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Finding the words; Japan's blockbuster 'Princess Mononoke' presented a rich, animated world that might have been lost in the translation. Instead, a skilled intepreter bridged the cultural divide for American audiences.

When Disney acquired the American distribution rights to Hayao Miyazaki's animated film, "Princess Mononoke," it seemed the studio had a guaranteed hit on its hands. An epic adventure set in feudal Japan, "Mononoke" (pronounced moh-noh-noh-keh) was a huge hit in its home market.

Viewers would line up around the block to see the film and then get back in line to see it again. "Princess Mononoke" spent eight months in Japanese theaters, earning more than $150 million at the box office -- an astonishing feat for a country with half the population of America and only one-tenth the movie screens.

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"Princess Mononoke" was the most successful Japanese film ever made and, until the release of "Titanic," the overall box office champ in Japan. Even better, it had been written and directed by Japan's most gifted animator, a visionary whose work had become familiar to Americans in the 1990s through the heartwarming and breathtakingly beautiful children's films "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service."

Trouble was, translating "Princess Mononoke" into an American success story wouldn't prove as easy as it first seemed.

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For one thing, "Princess Mononoke" is not a children's film in the classic Disney formula. There are no cute sidekicks and none of the regular comic relief Disney kids expect. Instead, the film presents a world that is as grown-up as it is gorgeous, a place in which beauty and cruelty live side-by-side, where violence and vengeance are woven into the very fabric of day-to-day existence.

Set in the Muromachi era (1336-1573), the film depicts a Japan on the verge of modernity, whose people are just beginning to realize that they may exert their will on the world around them. The action starts when Ashitaka, the prince of a remote eastern village, incurs a curse while protecting his village from a rampaging boar god.

Hoping to learn what caused the boar to go mad, he heads west, where he stumbles into a war between Lady Eboshi, leader of the Tatara "Iron Town" and its metal works, and the gods of the forest. In particular, Eboshi is bedeviled by the wolf-god Moro and her human "daughter," San. San is a fearsome warrior for the wolf gods, and the people of Iron Town, believing her possessed, dub her "Princess Mononoke." (In Japanese, "mononoke" means "an evil spirit.")

Ashitaka, seeking answers, befriends Eboshi and the people of Iron Town and falls in love with San. He seeks both peace with the forest gods and happiness for the people of Iron Town. But the forest gods want to stop Eboshi's townsfolk from mining iron ore for their foundry, while a neighboring lord named Asano wants to steal Eboshi's ironworks for himself. Worst of all, the Emperor of Japan has commanded Eboshi to hunt down the great deer god of the forest, whose head is reputed to grant immortality to its owner.

Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" this isn't. Complex and convoluted, "Princess Mononoke" offers no easy answers for Ashitaka, San or Eboshi. Moreover, much of the film's emotional power derives from the way it shifts the audience's sympathies from one character to another without telling the audience which one has the "right" worldview.

But the biggest stumbling block to bringing "Princess Mononoke" to America is that the film is so utterly Japanese. From the intricacies of samurai-era politics to the mythology underlying the film's animal gods, "Princess Mononoke" is built on cultural references that may make immediate sense to Japanese viewers but are completely foreign to Americans.

The challenge for the team that translated "Princess Mononoke" was to retain the character and feel of the original while making the story and situations accessible to Americans. It was hard work, make no mistake. But as Neil Gaiman, who wrote the English adaptation of the script, points out, there was also a time when nobody thought Americans would like sushi, either.

In many ways, Gaiman was the ideal man to make "Princess Mononoke" understandable for U.S. audiences. Though he is neither American nor an expert on Japanese culture, Gaiman understands storytelling.

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A 39-year-old Englishman, Gaiman made his name writing comic books, and his greatest work, "Sandman" -- a quasi-mythic tale of Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming -- is a veritable celebration of tales well told. To acclimate himself to the world of "Princess Mononoke," Gaiman familiarized himself with both Miyazaki's work and with the tradition of Japanese folk tales.

As he tells it, however, the trickiest thing about adapting Miyazaki's film into English had less to do with storytelling than with the mechanics of animation.

The 'flap count'

Dubbing animation into English involves more than merely finding equivalents for foreign words. In order to be convincing, the dialogue must match the opening and shutting of the characters' mouths -- a factor animators call the "flap count."

"It really is a problem," says Gaiman. "In that, I was enormously aided by the brilliant efforts of Mr. Jack Fletcher, who was the voice director.

"I gave Jack a script, but Jack got the flaps to fit. Jack would take a line, work it over in the studio, and all of a sudden, my line, on which the flaps would almost have fit, had now become a line on which the flaps fit exactly."

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For Gaiman, the film's two songs were particularly difficult. "I've said, and not entirely in jest, that I probably spent as much time translating the two songs in 'Mononoke' as I did on the entire third draft of the script," says Gaiman. "You're translating them with a set of problems that you really don't have in the script."

Specifically, Gaiman was forbidden to alter or add to the words Miyazaki had written. But because of syllabic differences between the two languages, there was no way a literal translation of the lyrics would fit the music.

