Three days into April it is time for me to draw up a little résumé with regards to Miyazaki March and what we have learned while passing through it. You can find all related posts HERE in the directory, to revisit the reviews I did on the Studio Ghibli animation features (mostly) directed by Hayao Miyazaki.
For my ambitious project to review my way through all Miyazaki directed movies for Studio Ghibli (plus Arietty) with some general musings on top I actually re-watched all of them, except for Tales from Earthsea by Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, and except for Arietty, which I saw for the first time and only once.
It’s not exactly a surprise, but a pleasant realization, that all of these movies are really good movies and not one of them lets me down. Compared to other animation movies and movies in general they are all well made, well written and most of the time even refreshing in their outlook and presentation of things, characters and relationships. For family-friendly entertainment for mass-audiences I normally wouldn’t expect the level of complexity encountered in these movies, but they fail to disappoint.
Two movies in particular surprised me:
I remember liking Porco Rosso more than I had thought I would the first time watching it, but I was really surprised as to how much the movie resonates with me and how incredibly well it holds up against all the other Miyazaki movies. I thus consider it to be part of my Top 3 favorite movies by Miyazaki – which really is made up of four movies.
That brings us to the other surprise: Howl’s Moving Castle. I have been conflicted about this one ever since I saw it, because on the one hand I think it has the potential to be the best of them all, yet, the ending and unfolding events there ruin it for me. If there were an ending more to my liking I am pretty sure that Spirited Away would have trouble remaining in the no. 1 spot of my list. But that is also the surprise, that the rest of Howl’s Moving Castle engages me that much, that despite the grave flaws, I consider it to be such an amazing movie. For me, in many ways, it feels like the quintessential Miyazaki movie (with some deliberate hinting at that within the movie itself) with all elements coming together perfectly, just like in Spirited Away, …xept for the ending, mind you.
Reviewing all these movies was tough, because they were quite a lot and I wanted to write something meaningful (although I am fully aware of my regular drooling and ranting). It was time consuming, so my work with Miyazaki March actually started in early February, and it still felt like too little time. Well, it was actually, because I wanted to take a closer look at all other non-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli features which got replaced by reposting an adjusted version of my Tales from Earthsea review and I totally missed out on discussing the role of cats in Miyazaki movies. That would have been fun, but I had to cut it to get to my review of Spirited Away. Sorriez (and meow) for that.
Still, doing Miyazaki March felt really good and I got a lot of positive response and feedback. Viewers for my little corner of the internet increased significantly and I want to thank everyone who read the posts and all of you guys who liked and commented, I appreciate it very much!
I hope to do another theme-month later this year, September or October-ish, but let us wait and see. If all goes well, there will be two regular series for the blog coming your way, a comic re-read of Elfquest and a series re-watch of the X-files.
But let us not get ahead of ourselves!
Yeah, yeah, we all know it: This 2001 released feature won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale Film Fest and later snatched an Oscar for best animated movie. It cemented Studio Ghibli’s reputation as The Animation Studio of Japan and of Hayao Miyazaki as The Animation Director. It became the highest grossing film in Japan ever and made a shitload of money internationally, while critics loved it and continue to love. The hell, I love it.
There is nothing about Spirited Away that bugs me. Everything about it feels right and in place and if I were to tell you about parts that I am critical about I would have to crack my brain, cause from the top of my head, I cannot think of One. Fucking. Thing. And seriously, how amazing is that? What a treasure of a movie must it be for me to not find anything in it that I have a problem with?
The gods who come to be guests of the bathhouse are fantastic. I love the cultural depth of it, without having ever really delved into it, but hey, gotta save some fun for later, right? I get the sense that they are gods and obviously we meet two river gods that inform us about their “function”. What is so wonderful about them is how different they all look, how ridiculous some of them look (giant chicks, anyone?) and how the movie is all like: of course these gods wanna have a good time in the bathhouse, y’all. I enjoy watching the “stink spirit” with the protruding bubbles of immense stinkery and how he turns into that slightly creepy river god. And I love love love how Chihiro just takes the gift her gives her and is grateful without having the slightest clue what these drab, brown ball might actually be.
Talking about river gods we need to talk about Haku. Oh, Haku. How you are a dragon, but also not, because you are a river god. How you could be portrayed as a love interest, but are not, because you are a loyal friend. How you could be a simple character, but are not, because you’re complex and you need to be to both survive the situation and help those who do not know how to survive it. Can this boy do any wrong? And okay, here is maybe one thing that I can whine about when talking about Spirited Away: The whole “we’ve met before, remember?” plot device felt a little contrived and I feel the story would have at least equally worked if it had been left out. But it’s nothing really. And it is totally made up for by my favorite song of the super-amazing soundtrack: The Dragon Boy. That shit is a film score, children, and you better appreciate.
Supporting characters are of course of major importance for a film to work perfectly and with Spirited Away we encounter an awesome array of memorable supports. I love the portrayal of Chihiro’s parents, I love Lin (and all the obviously yet curiously non-human staff at the bath-house (seriously though, what are they??)), the frog, love grumpy Kamaji and heart with all my might those little soot-ball beings. I think Boh, the Yubaba-like bird and the three jumping heads are hilarious characters and I especially love how Boh re-enacts the scene of Chihiro crushing the black slug coming out of Haku’s body.
