Saturday, August 22, 2015

Miyazaki-san (Part 1)

When I was growing up in the 90s, Disney animation ruled the world. My parents and both sets of grandparents had every movie on video cassette. Parents were naming their daughters Ariel and Jasmine. The Disney Store was in almost every mall I visited. So when I see parents of my generation go overboard on trying to recapture the whole Disney thing for their kids, I sort of get it. But (and this might alienate half of my readership) I don't think Disney animation is that great. Or at least, it's not as great as we've built it up to be. I think a handful of their films are great, but that is a topic for another post. Instead, my child will probably get a steady diet of Studio Ghibli.

For those who don't know, Studio Ghibli was created by master animator Hayao Miyazaki who directed most, but not all of, the movies. These films are a favorite amongst both animation fans and the modern Pagan crowd, and how could they not be? The great stories! The Pagan friendly morals! The complex characters! The creatively designed monsters! The wonderful aerial action scenes! And most of the time it's all hand drawn! That's what you're missing by myopically sticking with Disney.

Hayao Miyazaki retired last year, and a lot of people are sad about that. The reason why I'm writing this post is because I've heard something even more upsetting: that Studio Ghibli might be closing their doors forever. I'm getting emotional just typing that. The Studio says that they're just taking a hiatus, so I'm hoping that's true. But just in case it's not, I wanted indulge my nerdiness and go through all of the Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki movies and give a short review. And, just to tie it in with names, I've included some intriguing ones with each movie.

The Castle of Cagliostro. Before there even was a Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki made his directorial debut with this film. The hero of this movie is a charming gentleman thief named Arsene Lupin III. He manages to successfully rob a casino only to find that the money is counterfeit. So the whole movie is about him foiling this counterfeit operation while saving a pretty damsel in the process.

This movie is based on a manga series, and I could tell that. It feels like an episode in the middle of a television show. The story just expects you to know who these characters are and their history together. It didn't make it too confusing, I just would have liked to know what his samurai friend was doing in Italy. But that's really the only negative thing I have to say. While I wouldn't say that it touched me emotionally, this is a fun adventure movie and it's great to see Miyazaki's style in its infancy.


Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in which a war destroyed most of mankind and created a toxic jungle filled with giant insects called the ohm. One of the few towns to survive is the Valley of the Wind, because the spores from the forest get blown away. The princess of this land is Nausicaa, and she is the only person who believes that they could all live peacefully with the forest. One day, a cargo plane from a neighboring kingdom crash-lands into the valley. The cargo has the embryo of a Giant Warrior, one of the genetically engineered weapons that caused the destruction of the war. Naturally, there are people who want this thing and they come to the valley to claim it. Princess Kushana, who is more general than princess, intends to use it to destroy the toxic jungle and all of it's creatures. Nausicaa agrees to be her hostage in order to spare the lives of her people and to find a way to stop Kushana's scheme.

This is the movie that made Japan take notice of Miyazaki, and he had to fight hard to get this made because no one wanted to finance it initially. All that work paid off. This was the only work of science fiction he created, which is a shame because this world is so intriguing and I could actually believe that something like this could happen. The only problem I have with this movie is that it makes it painfully obvious that Nausicaa is going to be the savoir. In the beginning they show a tapestry of this prophetic story and the heroine looks exactly like Nausicaa. Really? You couldn't even try to make her look different? Again, not a big deal because overall Nausicaa is an amazing character. None of the Disney princesses have a quarter of her awesomeness.


Castle in the Sky. Studio Ghibli began with this film. The story begins with a mysterious girl gently falling from the sky with the help of a glowing amulet. A boy named Pazu catches her. He has a dream to continue the work of his father, and explorer who believed in the existence of an ancient city floating in the clouds called Laputa. The girl, who's name is Sheeta, is the last descendant of Laputa royalty, and there are bad people after them who want to use her and her necklace in order to find the castle in the sky.

