13 Crowning Facts About Princess Mononoke

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Princess Mononoke sounds like a charming foreign family film. And that would be a fair assumption, if you were going off director Hayao Miyazaki’s previous hits like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro. But Princess Mononoke was neither cuddly nor innocent. The movie’s violent tale of Ashitaka, an exiled prince trying to keep the peace between warring animals and humans, was a stark departure from Miyazaki’s previous work. It was also his most commercially and critically successful movie to date when it opened in 1997.

The film’s phenomenal profits in Japan helped carry it over to America, where Miyazaki was known only among hardcore animation geeks. Today he enjoys a more established international reputation, and it’s all largely thanks to Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which was released four years later. To celebrate the film's 20th anniversary, discover the movie’s unlikely inspirations and secret leprosy subplots with these 13 fascinating facts.

1. HAYAO MIYAZAKI PLANNED TO RETIRE AFTER IT WAS DONE.  

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Before he even began work on Princess Mononoke, Hayao Miyazaki was a little burnt out. Production on his previous movie, Porco Rosso, had been difficult and he was not satisfied with the results. Princess Mononoke wound up being a three-year commitment, so after it was complete, he announced his intention to retire. But it didn’t stick. He returned with one of his most widely praised movies, Spirited Away, in 2001 and made another four movies after that. In fact, all Miyazaki really did with this declaration was establish the first in a long-running series of retirement fake-outs. He ended his latest “retirement” late last year.

2. HE CHANNELED HIS ANGER OVER THE YUGOSLAV WARS INTO THE MOVIE.

The bloody break-up of Yugoslavia had begun while Miyazaki was making Porco Rosso, and it stuck with him as he started work on his next film. “The war happened ... and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn,” he told Empire Magazine. “After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?” He instead decided to take a risk and introduce kids to Ashitaka's combat-driven world.

3. HE WAS INSPIRED BY JOHN FORD WESTERNS.

The movie’s production notes reveal that Miyazaki wanted his frontier community of Tatara Ba (or “Iron Town”) to look like it “could be at the edge of any wilderness” in the world. So he turned to one of his favorite directors: John Ford. Miyazaki used classic Ford westerns like My Darling Clementine to inform the look and feel of Tatara Ba, a town full of “characters from outcast groups and oppressed minorities who rarely, if ever, appear in Japanese films.”

4. THE MOVIE WAS ONLY 10 PERCENT COMPUTER GENERATED.

Despite the success of Toy Story in 1995, Miyazaki remained wary of computer-generated animation. “Computers are really just an electronic pen or pencil, and I like regular pencils better,” the director told Hollywood.com. As a result, just 10 percent of Princess Mononoke is CGI. The vast majority of the movie is comprised of hand-drawn cels—about 144,000 of them.

5. IT BROKE BOX OFFICE RECORDS IN JAPAN.

When Princess Mononoke hit theaters, E.T. had been the reigning champion of the Japanese box office for more than a decade. But Miyazaki’s animated epic set a new record with its 18.25 billion yen, or about $134 million, haul. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t stay on the throne for long. Titanic arrived mere months later and reset the bar yet again with 18.35 billion yen ($135 million).

6. IT WAS THE FIRST ANIMATED MOVIE TO WIN BEST PICTURE AT THE JAPANESE OSCARS.

Princess Mononoke didn’t just break commercial records. In 1998, it became the first animated film to be nominated for and win the top prize at the Japanese Academy Awards. (Miyazaki claimed this award again four years later for Spirited Away.) This is a milestone the U.S. Academy Awards have yet to achieve—and they’ve been around much longer. The Japanese Academy Awards began in 1978 as opposed to the Oscars, which started in 1929.

7. NEIL GAIMAN TWEAKED THE SCRIPT FOR AMERICAN AUDIENCES.

After Miramax picked up the movie for U.S. distribution, the studio hired British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman to adapt the script for English-speaking audiences. Gaiman had to add dialogue explaining Japanese cultural references that likely wouldn’t register with audiences, such as the significance of Ashitaka cutting his hair. He also altered characters so they translated better abroad. For instance, in the original Japanese script, Jigo complains that a bowl of soup tastes like “water,” which is a cutting insult in Japan. That’s hardly a burn by American standards, though, so Gaiman made it “donkey piss.” Finally, he swapped out words that were difficult to translate—although he insisted he wasn’t the one who changed “sake” to “wine.”

8. THE STUDIO WANTED QUENTIN TARANTINO TO ADAPT IT.

JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images

Miramax head Harvey Weinstein originally asked Quentin Tarantino to take a stab at adapting the script, but the director passed on the offer and recommended Gaiman instead. Why? Apparently Tarantino’s mom is a massive Gaiman fan.

