Trying to decide which Studio Ghibli movie is the most beautiful is a losing battle, but The Film Theorist make a convincing case for why “Princess Mononoke,” the studio’s labor-of-love 1997 historical action-fantasy epic, might take the prize. Director and Ghibli grandmaster Hayao Miyazaki’s inspiration for the fable began in the late ’70s, towards the beginning of his lavish career in the director’s chair, before he would ever get the courage or insistence to follow through on the grandiose vision that swam inside his head for nearly two decades. But initial concepts, designs, characters and story elements wound up making their way into 1988’s “My Neighbor Totoro” instead — what I’d consider the Japanese’s studio highest achievement — and this video, appropriately titled “Princess Mononoke: Decades of Struggle,” digs into how the animation master house would eventually bring their director’s most lavish vision onto the big screen.
The biggest challenge presented in making the groundbreaking film, at least based on this video’s breakdown of its journey from conception to presentation, is making the animated film feel live-action in terms of execution. The animators would introduce state-of-the-art computer animation into the process to make the film look and feel more fluid and realistic. But based on the studio’s traditional, grassroots methods, Miyazaki refused to have more than 10% of “Princess Mononoke” be brought to life without pencil, paper and/or paint in hand. And so the grueling, painstaking production saw the creation of approximately 144,000 hand-drawn cels, 8,000 of which were done by the director himself. On top of that, models were created for everything from characters to arrows, to make sure it all was exactly as Miyazaki envisioned. And it didn’t help that the film, like most inclusions on the filmmaker’s résumé, didn’t have a script.
This is, of course, just talking about the Japanese version, and not delving into the separate hurdles that came to Neil Gaiman, the acclaimed author who would oversee “Princess Mononoke” getting a proper U.S. debut based on Quentin Tarantino’s insistence. Gaiman, in his own right, heavily researched Japanese folklore to assure he gave Miyazaki’s award-winning feature its proper due overseas, and we learn here how Miyazaki’s original film would be influenced not only by different cultural ancestry legends, but by works like 1946’s “My Darling Clementine,” 1970’s “The Wild Child” and Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 novel “Kim.”
All this goes to show you how much detail goes into each Studio Ghibli creation, and almost certainly makes you understand why the director would go into a brief retirement with his family afterwards, at least until such leisure would inspire “Spirited Away” — the film many people, cinephiles or otherwise, wouldn’t hesitate to argue is Miyazaki’s true masterpiece. In any case, this is a loving tribute to “Princess Mononoke,” and a highly commendable lesson in adversity and artistic persistence. And it, like the film that inspired it, is very much worth checking out.