This is my favorite of Miyazaki's early movies. I'm afraid of heights, and the animation is so great that there were scenes where I was genuinely frightened for their safety. There are air pirates in this movie who also want to find Laputa and they are led by a woman named Captain Dola. All of her henchmen are her adult sons, which led to a lot of funny moments. My favorite scene is probably when Sheeta and Pazu finally find Laputa. Their joy and awe is moving. My one complaint is that I have no idea how old the two main characters are supposed to be, but whatever. This is a fantastic adventure movie that will appeal to everybody.


Grave of the Fireflies. This is the first Ghibli film directed by Isao Takahata, and I would say that this is the heaviest story to every come out of their studio. It begins with a starving teenage boy dying in a train station. The spirit of the boy, named Seita, is reunited with the spirit of his little sister Setsuko. The rest of the film is a flashback into their lives during the later months of World War II.

Some parents have this weird idea that they need to protect their kids from sadness, so they would shy away from this. That does them a disservice. Stories help you explore difficult emotions safely. On top of that, this is a realistic portrayal of what happens to kids in wartime, and they need to know what that's like. I wouldn't say, "buy it," because it's not a film I would watch more than once, but your kids need to see this movie. I don't care if you wait until they're teenagers, they need to see this movie. When the time comes, that's what I'll be doing.


My Neighbor Totoro. Although this movie takes place in the same time period as Grave of the Fireflies it's a lot less heavy and a lot more whimsical. Two sisters and their father move to the country with their dad (their mother's in the hospital). The two girls come into contact with forest spirits including Totoro, a giant cat-like monster that is now Studio Ghibli's logo and easily it's most recognizable character.

There's not a lot that "happens" in this movie (with the exception of the climax, which I won't give away). It's really about the girls relationship with the forest and with each other. Of course I love Totoro and the Catbus, but I also love the realistic and touching sibling dynamic (particularly if you watch the version where they're voiced by Dakota and Elle Fanning). I first saw this movie in a world religion course I took in college when we studied Shinto. That's another great thing about this movie: it delves into Japanese culture in a way that Miyazaki's previous movies didn't. Adorable and educational? I'm sold!


Kiki's Delivery Service. The story begins when a thirteen-year-old witch named Kiki who leaves her parents home in order to train as a witch and make her own way in the world. With her talking black cat Jiji by her side, she finds a quaint little town and decides to open a delivery service. While she's there she makes new friends, but also has to wrestle with her insecurities.

This one is a favorite for a lot of Witches, for the obvious reason. I'm going to be honest, this movie is almost too "girl power" for it's own good. It gets really corny in places. Which isn't to say that I don't like it. I love this movie. Kiki is a spunky and fun heroine, but she has baggage that make her very interesting. It says a lot that she has an easy time making friends with adults but her confidence is easily shaken when she meets other kids. Do you know a kid like that? Were you a kid like that? You'll emphasize with this story. But, in my mind, Miyazaki's best was yet to come.


Only Yesterday. Directed by Isao Takahata, this film was a bit of a trailblazer. It's an animated drama for adults and, since it was a surprise success, it proved that those could actually make money. The story is about a 27 year old woman named Taeko. While visiting home she thinks about her life as a child and wonders if she has remained true to herself as an adult. I laughed, I cried, I...never saw it. Although this movie was a critical hit in Japan, it's not well known in America so it's kind of hard to find a copy of this in the library. Obviously I have to pick this one up somehow. Until then, I'm just going to move on...


Porco Rosso. Porco Rosso is a WWI veteran pilot who is cursed to have the face of a pig. The movie is about him working as a freelance bounty hunter catching air pirates while wrestling with his past. There is also a love triangle here with Porco, a woman named Gina, and an arrogant American pilot named Curtis.