Gaiman cites "The Tatara Women's Song" as an example. This is a work song, sung by the women who pump the bellows in Iron Town. In Japanese, its eight-note opening goes, "Hitotsu futatsu-u wa" -- a lyric that, in English, translates simply as "One, two."

"Unfortunately, if you try and translate that literally, you have an awful lot of syllables left over," says Gaiman. "So to get the same effect and to communicate the sense of the thing, the translation I came up with was, 'One step and two-oo steps and push.' It gets across the idea that, yes, they're working the bellows."

Getting to that version of the lyric involved negotiation between Gaiman and the representatives of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. "There was a point where it got down to, 'OK, if I lose this word that you really hate, can I have this word that you didn't like very much?"' recalls Gaiman, laughing.

Ultimately, Gaiman was able to convince Studio Ghibli that some changes in the dialogue would make the film more understandable for American audiences.

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Take, for example, the introduction of Jigo, a wandering monk who acts as the Emperor's cat's paw in dealing with Eboshi and Asano. When we meet Jigo, he's eating at a village food stand. In Japanese, his first line is "Nan tomo yasumitaina meshi da na" -- roughly, "What's more, this food is like plain hot water."

For an American audience, a literal rendering of the line makes it seem as if Jigo merely thinks the food is bland. But to Japanese viewers, the bluntness of Jigo's statement is an important key to his character. "You need to know that this character is a rough, uncultured sort, that he's going to say exactly what is on his mind, and that he's not necessarily to be trusted," says Gaiman. "And also, that he's being very rude.

"I'm sorry, but 'This soup tastes like water' does not do it. It does if you're Japanese. But it doesn't if you're American or English. So in my original script, it was 'This soup tastes like horse piss.' And to make the flaps work, we made it 'donkey piss.' "

Adding information

At other points, Gaiman slipped additional information into the dialogue so English-speaking viewers would have a better understanding of the film's action and characters. One example comes with the deer god shishikami, who in the dubbed version is called the Spirit of the Forest.

To a Japanese, raised on folk tales of spirits who take on human form, the notion that shishikami would have a human-like face seems fairly unremarkable. But in America, where the whole notion of animal gods takes some effort to accept, the first appearance of the Spirit of the Forest evoked rather a different reaction.

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"What we were finding was that when people would finally see this great spirit, they'd laugh," says Gaiman. "We'd get a very inappropriate laugh, because of the face.

"I did two things on that. The first thing was to change the name from 'deer god' to 'spirit of the forest.' Because if you expect a deer god, you expect this giant deer, and what you see is not a deer. And the second thing I did was sneak one piece of information in early on, when [one character] says, 'They say there's this thing, and he has a human face.'

"At that point, when you actually get to see him, you see this weird, flat, beautiful face, and you know what Miyazaki was doing. And it doesn't get the laugh."

As much as Gaiman did to make the story of "Princess Mono- noke" comprehensible for American audiences, there are aspects of the film that simply demand sympathy with Miyazaki's storytelling techniques.

For many viewers, the ending of "Princess Mononoke" is likely to be mildly disappointing. Although the film does have a happy ending of sorts, it's not the type of finale American filmgoers usually expect.

"From a Western storytelling tradition, you could make this a perfect story if only the last minute showed Ashitaka riding back into the village he left at the beginning, with San as his bride at his side," says Gaiman. "Because at that point, it fits the Western storytelling pattern. You're back into the hero's journey. He was wounded, he left the village, he solved a great problem, he comes back. The hero's journey always involves the return."

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Instead, "Princess Mononoke" takes a different tack, one that respects San's strength as much as Ashitaka's. For critic Helen McCarthy, author of the book "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation," that sense of balance makes the ending of "Princess Mononoke" more satisfying than a Hollywood happy ending ever could be.

"Even though this isn't a perfect 'happy ending' with that unreal 'happily-ever-after' feel to it, it's a hopeful ending that gives the characters a way forward in their lives and their relationships," she says. "It showed that there was a way forward for everyone."

Perhaps the most telling difference between Miyazaki's story-telling and that of other animators has to do with the way nature is depicted.

Miyazaki's verdant landscapes are in many ways the axis on which the film turns. There's a lush, untamed beauty to the forest sequences that makes it easy to sympathize with San and the animal spirits, and there's an ugliness to the deforested land around Iron Town that leaves the viewer wondering if Eboshi's way really is the right path for mankind.

Miyazaki devotes far more of "Princess Mononoke" to landscapes than one would expect from an animated film. This focus almost makes the natural world as much a character in the film as the gods and people.

"Someone asked me, 'What's your favorite moment in the movie?' " says Gaiman. "And I said, 'There's a moment in the movie where you're looking at a rock, and a raindrop hits it, and leaves a little wet splotch. And then another raindrop hits, and leaves another splotch. And then the rock is glistening and shining, and you pull back, and it's raining.'

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"That's my favorite scene in the movie because it wouldn't be there in any other film. Disney would never have put that scene in. It's a scene of almost unutterable beauty. It's world-building, and that's where Miyazaki is a master."


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