Saturday, 6 April 2013

Princess Mononoke – Theatrical Adaptation from Whole Hog Theatre

Something of a canny move for what is evidently a small but enthusiastic troupe of young actors, this theatrical adaptation of Mononoke-hime was publicised by websites like Kotaku and now has a Kickstarter to fund a further run. Personally, I knew as soon as I heard of it that I had to go. This is the first time I’ve written a review of a stage production for this animation blog, but I’ve written about live-action adaptations before – like that of Grave of the Fireflies – and after all, Mononoke-hime is central to this blog. Without my personal mission to see pretty much everything the two principal directors of Ghibli ever did, this blog would probably not exist, and without my introduction to the studio via Princess Mononoke back when it was the latest release, who knows how much longer it would have taken me to see the classics?

I went in expecting something small-scale and gung-ho. There are certain signs that a theatrical adaptation is going to be a drama-student-y ‘intimate’ production and share little with, say, last week’s viewing pleasure The Book of Mormon in terms of production values, and the tight space of the New Diorama Theatre, the fact that the driving force was clearly a keen little theatrical company rather than a big business and the mentions of puppetry tipped me off that this was going to be the sort of thing found in a little Edinburgh fringe venue rather than The Dominion. Which is absolutely fair enough – this is after all a niche project despite how ubiquitous Ghibli seem at present, with Film 4 pushing the boundary of what is a ‘Ghibli film’ even further than Nausicaä by including Hols, and the Prince Charles Cinema ready to air double-bills of the studio’s films that I will be very keen to attend (Mononoke-hime included). Besides, a small, intimate setting and experimental staging has much to be said for it, particularly for such a beloved property.

Was it a success then? Largely, yes. There was a lot here that worked excellently, but a few things that emphatically did not. Overall, I felt it something of a near miss, but what it narrowly missed was not adequacy – it narrowly missed brilliance. It landed, then, on being a very good production with some notable setbacks.

We were ushered in while two puppeteers onstage manipulated little kodama – the funny little forest spirits that are so iconic, and were as instantly endearing here as they are in the film. Up above a stage dressed to resemble trees, a small band provided forest noises with bird whistles and woodblocks. This band was absolutely one of the best things about the production – with only a handful of members (I couldn’t see, but around 5-7), they quite brilliantly performed lovely arrangements of Joe Hisaishi’s celebrated soundtrack, including the famous vocal selections. I left humming ‘mononoke-tachi dake’ to myself and would have been quite happy to pay the price of admission to see the band play the soundtrack.

The action began with the attack of the boar god Nago, and I must say that it took a while for me to start to enjoy myself. The early scenes had rather too much theatricality, with messages passed along a line in a very self-consciously representative way, one of several instances in a production with excellent puppets where a bunch of people under a sheet just didn’t cut it (even with LED eyes) and…well, the fact is that there was a very odd casting divide that was more prominent in the early scenes. The female performers – San, Eboshi, Moro, Toki, even Kaya at the start there, were all excellent. They were committed to their parts and had gravitas, yet also understood subtlety. The guys…well, they all seemed miscast. It comes, I suppose, in part from having key members of a theatrical company rather than auditioning, but none of them quite got it right. Ashitaka in particular was wrong. It wasn’t that his appearance was very different from his animated counterpart (being a gangly, pointy-faced white guy) – after all, so was San’s but she was excellent – it was more that he didn’t have the qualities of noble determination, innocence or quiet strength of Ashitaka, and came over more like he should be in a quirky student comedy. This was particularly evident when he was with Jigo (Jiko in the original), who had a similar quality. Jigo, along with Gonza, could get away with being rather younger than the character is because they are fundamentally comic, and can be hammy. Similarly, clownish Kouroku can look like he should be in the Footlights without it jarring. The trouble is it seems like every male member of the cast was chosen as a suitable Kouroku, only for them then to fill all the other parts. In the end, the only male performer who truly impressed was the puppeteer for the elk Yakul.

This hangup very much got in the way of my overall enjoyment, but fortunately once the story got going and Ashitaka reached Iron Town and the surrounding forests, things markedly improved. Beside the strong performances from Eboshi and San, the puppets began to get truly impressive – Moro in particular is lovely, taking three people to form and taking up much of the stage – plus, surprisingly, having someone growling and grunting under someone else’s speech sounded remarkably good. When Lord Okkoto also appears alongside her on much the same scale – but even larger – plus smaller wolves and boars flanking them, it is a fantastic spectacle in such a small space, and the idea to use slowly-unravelling streams of tape as rivulets of blood is inspired. The Shishigami’s iconic design translates well to the stage, including in silhouette, and an almost direct adaptation of the script – with a few token additions about the ‘Mikado’ (not sure why they decided to use that old and never-actually-accurate bit of terminology here) and the history of the Emishi (of course, strongly stated by Miyazaki to be in the story at least distinct from the Ainu) – keeps things brisk.

There are contrived performance elements that I could have done without. Half-hearted dance movements taken from drama school creative movement classes I didn’t need. Awkward clunky fight scenes including a rather old-hat Matrix dodge while a strobe flashed were Brechtian in all the wrong ways. People under sheets, whether boar gods, groups of shadowy apes, streams or giant out-of-control blobs of death, never look very good, and with the latter there was a very unfortunate moment where one of the people making up the headless daidarabocchi kept going ‘Nyah’ like a very self-satisfied Japanese cat being transported along with the huge monster, which I assume was not the intended effect and made the scene absurd.

But ultimately, the quibbles I had were far outweighed by the excellent, inventive elements here, and in all honesty, I’m just delighted that some young people had the gumption, the means and the enthusiasm required to get the rights to the project, put the whole thing together and corner the market. All the best to them, and I hope they (and others) will revisit the idea again, perhaps with other films. I can imagine the right project having the impact of a His Dark Materials. We’ll see. 

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