POKEMON in the U.K., But Not PRINCESS MONONOKE (Mania.com)

By:Andrew Osmond
Date: Thursday, April 13, 2000

It's the most successful Japanese film ever made. Indeed, it's the second biggest non-English film in the world, behind only Italy's Life is Beautiful. Roger Ebert (for British readers, that's America's equivalent of Barry Norman), called it 'one of the most wondrous films I ever hope to see.' Janet Maslin, recently retired veteran critic of the New York Times, described it as 'an exotically beautiful action film, amazing to behold.' Over in France, Cahiers du Cinema compared it to the Kurosawa classics Rashomon and The Hidden Fortress. Yet it is not this revered masterpiece that will reach British shores but the kiddie-oriented Pokemon movie.

So why won't Britain see Mononoke? The answer may not be unconnected to the fact that Mononoke is animated. In Britain, Japanese animation is seen as either schlocky, violent teen 'manga movies' that clog up the shelves in video stores, or the cheap factory animation that ruins children's television and keeps domestic cartoon product from the screens. The most lucrative of these mass-produced imports, Pokemon (derived from a Game Boy cartridge), has spawned a big screen spin-off with the ominous name Pokemon: The First Movie. Opening in Britain on April 14th, it's gaudy; it's jerky; and the story is well nigh impenetrable to outsiders. Surely, Japanese animation par excellence?

Mononoke might have changed the picture, but we'll never know. The Western rights were bought two years ago by Buena Vista, the distribution arm of Walt Disney. However, Mononoke is no Disney-style film. The story, an intricate myth-allegory about the twilight of the gods in medieval Japan, is morally ambiguous and extremely violentespecially the title character, a knife-carrying, wolf-raised girl who wars on humans and would eat Disney's cutie-pie heroines for breakfast. Mononoke was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, whom anime fans recognize as one of the most respected figures in the medium, responsible for commercial and artistic hits such as Nausicaa, Totoro, and Kiki's Delivery Service.

Disney subsidiary Miramax hired British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman (Sandman) to do an English script, dubbed the voices with Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Gillian Anderson and Minnie Driver, and released the film in America with a PG-13 certificate, previously reserved for the likes of Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Despite generally excellent reviews, the film stayed marginal, earning only about $3-million (its Japanese takings, in a country with a tenth the screens, were about $160 million).

However, Mononoke fared proportionately much better in France, where it had a middling release with even better reviews and many packed-out audiences. (Then again, France has a more open-minded attitude to anime than either America or Britain.) The film is also due to appear in Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Austria. However, Blighty is emphatically not on the list, according to Buena Vista UK. The word from other sources is the distributors see no market for Miyazaki's epic.

Buena Vista's decision not to release Mononoke in Britain denies audiences a chance to see a seminal piece of Japanese pop-culture, thinks Mark Schilling, author of the books Contemporary Japanese Film and Encyclopaedia of Japanese Pop-Culture. 'For the Japanese film industry, Princess Mononoke is a major, major film. It demonstrated filmmakers need not appeal to the lowest common denominator to have a mass audience hit. It successfully defied the industry conventional wisdom that animated films are only one element in a 'media mix' strategy. Instead of animating safe properties from other media, the director Hayao Miyazaki and his company developed their own ideas into a stand-alone film.

'The whole tendency of the mainstream Japanese domestic film industry is conservative and insular,' Schilling continues. 'Mononoke shows what one small group of creative and savvy people can accomplish by thinking outside the industry box. For world cinema, it's a stunning example of what Japanese animators can accomplish with a small fraction of a Disney animation budget, while violating many of the 'rules' Disney considers sacrosanct. By Disney standards, the film is too long, too violent, too grim, too complex and too adult to be a success - and yet it became the most popular Japanese film of all time. There's a lesson there somewhere.'

