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Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke comes to the stage

Tuesday 26th February 2013

Andrew Osmond interviews the artists bringing Miyazaki’s epic to the stage

Princess Mononoke


In July last year, anime fans were blindsided by the news of an extraordinarily ambitious stage production – a British adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s fantasy blockbuster, Princess Mononoke, created with the blessing of Studio Ghibli. How can giant wolves, cursed monster boars and a shapeshifting deer god be brought to the stage?

All will be revealed in April, when the play runs at London’s New Diorama Theatre for a week; it will run a further fortnight in June. Tickets sold out within hours of going on sale, but there may be more to come. The play’s creators ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to extend Princess Mononoke’s life. Their intention: to take the play to as many places and people as possible.

Whole Hog Theatre is a young company based in Leamington Spa, which is hellbent on staging the supposedly unstageable. So far we know the stage Princess Mononoke will feature human and puppet characters; that the London production will be intimate, with the audience almost touching the action; and it will be as faithful as possible to the film, while using very different techniques. There are some clues about how the film is being adapted in the Kickstarter campaign video below. (Please note, the target for this campaign has now been met.)



With the opening night just weeks away, Manga UK exclusively interviewed the play’s creators: Alexandra Rutter, Director, Charlie Hoare, Puppet Designer and Assistant Director; and Polly Clare Boon, Set Designer and Concept Artist.

What it was about Princess Mononoke that made you want to translate it to the stage? Was it the film’s overall vision? Or were there specific images that made you visualise it as a play?

Princess MononokeAlexandra: I always seem to form ideas around very specific images – I will watch or read something and an image will jump out at me, and a whole show will be built around that. For Princess Mononoke the image was of the God Nago (the creature which attacks Ashitaka’s village at the beginning of the film). He appeared physically overwhelmed by a curse that turns him into a demon. I saw his writhing wormlike skin and thought ‘videotape’ and it all went from there – the recycled materials, the aesthetic, everything.

The overall vision and themes were really inspiring too. I’ve always thought that it was amazing to feel so powerfully about a film that is set in, created by, and created for a culture that I have no direct relationship with. This is an incredible testament to the universal appeal of the film. On first watching I felt the loss of the Shishigami (the Deer God) so keenly. I thought it would work beautifully live. A lot of people have talked about the gut reaction they had when they first saw the film, and I know that that can lessen over time when you re-watch it. I hope that by putting it on stage we can bring our audience right back to that first viewing.

When you were in the process of creating the play, did you ever refer to images or scenes from the film to clarify how to do something on stage? Or would that have hindered you creating the play in your own way?

Alexandra: We used the film as our storyboard. We’re not looking to create the play our own way in terms of the narrative or character presentation, we’re just changing the form from screen to stage. There are some scenes that need more translation than others -= we look at moments such as when Yakul (Ashitaka’s faithful steed) jumps over a load of samurai into a lake, and know that we can’t recreate exactly that on stage, and so we set about developing an alternative.

Princess MononokePolly: It’s not as though we’re trying to access an ‘inner San’ to present in our production, and that watching the film will cloud our own view of the characters. The film is the source and inspiration in everything we’re attempting to do here. I’ve referred very closely to the film for the set design – it’s important that people recognise the trees and leaves and buildings that I’m creating as those which they’ve seen animated. It’s quite a precise process. The idea with the set is to mimic the way in which animation cels present you with different layers of detail to create a sense of depth – the back layer of the cel will be provided via projection, and the other layers built up using light responsive colour palettes that will pull certain aspects of the forest into greater focus, giving the impression of a deep, ancient environment.

I’m really inspired by Kazuo Oga, who does the background art for many of Miyazaki’s films – his work is amazing. It’s closer to fine art than cartoon animation with an incredible level of detail. Because I know that Miyazaki’s representation of the forest in the film stemmed from his spending time in some ancient forests in Yakushima and Honshu, I’m also looking at photographs of these places. I’m taking his raw source material and his animation, and combining that with the recycled materials that I have to create a blend of the real, the drawn and the reimagined.

