U.K. stage group to rework ‘Mononoke’ magic

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

If anyone understands the truth in the phrase, “It doesn’t hurt to ask” — it’s Alexandra Rutter.

The 23-year-old cofounder and artistic director of Whole Hog Theatre (WHT) is also the director of the first-ever adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 anime masterpiece, “Princess Mononoke.”

“I feel incredibly privileged to have been given this opportunity,” she tells The Japan Times by phone from England. “I didn’t ever think we would get it.”

Rutter’s WHT is a very new company based in Royal Leamington Spa in the central English county of Warwickshire. Her candid delight comes as no surprise at all considering that Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli, the makers of “Princess Mononoke,” have previously rejected any request to make stage or screen versions of that classic.

At a Tokyo press conference in March, however, film producer and Studio Ghibli director Toshio Suzuki explained how almost a year earlier he was contacted by Nick Park, the Oscar-winning clay-animation artist behind “Wallace & Gromit.” Park attached a promotion video of WHT and a clip of their stage-dramatization idea for “Princess Mononoke.”

“As we trusted Nick and have had a close relationship,” Suzuki said, “I called Miyazaki to come and watch the video with me. After a couple of seconds, he just said: ‘Let’s do this!’ Previously, we had offers from Hollywood and big theater companies in Japan and elsewhere, but he’d never given his consent.

“So that was the moment this project began because, of course, we liked the promotion video, which showed their imaginative dance scenes — but we also liked WHT’s straightforward attitude.”

Written and directed by the now 72-year-old Miyazaki, “Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)” was the highest-grossing film ever in Japan following its July 1997 premiere. It has raked in ¥19.3 billion at the box-office and has only since been surpassed by two other Ghibli anime films: “Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)” in 2001 and “Howl no Ugoku Shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle)” in 2004.

Though founded in a style of Japanese mythological fantasy, Miyazaki’s epic story of a heroine named San (actually Princess Mononoke) who is brought up by wolves and strives to save their home forest from destruction by the greedy people of nearby Irontown, owes its universal appeal to the issues it addresses. These include the coexistence of nature and material progress, world-wide human rivalries and the problems piling up for rising generations.

For Rutter and her WHT team, though, delight at being allowed to stage this classic was tempered by the sky-high expectations of the anime work’s legions of fans.

“It’s a dream project,” Rutter says. “I certainly feel the pressure, and I don’t want to disappoint fans of the film, but equally I want to make a theater production that is good in its own right and isn’t a carbon copy of what the film already does.”

Creating a work that is both faithful to the original and still different enough to be its own play is a challenge, and Rutter says that there wasn’t anything she really wanted to cut out. So the dialogue is similar and the plot is still intact.

“What I have tried to do is make the audience really use their imaginations,” she says. “For example, the stylized dance transition sequences between scenes that fuse things together give you a bit more time to appreciate the characters’ relationships. Also, our original puppets are important elements.”

Rutter points out that when making a stage version of a film, the director needs to figure out how to inspire the same emotion that was present in the original piece: “That’s where it becomes quite different, because the puppets can’t do as much as the anime’s characters,” she says. “To make them stronger, it’s actually the little things that really produce the power — but puppetry is a very complicated art form and these are very big puppets.”

The young director also thinks the characters comprising WHT may surprise Japanese audiences in particular. It’s an “eclectic group” that may not be what people here expect in terms of appearance.

“(It’s) quite a different way of doing ‘Princess Mononoke,’ because we are sort of making a statement that though the film was made for Japanese audiences, the work appeals across the world. Everyone can feel its message and it strikes a chord everywhere. That wasn’t something I intended, but it has been something we’ve been very keen to support.

“So, to have a different group of people — because Britain is very multicultural, as are our cast — representing such a different range of experiences, ages, backgrounds and cultures gives quite a different look, style and feel to the work, I think.”

WHT — whose members are all unpaid — was only started in 2011 by a few drama-course graduates of Warwick University, which is close to Leamington. That group included Rutter, costume and set designer Polly Boon and assistant director and set designer Charlie Hoare. From the outset, they resolved to buck the conventional theater-making system in which the same group of people usually work together all the time. Instead, WHT decided on a policy of holding open auditions for each production.

“I think there are many talented people in the world who don’t normally get a chance to show what they can do because they don’t have the right contact or they haven’t had lots of experience — and in any field you can’t really train or teach pure talent,” Rutter says. “So though WHT has a couple of core members, we have a new set of people chosen for every show. It makes it harder in some ways, but what you gain is meeting some amazing people and receiving some amazing new ideas.”

Accordingly, WHT held open auditions for this project, too — and that led to one particularly fruitful encounter in the person of 28-year-old New York-based Japanese dancer and actress Yuriko Miyake. Now a “Princess Mononoke” cast member, Miyake was in London for the world-premiere run when she answered some questions from the JT by email last week.

“When I was 19, I moved to New York to study dance, later founding my own company and working as a dancer, actress, singer and model in the United States and Japan,” she explained. “Then I passed the audition with WHT, and though I have always been a big fan of Miyazaki’s animation it has been a bit hard to switch from the familiar Japanese lines to English — moreover in an English, not American, accent. However, as we are doing this great Japanese work, as well as acting I am also the dramaturg, teaching the other actors about Japanese manners and sometimes giving advice about the culture.”

During WHT’s sold-out world-premiere run with “Princess Mononoke” at the small New Diorama Theatre in London from April 2-6, Rutter says they received a really warm reception from anime fans.

“The audiences were mainly in their 20s, 30s and 40s, and many were big fans of the film,” she says. “One wrote about growing up with Studio Ghibli and how she’d been skeptical about seeing our adaptation. But she said she really enjoyed it and felt we had tapped into its true spirit — and that’s what I hoped, because every one of our cast and crew love the film and it’s that kind of magic we are trying to create.”

Miyake also spoke of meeting audience members who had come from abroad to see the London show.

“Many told me they were amazed to see 15 actors play 74 roles, one after another in different costumes and make-up,” she said. “I was especially delighted when someone said they felt ‘love’ coming from the work — as well as the cast’s love for it.”

WHT faces an astonishing prospect to impress Studio Ghibli fans on their home turf. For now, though, Rutter thinks the group just has to see how everything goes overall.

“I really hope that everyone, including the original creators, enjoy it and see where we’ve gone with it,” she says. “There’s a great pressure to get this right to the highest possible standard — and I hope with all my heart that we have managed it and that people will be happy when they see it.”

In that determination, the young director at the center of all this is doing no more than giving voice to the core spirit behind WHT.

“We chose that name because ‘going the whole hog’ means ‘complete’ or ‘total,’ and that is what we want to create — theater that feels complete with ambition and commitment,” Rutter says. “We felt it was a strong phrase that sums up our theater and our mantra.”

“Princess Mononoke” runs April 29-May 6 at the Aiia Theater in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. It will be staged in English with Japanese subtitles. For more information, call Nelke Planning at (03) 3715-5706, or visit www.princess-mononoke.jp or www.wholehogtheatre.com.