While I do like this movie, I would be lying if I said that I watch it a lot. There are some nice comedic moments and it has great aerial action. But I don't know anyone who would say that this is their favorite Miyazaki movie. I wouldn't say that the characters were bad necessarily, but they weren't that interesting either. And where I thought Kiki's Delivery Service was slightly too "girl power," the girl mechanic named Fio is obnoxiously "girl power." Unless you're a completist and you want to say that you've watched all the Miyazaki films, this one might be okay to skip.


Ocean Waves. To be honest, when I was researching Studio Ghibli films and came across this title, I had never even heard of it. In fact, a lot of people have never heard of it. Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki, it was made for Japanese television and concerns a high school love triangle. It is available on DVD in the United States, so it looks like I'll have to check this one out.


Pom Poko. Directed by Isao Takahata, this movie follows a group of raccoons (who can shape shift, apparently) as they try to save their forest home from developers. I tried to watch this one. I don't know if it was because I found the English language voice acting obnoxious or the dialogue was just that bad, but I could not get into it. All the screenshots look cool, so I might give it another try one day.


Whisper of the Heart. Directed by Yoshifumi Kondo (the only film he ever directed before he died), this story is essentially a romance set in junior high. That might sound trite, but it's not what you do it's how you do it. Shizuko is a realistic teen that reminded me of myself quite a bit, in that she's an aspiring writer and very bookish. Her romance begins when she notices that someone is checking out all the same library books that she likes to read. Come on, how could she not fall for him? Eventually she does write a story that is inspired by a cat figurine she finds at an antique shop, which leads to some very cool fantastical scenes.

I'm a little embarrassed that I like this so much. It is essentially a "chick flick" and I usually hate those. Granted, I knew that she was going to wind up with Seiji immediately because on their first meeting she hates him. That is such a chick flick clich√©. And every time that "Take Me Home, Country Roads" song plays I start groaning and rolling my eyes. But this film gets everything else completely right. Shizuko feels like she's not good enough for Seiji because she's not pursuing her passion with the same investment that he's pursuing his. Her family, especially her bossy older sister, doesn't really understand this and would prefer that she just concentrate on school and go through all the "correct" hurdles to get the "correct" jobs like she's "supposed" to. That's not superficial nonsense. That's hard stuff. It's sad that the director died after this. It's clear he was on to great things.


Princess Mononoke. This epic fantasy story begins when a boar god cursed with hate attacks the village of Prince Ashitaka. He saves the village and the boar god dies, but not without transferring his curse to Ashitaka's arm. The prince leaves his home in order to find a cure and find out how the boar got cursed in the first place. Eventually he finds Irontown, led by Lady Eboshi. She wants to destroy the magic forest by killing the Forest Spirit, believing that doing so would help her people. But her nemesis Princess Mononoke, a.k.a. San, stands in her way, along with the wolf gods who raised her. Ashitaka has respect for both sides, and soon finds himself in the middle of a war between the man-made and natural worlds.

This movie is a favorite for a lot of people and it deserves every bit of praise it has gotten. The characters are great. The forest and everything in it is both beautiful and creepy. The climax is intense. The only problematic character is Jiko-bo, another guy who wants to kill the Forest Spirit. His motivation is gaining status and immortality, so immediately I just didn't care as much. The story could have done just fine without him. Also, the cursed arm plot device wasn't utilized as much as it could have been. I kept waiting for that to be more of a problem, but aside from able to decapitate people with a single arrow, he really doesn't seem that effected. But it's still one of Miyazaki's best. It's also his most violent, so this is probably not for really little kids.


My Neighbors the Yamadas. Directed by Isao Takahata, this is another one that I haven't seen. It's basically a series of vignettes looking into the everyday life of the Yamada family. The most interesting thing about this movie is the animation style. It's done in an unusual comic strip style. Pencil sketches, really. I don't know if there's much to check out here. Perhaps I will pick it up one day.


There's so much to say about these films that I need to split this into two parts. Part 2 will probably be longer because I actually have watched all of the later movies. Kudos to you if you've read this far Miyazaki fans!

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