Princess MononokeCharlie: I’m doing something similar with the puppets. The majority of what is informing their construction comes from how they are portrayed in the film, but I’m also looking at real wolves and boars to see how they move and behave. There’s an added layer of interpretation in that I’m only making them out of what we are donated or can source second-hand. Creating these fantastic creatures from these various aesthetic and physical source materials is a really rewarding process.

The Whole Hog company has said one of its ambitions is to adapt ‘unstage-able’ stories. Can you talk about some of the stage productions (big or small) that you found inspirational in this regard? (For example, the National Theatre version of Philip Pullman's ‘His Dark Materials,’ another fantasy production which made extensive use of puppets.)

Alexandra: I didn’t see His Dark Materials but I would’ve loved to – it’s an example of successfully staging a story that people said could never work, which is amazing!

Charlie: Yes, the puppetry in His Dark Materials was very well applied. There’s no other way they could have done the daemons or the polar bears. There are a couple of really inspirational shows that stick in my mind: Imogen by a company called Sketty, where the protagonist’s dead daughter appeared as a puppet, The Fantasist by Theatre Temoin, where puppets portrayed various manifestations of mental illness, and anything done by the Handspring Puppet Company (The latter company provided the life-sized equine puppets for the stage version of War Horse).

Polly: When Alex first pitched the idea of Princess Mononoke to me, she talked about the puppets in Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, particularly the land striders, which are part puppet, part performer. I was very excited by the idea of transgressing those boundaries and finding out what it is possible to create with a lot of imagination and audacity.

Alexandra: Yes – The Dark Crystal was great! As far as I’m aware there aren’t many films of its kind that unashamedly use puppets to tell a ‘straight’ story. It’s all done with CGI now. To me personally, puppets have a magic and realism that CGI doesn’t. In terms of theatre, ironically, what encourages me the most is actually seeing productions that don’t take risks.  It is a desire to create theatre that goes the distance, and commits 100% as rebuttal to productions which don’t, that drives me.  I think that apathy is the biggest enemy of theatre. It’s hard for theatre makers to break away from tried and tested methods; taking risks is scary! But I think it’s crucially important to try.

Princess MononokePolly: The set is in some ways is also inspired by forests done badly – people using flat things to create things that aren’t flat, using the same old methods to create an environment for a play that doesn’t really fit its spirit. With Princess Mononoke, I’m interested in exploring where fine art and sculpture meet theatre. The set is designed to be seen up close and touched, to be inviting and exist as a standalone part of the production, not a backdrop. Sets that only work when you sit perfectly still in the middle of the auditorium, at exactly the right angle, don’t do anything for me. I love an element of exploration and intrigue. I want the audience’s eye to wander around the set from every angle and every distance, like an art gallery installation, with lots of things to notice and discover.

Do you have an interest in Japanese forms of theatre; for example, kabuki or takarazuka?

Charlie: One of my first introductions to puppetry was through a bunraku-style performance workshop with my youth theatre. I studied the form further for my dissertation at university. I think it’s really interesting that non-Western applications of puppetry are often quite reverential and the craftsmen who make the puppets very well respected. It’s very different over here. I think people here still view puppets as childish and unfashionable, or as some lesser form of performance. Things are changing though.

Alexandra: I am very interested in Japanese animation. The fan culture fascinates me, as does the fact that some Japanese films have inspired huge Hollywood successes, such as Ghost in the Shell providing stimulus for The Matrix. As with the puppetry, I often think animation (and anime in particular) gets a poor representation in Western culture. It’s still often viewed as something for children and the artistry and imagination inherent to the form often goes unrecognised.

Princess MononokePrincess Mononoke is a complicated film, with lots of characters and subplots. In your view, what is the ‘heart’ of the story – for example, Ashitaka’s search for a cure, the Ashitaka/San love story, or the human/nature conflict?

Alexandra: When Princess Mononoke was released, Miyazaki said that he hadn’t fully digested the themes of the film. This comforts me because I feel there is always more to explore with the film. Miyazaki said that he thinks the film is partly about the idea of hopelessness that is quite pervasive amongst young people, and I definitely understand that. I think sometimes it’s easy to become disillusioned and overwhelmed in modern society. We are progressing faster than we can comprehend. You feel a desire to connect with a past you respect, yet at the same time want to reach out for a new future.