Then there is Yubaba. And amazing she is. Seriously, her looks alone win her ten points. Her whole damn behaviour and how she is, after all, still a pretty decent sort of being who is trying to play loosely by the rules, trying to make a profit. While she is sort of a villain for both Chihiro and Haku, I never get the sense that there is real ill will against either of them involved and in the end, neither of them is really furious at her for what she does. Plus, there is the mystery of Zeniba. Is that really her twin sister or is it just another very different aspect of the same person? It is also interesting that Yubaba is portrayed as both large and in charge, yet motherly, cunning and business focused, yet capable of empathy and sorrow. Despite seemingly being a caricature and a simplified female villain, Yubaba is actually quite a complex character, very reminiscent of Dola of The Castle in the Sky with her tough exterior concealing a compassionate interior.
Talking about quasi-villains, there is of course No Face. It is not that we do not see a face, at first it is pretty much all we see of it. But it really is a mask, and even as such does not seem to be placed on the body where the face actually is. But that’s all just the name, what is really amazing is how No Face is both a villain that turns out to be someone in need of an understanding friend and how it remains this mysterious being throughout, its background and history never once explained, without the story suffering from it in any way. No Face can be interpreted as a lot of things. On the surface level it is a spirit that seeks for something more meaningful than earthly possessions and realizes that these cannot fulfil the longing it has for this something else. Turns out it is somebody understanding it and taking care, which in itself is after all no fluffy and mindless concept, but gets even more complicated because it is so closely tied to the character of Chihiro. No Face could just be after her, because she was nice to it, but despite that being plausible, it still begs the question in how far No Face is a reflection of the beings populating the bath-house or even of Chihiro’s feelings. Plus, No Face enables Chihiro to prove how awesome of a character she is in actually just coming around to accepting No Face as a companion because she isn’t really frightened of him.
And OH. MY. LORD. The train ride, you guys, this fucking train ride. A little like the airplane-cemetery scene in Porco Rosso the train ride is the single most amazing thing about this movie. I absolutely adore it. I love how the story goes from gross villain chasing after Chihiro to the two of them sitting right next to each other on a train that is full of people who are nothing but shadows. The whole ride is so deeply and touchingly melancholic. This devastating sense of a disconnect when looking at those shadow people realizing that these are probably just normal people. Or were normal people. Or want to be normal people. But we never know what they really are. We just now what they look like and see how their lives in the train and on the platforms looks like the lives the we are living and good gracious fuck, what does that say about us a human beings? What comment is being made, and why, if I think it is a comment, does this scene make me so profoundly sad?
Can’t handle it, folks. We should discuss this one in the comments.
Oh, isn’t it obvious how I haven’t really talked about the most important person in this movie yet? I give you: Chihiro. Yay! Of all the young girl protagonists that Miyazaki bombards us with she is my favorite, because damn. It is amazing how she is this grumpy little “don’t wanna move here” thing that seems so passive and unwilling and turns into a full-blown heroine with unlimited superpowers of acceptance, forgiveness, courage and strength. She is, in one word, admirable and it is exactly because she is never set up to be that, she just happens to react and ultimately act that way. And that is because she cares. All the beings she meets, she cares about, be it a ginormous baby, three bouncing heads, sootballs, villains or jumping lanterns. Chihiro cares about each and every one of them, doesn’t dismiss or discard them, but takes them for who and what they are and perceives an intrinsic worth and value in their existence and the mind-boggling mastery of everything amazing of this is just almost too much to bear. Chihiro is the most unlikely heroine and as such she absolutely rules and I wish I could be like that.
Whoda thunk it? With nothing to complain about, Spirited Away is simply my favorite Miyazaki movie of them all. I am hardly capable of any serious discussion because I have to verbally drool over its awesomeness and I hope you can forgive me.
If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it.
If you have, go re-watch it.
The Japanese film adaptation of Earthseawas produced by Studio Ghibli, famous throughout the World for Oscar-winning movies such as Spirited Away and nominees like Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke. All of these were directed by Miyazaki Hayao, one of the Co-founders of Studio Ghibli and it was him who expressed an interest in producing and directing an animated version of the first three Earthsea novels in the early 1980s. But it was not until July 29 2006 that a movie adaptation called Gedo Senki (Ged’s War Chronicles) saw a theatrical release, later released outside Japan with the English title Tales from Earthsea. This movie however was not directed by Miyazaki Hayao due to his time restraints, being involved in the production of Howl’s Moving Castle, a fact that Ursula K. Le Guin bemoans on her official homepage, since she initially agreed to the production based on her admiration for his earlier work. Instead of Miyazaki Hayao his son Miyazaki Gorō directed the film. Gedo Senki reached the Nr. 1 position of the Japanese Box Office in its opening week and held this spot for five non-consecutive weeks. It wasn’t a big commercial success abroad and still has not been released in the U.S. due to Sci-Fi Channel still holding the rights for the Earthsea novels there.
