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From Up on Poppy Hill

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From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

I don’t envy those who have chosen to follow in the footsteps of successful parents in the same field. Apparently, neither does Gorō Miyazaki who was long said to be reluctant to follow his parents, and specifically his legendary director of a father, into the world of animation. So against the notion was Miyazaki that he went to school for agriculture and took up landscaping for many years. It wasn’t until he was 39 that he made his directorial debut with the Studio Ghibli film Tales From Earthsea. It is said he worked his way into the role of director, first starting off as a storyboard artist which impressed his bosses enough to promote him to director. This was said to have gone against the wishes of his father, Hayao Miyazaki, who felt the younger Miyazaki wasn’t ready. As a result, the two did not collaborate at all on the film, though the father gave the film a positive endorsement upon release.

The film community was less kind to Tales From Earthsea. Commercially it was a success, and there were some positive reviews for it initially, but since it has come to be viewed as probably the worst film released by Studio Ghibli. It’s the only one with a negative rating on aggregate review websites, and it would not have been surprising to see Gorō Miyazaki return to a lesser role. He did not though, and returned in 2011 with a new film; From Up on Poppy Hill. Unlike with his first film, From Up on Poppy Hill was a collaboration with father Hayao Miyazaki, whom together with Keiko Niwa, wrote the screenplay for the feature. As a result, it feels very much like a Hayao Miyazaki work as it features a hard-working female protagonist trying to make sense of adolescence on her path towards adulthood.

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Umi and Shun’s first encounter leaves Umi feeling embarrassed and angry.

Umi Matsuzaki is a sixteen year old high school student who lives at, and more or less runs, her grandmother’s boarding house. She is the eldest of three girls and takes on a maternal role to her younger sisters while their mother is away in the United States studying abroad. Her father was the captain of a trade ship that was sunk during the Korean War. Every morning since she was a little girl, Umi has risen early to raise signal flags wishing safe passage for all sailors. It was a practice she undertook while her father was alive, and continues even past his death.

The film takes the viewer to a post-war Japan, where those wishing to usher the country into a new era are clashing with those who wish to preserve history. At the center of this is a clubhouse located at the high school. It’s an old, dilapidated, building that some would like to see bulldozed, but the students who use it view it as a haven for their various clubs that occupy it. One such club is the school newspaper, and within it a poem about Umi’s flags appears one morning. A chance encounter that day with the newspaper’s editor, Shun Kazama, initially sours Umi to the young man, but she soon finds herself wondering about the poem and if Shun was the author.

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A tugboat proudly responds to Umi’s signal flags, leading to a poem appearing in the school newspaper.

The two end up striking up a fast friendship, due in part to Umi’s sister wanting to meet Shun following a daredevil stunt he performed at lunch the prior day. Umi was put-off by that same stunt, finding it reckless and foolish, but she comes to be drawn to Shun pretty easily. She agrees to help out with the paper, and things seem to be progressing the way a lot of young romances do, but soon something from Shun’s past pops up and things get complicated.

When the issue first surfaces, Shun becomes withdrawn from Umi and pays her only the bare minimum attention as she and her friends start helping out with the restoration of the clubhouse in an effort to change attitudes towards it. Umi is confused and hurt, not knowing what she did and interpreting Shun’s attitude towards her as being founded in anger. It’s a pretty relatable situation for anyone who went through high school and the awkward start to what seemed like a promising relationship. It’s a strength of so many Studio Ghibli pictures, the ability to authentically portray young adulthood, and they’re so well versed in doing it that it still translates across the ocean to a non Japanese audience.

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The rundown old clubhouse is a character itself.

I don’t want to go into detail regarding Shun’s secret that he keeps from Umi as I don’t wish to spoil anything for those who have yet to see the film, though I’ll say it’s nothing nefarious or duplicitous. The silent treatment routine doesn’t last long, and the characters are forced to confront the new conflict, though just as quickly they’re ushered into a subplot about saving their old clubhouse. The clubhouse plot felt the most contrived of anything in the film, conjuring up memories of poorly executed teen dramas from the 80’s and 90’s where the characters seek to preserve a place of refuge for themselves. It’s not very compelling, but serves its purpose to force our two main characters into an awkward situation where they must work together and not let their personal lives disrupt their shared goal. The overarching conflict between the two is resolved in the end, and it was somewhat anti-climactic and not as rewarding as it probably could have been. It’s resolved in such a neat and tidy manner that I felt the issue wasn’t given its due. It could have been explored in greater detail, but perhaps those involved felt it couldn’t have been without straying into some weird, possibly taboo, places.

The resolution of the film may have been unsatisfying, but it didn’t ruin what came before it for me. The interactions between Umi and Shun are what drive the picture. We feel their quiet affection for each other as their relationship blossoms and we can cut the tension with a knife when things go wrong. They’re both strong, sympathetic, individuals and the film is able to say a lot with small, quiet, scenes. The supporting characters around them are only portrayed in the simplest of tones. We get some sense of the camaraderie that exists amongst the women staying at the boarding house, but we’re only given the bare minimum. Sometimes Ghibli movies are guilty of overstaying their welcome and upping the runtime needlessly, but this is the rare film in the studio’s catalog that probably could have benefitted from another twenty minutes or so (it’s listed runtime is 92 minutes).

