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princess mononoke stands atop a burning irontown building Image: Studio Ghibli

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How Neil Gaiman protected Princess Mononoke from Disneyfication

Studio Ghibli executive Steve Alpert details the translation efforts in this excerpt from his new memoir

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To celebrate the arrival of Studio Ghibli’s library on digital and streaming services, we’ve surveyed the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. For more, head to our Studio Ghibli guide page.

In 1996, Studio Ghibli and its parent company Tokuma Shoten hired an American, Steve Alpert, as the head of the animation company’s international division. Working closely with founders Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the “resident foreigner” played a key role in making the studio a known entity around the globe.

In his new memoir, Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli, Alpert details his experiences working with Miyazaki, dealing with Hollywood executives (including the notorious Harvey Weinstein), and bridging his own cultural gaps in order to properly preserve the films. In this excerpt from the book, he writes about the challenges of translation, and the hurdles that author Neil Gaiman faced while writing the English-language screenplay for Princess Mononoke.

The Japanese can be bad at translation. Books have been written illustrating the biggest bloopers. The main problem in the film industry is that no one checks the translations. Another problem is that Japanese people love English and are too comfortable with their version of it. They are far more tolerant of linguistic errors than a native speaker would be. Sounds OK to me. What could be wrong?

I was determined that the translations of the films of Studio Ghibli would be done properly. I have an academic background and always wanted to be a translator (of poetry and novels). Seeing it done right was a matter of personal pride. Also, the language in the scripts of Ghibli’s films has the kind of depths of meaning and artistic beauty that deserve a proper translation. But then the question arises, what exactly is a proper translation?

At a minimum of course you want to avoid outright mistakes. Beyond that, you want the translated dialogue to sound natural to a native speaker who doesn’t know Japanese. That’s doable, though native speakers don’t all agree on what sounds natural. But what about the things Japanese people say that nobody else says and that there just aren’t equivalents for in other languages? Or the Japanese words that even Japanese people have trouble defining that Hayao Miyazaki likes to use in the titles of his films?

Disney was our distributor in the U.S. One problem we hadn’t anticipated was that Disney would use the translations to “correct” perceived problems with the films themselves. To Disney, translation meant an opportunity to change all of the things that they didn’t think would appeal to a commercial audience in America. They filled silences with dialogue that wasn’t in the original script. They added plot points to fill out storylines they found unclear. They changed names to make them sound more American. And they made the kind of translation mistakes that review by a native speaker would have corrected.

Steve Alpert, Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki, and other Studio Ghibli staff
(left to right): S. Alpert, Seiji Okuda, Toshio Suzuki, Hayao Miyazaki, Haruyo Moriyoshi
Photo: Stonebridge Press

Heated discussions took place on how the translations of Ghibli’s films would be made. The discussions included the participation of lawyers. Disney and Ghibli agreed on a process. Guidelines were established and made contractual. The first English-language version of a Ghibli film that was made under the new guidelines was Princess Mononoke.

The process of making the English-language dubbed version of Princess Mononoke began in New York with a meeting at Miramax. I had heard that Miramax was very interested in learning how to dub foreign films into English. Miramax was then the main importer of the very best foreign-language films into the U.S. They thought their films would be more widely distributed and more widely viewed if there were well-made dubbed versions of them, not just the subtitled versions favored by arthouse audiences.

The production team that was assembled to produce the dubbed version of Princess Mononoke met for its first script meeting in New York. No one on the team had any actual experience creating an English-dubbed version of a film. The author Neil Gaiman had been hired to write the English-language screenplay. He flew in from his home in Minnesota. Miramax had screened the film for him and had made him a rough working-copy video that he had watched many times and studied in order to arrive at the meeting familiar with the film. The Miramax staff assigned to the film had also screened the film several times to identify the issues they wanted Gaiman to address in his script.

Hayao Miyazaki had given me a short list of things to be aware of, or to do or not do, in making our dubbed version. I related these to the group. Miyazaki’s comments ranged from casting advice to concerns about certain details he was sure no one else would care about or even notice. These were some of the things he told me:

  • Don’t bother trying to translate the title; it can’t be done.
  • No contemporary language or modern slang.
  • Choose good voices; the voices are important.
  • Ashitaka is a prince. He’s well spoken and formal; old-fashioned for his time.
  • The Emishi are a people that never made it into modern Japan: wiped out and gone.
  • Lady Eboshi’s people are very low class; outcasts; former prostitutes, hustlers, crooks, and reformed pimps; lepers. But she’s not; she’s from a different class.
  • Jigo Bo says he works for the emperor. The emperor is not how we think of him now. He would have been living in poverty and making a living selling his signature. Who does Jigo really work for? We don’t know. He has a document signed by the emperor. Doesn’t mean anything.
  • The things that look like rifles are NOT rifles. Rifles are a different thing. These are more like portable cannons. Do NOT translate them as rifles. They are not rifles. Do not use the word “rifle.”