The Earthsea-series, written by the very popular Ursula K. Le Guin, consists of seven short stories, two of them published before any Earthsea novel was written, the other five all being part of the 2001 publication Tales fromEarthsea, and five novels. The first three novels are called A Wizard of Earthsea(1969), The Tombs of Atuan(1971) and The Farthest Shore(1972). Le Guin was approached by her publisher to write one or more novels targeted at an audience of young adults in the genre of fantasy. She drew upon her two short stories The Word of Unbinding(published first 1964 in the January issue of Fantastic) and The Rule of Names(published first 1964 in the April issue of Fantastic) to further explore Earthsea, the world she created for these two.
While the first three Earthsea novels soon came to be considered en par with fantasy classics such as the Lord of theRings and the Narnia novels, they have also been criticized by feminist critics, for they feature mainly male protagonists and delegate the power to the men, while rendering mainly isolated male wizard characters as wise. This changed when Le Guin opened the second trilogy of Earthsea with the 1990 publication of Tehanu. The feminist tone of Tehanu, expressed in the focus on women’s lives in Earthsea’s society. Tales from Earthseawas published in 2001 and features the stories The Finder, Darkrose and Diamond, The Bones of the Earth, On the High Marsh and the article A Description of Earthsea. Le Guin herself intended the last story, Dragonfly, to be the link between Tehanu and TheOther Wind, the last novel of Earthsea, also published in 2001.
“My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white” – Le Guin 2004
Although admittedly writing in a fantasy tradition that draws upon Nordic myths that usually accepts being white as the norm, Le Guin refused to adhere to this norm and decided for her Earthsea-series (but also for most of her other works) to establish protagonists of color.
Le Guin herself admits to didactic intentions, claiming that she expected her reading audience to be mainly white American adolescents who might have had some trouble identifying with Earthsea’s main protagonist Ged, which is why she chose to present his skin-color only after readers would already have eased themselves “into Ged’s skin” before realizing that “it wasn’t a white one” (- Le Guin 2004).
Even though we can also find somewhat problematic depictions of ethnicity (in itself a problematic term) in Earthsea that are not explicitly addressed by Ursula K. Le Guin, she acknowledges the fact that her presentation of non-white characters could be perceived as being problematic. She states that she is “intensely conscious of the risk of cultural or ethnic imperialism—a white writer speaking for nonwhite people, co-opting their voice,” and that she knows that this can be considered to constitute “an act of extreme arrogance” (- Le Guin 2004).
“what animation can do to the human body is one of the most interesting and provocative aspects of the medium. Anime representations of the human figure range across an extraordinary variety of types (and archetypes), implicitly promising a vast range of fictional identities for the viewer to revel in.”
It is therefore interesting to look at how the human body is represented in anime in terms of skin-color, and there is a startling observation to be made. Anime characters do not look specifically Japanese, but in fact very white-western. Most characters are white, meaning they exhibit fair skin, often with blond or light brunette hair. Susan Napier argues that these body types are neither Japanese nor Western but rather “anime-style”-bodies that display the notion of mukokuseki, being stateless, and refers to statements, that Japanese try to de-Japanize the anime characters in order to create an alternative world that serves escapist tendencies or underlines the incongruence with Japanese reality. By referring to these character-types as “postethnic” (especially with regard to dystopian fantasies of future worlds) she also points at their hybrid nature, the result of merging ethnic and racial identities within the course of time. Nevertheless many Japanese anime, even in futuristic settings, still stress Japanese cultural practices and traditions. She claims that it is this Otherness, that is neither Japanese nor Western, in relation to familiar cultural settings, that allows Japanese audiences (but to some extent also other, especially Western, audiences) to explore their identities without the constraining boundaries of realistic depiction. The anime style is considered to produce characters that work as a projection surface with features that render them human,
If we examine the characters in Gedo Senki bearing all this in mind, it is striking to see how conventional the protagonists are depicted in this cultural context of anime production. Apart from the villain Cob, who turns out to be a wizard of uncanny power, who was transformed by the evil that possesses him in his search for eternal life, all the other main characters exhibit neither surprising hair-colors nor exaggerated eyes. Their hair colors range from brown to blonde and their skin exhibits different shades of what could be called white. Even with regards to “extras”, characters that appear for only a few moments in scenes that take place in cities or villages, there are no characters who deviate from this color-scheme.
The extraordinary potential of anime in the production of human bodies that transgress at least national stereotypes and at most the human form itself is only used in Gedo Senki to render the antagonist as non-human, or beyond human. But it does in no way disrupt the patterns of perception of its viewers by introducing characters of a different racial background. Although the characters might not be Japanese, as their target audience, they nevertheless exhibit common anime-style conventions of depiction that make them easily identifiable and easily consumable – even if the movie is watched in so-called Western nations.
It seems that in the process of adaptation, the dealing with the issue of skin-color was dismissed in favor of presenting characters that were easy to identify with and believable in a setting of a somewhat medieval high-culture. And obviously the decision had been made that characters of color would not be able to be believable in this setting or achieve identification. To pick up on Ursula K. Le Guin’s critique, not only has the evil potential within human beings been externalized in the movie, but also the problematic issue of skin-color, to the extent, that it only becomes an issue external of the movie for those who are interested in it, but not within the context of the film where this issue was obviously considered to be too unsettling for an (Japanese and/or white-western) audience.
