A Miyazaki-Ghibli Sampler
October 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
I’ve taken it upon myself to watch all of Hayao Miyazaki‘s feature films [and by extension, all Studio Ghibli films]. The first one I ever watched was Spirited Away (2001), in high school [or was it middle school], which introduced me to the magical world of Miyazaki’s animation. Some people began with My Neighbor Totoro, but I was a latecomer.
I had watched anime before, but it had never felt so…deep. [Arguably I had only watched questionable anime series that I don’t even remember anymore.] Next was Princess Mononoke (1997), which I barely remember but for the wolf and the forest and the lake. Then, when Howl’s Moving Castle was released in 2004, I watched that one online too. Miyazaki didn’t create another feature film until I was in college, so in 2008, I was delighted to watch Ponyo. It didn’t seem as well-received among my friends, who deemed it weird and childish, but I enjoyed it nevertheless. After that, I waited until this summer to watch The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), which was beautiful to watch even though the storyline didn’t really go anywhere.
Now, I’m going through the archives, digging for films that were released before I was even born. I’m normally apathetic about watching old movies [there’s barely enough time to watch all the new ones!], but I love animated films, and these are undoubtedly some of the world’s best. Besides, all the movies currently in theaters are mind-numbingly unappealing, so the choice was pretty easy. It doesn’t hurt that Miyazaki’s bio mentions a few times that he explores feminist themes by casting female characters as leads in his films. Could he be any more perfect and wonderful? Apart from that, some of Miyazaki’s expressed viewpoints remind me of Shel Silverstein, who also produced pieces for children in a deliberately non-condescending and non-patronizing way.
First on my list was Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986). It came up in a Gchat conversation with VY, and I was all “what is this laputa, sounds like a spanish curse word” [those were my exact words], so I looked it up and decided to watch it. It’s weird to watch old-school animation that isn’t all slick like modern anime, but the hand-drawn style is one of Miyazaki’s many distinct charms, from the way food looks so freaking plump and delicious to the way a character’s facial expression and hair rises when he or she is alarmed.
Unfortunately, I had to watch Castle In The Sky dubbed in English instead of subbed because it’s just easier to find good downloads of the former. One of the joys of watching a Japanese movie is to hear an hour and a half of Japanese, which I consider to be a beautiful language. On the other hand, not having to read subtitles means getting to focus more on the visuals. I suppose for the full experience, I should watch both versions of the movie or simply learn Japanese.
As an ardent cloud enthusiast, I fully appreciate Miyazaki’s preoccupation with flight and the sky. I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint so that I could paint clouds…maybe my artist boyfriend will do it for me hehehe ahem anyway. It’s interesting to see a world where people live rather primitively, yet they have airships and floating islands and sentient robots.
This scenario also appeared in the next film I watched, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984). Kingdoms do battle with tanks and suppress peasants while princesses ride mysteriously-powered gliders to fend against huge armored insects. It’s a mish-mash of history and science fiction that becomes an authentic world for just a little while. I also had to watch the English dubbed version of this, and because I saw Shia LaBeouf’s name in the opening credits, I just couldn’t take any of his lines seriously.
After that, I proceeded to watch My Neighbor Totoro (1988). I had high expectations for this one because there’s quite a bit of hype with the Totoro-loving culture and whatnot. I found it to be incredibly cute thought rather simplistic. It didn’t explore any grandiose nature or war themes, so I guess it’d be a better film for children than adults. I do love the family in the movie; each of them were perfectly nurturing and helpful. I think I’d like to encourage my future children to believe in fantastical things, though there’s always a debate these days over any aspect of raising your children…
I watched Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) on a night when I was in a bad mood, and it cheered me up significantly. I had no idea what it was going to be about and imagined a girl riding her bicycle around town, so the whole witch thing was a neat surprise. After all the drama in the Harry Potter series, it’s nice to see witches and humans getting along so well.
I loved everything about the movie. The flying, the cat, the beautiful German(?) town, the story of a 13-year-old girl bravely setting off to find her place in the world and do something useful. Most importantly, I think Miyazaki perfectly captured the internal struggles of an adolescent girl — one minute she’s laughing, the next minute she can’t find words to express her angst, she jokes about pancakes making her fat, and she worries about her appearance. These flaws make an otherwise faultless character relatable and endearing.
