Amidst Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, honorary academy award and the troubling rumors regarding Studio Ghibli’s uncertain future, Viz Media expands their imprint this season with the English release of Princess Mononoke: The First Story. The large format book contains the animator’s original 1980 proposal for the legendary film, pairing text with storyboards that exude an air of completion despite their impressionistic quality. Despite Miyazaki’s qualms about the work being too derivative or undeveloped to be released on its own, The First Story reads as well as any illustrated children’s book.
Overwhelming success in film may overshadow the fact that Miyazaki continually pursued his career as a manga artist. However, seasoned fans will immediately recognize his trademark style. The gestural and rich watercolor paintings reveal glimpses of future characters; this iteration of the mononoke clearly influenced both Totoro and Catbus. The narrative essentially sets Beauty and the Beast in feudal Japan, trading the merchant for a samurai. The samurai’s daughter shares more similarities with Spirited Away’s Chihiro in both appearance and demeanor than the fiercely protective and detached San.
Setting and name are the only parallels between this reworked fairy tale and the film to follow. A brief afterword by Miyazaki is included, where he addresses some of these concerns. Studios did not pick up this rendition, which prompted Miyazaki to completely rework the story into the darker, culturally authentic, and wholly more original film we know today. Despite taking place after a devastating war, the violence is relatively subdued. There are no complex morality plays. The First Story is undoubtedly enjoyable, but targets a much younger audience with a more basic message. Miyazaki has a knack for creating likeable characters, and the transparent premise still retains personality.
This hardcover edition features good construction and simple design. Lightly textured matte stock was chosen in lieu of the typical coated semi-gloss. And while the natural finish better complements the art, I wish the binding benefited from the same treatment. Removing the dust jacket reveals a faux photo-textured canvas cover. At best, it looks accidental and clashes with the otherwise clean aesthetic. Yes, it’s a minor complaint, but for what I consider a collector’s item, it’s a disappointing detail.
Princess Mononoke arrives at just over 100 full-color pages, which is quite lengthy for an illustrated work. Unfortunately, aside from a one-page afterword from Miyazaki, there’s not any additional content included here. Ghibli fans seeking traditional behind-the-scenes extras in the form of interviews or character sketches, may be disappointed. On the other hand, The First Story does pack in an incredible amount of gorgeous artwork, allowing a unique glimpse into the creation process of a modern master.
Review by: Ameenah Salamunic | Published by: VIZ Media