Monthly Archives: September 2006

Princess Mononoke (Japan 1997)

Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke) is perhaps Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece. It combines his two main themes – support for feminist ideas and concern over the ecological disaster that faces the planet. It is also the Miyazaki film with the most direct relationship with Japanese history and culture.

The setting is during the late Muromachi period in Japan, possibly in the early 16th century. Most of Miyazaki’s other films are set in indeterminate historical periods with various anachronisms (e.g. flying ships in Victorian Europe etc.) Princess Mononoke is by contrast remarkably consistent. The chosen period is the ‘pre-modern’, a time of great change when the Japanese population was growing rapidly and local wars over land and resources were quite common. But it pre-dates the first appearance of the Europeans and also the major wars of the end of the 16th century when the Tokugawa shogunate gained control and stabilised/stratified Japanese society. Miyazaki argues that in some ways this period was similar to our contemporary world – in which we still have a chance to change before the future is mapped out for us.

The setting also has a meaning in terms of Japanese cinema in which films have traditionally been defined as ‘contemporary’ (gendaigeki) or ‘period films’ (jedaigeki). Princess Mononoke is clearly a jedaigeki, but unlike many such films it doesn’t focus on the slightly later Tokugawa period and it doesn’t focus on samurai warriors and their lords (daimyo). Instead it gives precedence to artisans and to confrontations with the natural world.

“The reason for these settings is to depict characters more freely, without being bounded by the existing commonsense, preconceived notion, or prejudice in the existing period dramas.” (Miyazaki Hayao on

One feature of the Muromachi period that interested Miyazaki was the greater freedom for women in these more anarchic times. In this respect, the film is similar to the jedaigeki of the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, whose women are active in films like Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), but generally suffering. Miyazaki’s women are often both active and successful achievers. Although Princess Mononoke (‘Princess Ghost/Spirit’) is the named character of the title, the protagonist of the story is actually the young prince, Ashitaka, a rare example of a male protagonist in a Miyazaki film.

Ashitaka is a prince of the Emishi, one of the original peoples of the main Japanese island, Honshu, who were eventually conquered and assimilated by the Japanese around the 10th century AD. However, the history of the Emishi and their relationship to the Ainu, the other group of indigenous people of the most Northerly Japanese island, Hokkaido, has still not been resolved. Perhaps for Miyazaki what is important is that Japan was once a much less ‘mono-ethnic’ culture.

There are several groups of characters with various inter-relationships in Princess Mononoke. This is one of the great strengths of the film. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The humans are fighting the spirits and the gods of the forest. They are of course also fighting each other. The iron workers in the forest are led by women and are in many ways progressive, yet they threaten the natural world. The ‘princess’, San is quite unlike the the feisty but generally pleasant young women (shōjo) of most other Miyazaki films. Instead she is violent and angry, but also loyal and protective towards her adoptive mother, the dog/wolf god, Moro. In his early discussions about the film, Miyazaki suggested that San would be resemble a clay doll figure from the pre-agricultural period.  With her blood-stained face she is clearly not a ‘princess’ from Western stories.

Japanese culture
Western commentators have sometimes referred to The Lord of the Rings or the Tales of Narnia in trying to introduce Princess Mononoke. I’m not sure that this helps. Japanese culture is much more accepting of spirits as part of everyday life and although the action in Princess Mononoke may be fantastical, it is rooted in a much more realistic context (only the Shishi – the spirit of the forest – is a Miyazaki invention). The film has a universal appeal certainly, but this doesn’t mean that we can view it in the same way as Western mythological stories. Miyazaki has created a story that should concern us all, but it takes place firmly within the context of Japanese history and popular culture.

Roy Stafford, 27/10/06

(These notes were written for a screening of the film during the 2006 Bradford Animation Festival.)

Zinedine Zidane: A Twenty-First Century Portrait

This is 90 minutes (of course) of sheer hell when I saw it – even for my football (if Burnley counts) consultant who I took with me – so boring, at times, that a collective gnawing of arms seemed tempting to suggest. However, it was interesting in its attempt to profile an iconic modern footballer (its release almost as fantastically timed as his head-butt to generate useful publicity).

The film-makers have art/arthouse credentials, and there is an intense focus on his every move, following throughout the match (Real Madrid/Villareal). He obliges the directors by being sent off near the end – but even this has a strangely passive quality that infects all the action, since he gets randomly involved in someone else’s argument.

It’s coming round to The Cornerhouse on 29th September. I’m definitely going to send any of my students who are thinking of doing the Sport and the Media research option (OCR, similar to AQA’s Independent Study) – not because I don’t like them (!) but because I think it has enormous potential for discussion as far as sport and celebrity is concerned. Having seen Sam Taylor-Wood’s portrait of Beckham in National Gallery (a really, far superior analysis of sports celebrities AND our relationship to them), the Zidane film is limited in its own ‘intelligence’ but something they can use as a case study.

I notice on imdb that it’s compared to ‘Football as Never before’ about George Best – I wonder whether there are any other useful companion pieces this new film could be put with?