Even if the filmmakers would have kept their choice of not problematizing the issue of race and color in their movie, they still could have depicted all of the characters to be black, but they obviously chose not too. If they had, they would have been able to place characters, who are usually not considered for heroic deeds in the Japanese context, at the centre of an heroic tale and call into question not only stereotyping processes in the individual viewer, but also the foundations of power assumed and wielded in human societies.
The unconventional rendering of Le Guins protagonists as being people of color has not been translated into the Japanese anime version. Although the adaptation claims to have given thought to the issue and to have come to the conclusion that the allegedly multicolored casts in the films represented the best solution to the issue, my impression is that the production team has dealt with the issue only to the extent that they arrived at the decision to dismiss it by eradicating most traces of being non-white in principal characters with only a few token exceptions. They abandoned the concept of presenting heroes of color, a step that would have been challenging to production and casting norms in the depiction of human bodies in Japanese anime, in favor of a seemingly safer way, that transforms racially subversive characters into white (here standing for both western-white in U.S. tradition and Japanese appearance, that nurtures an ideal appearance modeled after “western looks”) characters in order to cater to a white mass audience that is thought to be constituting the targeted markets. The sad outcome of this white-centered market logic is that it cannot give any insight into how successful a version with protagonists of color would have been – we obviously have to wait for future adaptations that decide to take more courageous steps.
“Not to choose, these days, is a choice made. All fiction has ethical, political, and social weight, and sometimes the works that weigh the heaviest are those apparently fluffy or escapist fictions whose authors declare themselves ‘above politics,’ ‘just entertainers,’ and so on.” (Le Guin, quoted after Elisabeth Anne Leonard(1997): “Into Darkness Peering” – Race and Color in the Fantastic)
If you haven’t read Earthsea yet, I highly recommend you to do so!
Since this is a text, you cannot hear me sing the Japanese theme song of Ponyo to it, but instead let me (textually) welcome you to the review of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo! Other Miyazaki March posts are found HERE in the directory, but let us waste no time and get to this wet adventure brought to us by Studio Ghibli.
Ponyo is obviously loosely based on The Little Mermaid, at least in terms of girl from the sea falling in love with boy on the land and wanting to be girl on the land and her dad being all against it and havoc and ultimately love and happiness. Except for the Japanese setting and the Ponyo protagonists being much younger and no evil villains or cruel deaths (TheLittle Mermaid is after all, not only available in its Disney version). It is the second most recent Miyazaki/Ghibli feature, the most recent if you only count the ones that Miyazaki directed and was released to theaters in 2008. It’s lovely but it suffers from two major problems that hinder it from being a great movie.
Ponyo, more so than other Miyazaki features, has a very distinct animation style that really works for its advantage. Reminding me a lot of my favorite Disney movie Lilo & Stitch we encounter a lot of watercolor backgrounds in a lighter than usual color palette. The colors are beautiful and the animation as such is of course flawless. I really like the character design, I particularly like how Sosuke’s hair doesn’t seem like a hairdo for someone his age at all, how his mother is this plucky and bouncy young thing who drives cars Really Bad. I love the whole underwater scenery, once the sea level rises and swallows most of the islands and I think the animation of Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the sea, is beautifully done.
There are a few things I find questionable in the animation, which is that the water has eyes sometimes, which is just as nonsensical as the fire in Howl’s Moving Castle having eyes, but there the fire is a central character and I can look past it, here the whole water having eyes thing is just, well, weird and doesn’t really serve a purpose. Plus, it looks a bit like wonky animation. The other thing would be the characters design of Ponyo’s dad, Fujimoto, who looks like a clownish drag queen having a real bad hair day and while it is okay and even kinda fun, it also makes practically no sense to have him look like that and each time I see the movie I find his visuals really distracting.
I find that the main strength in Ponyo lies with the supporting cast. Ponyo irritates me a little and Sosuke is fine and nice, but it is really Sosuke’s mother, the elderly women at the retirement home and Ponyo’s mum who make the movie a joyful ride for me. The problem I have with the protagonists is that neither of them makes for a believable child (unlike the two girls in My Neighbor Totoro) and as unbelievable children they have to be too much like the children they are supposed to be in order to make me look past the believability issue. And no, I don’t really suppose you understand what I mean by that. Well, with Sosuke, he is presented as this very young kindergarten boy who is much more curious and much more serious than kids his age usually are, but it is this independence and curiosity that drive the plot. I just feel like he is a touch too sombre to feel like he could be an actual kid. I like the idea behind it, but I have my issues with the execution.
Sosuke’s mother Lisa on the other hand feels like a real person. Granted, she drives cars like she is a total whacko and endangers her child without skipping a beat, but her being furious over her husband’s absence, her coming around, her love for Sosuke and the overall way she moves and talks feel like I am meeting a real person there.
The gang of elderly women at the retirement home is awesome in their mix of grumpy and cool, how some of them are the perfect grandmothers and others are not (which is just what people have to live with in real life), but in the face of water swallowing all up, they work together really well and I like how they’re all giggling little girls over the fact that they can walk again. I am also really fond of the settings the movie comes up with. Having it take place in a retirement home and a kindergarten is pretty neat, coupled with nice underwater scenes and Sosuke’s home on an awesome island makes for pretty odd but pretty interesting places to have the plot evolve in.