Does Schilling think Mononoke might have gone down well in Britain, or would it have been ignored except by anime fans? 'I don't see why it wouldn't do well in Britainunless Brits hate the sound of Clare Danes' voice.' (Danes' flat performance as the title character was the most criticized aspect of the Miramax dub.) 'But the distributor would have to mount a powerful marketing campaign to broaden the film' appeal beyond the handful of anime fans.'

Jonathan Clements, professional anime translator and editor of the magazine Manga Max, agrees. 'I think the American experience already proved that faith, hope and word-of-mouth are not enough for this film, especially with only a handful of prints in circulation. If Miramax had released it in Britain, I think it would have done slightly worse than The Iron Giant, as befits a 12 certificate animated film from 'the country that brought you Overfiend,' or however the press would play it. Sadly, it's my experience that the more companies pay for something, the more muscle they put behind it. Marketing is its own self-fulfilling prophecy.' That, Clements believes, is the reason why Pokemon'a perfectly average Japanese children's show'became such a monster hit in America, while Mononoke faded into oblivion.

Then again, Clements thinks Mononoke was also the victim of over-hype. 'I think it's a good film. I wouldn't say it's the director Miyazaki's best film; perhaps 'merely excellent' is the best way to describe it. But it's fair to say its fans are just as culpable for over-hyping it as the marketers are for over-hyping Pokemon. Mononoke was never going to change the world, although a lot of fans seemed convinced that it would.'

Clements points out there are in fact numerous quality anime titles on British video, and increasingly on limited theatrical release, although they're typically lost between the cheap made-for-video schlock sold in the same section of the high-street store. 'If only Perfect Blue and Ghost in the Shell [two superior anime titles available] had had a $25 million marketing budget, we might not have to remind people what they were.' Nonetheless, the range of anime in Britain is notably smaller than in America, perhaps partly because the earliest anime, like Astro-Boy, Kimba, and Speed Racerhits in Americanever made an impact over the Atlantic. For most British, the medium is still defined by the testosterone-fuelled mayhem of Akira.

This combines with the obvious fact that Britain's population is tiny compared with America's, and the 'anime fan' audience alone is too small to sustain commercial video labels. Hence even more than in America, British anime releases are skewed toward action, sci-fi and what one national newspaper called 'Titillation in Virgin Territory.' So no Tezuka; very little Takahashi; and no sign of serial, often more thoughtful, adventure shows like Nadia and Escaflowne (though the overtly sci-fi Evangelion was released). The latter category require a commitment to multi-volume releases, very risky for British anime labels. Again, none of the main Ghibli films available on US video has made it to Britain. So there's no Totoro, no Kiki and no Grave of the Fireflies. For the moment, the only British Ghibli representatives are the bargain-basement copies of Warriors of the Wind, the fan-reviled 'kiddification' of Nausicaa.

Then again, in a sense Mononoke has good company. A fair number of high-quality cartoon films have never appeared on UK video, while their inferiors pack out the children's video sections. The 'missing' pictures include the charming 1991 Japanese-American Little Nemo; any of the versions of Richard Williams' unfinished Thief and the Cobbler; or Michel Ocelot's much-acclaimed Kirikou and the Sorceress. The BBC turned Oclecot's film down on the grounds that, 'although it is beautifully designed... the film's [utterly innocent] depiction of bare breasts and child nudity will prove problematic in terms of conventionally prudish Anglo-Saxon ideas of what is appropriate entertainment for children.' It's bitterly ironic, given that the schoolgirl-rape video Overfiend is the biggest-selling anime in Britain behind Akira.

The omissions seem doubly strange given the range of animated product in Britain this Easter. As well as Pokemon, there's the Welsh-Russian Miracle Maker, which has Ralph Fiennes in the story of Jesus, and the UCI-exclusive showings of the Canadian-Swedish-German Pippi Longstocking, a film originally released in 1997, the same year as Mononoke. Yet in Britain at least, it seems Mononoke will remain one animated never-ran. Perhaps the island simply isn't ready for a cartoon feature with no songs, no happy endings, and a story closer to Kurosawa than to Snow White.