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Studio Ghibli’s scenic visuals have become routine, though no less breathtaking.

From Up on Poppy Hill is another Studio Ghibli production where the localization for english speaking audiences was not handled by Disney, but by GKIDS, who also handled other non-Hayao Miyazaki pictures like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. The GKIDS localizations tend to possess less star power than the Disney counterparts, but they’re of no less quality. I’m of the mind that voice acting and traditional acting in front of a camera are of limited relation; success with one does not guarantee success with the other. The cast assembled by GKIDS is talented and professional, and I very much enjoyed my viewing experience.

The soundtrack for the film is perhaps understated. Composed by Satoshi Takebe, it won’t be mistaken with the works of other Ghibli composers, but it’s not a fault of the picture. From Up on Poppy Hill is a grounded, quiet, story that does not need grandiose pieces of music to fill gaps between scenes. What’s here works, even if it’s not particularly memorable. The visuals in the film are of the same, superior, quality of other Ghibli works. The backgrounds are lush and vibrant and the characters expressive, even if a bit simple. My only complaint would be some awkward walking animations early in the picture, that were either absent from the rest of the film or just not picked up on by me as I became engrossed with what I was seeing.

I have some valid criticisms about From Up on Poppy Hill, but at the end of the day this is still a film I very much enjoyed. Studio Ghibli is simultaneously both masters of the fantastic and the mundane. This is one of the studio’s simpler pictures, and it’s a well done tale about two youths navigating the sea of young adulthood without resorting to corn or cliché. The conflict is legitimate, and not young adult camp, even if it’s resolved in perhaps a far too convenient manner. Perhaps it was a quiet, grounded, picture like this one needed to extract the talent present in Gorō Miyazaki, as opposed to the more fantastic Tales From Earthsea. The younger Miyazaki has not returned to the director’s chair since From Up on Poppy Hill for a Studio Ghibli feature, instead taking his talents to the small screen with Sanzoku no Musume Rōnya. Hopefully, he does get the opportunity to direct another feature as I very much look forward to what he does next.

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My Neighbor Totoro

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

I am the father of an all most two year old boy who loves watching The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on Disney Jr. I’m constantly trying to find new things for him to watch and get excited about just so I don’t have to watch more Mickey Mouse. And it’s not as if that show is particularly bad or anything, it’s just made for young kids and isn’t supposed to be stimulating for adult viewers. I’ve had some success getting him to watch Looney Tunes and even The Simpsons. He’ll rarely ask for either like he will with Mickey, but he’ll let me have them on the television with minimal fuss. The only show he really, actively, watches though is still Mickey, and that’s probably because of his enthusiasm for it and because the show is interactive with the characters constantly addressing the viewer. When he watches something like The Simpsons with me, it’s mostly in silence and he’ll occasionally point at an object in the show and tell me what it is.

For the first time in his short life, my son actively watched a movie. Often to get him to watch something non-Mickey, I’ll get it started on the TV before getting him up from his nap, which is what I did this past weekend with My Neighbor Totoro. I have been somewhat excitedly waiting for a time to introduce my son to this movie because it’s one I have a lot of affection for. A stuffed Totoro was even the first toy I ever bought for him before he was born. I’ve always been pretty certain that he would like Totoro, to a point, but I honestly felt like we were still a few years away from that day. To my surprise, I got him up from his nap and put him in our big recliner with a cup of juice without him even mentioning Mickey. He hadn’t been feeling well so I wasn’t sure what version of my son I would get, but he didn’t object to what was on the television and I went into the kitchen to finish up some dishes I had started before his nap ended. As I was busying myself, I could hear him laughing. I stopped and watched and he was smiling at the television. He would giggle when he was supposed to, he’d point to things on the screen, and bob his head to the music. What seems like a small, insignificant, moment is amazing through the eyes of a parent who is observing their child do something for the first time. He was engaging with a film, and it was beautiful. I chalk it up to the magic of Studio Ghibli and it’s extremely talented director and co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki.

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No wonder why my kid liked this one, who wouldn’t want friends like these?

My Neighbor Totoro is a charming tale about two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. They have just recently moved to an old home in the countryside with their father while their mother is recovering from an illness at a nearby hospital. The precocious youngsters are intensely curious about their surroundings and new home and take to the country with intense optimism. This is a film devoid of any kind of cynicism. Satsuki is the older sister and helps out her dad around the house and also by looking after Mei, who I would guess is around 3 or 4. When Satsuki is in school and her father at work, a local old woman affectionately called Grannie looks after Mei.

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A little house in the country side.

Very early in the film the girls take-note of strange creatures in their new home. These soot spirits and their existence are not challenged by the adults in the story, and we see their father encourages his girls to think like children by doing so himself. The girls seem a little afraid at first, but their dad tells them laughter is the best cure for fear, and their laughter drives the little soot spirits away. When Satsuki is away at school though, Mei happens upon the dwellers of the forrest and the massive, cuddly, Totoro who resides there. When she tells her sister about the Totoro, Satsuki is skeptical, but once again their dad is encouraging and has the girls thank the forrest for allowing them to live with it. It’s hard not to imagine that Miyazaki, a noted environmentalist, didn’t see himself in the father character present here.

