Princess Mononoke: The Art and Making of Japan's Most Popular Film of All Time

Published by Hyperion

222 pages, 1999


Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

by Helen McCarthy

Published by Stone Bridge Press

216 pages, 1999






An Animated Hayao Miyazaki

Reviewed by Emru Townsend


Japanese animation (otherwise known as anime, pronounced AN-IH-MAY) has had a hard time gaining mainstream acceptance in the West; largely because the general public, when it thinks of anime at all, usually thinks of it as something puerile. But get anyone, young or old, in front of a Hayao Miyazaki movie and you'll probably win them over. Miyazaki is, simply, the animator's animator, charming the people who watch, make, or in any way enjoy animated movies.

So what kind of movies does he make, to cause all of this fuss? Like Disney's other family movies online, the films he directs at Studio Ghibli are ostensibly aimed at children, yet are for everyone to enjoy. But there are three key things that make his work worth noting. First, unlike Disney movies, which have pretty much defined the template of the modern animated film in North America, each film is different from the other in story structure, rhythm and tone. Second, he doesn't equate entertainment with pure escapism; even his Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), conceived as a "boy's adventure film," contains a strong theme on the reckless pursuit of technology. As in his other films, he expected his audience to continue to think about the ideas he had presented, even after they'd left the theater. Third, his movies appeal to all ages by never talking down to children while keeping the emotions real enough for adults to become honestly engaged while watching.

Couple these things with his total commitment to each film -- he personally checks many of the drawings and oversees almost every aspect of production -- and you have a formula for movies that, despite the collaborative nature of feature animation, conveys his personal vision and passion with every frame.

It's that sort of appeal that led Disney to make a deal to distribute eight films directed or produced by Miyazaki on video, and his most recent film, Princess Mononoke (1997), theatrically. In particular, Princess Mononoke's arrival in Western cinemas has prompted the release of two books on Miyazaki's work.

During its initial run in Japan, Princess Mononoke became the highest-grossing film in Japan's history; Titanic eventually knocked it to second place, but it remains Japan's most lucrative domestic film to date. This explains the subtitle of Princess Mononoke: The Art and Making of Japan's Most Popular Film of All Time, released by Hyperion, Disney's publishing arm. I've never had much love for the expression "of all time," since it's rather pompous and implies that nothing else will ever do better. But then, this is an in-house publication, a bit of Mouse House synergy; it's expected to be a little breathless.

Besides, it's not as if they had the chance to lay it on in the book itself. The Art and Making of... is in fact a translation of The Art of Princess Mononoke, published in Japan in 1997. Like the movie it examines, its original content is mostly intact, with only a few changes for a North American audience, like English text and an introduction by Japanese-pop-culture vet Mark Schilling.

Like most "Art of" books, The Art and Making of... mostly features stills and background paintings from the movie, supplemented by storyboards, model sheets, layouts, and production information, all on heavy, glossy paper. The reproductions are beautiful, detailing every line on every character, every leaf on every tree; the care and precision that Miyazaki exacts from his staff isn't short-changed in the least. However, when I first read through the book, I felt something was lacking. After consulting other, similar books, including The Art of Nausicaä and The Art of Laputa, from two of the director's earlier films, it became clear: The Art and Making of... doesn't focus enough on the art or making of Princess Mononoke. Considering the movie's relatively long production time, there just isn't enough pre-production artwork -- the nuts and bolts that go into making an animated film. What is there is gorgeous, but to have only three character sketches of the deliciously fiery Lady Eboshi -- to pick one example -- is a crime.

For the most part, 150 of the book's 222 pages form an illustrated retelling of the movie, with much of the text devoted to explaining the events in a given scene. It's simply too linear, dwelling more on the story than on what went into making it. Granted, there are 33 pages near the end of the book featuring layouts from the movie's final scene; however, divorced as they are from the rest of the book, and with little corresponding finished art, they don't really complement anything, awkwardly standing out.

There's also a section on the use of computer graphics in Princess Mononoke which is most welcome, since it discusses not only the tools used but the reasons for using them in a particular scene. This kind of frank discussion is exactly the sort of thing which should be studied by the many people who feel that computer-assisted animation is somehow cheating or simply lazy; if anything, it shows how choices have to be made carefully before using digital tools. Unfortunately, the images which show how different elements are composited to form a final scene are often very small.

In contrast, Helen McCarthy's Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation deals with Princess Mononoke as just part of the big picture. As the book's subtitle implies, this is more of a look at Miyazaki's life and career, largely concentrating on the seven feature films that can be said to be his own (all of which, incidentally, have been or will be released domestically). McCarthy combines magazine articles, interviews, Internet mailing lists, and personal interviews to craft a book that deserves a spot on any animation aficionado's shelf.

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation has a fairly rigid structure: each movie has its own chapter, broken down into five sections on the film's genesis, its production, its characters, a synopsis, and commentary on its themes and execution. Bracketing these seven chapters are an opening chapter providing an overview of Miyazaki's life and the birth of Studio Ghibli, and a closing chapter on Ghibli merchandising and other projects.

McCarthy's preface conveys a certain level of enthusiasm for Miyazaki's body of work, and it shows throughout the book. Being an ardent fan can be a tricky balance, but she acquits herself admirably: she never comes across as sycophantic, preferring to let the presented facts speak for themselves. Matters of opinion, where present, are also backed up. The end result is that the book is a pleasurable, almost infectious read; I found myself wanting to re-watch all the movies covered.

However, in discussing the films, students of animation will come away disappointed -- if, that is, they're concerned only with the part that involves drawing. But for those that want to understand the whys and hows, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation will serve as an inspiration; McCarthy clearly lays out the path from Miyazaki's TV animation days to Princess Mononoke, pursuing his vision without compromise and achieving both critical and commercial success. In fact, in charting his development as a filmmaker and storyteller, it tells more about the art and making of Princess Mononoke than the book that claims it does. | January 2000


Longtime Miyazaki devotee Emru Townsend is a freelance writer living in Montreal. His interests in animation, writing, and black history are combined on his Web site.