Ice Cream For Crow, or How to Sell a Mononoke Salad to a Junk-Food Eating Public
Mononoke Hime was a landmark film, hurling Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into blockbuster status in Japan and earning praise and acclaim around the world. In the United States, anime was building from the ghetto of the fansub underground to a more mainstream acceptance. Hollywood was honestly trying to understand this strange film genre, these complex, adult, contemporary movies that also happen to be animated. And so the sensibilities started to shift, if only a little. Warriors of the Wind was out; Akira was in.
No doubt Disney was counting on Miyazaki to create another My Neighbor Totoro, a gentle cartoon that could be easily sold to parents and small children. Instead, they were surprised with the complex, brooding and violent Mononoke. Fortunately, Miramax was a part of the Disney empire and would be the ideal channel for Ghibli's first great American premier. And so we end up with these twin posters for Princess Mononoke.
You'll immediately notice the trappings of a major Hollywood production, with the celebrity actors whose names are heralded in bold type. This was unprecedented for an anime film. Up to this point, anime dubbing was considered an afterthought, something to be shuffled off during the coffee break without much effort. The injustices of Warriors of the Wind were past, but progress was still painfully slow. Anime still needed to be amended, sanitized, fixed. The form was not yet fully respected in the eyes of American producers and executives. It was really only Akira that forced this perspective to change at all; and even then, anime would continue to remain in the art-house ghetto.
Within this environment, Princess Mononoke was a great leap forward. It was by no means perfect, and in many ways, the years have not been kind to many of the actors' line readings, or to Neil Gaiman's refurbished script. They tried their best, yes, but they were still bound to old notions and old stereotypes: Cartoons are only for kids. Japan only makes cheap junk. People only watch movies for the special effects.
Disney and Miramax are stuck with a movie they cannot understand, and they struggle to find a way to sell it to a public notoriously hostile to foreign animation (they're still hostile in 2011). How to convince Americans fed on John Ford westerns, video games, and Star Wars that Princess Mononoke is a movie worth seeing? There is heroism and villainy, but no real heros or villains, certainly not in the simple, melodramatic sense. There is no white hat versus black hat. Mononoke is a meditation on the nature of violence, of man's desire for destruction, of the doomed relationship between man and his world. Everyone suffers. Everyone loses. The movie does not end with a triumph over a foe, or even an understanding of some saccharine moral lesson. Issues are debated, nothing is resolved - even moreso than in the Nausicaa film. Instead, ikiro; "we must live."
Again, how do you sell that to the American moviegoing public? It's almost impossible in live-action, to say nothing of animation. In this country, Animation Is A Baby-Sitter, and to this day it remains trapped within the Chuck E. Cheese world of primary colors and formulaic, repressed simplicity. This is the archetype of a culture in decline.
The story of these Princess Mononoke movie posters is the story of this struggle. You can see that uncertainty in the first poster, especially. What does it convey? What does it reveal about the story? Does the coin motiv have any meaning? Who is this title character? Instead of the Japanese tagline, "Ikiro," we see standard Hollywood cliche. What does that tagline even mean, anyway? What does that have to do with this picture? Nothing...but it's a familiar refrain and so it makes people feel safe. Americans are easily startled by the strange and the new, and comforted by endless repetition...repetition...repetition...
The second Mononoke poster is, to my eyes, a great improvement. At least we have a little art direction at play, a little texture and color. Note how the lead character is no longer San, the Mononoke Hime, but the boy Ashitaka. Now the cheesy tagline makes a little more sense. The pose promises action and excitement, a giant fortress, prisoners to be rescued. And there's just enough room at the top for the obligatory critic's quote that name-drops Star Wars. "The Star Wars of animated movies!" Whatever that means.
The idea that a foreign movie should be treated honestly and respectfully, without any need to sanitize or censor or simplify, was an alien notion in the late '90s. It remains so today. But the movie business is, in the end, a business. It's easy to point to the producers and script writers and executives for dumbing down the movies. It's easy to critize junk food merchants. But it's much harder to look in the mirror and face the one who's endlessly consuming junk food. Ice cream for snow? No. Ice cream for crow.