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Mei in hot pursuit of two little forrest spirits.

The film follows the two girls closely and unfolds at a brisk pace. It’s an interesting tale in that there is very little conflict, danger, or suspense. There’s some implied with the film’s climax, but it’s never deceptive. My Neighbor Totoro takes your hand from the start to guide you through its story and we trust it implicitly. Perhaps more interesting, is that it all works so well. Someone who has never seen the picture would probably interpret my description of it as dull, but the film is so charming and positive that watching it is like a relaxing soak in a hot tub; it’s simple, obvious, but oh so good.

The art direction is wonderful, and the character designs for the forrest spirits are delightfully simple. Totoro and his little buddies are a bit rabbit-like in appearance, though cat-like in behavior. They’re cute, and it’s obvious why stuffed dolls of them exist in the first place. The Catbus, which appeared about halfway through the film, is pretty wild to take-in, but so much fun. It adds a little absurdity to the film that fits right in with the sometimes silly tone. That tone is mostly captured through Mei, who is perhaps the most authentic young person I’ve ever seen brought to life in an animated movie. Her movements, facial expressions, and behavior feel so spot-on and really add life to her character. I’m honestly a little sad whenever she’s absent from a scene, and it’s her character that lead to the biggest reactions from my own little guy as we watched.

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Just two kids riding in a cat bus.

The forrest scenery is lush and dominated by shades of green. I love this countryside as presented here because there’s just so much nature. This is the kind of film that makes me think I’d be okay with a more relaxed lifestyle that isn’t so plugged-in. My copy of the film is on DVD, and Disney finally released a high definition version a couple of years ago, but I haven’t upgraded yet. The film is gorgeous, though I notice a little grain at times and I wonder if that would be present on the Blu Ray. Normally, I enjoy a little film grain and would prefer to watch a movie on actual film than digital, but this picture is so vibrant that I find myself longing for as clean and pristine an image as possible. The film’s score is done by Joe Hisaishi, and it’s effectively whimsical and beautifully composed. Hisaishi and Miyazaki have such an amazing ability to complement one another with music and picture and this rather simple score might be my favorite of the Ghibli movies. The closing title song is adorably sweet and poppy. It probably will appeal to children more than adults, but I find it undeniably charming.

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Mei’s first encounter with Totoro.

This being a Walt Disney localized release, the english dub is of high quality and well done. Sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning play Satsuki and Mei. Tim Daly and Lea Solonga play the parents, and Hollywood’s go-to man for animal sounds, Frank Welker, plays Totoro. The cast is probably light on star power in comparison with other dubs of Ghibli films, but the actors are more than capable and make watching the english version of the film a real delight.

The film, at its heart, is also probably one that appeals more to children than adults, which makes it unique among Studio Ghibli films which don’t obviously focus on children the way Disney does. At least, my head tells me that My Neighbor Totoro is indeed a children’s movie, but I am so moved and delighted by it every time I view it that my heart has all but convinced me that this is a film anyone can enjoy and fall in love with. That doesn’t mean it’s a film for everybody, my own wife finds it criminally boring and weird, but it’s not a film confined by demographic. My Neighbor Totoro is a wonderfully charming story beautifully accented by gorgeous visuals and a moving score. It’s fantasy, but understated fantasy, and the movie effortlessly compels the viewer to buy into everything that’s on screen. It’s in some ways a perfect film, without obvious flaws, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it.


Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Studio Ghibli is a cultural institution in its native Japan. It’s credited with the anime revival of the 1980’s and for popularizing the form in and outside of Japan. Many of its films have gone on to influence not just anime, but other works of animation as well with its characters even making cameos in Pixar films. Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, but many consider its beginning to be with the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Released in 1984, it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki and future Ghibli director Isao Takahata was named producer. The film’s success is essentially what founded Studio Ghibli with most of the crew joining the studio.

Nausicaä is a film that almost didn’t happen. Fresh off his well received directorial debut in Lupin III:  Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki was approached to direct another feature length anime picture by Animage. Miyazaki came up with the concept for Nausicaä then, but the studio wasn’t interested and the project was aborted. Miyazaki took Nausicaä to the manga form where he was able to build up a fanbase for the property leading to another opportunity to bring the story to the anime form.

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Nausicaä atop her glider.

It’s easy to see why Nausicaä is considered the spiritual beginning for Studio Ghibli. It goes beyond the fact that it’s a feature-length anime production featuring names that would become synonymous with Ghibli. The film, thematically, is very much in line with a great many of Ghibli’s films, most obviously the one’s directed by Miyazaki. The film contains a female protagonist with a Buddhist-like point of view towards nature and the people around her. The film can simply be described as an environmental picture that also strongly endorses pacifism, subject matter that would be covered in other Miyazaki works with the most obvious being Princess Mononoke. The film’s themes are clear and easy for any viewer, even the very young, to pick up on. The film’s themes are so obvious and central to the plot that it’s one of weaknesses as well as Miyazaki would become better skilled at relaying his message in future films with more skill and subtlety. The film’s directness sometimes leads to stilted dialogue and some uninteresting villains.

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In the path of an enraged Ohm is not someplace you want to be.