The principle of not explaining everything going on in the movie works both to Ponyo’s advantage and disadvantage, unfortunately more so to the latter. What I like about the movie is how it’s not fussy about the whole transformation of Ponyo. The movie is all like: sure, she is a fish with a girl’s face and then all of a sudden she has these weird legs and arms and in time develops into a regular five year old girl just to switch back to the weird arms and simplified face every once in a while. And not one time anyone is particularly bummed out about it (especially not Sosuke) nor does the movie waste one split-second trying to tell us why that happens. I like that because it leaves room for our imagination to interpret these changes. Is it because she is in love with Sosuke? Is it because she needs his approval? Is it because it takes up too much of her magical powers? Is it a combination of all of these things?
But this no-explanation-policy provides for at least one of the major fails of this movie: The dangerous situation that earth is in because of Ponyo’s wish. I mean: WTF? So, because Ponyo wants to be with Sosuke and wants to be a girl our planet is going to see humanity wiped off of its face because the moon gets closer and sea level rises? How the hell does that work? What is so damn special about Ponyo and/or her wish that she/it holds the power over the fate of effin’ humanity? The whole speculation-is-fun rule does not apply here, because we are told very explicitly that this is how it is, we are just never told as to why that is. And that would be fine IF THIS WOULDN’T BE THE CENTRAL DANGER IN THIS PLOT! How am I supposed to care about this shit if I don’t even know how it works? Cause I hear about it and go “wait, what?” instead of “ah, interesting!” It’s not that I expect this incredibly elaborate answer as to why the fate of humanity is linked to Ponyo’s wish (though writing it out like that it practically begs for an elaborate answer) but to have at least some hint of an idea as to why there is the connection and how it is that it all gets solved by eternal love would be nice and lend the story some plausibility and make me more invested – and put me off a little less.
But I said there are two major flaws, and there are. Number 2 is closely linked to number 1 because: Humanity is saved because Sosuke professes his eternal love for Ponyo. Except he doesn’t even really. Except they are both 5 years old. Except: wait, what??
So the whole solution to saving the planet lies in Ponyo needing to be loved forever for who she is by the boy she fell in love with and bam! crisis averted. While the aspect of him loving her even though she is a fish is cool and all, Sosuke is still five years old. How would he know about eternal love (monogamy? relationship crises? personality development?) and how is his “I guess” answer, half-assed as it is already, enough for a goddess to say “yeah, he’ll probably never question their relationship based on Ponyo’s background in FUTURE YEARS TO COME”. I mean, fuck that. I know that Ponyo is targeted at children more so than other Miyazaki features and I know that this is probably why readers of this post don’t think throwing around “fucks” here is appropriate. But really, I sit there and watch the movie and am all “fuck that,” ‘cause that is ridiculous bullshit and it bugs me so much because it ruins the whole movie. Couldn’t she have asked: “will you promise to try to be her friend for the rest of your life and give her support when needed?” Okay, yay! Might still be much, but yeah, he could. But “love her forever for who she is”? Asking that a five year old boy, no matter how supposedly wise beyond his years, is like asking the Tea Party to preserve minority rights and placing all your future political actions on their “sure, yes”. Mind you, Sosuke is surely not to be equated with the Tea Party Movement, but his answer – even if believable in this given situation – is just so not suited to inform a decision of that magnitude in any way that it makes the whole plot end on that weird note. So, ten years from now Sosuke has a crush on another girl and then sea-monsters will rise and devour us all? That’s what I am thinking when the end-credits roll.
I am also not the biggest fan of the principle “girl’s fate lies in boy’s hand” here, but I will just note my displeasure with it and move on. I am also wondering: Will this crisis hit us every time one of Ponyo’s sisters falls in love? And why do they look like her? And are they younger? And in how far are they different from her? And why is none of these questions addressed when they are so freaking obvious?
But I don’t want to end this review sounding like I hate the movie with a passion, because really, I don’t. It is still a fun ride and very enjoyable. It has a super-charming support cast and breath-taking animation and the plot itself makes for an adventurous ride. There are just some holes in this plot that you can steer the Enterprise through and I am particularly infuriated that they are not addressed and fixed because they seem so central to the movie’s message. Just imagine how marvellous Ponyo could have been without these plot holes? I know, frustrating.
Pick up your broomsticks and fly with me into another instalment of Miyazaki March where today we approach Hayao Miyazaki’s animation oeuvre with taking a closer look at Majo no Takkyūbin, better known as Kiki’s Delivery Service. Other entries for Miyazaki March onMe, all over the place can be found HERE in the directory post.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was released to Japanese theaters in 1989. It is based upon a children’s book by the Japanese author Eiko Kadono, but rather loosely, incorporating elements and a plot not present in the more episodic source material. For a short time, the project was in danger of being shelved, due to Mrs. Kadono being unhappy with the changes made, but she eventually came around. The movie proved to be successful in both Japan and outside of it, marking the first release under the Ghibli-Disney cooperation for international distribution, which led to some minor changes in dialogue and musical score. The movie was also adapted into a musical in 1993 in Japan, and while that sounds like a not so great thing to my ears, I can still get the appeal of it, because after all the song of the closing credits “Yasashisa ni tsutsumareta nara” ranks firmly among the top 3 of my favorite Japanese songs, cause it can. And cause I can. And cause it’s cool. And you might find it somewhere on the net (cause I couldn’t).