9. MIYAZAKI SENT HARVEY WEINSTEIN DEMANDS VIA SAMURAI SWORD.

Weinstein wanted to seriously scale back Princess Mononoke’s 134-minute running time for the U.S. release, but Miyazaki didn’t want a single frame altered. So, the legend goes, Miyazaki sent a samurai sword to Weinstein’s office with a two-word message: “No cuts.” The story is mostly correct, except for one key detail. “Actually, my producer did that,” Miyazaki said in an interview with The Guardian. “I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts. I defeated him.”

10. PIXAR'S JOHN LASSETER WAS AN ENORMOUS FAN.

When Miramax began marketing its English-language version of Princess Mononoke, they called on a number of big names to sell the movie and its director to American audiences. The star-studded voice cast—which included Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, and Jada Pinkett Smith—was one component. But Pixar’s emerging wunderkind John Lasseter was another. The director of Toy Story heaped praise on Miyazaki, saying that “throughout my career, I have been inspired by Japanese animation, but without question, I have been most inspired by the films of Hayao Miyazaki." He continued, “At Pixar, when we have a problem and can not solve it, we often watch a copy of one of Mr. Miyazaki’s films for inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired.” Lasseter also recorded an introduction for the movie on TCM and later presented Miyazaki with an honorary Oscar in 2014 (above).

11. IT WAS ADAPTED INTO A STAGE PLAY.

Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli apparently received numerous requests from theater groups around the world begging for permission to adapt Princess Mononoke for the stage. All of them were denied, until the UK troupe Whole Hog Theatre approached. Its version was deemed weird enough by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, who approved the pitch. Whole Hog Theatre sold out its limited run of Princess Mononoke in 72 hours, a full nine months before the show even opened. The production migrated to Tokyo the following year, where it played to even larger crowds.

12. IT INSPIRED A CANADIAN MUSIC VIDEO.

The Canadian indie rock band You Say Party paid homage to several Miyazaki films in its music video for “Underside.” But Princess Mononoke got perhaps the biggest shout-out due to the location. Jeremy Rubier shot the video on Yakushima, an island famous for its ancient forests. It also directly inspired the woodland setting for Princess Mononoke. See if you can spy the similarities—or any stray kodama—in the video.

13. THE MOVIE IS SECRETLY ABOUT LEPROSY.

Princess Mononoke fans have long touted a theory about the workers in Iron Town. When Ashitaka first meets them, they explain that they fled brothels for the Iron Town factory, because it’s one of the few places where they are accepted. Several are covered from head to toe in bandages. Although the Japanese script says they suffer from “gyobyo” or “an incurable disease,” the fan theory claims they’re actually afflicted with leprosy. Miyazaki finally responded to this idea in January. And his verdict? It’s all true.

Ahead of World Leprosy Day, the director confirmed that the disease and how people live with it were his inspiration. “While making Princess Mononoke, I thought I had to depict people who are ill with what’s clearly an incurable disease, but who are living as best they can,” he explained. He apparently even visited a sanatorium in Tokyo to talk with patients about their experiences.

11 Surprising Facts About George R.R. Martin

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Game of Thrones fans know the epic HBO series is based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series, but beyond the TV show, how much do they really know about the author? Sure, they know it’s taking him a really long time to finish The Winds of Winter, the sixth book in the series, but what about him as a person? Here are a few things you might not know about the man who brought us the world of Westeros.

1. As a kid, he made money selling monster stories.

The famed author grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, where his father was a longshoreman. "When I was living in Bayonne, I desperately wanted to get away," Martin told The Independent. "Not because Bayonne was a bad place, mind you. Bayonne was a very nice place in some ways. But we were poor. We had no money. We never went anywhere."

Though his family didn't have the means to travel outside of Bayonne, Martin began to develop a love of reading and writing at a very young age, which allowed him to imagine fantastical worlds beyond his New Jersey hometown. He also learned that writing could be a profitable endeavor: he began selling his stories to other kids in the neighborhood for a penny apiece. (He later raised his prices to a nickel.) Martin's entrepreneurial efforts came to an end when his stories began giving one of his kid customers nightmares, which eventually got back to Martin's mom.

2. He is obsessed with comic books.

In 2014, Martin sat down for a Q&A about his career at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Though, given his love of fantasy worlds, it might not be surprising to learn that Martin is a comic book fan, he also credits the genre with inspiring him to begin writing in the first place.

"I’m so grateful for comic books because they were really the thing that made me a reader, which in return made me a writer," Martin said. "In the 1950s in America, we had these books that taught you to read, and they were all about Dick and Jane, who were the most boring family you ever wanted to meet ... I didn’t know anyone who lived like that, and it just seemed like a horrible thing. But Batman and Superman, they had a much more interesting life. Gotham City was much more interesting than wherever it was where Dick and Jane lived.”

3. He built a library tower in Santa Fe.

In 2009, Martin bought the home across the street from his house in Santa Fe, New Mexico and turned it into an office space with a library tower built inside. The tower is only two stories tall, because of city building restrictions, but it seems only fitting that the author/history buff would want to be surrounded with books while he writes.