Beyond the film’s sometimes amateur story-telling, there aren’t a lot of negatives to be had. The film focuses on the princess Nausicaä, who lives in a small dessert village on the outskirts of the poisoned forest. Mankind is forced to live in a world dominated by insects with the most formidable being the massive, tank-like Ohm, following an apocalyptic event occurring a thousand years before the events of the film. These insects are hated and feared by most of humanity and the toxic forests they inhabit slowly kill the people who live close by. Warring factions of humanity eventually bring harm to Nausicaä’s home with her people becoming casualties of war when a prison ship crashes on the outskirts of the village. Nausicaä is able to rescue one of the passengers who instructs her to destroy the ship’s cargo: the remains of a Giant Warrior which brought about the apocalypse of a thousand years ago. The owners of the ship, the Tolmeki empire, come after the ship and its contents bring their war to Nausicaä’s doorstep. The princess is pressed into battle and even takes human life in the process, but it’s all for naught. The Tolmekians, lead by a princess of their own named Kushana, wish to revive the Giant Warrior to destroy the poisoned forest. The village priest deems this unwise as doing so would only incite the Ohm who’s massive stampedes have brought great destruction to humanity in the past.

The Tolmekians are also embroiled in conflict with the Pejite people. Kushana, taking Nausicaä as hostage to ensure the cooperation of her people, and her airships encounter the Pejite which allows Nausicaä to escape. Circumstance forces her into working with a Pejite pilot and the two discover an amazing secret beneath the toxic forest. Nausicaä’s journey becomes one of self-discovery for herself and her world. With few people even interested in understanding the Ohm and the forests they dwell in, she finds herself as the only one who can prevent a second cataclysmic event that would surely doom her people as well as others. The machinations of the film’s plot are easy to follow and easy to predict. Still, the end result is not particularly harmed by this as the film presents a satisfying climax and conclusion for the story.

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Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

As a protagonist, Nausicaä (voices by Alison Lohman in the english dub) is easy to like and understand. Her sense of adventure is contagious and represented most by her mastery of a unique jet-propelled glider she often zips through the sky on. She has a special empathy with nature which is shown early in the film. She’s fearless and possesses a strong conviction for what is right. She kills early in the film out of rage and self-defense and is affected by it. Through her actions we can see she would make an excellent killer if that was her aim, but chooses a different and noble path. Her closest ally is the sword master Lupa (Patrick Stewart), who also seems to embody a form of pacifism as we don’t see him kill in his parts of the film, though we see him demonstrate his incredible talent with a blade in each hand. Asbel (Shia LaBeouf), the Pejite pilot Nausicaä befriends, is our set-in-his-ways character who learns to see the world through a new lens during his trials. He’s the character most affected by Nausicaä and her outlook on life.

The film is set with many suspenseful moments like daring escapes from doomed aircraft and stunning rescues. Much of the film takes place in the air as the most prevalent piece of technology in the film are the massive airships piloted by the Tolmekians and Pejite. Anyone familiar with Miyazaki’s works know he’s a lover of aviation so it’s not surprising to find it here. When the film is not in the air the setting either shifts to vast desserts or the wondrous toxic forests. The forests are portrayed in cool shades of green and blue with mostly imaginative looking flora, some of which looks like it belongs under the sea. The look of the film is a bit dated, which should be expected of a thirty-year old picture. Still, it’s not unpleasant to look at and it still has some wonderful moments. The audio is also a bit dated, mostly in the sound effects department, but the score (Joe Hisaishi) is easily the part of the film that best stands the test of time. The english dub is also handled well by Disney and the Blu Ray release contains the Japanese audio for purists.

Anime fans owe a great deal to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Not only did its popularity and success in Japan help to pave the way for future anime releases, but its butchered original western release helped to convince Miyazaki and others to oversea the localization of future films. Studio Ghibli’s famed “no cuts” policy is born from Nausicaä and I think all fans of animation can agree that’s something we’re all happy is in place. It’s hard to separate a film, or any work of art, from its legacy, but in doing so Nausicaä still holds up us a nice picture worthy to rest in the library of Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli films. As a legacy piece, it’s a fascinating look at the beginnings of a great director and a fun piece of nostalgia for animation buffs around the world.


When Marnie Was There (film)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In my review of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya I detailed the state of Studio Ghibli and its decision to suspend all production on animated features. It was a sobering bit of news and remains so as the studio certainly seems to possess enough talent following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki to press on and a film like When Marnie Was There only reinforces that thought.

When Marnie Was There is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson. I had never heard of it nor read it so my experience with the story is entirely via the Studio Ghibli film. The film is written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi in his second go-around as director for a Studio Ghibli film, the first being the very good The Secret World of Arrietty. Even though this is only his second turn as director, Yonebayashi has been with the company for over a decade working on several other animated films in various roles. Takatsuga Muramatsu handles the music for the film making the film feel like a promotion of the studio’s younger talent. The film is wonderfully animated and visually resembles very strongly another recent work by the studio, The Wind Rises. Like that tale, When Marnie Was There is a mostly grounded film from a visual sense and lacks some of the studio’s more wildly imaginative settings and characters.