Kiki’s Delivery Service is first and foremost a coming of age tale. It revolves around Kiki, who as a young witch at the age of 13 sets out to make it on her own in the big wide world. The narrative follows her to a new city, to new friendships, to new responsibilities and hardships and to inevitable changes. And it does so wonderfully. I would not rank Kiki’s Delivery Service as one of my favorite Miyazaki pictures, but I am always pleasantly surprised by how well it holds up as a movie, given that from description alone it doesn’t sound like much. But much like My Neighbor Totoro the biggest strength of the movie is the realism with which it presents its characters. Kiki’s struggles as a teenage girl are interesting because they are believable and because Kiki as a character is reacting believably to them. It is a joy to see how she is excited, how she loves but misses her parents, how she is afraid of the city and unsure of how friendships form and evolve, how she worries about her business taking off and how she is homesick. In all of this we get to see a character embodying traits and actions that we have observed in others around us (or even ourselves) and thus recognize the significance of what is being said and can appreciate the way it is being said. If you disagree, you can replace all the we’s in the previous sentences with and I, because I don’t want to force you to think like me (but really: you totally should).
With Kiki’s Delivery Service we once more have a movie full of loveable characters. There is no villain and no threat, there is just self-doubt and homesickness to battle. The parents are adorable, Osono and her husband in the bakery are super-cute in their opposites attract kinda way, Tombo is a hilariously awesome boy with the right amount of curiousity, humour and persistence, and Ursula is an independent spirit just waiting to be asked how to roll with life. On top of that we have city by the sea that is both full of life and full of charm, filled with people who embrace the arrival of a new witch in training and enjoy their (ridiculously fantastic) gardens out in the back towards the seaside on terraces. I mean, seriously, can someone please get me a house like the one that the Gutiokipanja bakery is situated in? Yes? Thank you.
Presenting some things simply as a given really works well for the movie. The whole concept of a young witch of 13 setting out on her own and just finding a village where people will accept her and integrate her is pretty alien to most of us. But in the context of the film it is just how things work and everybody knows and thus we know and thus it never becomes an issue. I love how elegantly the movie flows from presenting the concept, which leaves me with a question mark in my head, to just have me swallow it cause it seems so perfectly fitting for the whole set-up. It helps, of course, that the whole thing takes place in the now widely familiar Miyazaki fantasia world, where countries look like Europe somewhen between 1900 and now, with magic and technology coexisting and fashion doing what it’s happening to do. Just in case you’re interested and happen to stay in Frankfurt am Main in Germany: There is a café called Iimori that looks like it’s taken right out of a Miyazaki movie and is totally worth a visit.
Coming of age and alla that I guess we have to talk the talk here, folks. Girl is 13. Eh, adolescence? Yes, dear audience, we need to address menstruation. Not that there is anything wrong with addressing menstruation, but I better admit right away that my experience with menstruation and all that goes with it is, how shall we put this?, limited. And to be clear, Kiki here in the movie does not hit puberty and does not have her first period. But being the overanalyzing brat that I am, I of course cannot help but read the whole menstruation issue into this coming of age tale of a young girl. Before you accuse me of inserting issues that are not explicitly there, let me just state, that as a critic (whoa, Alex, you define yourself as a critic now? Hear, hear.) I think it is a fruitful concept to “read” some of what is going on in the movie as a metaphor to what happens when girls start to have their period. After all, Kiki’s body reacts to all the changes in the movies, she becomes sick (ok, I know, it’s a cold), but it is also because she confides into a motherly figure that she learns to get over with not only the cold but learns to accept her new situation in general and even learns to appreciate it and become happy with and curious about it. Being the non-expert on menstruation that I am, I construct this as a metaphor for the changes that the female body at the beginning of puberty goes through and what that potentially does to a young girl’s psyche. Though that of course begs the question why I make it about menstruation then and not puberty in general. I kinda feel like I am losing my point here, so let us just discuss that in the comments, if anyone cares to contradict (or support) my theory.
Can we please talk about the cat? Or can we please talk about Sailor Moon? Or can we please talk about how the cat in Kiki’s Delivery Service looks like Luna from Sailor Moon? Ladies and Gentlemen, what is going on here? Charming, the cat, granted. But Jiji looks and acts so much like Luna from Sailor Moon that I was really surprised at first. I mean, what is this about? Was Studio Ghibli trying to cash in on Sailor Moon popularity and thus came up with an identical cat (minus the moon on the forehead)? Curious, I find it do, as Yoda probably would say, if he weren’t so far above all this shit. And while I am in general fond of the cat and fond of cat interaction, I was a little disappointed how gender stereotypical the female cat was introduced and presented in Kiki’s Delivery Service. I mean it’s a freaking cat. Does it have to look like it’s a female cat with long hair and eyelashes? Are cats that look like Jiji himself too unattractive, is that what you’re trying to say, movie? And then they have children that look like either her or him (ermh, Lady and the Tramp, anyone?). You know, genetic mixture and all, they can also look not exactly like their parents. For all gender progressiveness with Studio Ghibli in general and Kiki’s Delivery Service in particular, the whole cat love story affair seemed like a step backwards. Meow.