Then there were questions from Miramax.

“This guy Lord Asano, who is he? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Who were the samurai working for? Why were they attacking a village? Why were they attacking Lady Eboshi? She’s a bad guy, right? Who is this guy Jigo and who does he work for? Why does he want the Deer God’s head? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? Why is the Deer God a god? Is that a Japanese thing? Is he a good god or a bad god?”

I explained that Miyazaki really doesn’t have good guys or bad guys in his films but tries to take a more nuanced view of human nature. I told them that I didn’t know exactly if there were clear answers to their questions and that part of Miyazaki’s intent was for us to think about it or to be satisfied with the uncertainty of not knowing for sure.

One woman with a pronounced Brooklyn accent asked, “So why do they call this Ashitaka guy a prince?”

Neil Gaiman answered, “Because he is a prince.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but, how do we know he’s a prince? He lives in this crummy dirt village. His clothes are rags. His tiny village is in the complete middle of nowhere. How can he be a prince?”

“We know he’s a prince because everyone refers to him as Prince Ashitaka,” Gaiman said. “He’s a prince because his father was king and he will be king when his father dies. The filmmakers have told us he’s a prince. He’s a prince. He just is.”

Prince Ashitaka rides his elk horse thing in Princess Mononoke Image: Studio Ghibli

Maybe because Gaiman is British he’s more comfortable with the concept of a real prince or princess and not tied to the Disney Sleeping Beauty version. I would have thought that Americans, especially New Yorkers, who know the Anastasia story from the movies, and who have dry cleaners, restaurant owners, and language teachers who used to be royalty in one country or another, would have been more receptive to the concept of a former member of a royal family down on his/her luck and reduced to lesser circumstances.

The discussion between Gaiman, maintaining that a prince can remain a prince despite his reduced circumstances, and the Miramax woman, who argued that audiences would not accept a prince with a village kingdom and bad clothes, continued.

Gaiman: Look, his being a prince is important to the story. It’s part of his character. I believe it’s what Mr. Miyazaki decided. We’re supposed to be adapting this film for an American audience, not changing it.

Miramax: But the audience won’t get it, that he’s a prince.

Gaiman: Of course they will. The audience isn’t stupid. If they were, they wouldn’t get the rest of the film either.

We moved on.

Gaiman’s original script was terrific. The dialogue flowed smoothly. Things that were awkward in the direct translation from the Japanese were given back the power and the flow they had in Hayao Miyazaki’s original version. Things that worked fine in Japanese but not in English were tweaked to restore the liveliness that direct translation had robbed them of. For example, in one scene Jigo Bo complains that the okayu (rice gruel) he just paid for tastes like hot water. This sounds forceful enough in Japanese, but flabby in English. Gaiman rewrote the translation as, “This soup tastes like horse piss. Weak horse piss.”

Gaiman also made changes to satisfy Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax. These were changes that the Miramax production team felt would help an American audience understand things that were not clear in Miyazaki’s original version. Jigo Bo’s mysterious motivation, left unspecified in the film, was cleared up for the English-dubbed version by adding the line “The Emperor promised me a palace and a hill of gold for the Deer God’s head.” The relationship between Jigo Bo and Lady Eboshi was also given some clarity by adding the lines “The Emperor has ordered you to kill the Deer God at once. He doesn’t want to wait anymore. Do you think the Emperor cares about your pathetic little ironworks?” There is nothing even remotely close to these lines, or what they imply, in Hayao Miyazaki’s original version of the film.

Not that Gaiman didn’t understand any of this or wasn’t sympathetic to keeping faithful to Hayao Miyazaki’s work. He had his marching orders from Miramax, and Harvey Weinstein’s main concern, or one of them, was to make the film accessible to a larger American public. Gaiman’s problem was having to walk the line between what Harvey wanted and messing with Hayao Miyazaki’s film.

In the first version of Gaiman’s script Miramax got the artistic side of what they wanted. Gaiman didn’t realize that to get the rest of what they wanted Miramax would take the script and make changes to it without consulting him. Gaiman and Miramax were independently revising it with no communication between them. Ghibli had final say over the completed script, so we were getting both versions as they were being revised.

For more on Alpert and Gaiman’s process with Miramax, as well as other stories from his time at Ghibli, check out Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man on June 16.

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