4. A fan letter got his professional writing career started.

Martin's love of comic books is what got his professional career rolling, too. "I had a letter published in Fantastic Four, and because my address was in there I started getting these fanzines and I started writing stories for them," Martin said during the same Santa Fe Q&A. "Funny enough, people writing stories in these fanzines at the time were just awful. They were just really bad, which was good because I looked at these awful stories and knew I could do better than that. I may not have been Shakespeare or J.R.R. Tolkien, but I was certain I could write better than the crap in the fanzines, and indeed I could."

5. A failed novel led to a television writing career.

More than 10 years before A Song of Ice and Fire debuted in 1996, Martin wrote a book called The Armageddon Rag in 1983. Though it was a critical disappointment, producer Phil DeGuere was interested in adapting the project with Martin's help. While that never came to fruition, DeGuere thought of Martin when they were rebooting The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s and brought him on board to write a handful of episodes. He later did some writing for the live-action Beauty and the Beast series, starring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton.

6. Network television standards were not a fit for Martin's style of writing.

Though Martin found success as a television writer, the constant back-and-forth about what they were or were not allowed to show proved to be too much for the writer. "[T]here were constant limitations. It wore me down," Martin told Rolling Stone. "There were battles over censorship, how sexual things could be, whether a scene was too 'politically charged,' how violent things could be. Don’t want to disturb anyone. We got into that fight on Beauty and the Beast. The Beast killed people. That was the point of the character. He was a beast. But CBS didn’t want blood, or for the beast to kill people ... The character had to remain likable."

7. He owns an independent movie theater.

In 2006, The Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe closed its doors, which saddened many locals who were regular patrons, Martin among them. Several years later, Martin decided to give the theater a second life and, after a slight makeover, reopened its doors in 2013. Today, in addition to independent films, the theater holds regular special events—including screenings of Game of Thrones episodes. There's also an onsite bar that serves Game of Thrones-themed cocktails, like the signature White Walker.

8. Martin credits HBO with changing the rules of television.

Network television standards may have been too tame and regimented for Martin's tastes, but all that changed with HBO and The Sopranos, which he credits as paving the way for a series like Game of Thrones to exist in its current form at all.

"I credit HBO with smashing the damn trope that everybody had to be likable on television," Martin told Rolling Stone. "The Sopranos turned it around. When you meet Tony Soprano, he’s in the psychiatrist office, he’s talking about the ducks, his depression and that stuff, and you like this guy. Then he gets in his car and he’s driving away and he sees someone who owes him money, and he jumps out and he starts stomping him. Now how likable was he? Well you didn’t care, because they already had you. A character like Walter White on Breaking Bad could never have existed before HBO."

9. Martin thinks it's important for writers to break the rules.

While he's an admitted fan of William Goldman, Martin has a very different opinion of noted screenplay expert Syd Field. "There is a book out there by Syd and it’s his guide to writing screenplays and it’s probably one of the most harmful things that has ever been done for the movie industry,” Martin said. “For some perverse reason, it has become the bible not for writers but for what we call 'the suits,' the guys at the studios whose job it is to develop properties and give notes to supervise screenplays. They take Syd Field’s course and they buy the book and they start criticizing screenplays like, ‘Well you know, the first turn is supposed to be on page 12 and yours is not until page 17, so obviously this won’t do!'"

"Syd just writes downs these ridiculous rules," Martin continued. "If there really was a formula as he says, then every movie would be a blockbuster. We would just connect A, B, and C and we would have a great movie and everyone would pack the theater to see it. But every movie is not a blockbuster. Many movies that follow his rules precisely actually go down the toilet."

10. He’s a skilled chess player.

"I started playing chess when I was quite young, in grade school," Martin told The Independent. "I played it through high school. In college, I founded the chess club. I was captain of the chess team." Eventually, Martin discovered that he could actually make some money off this skill.

"For two or three years, I had a pretty good situation. Most writers who have to have a day job work five days a week and then they have the weekend off to write. These chess tournaments were all on the weekend so I had to work on Saturday and Sunday, but then I had five days off to write. The chess generated enough money for me to pay my bills."

11. He has a very specific way of writing, which is why he hasn't finished the winds of winter.

Fans have been waiting for a while for the next book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series, and Martin has been honest about why it's taking him so long. "Writer’s block isn’t to blame here, it’s distraction," he said. "In recent years, all of the work I’ve been doing creates problems because it creates distraction. Because the books and the show are so popular I have interviews to do constantly. I have travel plans constantly. It’s like suddenly I get invited to travel to South Africa or Dubai, and who’s passing up a free trip to Dubai? I don’t write when I travel. I don’t write in hotel rooms. I don’t write on airplanes. I really have to be in my own house undisturbed to write. Through most of my life no body did bother me, but now everyone bothers me every day."

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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