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Andrew Osmond interviews the star of the Mononoke stage play

Back in February, we interviewed the creators of the British stage version of Hayao Miyazaki’s epic anime Princess Mononoke, shortly before the play debuted at London’s New Diorama Theatre. Since then, rather a lot has happened. Not only have the divine boars and wolves trod the boards in Blighty, but they’ve also played to audiences on the other side of the planet.

In a unique case of ‘taking coals to Newcastle’, the Whole Hog theatre company was invited to Tokyo this April. A primeval Japanese forest, originally envisioned in a blockbuster Ghibli anime, was recreated by a theatre company from Leamington Spa in a Tokyo theatre – and all just minutes away from the bustle of Shibuya’s ‘scramble junction’ (think Piccadilly Circus with ten times the neon).

As the play comes back to London for another sell-out run, MangaUK interviewed Princess Mononoke herself. Actress Mei Mac, who interprets the wolf girl San on stage, took time out from fighting for the gods to answer our questions.

How old were you when you first saw the Studio Ghibli films, and do you have any favourite Ghibli films or characters?

Oh, I was far too young to remember! I think I must’ve been 5 or 6 when I saw my first Ghibli film. I watched a lot of them in Cantonese actually so that’s how I remember them. Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are probably the films that made most impact on me. Nago specifically, which plagued my nightmares after watching it! [Nago is the monster which attacks the hero’s village at the beginning of Princess Mononoke.]

How do you interpret San’s character, and the way she reacts to Ashitaka?

Like most characters (and people), the more I have explored San, the more complex I have found her personality. You realise new things each time you watch the film (even on the 40th time), but it was also so important to develop San in rehearsals as her relationships with other characters evolve and deepen.

I find her to be constantly conflicted, though always concise and direct. When developing the character, we quickly came to the understanding that in order to translate San onto the stage, we had to explore what she’d be like if she were a real person having grown up in the wild without human contact. I think the way I interpret San is physically more wild and unrestrained (she is a wolf, after all!) than the San presented in the film. Abandoned as a baby and adopted by the Wolf-God Moro, she is fighting an inner dialogue of hating all humans and entirely rejecting her human form.

Her rawness allows the more tender moments with Ashitaka to read more clearly to a live audience – their relationship being so important to portray truthfully. There is so little time to convey the depth of their relationship amidst all the action. She battles this overwhelming gravity towards Ashitaka, the first human to have this effect on her, and her absolute hatred towards his kind. It’s the journey from this to the acceptance of their kinship that I have found absolutely fascinating and an honour to portray.

The play, much more than the film, stresses the physical intimacy between San and Ashitaka, often through stylised, dancelike moves involving both characters. How was this choreography created?

We devise a lot of our work through improvisation. The impetus for the movement sequences came from contact improvisation exercises in character, finding moments that would help the narrative and refining it into choreography.

How tricky is it to ‘interact’ with imaginary puppet characters, as opposed to the humans who operate them?

It was much harder at the beginning when the puppets were still being developed. But once the cast started to settle into the puppets and I had become used to it, I found it completely natural!

Can you give us an ‘average’ day’s timetable during the period you worked on Princess Mononoke?

Haha! Most days we are called from 10am till 10pm, but that is almost nothing compared to the sleep deprivation Alex, Charlie and Polly and the rest of their team worked through – don’t ask me how they do it! [Alexandra Rutter, Charlie Hoare and Polly Clare Boon are the company directors of Whole Hog Theatre, interviewed in our February feature on the play.]

Was the experience of performing on the stage in Tokyo very different from when you performed the play in London, or did it feel similar?

Tokyo was a completely different experience to London. Each venue comes with its own challenges. Transferring the show from a 6m stage [in London] to an 18m stage [in Tokyo], we had the freedom of space to expand it, and add many more elements. Though of course, certain moments are much more powerful in an intimate venue like the New Diorama Theatre [in London].

We also learnt very quickly the differences in response between a Japanese theatre audience and a British theatre audience – in the knowledge that some of the storytelling aspects have to be explained differently for a British audience, who may not have knowledge of Japanese folklore and culture. Though the Japanese are known to be less vocal in the theatre, we were honoured to be bringing Mononoke Hime home, where the story is so precious, and also to receive standing ovations from our toughest critics!

Can you describe what the experience of the ‘Niconico’ event was like? [Niconico Chokiagi 2 was a massive live event that took place near Tokyo just before the play’s Japanese run began. It is based on Niconico, the Japanese video website; you can get a flavour of the live event from the video here. The Mononoke cast presented a sample of the play at the event’s after-party.]

WOW. Niconico is not an experience I will ever forget. Having learnt that 33 million people signed up to watch is absolutely… mind-blowing! It was so great to see the audience so engaged in our performance, and hear 5000 people gasp in surprise at Nago’s entrance or as Ashitaka jumped on Yakul. This was our first public showing in Japan, and it felt so great to have inspired an audience who love the story as much as we do!

Finally, can you describe what it was like to visit Studio Ghibli and meet Miyazaki?

There are no words… Most of us were in tears at multiple points during the visit. It was truly one of the most incredible moments in my life. Miyazaki-san and Suzuki-san are simply inspiring, and it was such an honour and delight to be in the company of the men who inspire millions around the world! It is certainly something I will never forget. They are fearless.

Princess Mononoke opens tonight at the New Diorama Theatre, London and runs until 29th June.

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