But that should not distract from the overall fondness I feel for the movie. If today were a Sunday and if now would be afternoon and if my mood were “blue” I would totally sit down and watch this just to get me up. Movies are the best medicine, isn’t that what they’re saying?
Today we board the plane to fly into Miyazaki territory yet unexplored by Studio Ghibli. Which is another way to say: Welcome to this instalment of Miyazaki March (other posts on Hayao Miyazaki films in the directory HERE), where I will take a closer look at Porco Rosso.
Released to Japanese theaters in 1992 Porco Rosso was very successful domestically, even though it is one of the lesser known Miyazaki/Ghibli features internationally. Interestingly enough there are rumours circulating that Miyazaki himself plans a sequel to Porco Rosso, entitled The Last Sortie, featuring an older Porco allegedly equivalent to Hayao Miyazaki’s own progressing age, but as of yet, there has been no official word on the matter. It is the 6th Miyazaki directed film for Studio Ghibli and one thing that I am always extremely delighted about when watching this movie is its soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi. Granted, Miyazaki movies tend to have excellent soundtracks, but this one in particular is just so awesome that I had the track The Wind of Time in an organ version as my cell phone ringtone. Anime Geekdom, taken to new heights (and just for the record, I do not consider myself to be an anime geek).
So, Porco Rosso.
On the Me, All Over The Place Facebook Page (yep, shameless) I was specifically asked to review this one and I suspect that request was made for a reason. Reason being: Porco Rosso is one of Miyazaki’s finest. I know people who do definitely not think so, but I better say it now: I L.O.V.E. it. And I think it is one of Miyazaki’s finest, too. Deal with it. Or rather, let me tell you why.
I just have to direct you to THIS wonderful post talking about Porco Rosso, because it pretty much nails the feeling that I get from watching it (and judging by the comments, it nails what others feel as well). Porco Rosso is fun, it is surprising at times, it seems very old fashion at others and has a nice little plot going for itself. But what makes Porco Rosso such a standout for me is how all of that adds up to such a bitter-sweet glimpse on something wonderful bound to vanish it breaks my tiny little heart, because, awww. Porco Rosso’s fate is tragic, his friends died, his relationship to Gina is emotionally difficult and being against the forces of fascism in the 1920s is right and well, but sort of a lost cause for years to come. The movie feels like a momentary glimpse into lives and times that are joyous and happy, because these are happy events, but underneath it all there is grief and sadness and the notion that this is going to be over very soon. Carpe diem, y’all, and memento mori.
At first glance Porco Rosso seems to be somewhat of an oddity in the Miyazaki oeuvre. One reason is the male protagonist, although if you think about it, he is not alone as such, and he shares his screen time with strong female characters. The movie is furthermore explicitly political, which seems uncommon for animation in general but also for Miyazaki features. Again, this is, if you think about it, not true. Castle in the Sky is decidedly political in its advocacy for environmental awareness, although it is of course, just like the war in Howl’s Moving Castle, not linked to a concrete time-period or political system of our real-life history. But there is also Princess Mononoke where historical references are more explicit, so even on that account Porco Rosso is not alone. Heck, not even when it comes to characters central to the plot being pigs. Spirited Away, anyone? It is interesting though, that, at least to me, Porco Rosso seems much more unique and outstanding in all of these respects.
With every re-watch I am surprised anew now complex the exploration of various themes throughout the movie is.
There is an explicit anti-fascism and an implicit anti-war stance to the movie, but it does not go down the easy route. Porco Rosso was a soldier in the war, after all, and he is still friends with people working for the current political system. His job of the moment is a reminiscence of what he did before and as such it is certainly no less prone to violence and conflict. But the movie and Porco himself call this into question repeatedly. His past is only vaguely clear but what we get to learn is that besides losing his human appearance he has lost great friends. They were proud war pilots all of them, but he is the only one to survive and the memories of his friend are nagging at him, making his friendship with Gina – and his feelings for her – a complicated one. He loves being a pilot and he loves the thrill of fighting as a pilot, but he nonetheless wonder about the purpose of a soldier/pilot and realizes that what he does and loves is something that will ultimately mean his death. In a flashback to the story he tells to Fio we get to experience an amazing sequence of his near-death experience as a pilot on the verge of exhaustion. He ascends over the cloud to witness as seemingly neverending stream of aircrafts making their rounds. All those deceased war pilots, his colleagues at least in spirit. And he knows: this is what is waiting for him. And he has made peace with it. Awww. *insert heartbreak here*
Just like other Miyazaki features we get to get an unusual discussion of the role of women for animation standards, in this case even for Miyazaki standards as well. Because in Porco Rosso women are the objects of desire and admiration of men and Porco himself has trouble trusting Fio to be able to repair his aircraft. What on the surface seems to contradict Miyzaki’s usual stance towards female agency and strong female characters turns out to be a different approach to the same message. Women can be more than pretty and desireable, they can be technical experts, hard workers even in old age, headstrong, independent and most of all agents of their own fate. The real difference in Porco Rosso – and one that could be argued is substantially more feminist than his other narratives – is that Porco is the male protagonist but needs a female, Fio, to actually enable him to do what he needs to do (repairing his ship and facing his foe) and another female, Gina, to accept his fate and embrace happiness by telling him repeatedly that he might think it wrong, but she thinks they should totally hit it off together. And in the end she, or rather: both, get their wish. Implicitly, I know. (Still: Awwww!)