Unfortunately, the copy I downloaded had part of the end cut off, so perhaps I’ll never know whether Kiki and Jiji were able to communicate ever again…
After a long day, I wanted to watch something that wouldn’t require too much brainpower, so I chose Pom Poko (1994). I had read about it before on Cracked— yes, it’s the movie with raccoon testicles. I’ve seen a lot of weird cartoons, but this one probably tops them all for having such ridiculous characters yet harping on a “save the environment” motif. It’s been the only film so far during which I paused to note its weirdness instead of sitting through the entire thing. Of course, such weirdness lends itself well to humor, and this movie was hilarious. I was tempted to screencap all of the jokes but obviously that would ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. Pom Poko’s straightforward style makes it almost seem like a parody of Japanese folklore and modern society. In fact, by the end, it pretty much becomes blatant social commentary.
I watched Whisper of the Heart (1995) on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. The song “Country Roads” played during the opening credits, and I texted B to tell him that I was watching a movie that featured that song in the beginning. [We have a random and brief history with that song.] He immediately guessed “anime?” which surprised me because Country Roads is not a typical anime song whatsoever. I told him the name of the movie and he said he had seen it before. I was amazed that he could recall the film from just the opening song, though later I realized that the song shows up a few times throughout the story. Of the movie, B remembered that it was “very calm.”
Indeed: the story starts during a middle school girl’s summer break. Sure, there are high school entrance exams to worry about, but Shizuku spends most of her time reading library books, avoiding chores and chasing stray cats. Sounds like my kind of summer! She even writes song parodies! Obviously this girl and I need to be friends. Or are the same person.
Anyhow, “calm” can be another way of saying “dull” because unlike the charming, magical world of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Whisper of the Heart features Japanese adolescents in a typical Japanese town living out unremarkable lives and reacting to trivial matters such as love triangles [or pentagons]. Their cheeks turn pink when such matters arise, which is adorable. There are some genuinely hilarious parts in the movie, and I suppose that even the tedious parts reveal life-shaping experiences. The film reminded me of the first guy I “dated.” We were both 13. His family had to move to California, and I struggled with the unfairness of it all — two people who are finally together, then torn apart! — but eventually got over it.
Something about the art style of the film threw me off. Miyazaki characters tend to look pretty similar, but the ones in this movie were slightly different — bigger eyes and none of the dramatic hair-raising. Also, and I don’t know if it’s simply because none of the other characters I’ve seen have worn modern schoolgirl uniforms, but Shizuku’s legs looked severely awkward and disproportionate, which was rare for Miyazaki, who is usually quite precise in his portrayal of the human body and its movements. [I have a thing for legs.]
After seeing it alluded to in Whisper of the Heart, I naturally wanted to watch Porco Rosso (1992) next. It was the dubbed version, and at first I thought the main character sounded like George Clooney, but turns out it was Michael Keaton. He has a nice voice. I thought the dubs were going quite well until I realized that the setting was in the Adriatic Sea. Most of the characters speak with typical American accents, while the one prominently American character speaks with a severe southern drawl. On one hand, it’s annoying when movies get non-American accents wrong, but it’s also exasperating when they don’t even try. Oh Disney…
By now, it comes as no surprise that this movie is about flying. Unlike other Miyazaki films, this one has a substantial amount of adult-oriented content. There’s the serious tone of a very real war, obviously, plus the protagonist’s rather realistic sexist attitude and philandering habits [he actually refers to himself as a “womanizer”]. Despite the ending, Porco Rosso is one of my favorite movies of the Ghibli ones I’ve seen so far.
On a day when my Internet connection was refusing to work properly, I settled down to watch The Cat Returns (2002). Though produced by Studio Ghibli, it wasn’t a Miyazaki creation. The difference is almost immediately apparent: Though the artistic style is similar, the characters are drawn to more conventional anime proportions, with impossibly lanky legs and large pupils. The action also unfolds rapidly, whereas Miyazaki tends to take his time in setting up expository elements.
Cats are my favorite animal, so I’m pretty picky about the way they’re drawn and represented. Many animations fail to capture the infinite cuteness of cats, from the nuances of their movements to the sounds that they make. A movie about cats, however, is obligated to get it right, and The Cat Returns does cats justice. Interestingly, the Baron figurine from Whisper of the Heart makes a reappearance in this film.