The film follows Anna, a young girl of about thirteen who has a hard time fitting in. The film never explicitly states it, but she’s quite obviously depressed at the start of the film and is paralyzed by a social anxiety order that seems to manifest itself in the form of severe asthma. As the film progresses, we learn the root cause of most of her issues is her sense of abandonment as she lost her parents and grandmother at a young age and has been in foster care with the same family for most of her life. She is having a particularly hard time coping with a recent discovery about her foster parents that lessens her sense of self worth. She states that she hates herself, and following another asthma attack early in the film, her foster mother decides it may be good for her health to visit some relatives in the countryside.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

The film is visually quite earthy, with many lush and well-detailed backgrounds.

It’s in the countryside where the film’s plot gets rolling along. Anna stays with the Oiwas, relatives of her foster parents, in a seaside town located somewhere near Kushiro and Nemuro. It’s a small, quiet town located on the coast. Her family tries to get her involved with the local girls her age but Anna struggles to make friends. She soon finds herself drawn to an old, rundown mansion on the coast that she enjoys drawing from the shore. It’s there she encounters Marnie, a lonely young girl about the same age as Anna. Marie tells Anna she dreamed of her and the two form a fast friendship. Marnie is the child of wealthy socialite parents who are rarely home leaving Marnie in the care of an abusive nanny and two maids. Anna and Marnie have an instant connection and the two are free to express their love for one another. It’s a sisterly kind of love, but when Marnie invites Anna to a party her parents are throwing and dances with a young man, Anna is seen as jealous and possessive of her new friend. It becomes obvious to the viewer that Anna has never had a real friend before, and it’s touching to see Marnie wordlessly pick up on this and tenderly sooth her friend.

What the film doesn’t obviously address for a long time is the nature of Marnie’s existence. During the day, the old mansion where she lives is run-down and abandoned, but at night, time seems to rewind around the old house and restore it to its former beauty. As the viewer, we’re left to wonder if Marnie and the people in the mansion are ghosts or if everything is a product of Anna’s imagination. Anna seems to think Marnie is an imaginary friend, as she’s confronted later in the film by a young girl who’s family has purchased Marnie’s mansion and is renovating it. The girl, Sayaka, notices Anna staring up at her room and mistakes her for Marnie. She knows that name because she found an old diary by a girl of that same name when her parents bought the mansion. Anna and Sayaka soon become determined to unravel the mystery of Marnie. I do not wish to spoil anything further, but I’ll say it’s a very satisfying tale and the film answers all of the questions it poses which helps give it a sense of closure. Repeated viewings are also satisfying because knowing the end adds added context to a lot of what happens during the film.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The mansion seems to call out to Anna beckoning her to investigate.

The film may contain a mystery as part of its central plot, but it’s really secondary to the story of friendship between Anna and Marnie. Both characters possess tragedy about them and both are instantly likable even though both also possess obvious flaws. Anna’s inability to communicate with others is a frustrating flaw for the viewer, but also a heartbreaking one. Meanwhile, Marnie is so clearly neglected that it’s sad to see just how happy she is when she’s able to sneak outside at night knowing what awaits her when she eventually returns home. The film’s reluctance to really address how Marnie is able to exist allows it to focus on the growing friendship, and all of the trials and tribulations a new friendship creates. Once Anna becomes so attached to Marnie an anxiety brews. When Marnie disappears for a few days Anna immediately assumes it’s because of something she did to anger her friend. The film makes it easy to think back on one’s own adolescence and recall similar feelings.

The film moves at a comfortable pace and the english dub is well done, even if the film was not picked up by Disney for release outside of Japan. Universal handled it, which also handled the release for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and the english cast features some notable names such as Geena Davis, Catherine O’Hare, and John C. Reilly. Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka voice Anna and Marnie, respectively, and both do an admiral job giving a voice to these characters. It is especially important that the english dub be of a high quality because it would be a true shame to mar the visual presentation of such a film with subtitles. The look is so vibrant and colorful that I often found myself delighted by even the most simple of shots. This is one of the studio’s finest productions and it’s a joy to see it was not wasted on an inferior story.

There's a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

There’s a lot to distract the viewer from what is at the heart of the movie: two lonely souls desperate to find a kindred spirit.

When Marnie Was There is the kind of film that you either connect with or you don’t. I suppose for those where the film’s characters and plot do not resonate they’ll see it as a perfectly fine little film about friendship. For those able to connect with it on a more personal level will find something truly captivating and beautiful. I do not know why the film made such an impact on me, it’s not as if I could truly relate to any of the characters because of a personal experience, but I think it’s because the film was able to tastefully portray Anna’s struggles without being heavy-handed that it made everything to follow so believable. The score is impressive and there isn’t a scene in the film where the music isn’t perfectly suited. Even the closing track, “Fine on the Outside,” is utilized at just the right moment and feels wonderfully suited to close out the picture. When Marnie Was There possesses the heart and magic that has made Studio Ghibli one of the premiere production houses in the world when it comes to animation. It is my sincere hope that it is not the final feature from the studio, but if it turns out to be, it’s a wonderful way to cap an unprecedented run.