Digital update

Seems I was a little unfair re the heat output of these projectors — turns out it was the ventilation system in the box that was at fault. Having completed two screening events using the projector, I can see that there are some ‘running in’ problems. The projectionists are taking some time to come to terms with the machine. Each film, which arrives on its own disk drive, needs to be loaded and can’t be activated without a separate security key — the return of the ‘dongle’ that used to bedevil desktop computer users!

Actually loading and preparing the projection script for a new film takes a fair amount of time. More or less ‘real time’ for a feature on on ‘HD’ and more than ‘real time’ for a JPEG2000 film. There is not so much physical work for the projectionist compared to ‘making up’ a 35mm print. Once the loading begins, it is more or less automatic, but it does mean that late arriving digital prints could be a problem. As someone who has often been faced with a print arriving on the morning when I have an event starting at 10.30, this is not good news. At least with a 35mm print, you could get something onto the screen in the next hour or so, but the digital print has to be fully loaded. It’s these ‘little things’ that are really important when it comes to actually using the prints. On the other hand, once loaded it is ready to go whenever you need it.

The Digital Projection Box

Squeezed into a projection box last week to get my first look at one of the JPEG2000 digital projectors installed in cinemas as part of the UK Film Council’s Digital Screens Network.

What a monster! If your idea of digital media is an iPod or a tiny digital camcorder, you are going to be shocked. It’s big and squat and worst of all exudes enormous amounts of heat, requiring its own ventilation system. (I understand there are two different models, so this might have been the bigger of the two.)

What used to be a 35mm film in several large metal canisters is now a small black box housing a hard drive. A film ‘print’ is now 60-70 Gb of digital data (i.e. about ten times more data than a DVD). It still needs to be ‘prepared’ by the projectionist for screening, so perhaps they won’t be made redundant quite as quickly as we feared.

I couldn’t stay to watch the print, but it seemed to cope alright with my laptop presentation. As I left, the projectionist commented on the one advantage digital prints clearly offer – every screening is potentially the same. There shouldn’t be any scratches, visible reel changes etc. I’m sure this is a good thing but I’m already nostalgic for those old scratchy prints when, on a third or fourth viewing, you could look forward to spotting the scratches.

Watching the detectives

Several years ago I enjoyed a fantasy in which English Literature disappeared from school curricula and was replaced by something much more inclusive. When I saw some of the suggestions in the English Orders (I’m talking about 2000?), I could see the possibilities of different kinds of work, investigating genre fictions across media. I thought it might be fun to study Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins as authors and explore both their influence on crime fiction and the adaptations of their work in films and on the stage.

Fat chance, eh? The thought police seem to be on the prowl again, attempting to restrict what KS4 students read. If Film and Media students can study Pirates of the Caribbean and sitcoms, why can’t literature students study crime fiction or science fiction? John Mullan has recently had a couple of interesting Guardian pieces exploring Ian Rankin’s Fleshmarket Close as part of the Guardian’s Book Club. It’s OK to do things like this at degree or postgraduate level — why not at 14 or 17?

Studying genres in literature would enable students to learn more about narrative structure, about typing and about social context. (I think I’ve learned a lot about different milieu from reading crime fiction.) I suspect that the range of reading students do at school is narrower than it needs to be.

The other great advantage of genre fiction is that it can be universal. I’ve enjoyed crime novels written in many languages. Having read most of the wonderful Henning Mankel novels from Sweden, I enjoyed the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo’s The Devil’s Star this summer. A good translator allows access for readers of popular cultures across the world and I think I could argue that this is as important as introducing students to foreign language cinema. And why stop at crime? A good dose of vintage 1950s P.K. Dick would be good for most students.

Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna: New Bollywood?

I love Bollywood, but I’m a real starter when it comes to knowing about the films, so it would be great to hear people’s responses to Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. (Director: Karan Johar). I remember Lagaan seemed to promise the first Indian cross-over success, but KANK is far more modern. Not your typical Bollywood product, it’s set in New York and deals with divorce and infidelity. The characters drink and there is a definite lack of the trademark Bollywood music and dancing, given the ‘hero’ is an injured football pro. Any musical numbers are modernised and often set in discos.

I’d made a mental note to discuss it with my students who are Bollywood fans, but saw (Screen International 1/09/06) that is has had the biggest box office opening in territories other than India, for a Bollywood film. It has some of the brightest stars of Bollywood, such as Shah Rukh Khan, not for the first time tackling a quite unsympathetic hero. The film is pretty tortuous – there’s loads more dialogue than usual – and some of it pretty dreadful!

I’m not sure how far it represents a true Bollywood film for the global market though – although it seems it might be targeted at younger viewers. It certainly is different from Johar’s 2004 film Veer Zaara (which had three out of the four leads) which was far more traditional, particularly in gender representations.

I’d love to know how it fits in with other, earlier Bollywood or how younger people (i.e. students) have responded to it? Or any other films that people think make ‘westernised’ Bollywood, for the global market? (I’m thinking particularly about A2 Film and Media options re World Cinema, and for teaching institution, generally?)