The parts that take place in the Cat Kingdom are quite surreal and remind me of one of my favorite movies, The Fall. This movie is really short — only a little longer than an hour. If you read the history of the film, everything makes sense: the title, the familiar characters, the length of the film. The story is simple, but the message is strong for those who need to hear it: Believe in who you are. Sounds trite, but it’s exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. Amazing.
I started Tales From Earthsea (2006) one night when I was in need of something comforting to help me sleep. Unlike the majority of Studio Ghibli’s films, this one is about a boy. Although Miyazaki wanted to make Tales From Earthsea and even obtained hard-earned approval from the author of the book series to make the film, he was busy directing Howl’s Moving Castle and so passed it off to his son.
The plot of this one starts off somewhat convoluted, like something you’d expect from a typical life-action historical-fantasy film in the vein of Prince of Persia or Scorpion King. Or maybe I was just being extra critical due to my bad mood. Or maybe it’s because one of the main characters is named Sparrowhawk [I was watching the dubbed version]. You just can’t take a man named Sparrowhawk seriously. There’s also a girl in the movie, Theru. The voice acting for her character was so bad that I couldn’t even bring myself to like her — she doesn’t have many lines in the first half of the film, but the ones she has are uttered in Christian Bale’s Batman voice.
Actually, though, it’s probably because the story was adapted from a novel and wasn’t an original screenplay. Still, book-based movies still need to be able to stand alone as creative works. I’m not convinced that Tales From Earthsea does this successfully. The visuals were quite beautiful [sunsets galore!], but there were plot holes and inexplicable character behavior and important-seeming characters that are introduced and then cast aside. The ending isn’t very satisfying either. If this were a live-action film, it would probably be like Eragon, which I haven’t seen and wouldn’t want to.
Next, I tackled Only Yesterday (1991), which was neither directed nor written by Miyazaki. I found it to be rather dull, and it didn’t help that at first, I was confused by the time jumps. I was surprised to learn that this movie was quite successful in Japan, though it was no surprise that Only Yesterday “remains the only theatrical Studio Ghibli feature not yet released on home video in the United States.” I can’t imagine Americans being very entertained by the minutiae of an old-school Japanese childhood or a trip to the Japanese countryside that gives rise to reminiscing on those minutiae.
I suppose that the point of a banal movie is to say something about quotidian life. The flashbacks to Taeko’s childhood often realistically portray the dynamics of a [1960s] family, from the bickering among sisters to the father’s cold and impenetrable attitude.
Apparently, both the genre [“progressive realistic drama written for adults”] and the art style [“realistic facial muscles and expressions”] made Only Yesterday an atypical anime film. Unfortunately, neither of these really worked for me. Young Taeko is extremely cute [and weird], but grown-up Taeko is just…boring. I suppose the art style has its subtle charms [ie. their shapely noses, jawlines and eyebrows] after watching for a while, but my first impression wasn’t positive.
The final film I watched was Grave of the Fireflies (1988); it was produced by Studio Ghibli without any [credited] input from Miyazaki. I think I saved this one for last because I expected it to be depressing, and I watch movies to be inspired or entertained, not saddened.
The beginning of this movie doesn’t give much context — a homeless boy is resurrected by a tin of candy, and then we get an apparent flashback to some WWII air raid, during which the mother leaves her teenage son and toddler daughter to fend for themselves at home while she flees to a shelter. Okay…maybe I have to be a Japanese person to truly appreciate this.
There are some relatively gruesome scenes of charred and wounded bodies; the movie is unrated and it’s definitely not kid-oriented. A story like this puts into perspective that no matter how impatient I am with my current situation, it could always be worse. The deceased mother and absent father motif is rather Disney-esque, though this film is much more poignant than that, with a realism that is almost excruciating.
Grave of the Fireflies is heartbreaking. It’s not easy to watch in any capacity. While watching it, I just wanted to stop. When it ended, I didn’t want it to end — it couldn’t end like this; it was too tragic, too hopeless. It’s not the kind of ending somebody raised on the Hollywood happily-ever-after can easily accept. Also, I binged on rice the next day because rice has never looked as preciously delicious as in this movie.
I plan to watch From Up On Poppy Hill next, as soon as I can find it.
Now, after watching all these films, I can more fully appreciate the work that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli create. These stories and animations were uniquely beautiful and inspiring, and not one of them would be considered a waste of time.