The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Hayao Miyazaki is the most celebrated director of Studio Ghibli, and one of the most celebrated directors of animation in the entire world. Lurking just behind him, however, is the immensely talented Isao Takahata. Takahata is the director of the delightful and underrated Pom Poko, as well as the heartbreaking and immensely affecting Grave of the Fireflies, one of the very best animated films of all time. When Miyazaki announced his retirement before the release of his final film, The Wind Rises, it reasoned to assume that Studio Ghibli would turn to Takahata to lead the company from the director’s chair. Apparently that is not to be, as the studio would end up announcing it was suspending development on all projects to revaluate its business strategy. Before that though, the company announced Takahata would be directing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, giving the world at least one last Studio Ghibli film directed by the immensely talented director.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of an old Japanese folktale known as “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” The general premise of the tale is that an old bamboo cutter finds a tiny girl inside a bamboo shoot who grows into a princess. In the film, the bamboo cutter is voiced by James Caan for the english adaptation, who finds the tiny woman in the bamboo shoot. Upon removing her she immediately becomes a baby and grows in size. He takes her home to his wife (voiced by Mary Steenburgen, making this the second time Caan and Steenburgen have portrayed a married couple, with Elf being the first) and they simply refer to the baby as Princess (Chloe-Grace Moretz). She soon starts growing rapidly and reaches her teenage years much faster than she had any right to. Her father decides she must be an actual princess, and upon returning to the forest where he found her to discover gold in the bamboo shoots, has the funds to make it happen. Princess, often referred to as Little Bamboo by her friends in the forest, would much rather live a peasant’s life among the trees but is reluctant to disobey her father. They move to the city where the princess is dubbed Kaguya and counseled in the ways of nobility. The meekness she is expected to take on does not suit her and she is best described as a fish out of water amongst the other noble folk. Her father is blind to this and pushes her to choose a suitor and marry a prince, but as the film progresses it becomes clear to the viewer that this is the path that will bring about the most unhappiness for the main character.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

An ordinary bamboo cutter makes an unbelievable discovery in the forest.

The film does a good job of portraying the father as a well-meaning individual. It would be easy for the audience to turn on him completely given how miserable his actions make his daughter feel, but we can tell he truly believes he’s doing the right thing by forcing the noble lifestyle upon her. He views his daughter, as many fathers do, in a perfect light and wants only the best for her. He’s not acting out of any sense of selfishness. He’s not a gold-digging individual or in search of fame for his own name. Unfortunately, he is just completely blind to how he’s making his daughter feel and doesn’t realize he’s deprived her of the only thing she really wants. In this, the film is sort of an anti-princess movie in comparison to the old fairy tales popularized by Disney. For many of those, the lady in waiting yearns to be a princess and is forced to wait around for her prince to come save her and remove her from a life of poverty. Today’s movie-going audience values strength of character, especially from its female leads after years of weak ones, and in this Kaguya succeeds at crafting a modern princess tale.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

The running scene, my pick for best visual sequence in the film.

Unfortunately, it isn’t successful in telling a truly compelling story. The character of the princess is the best thing going for it. She is easy to root for and also easy to empathize with. Aside from her, there are few other memorable characters. Her plight is so obvious and easy to grasp onto that the many scenes of the film that illustrate just how depressed she’s become are almost unneeded. The film is dreadfully slow and plodding (a bloated 137 minutes), so much so that I would be surprised if children would generally find it immersive. Often the time-consuming nature of animation production forces shorter runtimes upon directors. This can be frustrating for the truly captivating animated films out there, but at the same time, these limitations can also have a positive impact by forcing the director to focus on the story and the most important aspects of it. Such constraints apparently were not place on Takahata, but a persuasive voice in his ear would have benefitted this film tremendously.

Perhaps the reason for the film’s extended run time is the minimalist approach to animation it takes. The film adopts a sketchbook look thats low on color and detail. Sometimes backgrounds are dominated by emptiness with maybe a few shrubs or tall grass for the woodland scenes or simple textures in the village scenes. Whether you like it or not is a matter of taste, but I personally did not find it enjoyable to view. The only time I found the sketchbook visuals gave it a compelling look was during a scene where the princess is running through the countryside. There the undefined nature of the pencils imparts a sense of speed to the scene. Mostly though, the film looks messy or even bland. With the plot dragging and not every scene feeling important, the film has a hard time relying on the visuals to set the mood or carry a particular segment of the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

The princess, in one of her few moments of happiness in the film.

All of these short-comings lead me to the conclusion that The Tale of the Princess Kaguya would have made a better short film than a feature. The visuals, if only on screen for a short time, would not be allowed to overstay their welcome and the plot could be resolved in a more expedient fashion. I’m the type of person who often enjoys a long composition, be it book, film, or song, but I just felt this film was hard to sit through. It was not a joyful experience for me, and though I found the ultimate resolution of the film to be interesting and appropriate, by the time I happened upon it the characters had lost all of their goodwill with me. I just wasn’t entertained, which was really frustrating to me because of the track record of Takahata and Studio Ghibli. Thankfully, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is just the penultimate film (for now) for Studio Ghibli, because it would be really unfortunate for it to go out on such a low note.


Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso (1992)

It almost seems pointless at this point to sing the praises of Studio Ghibli and its famous director, the great Hayao Miyazaki. The internet is dotted with support for his brilliance and his films are readily available on US soil thanks to an agreement between Studio Ghibli and The Walt Disney Company. Even so, it’s still worthwhile repeating that Miyazaki is a supremely gifted director with an apparent synergy with the animation medium. Many of his works are animated films because that’s just what Miyazaki does. They could have easily been shot in live-action and more obviously marketed towards adults. Some possess such fantastic imagery that it’s clear to see why they are animated, while a film such as The Wind Rises, Miyazaki’s most recent and possibly his last, is essentially a drama well-grounded in reality that just happens to be animated.

Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s older works. Debuting in Japanese cinemas in 1992, it tells the tale of a former Italian flying ace turned bounty hunter cursed to live out the rest of his life with the face of a pig. Like The Wind Rises, it romanticizes the role of the pilot and easily could have been a live-action piece (though the pig-faced Porco may not have played as well as an actual person). And like many of Studio Ghibli’s films, it’s now available via Disney Blu Ray which is how I had the pleasure of experiencing it.

The film opens with Porco battling sky pirates: pirates that choose to attack luxury cruise ships via seaplane. The setting is post World War I and Porco has apparently been hired by the ship owners to keep the pirates away. We immediately get a sense of the film’s tone as the pirates are pretty bad at what they do and Porco is quite nonchalant in his attitude towards them. He combats them via a seaplane of his own, a beat-up old red thing that has trouble getting off the water, and has little trouble foiling their plans and freeing their hostages. There’s an obvious lack of danger throughout the sequence despite the bullets flying through the air but it doesn’t harm the enjoyment of the scene. Following this confrontation, we’re shown a little more of the setting. The pirates, looking to rid themselves of Porco once and for all, have turned to an American named Curtis. Curtis sees this as an opportunity for fame and fortune as he yearns for a career in Hollywood. He also would like to woo Porco’s longtime friend and proprietor of a local establishment frequented by pirates and pilots alike, Gina.

Preparing for take-off.

Preparing for take-off.

Curtis is an interesting character from a westerner’s point of view. Some may call his portrayal unflattering, or even offensive, as he does not possess any obvious virtues. I found it interesting to see how an American is stereotyped outside of the country and found the character pretty amusing. He is a skilled pilot and represents some sense of danger in an otherwise light-hearted film, and is a natural foil for the care-free Porco.

After a confrontation with Curtis that leaves Porco’s plane in need of repairs, Porco is forced to head back to his homeland of Italy where he is wanted for desertion. Porco’s mechanic Piccolo is introduced, along with his family and a large contingent of locals, and proves to be a very entertaining addition to the cast. What could have been a slow and boring part of the film turns into a strength. Some credit should go to the english translators who are able to come up with snappy dialogue to suit the original tone of the scenes as well as fit the mouth-flaps of the animated characters. The film builds towards a confrontation between Porco and Curtis, one Porco seems disinterested in, and plays upon the notion of pilot’s honor. There’s also a bit of a romantic angle thrown in that feels tacked on but isn’t focused on enough to be a distraction.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I'd dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn't work so well together onscreen.

Porco and Fio are a natural movie pairing. I’d dog the two for being too typical an odd couple if they didn’t work so well together onscreen.

The star of the film is clearly the Porco character, not just because of his prominence in the title but in his personality as well. He’s a flawed human but an inherently interesting one. He’s funny, boorish, yet charming. The english version features Michael Keaton as the voice of Porco. At first, I wasn’t sure his voice suited the character but I warmed to it quickly. Keaton is almost deadpan in his delivery at times, but he’s able to lend his charisma to the character through the excellent script and his superb delivery. The rest of the cast features some names familiar to those who have watched a lot of anime. Gina is played by Susan Egan, who has done a lot of work in the field of animation and is a consummate pro. Brad Garrett, who also seems to be amassing a lot of voice credits, plays the leader of the seaplane pirates and Kimberly Williams-Paisley portrays Piccolo’s granddaughter Fio with charming exuberance. Joe Hisaishi is once again the composer who utilizes a lot of period pieces to help enhance the film’s setting. The main Porco theme is one of my favorite works he’s composed as its perky nature suits the tone of the film perfectly.

Even the "bad guys" in this film are likable.

Even the “bad guys” in this film are likable.

The animation, as always, is breath-taking. The colors are rich and are only more so on the Blu Ray medium. I particularly love the shade of red used for Porco’s seaplane and the understated blues of the ocean water. Milan is drawn wonderfully and a sequence featuring Porco racing through the city’s canals is probably the most technically impressive of the whole film. The level of detail shown in the plane components was something I found myself appreciating and it’s quite clear that Miyazaki has a love for airplanes.

The film moves at a comfortable pace, wrapping up in just over 90 minutes. It’s tone never wavers as it’s quite high-spirited and inherently fun. I don’t know if I was just turned off by Porco’s look going in, but I wasn’t really excited to watch this film at first but it quickly won me over. It compares quite favorably to My Neighbor Totoro in that it isn’t a deeply serious film with a lot on the line. It’s really just a good old-fashioned adventure full of likable characters, captivating action, and gorgeous visuals.


