shied away from the darker truths of life.
He also never planned to work after Princess Mononoke, telling everyone that it would be his final film. (This would be a recurring theme throughout his career; every film since Princess Mononoke has been his “final film.” His latest “final film,” How Do You Live?, is due out in 2021.) But after it was released in 1997, it was a smash hit and Miyazaki was persuaded to continue working. He had been burned out by his previous effort, Porco Rosso, but discovered a newfound energy by confronting stories that did more to highlight moral ambiguity and suffering.
Princess Mononoke broke box office records in Japan, and Disney/Miramax arranged for an American release. But that was a tumultuous process: Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein, now disgraced in a sex abuse scandal, pushed hard to modify Miyazaki’s film for Americans. Miyazaki was disgusted by Weinstein’s inconsiderate, pushy demands and refused to make any changes. Not long afterwards, one of his producers sent a sword to the Miramax offices with the words “NO CUTS” engraved in the blade. There were no cuts to the film.
Still, it required some modifications to be understandable to American audiences. Writer Neil Gaiman was hired to write a version for English-language actors that would make Japanese cultural references more understandable. For example, calling soup “water” in Japan is highly insulting, but for American audiences, that was changed to “donkey piss.”
In a near-disaster, Gaiman almost didn’t get the job of the English-language adaptation. Miramax nearly gave that role to Quentin Tarantino. It’s impossible to say how Tarantino would have botched that adaptation, but fortunately his mother’s admiration for Gaiman’s work led him to turn down the role.
The result: A film that, unusually, causes fans to be split over whether the subtitled or dubbed version is better. Generally fans vastly prefer to the subtitles, but Gaiman’s adaptation is so strong — and the English acting so expert — that it’s a rare gem in any language.
The movie ends with a relatively upbeat conclusion, considering the dark tones that pervade it. But the happiest ending of all is that Miyazaki eventually emerged from a brief retirement afterwards to make more films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.