The way you feel when Shishigami loses his head makes you realise that things are being destroyed that are worth protecting, and you take that tragedy as the impetus to keep trying to make a difference. The film shows a great deal of destruction, but there’s tremendous hope there too. The film itself is open ended and you don’t get hit over the head with ‘The Point’, and we want to channel this. The heart of the story is different for everyone. We’ve all discussed it and everyone has picked out different stories that speak to them. Our job is to make sure we present all these stories with equal care and attention to allow the audience to make their own decisions.

Princess Mononoke

The plot also has a lot of background detail, often left implicit and largely unexplained (for example, the fact that Ashitaka’s own people are in hiding; the machinations of the sly monk and his masters). How difficult was this to adapt? Were there any times when you tried to suggest a comparison to something in Western history or culture, to make it easier for the audience to follow the play?

Alexandra: It is important to reference all these subplots because they show that this isn’t just a goodies-versus-baddies story. There are lots of people involved, each with very different agendas and varying views on the world that drive the story along. There are challenges in trying to include all those things because a lot of the references are only easy to understand if you know the cultural history/context. If you had a Japanese audience, you could refer to the organisation to which Jiko (the wily monk character) belongs as ‘shisho-ren’ and they may pick up from that word so much more about Jiko and what he was after. With an English audience they’d need a longer explanation to get the context.

As far as possible, we are not replacing anything in the script with Western terminology – we’re not referring to the Mikado as ‘King’ or ‘Emperor’ or anything like that. We are going through the script and making sure if there are any Japanese references that need explanation for the story to be understandable to an English audience who don’t know the story, we will explain them.  If we find some names and contexts that would perhaps enrich your understanding of the show but not preclude you from following the story, then we might forgo the explanation.

We can also suggest the qualities of characters with non-Western names, for example. ‘Shishigami’ might mean nothing to a English audience but if you say it with reverence they will know it’s special. We don’t want to patronise anyone. We did, however, choose to have Moro voiced by a woman – we thought her being male would be too confusing for an English audience who weren’t familiar with the tradition of wolves always being male. (In the film, Moro is a female character. On the Japanese soundtrack, she had a male voice provided by the actor and drag queen Akihiro Miwa. In the American-dubbed version, she was voiced by Gillian Anderson.)

The film has a lot of different locations. Can you say how many distinct sets there will be?

Polly: The set is designed to be extremely flexible and I am working closely with the lighting designer and projectionist to create a variety of locations. The lines between set and props and, indeed, actors, are also blurred as the action supplements the set to increase the range of locations we can create and the speed at which we can create them. We are also very aware of creating different atmospheres in the same location, and this is reliant on the technical aspects of the design. We want the audience to have the impression that the world extends far beyond the reach of the stage. All the visual elements of the design, along with the soundscape and the actors themselves, have to be active participants and collaborators with achieving this effect. It’s all interwoven, with almost every aspect of performance playing a part.

Are any of the team also fans of other anime? Are there any other anime titles that you’d love to stage?

Alexandra: I’ve got nothing specific in mind yet, but I am interested in staging other anime. I would like to play with one that was completely different to Princess Mononoke. Princess Mononoke is semi-naturalistic in style. In this show, we are taking the narrative, and placing it in a different form. We aren’t trying to bring many of the performative traits of animation to the stage – we are just telling the story. It would be incredible to take a whole new approach with a different source film and try to emulate more of the anime style.

Charlie: I feel as though puppetry and animation are natural bedfellows – not only are they both cultural underdogs in the West, but they also compliment each other nicely on stage. I’ve got a fairly sizeable list of animations that I’d love to play with live, but at the moment I’m really interested in collaborating with an animator to bring animation and puppetry together – blending the forms to tell a story, rather than translating one to the other.

Polly: I really enjoy the challenge of having such fantastical subject matter to adapt. In animation there are often different laws of physics that apply, and sometimes no logic is required, no rules. The only boundaries are the imagination and skill of the animator. As a designer looking for images and objects to recreate, it is incredibly rich source material. Recreating drawings in real space means physics and logic have to apply - dealing with the challenges of those limitations is fascinating. To show people what they believe to be physically impossible, and so heighten the spectacle of what they’ve seen in animated form by making it real – that is a brilliant brief to fill.

Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke comes to the stage

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