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BOOK REVIEW: “Princess Mononoke: The First Story”

BOOK REVIEW: "Princess Mononoke: The First Story"

Princess Mononoke: The First Story By Hayao Miyazaki – Viz: $34.99

In 1980, Hayao Miyazaki
drew the first preliminary artwork for a story he called “Princess Mononoke.” He
hoped to sell the project to a film company or a TV station. That year, he
later wrote, “determined the course of the next ten years for me.” None of the
ideas he developed sold, “but in the end, the source for all the work that came
after can all be found in the drawings I scribbled out then.”

This version of
“Princess Mononoke” is a variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” completely unlike
the celebrated the film Miyazaki would create nearly two decades later. Instead
of a shipwrecked merchant who enters an enchanted palace, a defeated samurai
retreating from a battle stumbles into a cozy house built into the hollow of a
large tree. As he stuffs himself in the well-stocked larder, the samurai meets the
owner of house, who is not just a beast but a Mononoke (物の怪),
a wandering, hostile spirit in Japanese folklore.

Like the merchant
in the European tale, the samurai promises his angry host the hand of one of
this daughters in return for his life. But Miyazaki makes the story more
complex: the samurai is still on the losing side of an ongoing conflict.
Although his youngest daughter agrees to become the bride of the Mononoke,
she’s horrified when her father allows an evil spirit to take possession of his
body to gain strength in battle.

The daughter
insists she must free her father before she can marry her designated groom.
Although he blusters and threatens, the Mononoke realizes he cannot dominate
the girl. He helps her find an ancient mirror that can break the evil spirit’s
power. As they endure numerous hardships, a bond grows between them. After she
frees her father, the girl realizes she loves the powerful, protective Mononoke.

As striking as it
is charming, “Mononoke” reveals that may of Miyazaki’s strengths as a
storyteller were already present, even at this early point in his career.
Although the characters remain unnamed, the daughter is clearly the ancestor of
Chihiro in Spirited Away and other great
Miyazaki heroines. Her feckless father recalls the secondary male characters in
the later films, rather than the nurturing parents in My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s
Delivery Service
. But the most striking member of the cast is the Mononoke
itself, an enormous feline that suggests a cross between Totoro and the Catbus.
He may sport an ear-to-ear grin like Totoro’s in some drawings, but he’s also a
redoubtable warrior.

The late Frédéric Back
once commented that as much as he liked and respected Miyazaki’s work, he
wished the films preserved the look of his pencil and watercolor sketches. The
reader can sense the hand of the artist at work, laying down swift, sure
strokes that suggest characters and landscapes. The Mononoke and the Princess live
on the page, as if they were already animated.

In the Afterword
written in 1993, Miyazaki complains that the original story failed to reflect
the changes that were occurring in Japanese culture at the time in which it was
set. He also feels the plot “refused to become something neat and focused.”
When producer Toshio Suzuki suggested republishing the first story shortly before
production began on Princess Mononoke,
Miyazaki wondered, “How would readers react to this moldy old thing?

The answer is as clear
20 years later as it was then: Anyone interested in Miyazaki, his work or the
art of illustration will be delighted with it. An enchanting book to read—or
read aloud to a child.

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