The Wind Rises

Kaze_Tachinu_poster“The wind is rising!  We must try to live!” – Paul Valéry

The above quote opens the latest release from Studio Ghibli and director Hayao Miyazaki; The Wind Rises.  It’s a quote that is suitable for the film as it implies that change is coming, but we must carry on.  The Wind Rises is to be the last directorial effort from Miyazaki, Japan’s most celebrated director of animated films, and it is an appropriate piece for him to go out on.  The Wind Rises tells the tale of Jiro Horikoshi and his dream to design what he calls beautiful airplanes.  Jiro is based on the airplane designer of the same name who is famous for creating Japan’s Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero and the basis for the film was derived from a quote he once gave:  “All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”  The film has two sides to it with one being a mostly faithful account of Horikoshi’s challenge in developing his first successful airplane and the entirely fictional account of his personal life.  The end result is a tale of hope, triumph, love and life and is perhaps Miyazaki’s finest piece since My Neighbor Totoro.

The film opens with a young Jiro dreaming of flying a plane.  The opening sequence is perhaps the most fun for the animators as Jiro’s dreams are filled with nightmare creatures seemingly stemming from his despondence over his imperfect vision.  The character admits early on to himself that he will never fly because of his eyes, but in a dream meets with Italian airplane designer Giovanni Caprone, who will be a recurring visitor amongst Jiro’s dreams throughout the film offering him guidance on how to be a great engineer.  It’s these dreams that inspire Jiro to be an airplane engineer and the film advances time to show us his journey to become an engineer.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro leading one of his designs to the testing grounds.

Jiro is portrayed as a sweet and good-natured man.  He is willing to help those in need, and a chance encounter with a young woman and her maid on a train plays a pivotal role in the film later on.  During the train ride the great earthquake of 1923 strikes and Jiro carries the maid to safety after she breaks a leg.  He seeks nothing in return and doesn’t even share his name with the women before departing.

Jiro lands a job out of school and his employment takes him to Germany where he is introduced to pre World War 2 Germany’s policies.  Being Japanese, he is not trusted by the soldiers as he seeks to learn about Germany’s engineering when it comes to aeronautical design.  Despite this, he is able to learn some techniques and apply them to a new aircraft, which unfortunately crashes during the test run.  To clear his head, his company sends him on a retreat for some rest and relaxation which is where he encounters the young woman he met years earlier on the train, Naoko.  The two fall in love, and though it seems predictable, their scenes are handled with such tenderness and care that the audience is left to root for them, even if it seems as if they’re destined to fall for each other.  Jiro learns there is a dark side to his budding romance as Naoko is afflicted with tuberculosis.  This forces them to move quickly with their life together.  Naoko insists on getting better before discussing marriage, but in time relents once Jiro has to leave for work.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

Jiro must deal with failure throughout the film.

The last act of the movie involves Jiro and his attempt to finally build a worthy aircraft that his company can sell to the Japanese military, while Naoko wages a silent battle at their home with her illness.  I don’t want to get into too much detail about the film’s plot, but suffice to say it’s a bittersweet tale that includes ups and downs with the story refusing to linger on anything for too long.  In that, it mirrors life which is a constant push and pull.  There are many themes the film likes to go back to.  Early on a supporting character mentions the importance of having a family to go home to, crediting it with helping a man work harder at the office, which is shown later in the film once Jiro is married.  In his dreams, Caproni asks Jiro if he prefers to live in a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids, using this as an explanation for why he would design airplanes that will eventually be used for war.  And all throughout the film, the wind acts as a character itself playing a pivotal role in one of the film’s final scenes.

As this is a work from Studio Ghibli, it hardly needs stating but deserves to be anyways, that this film is gorgeous.  The animation is predominantly hand-drawn, but some computer generated imagery is used for some of the film’s effects.  The film has a bright palette though Jiro is often garbed in white, gray, or a very light lavender, which serves to isolate him from his surroundings.  This suits the character as he is often oblivious to his surroundings, so consumed in his work and willing to overlook the fact that his designs are made for war.  The country-side settings are sure to evoke memories of Totoro, and the film’s whimsical feel and care-free pace further serves to draw comparisons to Miyazaki’s old masterpiece.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The wind is a character of its own, its actions often directly influencing the lives of the human characters in the film.

The sound design is excellent, with great use of natural sounding effects and an excellent score from Joe Hisaishi.  The english dub was handled by Disney and the film distributed in North America on their Touschstone label.  The dub is the usual high quality that viewers have come to expect from Disney as the company has handled the majority of Studio Ghibli’s dubs.  Serving as Jiro is Joseph Gordon-Levitt with supporting roles from the likes of Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, and Martin Short, the latter serving as the scene-stealing character Kurokawa, Jiro’s boss throughout the film.

The Wind Rises may be an animated movie, but it’s not for children.  The film’s pace is too slow and plot is too mature to entertain most children.  The film is best described as a drama and should appeal to older fans of Miyazaki’s works.  That said, it’s a wonderful piece of film with fantastic visuals, a compelling plot, and terrific performances.  Hayao Miyazaki may never get the recognition he deserves from international audiences, but anyone involved with film appreciates and respects the work he does.  It’s both wonderful and sad that this movie exists, knowing it is to be the last written and directed by Miyazaki, but in that sense it mirrors the film superbly.  What a truly awesome way to cap off a career!