One of my often repeated mantras on this blog is that I think that there are a number of films that really benefit from not explaining stuff, because an explanation would probably just ruin it. It doesn’t always work, but here it does. We never really get to know why Marco became Porco Rosso, what sort of curse made the man a pig. But the mystery is ok, because what we learn is that it’s not what you look like, it’s who you are and what you do. And Porco may look like a pig, but he’s decent and awesome and that is why everyone loves him. And Fio might be a pretty young thing, but girl knows what she wants and girl knows how to build a fucking good aircraft. I find it to be remarkable how the movie succeeds in wandering the thin line of making clear that of course our outer surface matters, mostly to people who do not really know us, but that it is of course so much more important who we are underneath this surface and how we get to be these people. Because or despite of our appearance it is thanks to things we say and do that we should be judged and loved. And yes, you are probably already retching from all the cheese I am spreading here, but isn’t it just darlingly wonderful if a movie does not have to hammer this message home but provides it as a subtext to dialogue and plot that do not have to state what they believe in and want to share with us? Marvellous!
Remember how I raved about Lilo & Stitch being my favorite Disney movie? Probably not, but the fuck, Lilo & Stitch is my favorite Disney movies and one of my all-time-favs in general, one of the reasons probably being that there is no villain, as is the case in most Miyazaki movies, and as kind is the case here. We could rather say that there is no visible “villain”, since the once who are introduced as villains turn out to be no villains at all. Porco Rosso is a little peculiar in that it actually has a villain in the form of fascism and how it interferes with people’s life and happiness. But then again we could argue that the same holds true for war in Howl’s Moving Castle, technological progress in Mononoke, or atomic weapons in Nausicaä. We could read it as a statement against ideology and systems that disregard the human being as the individual that it is. Individuals are not villains in Miyazaki movies, they are just people who might make mistakes. But structures and systems that are kept alive and empowered by mistakes are villains that every being on his or her individual should fight against. With me still?
Last but not least I need to repeat how the animation is breathtakingly beautiful. You might say: it’s a Miyazaki movie, d’uh, though I feel that there are differences that some of the earlier ones suffer from a little. But my oh my, there is so much goodness, from the imaginative powers that were poured into all the aircrafts (which is allegedly a subject close to Miyazaki’s heart) to the amazing scenery of little islands in the Adriatic. Porco Rosso’s hideout is neat. But most beautiful IMHO is of course the small islet that Gina lives on, complete with a beautiful house and a gorgeously lush secret garden. And can’t you just see yourself sitting there with a good glass of wine after a nice dinner reading your favorite book while the sun sets in your back? Hell yes.
Today’s entry in Miyazaki March (all posts HERE) is not a review of one of the animation features directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli, but rather a discussion of all of them. Yep, all of them, you read that right. Ambitious much, Alex, you asking? Well, let’s restrain ourselves a little and limit it to one topic. Feminism! Because: Hooray, feminism! And also because Miyazaki features lend themselves to be discussed like that. Another awesome discussion can be found on Gagging on Sexism (LINK, and HERE for another one), you should definitely check it out. Here we go!
My scientifically very sound quantitative analysis of the Miyazaki directed Ghibli features reveals that out of a total of 10 movies (counting Arietty in) seven of them have a female lead. That is 70 per cent and that is major. This means that 30 percent a.k.a. three movies have a male lead, which is rather interesting since two of them have titles that imply otherwise: Princess Mononoke’s lead character is Ashitaka, though you would never guess from title or film poster, and Ponyo’s lead character is Sosuke, although arguably in this case we could speak of a double-lead (Ponyo and Sosuke). In Porco Rosso we have Porco, so phew, no mind-boggling confusion there (and yes, that is supposed to be a cynical joke, mind you). So seven movies with female lead characters might lead you to either conclude that there is a gender bias, or that Miyazaki just does not care about the men. In both cases you are wrong of course, and here is why:
At least two of the movies are rather double-lead-movies, namely Castle in the Sky (Sheeta and Pazu), The Secret World of Arietty (Arietty and Sho) and I guess the argument could be made for Howl’s Moving Castle (Sophie and Howl) which represents an interesting reversal to the other trend in that the main male character is featured prominently in title and ads, but it is actually a female lead (another case being Totoro, by the way, assuming we identify Totoro as a male creature). Two of them follow traditional routes: The two opposite gender characters fall in love and get together in the end. At least for Howl’s Moving Castle this statement holds true, it is very much a love story – if an unconventional one – from the very beginning. Concerning the other castle movie, Laputa, I accept the argument that we never really explicitly learn about Sheeta and Pazu being totally smitten with each other (though it is heavily implied) and end up a couple. But yeah, I guess they do. Looking at the other double-led movies we get another one for that category: Ponyo and Sosuke end up together for like ever (and they are like … five. WTF?), so check.
But with Princess Mononoke we encounter a pattern that is repeated in Arietty. It is implied that the two main characters are at least attracted to each other (mainly because of their differences?) but end up going separate ways. We encounter the same outcome in Spirited Away and at this point you’re probably wondering: why is he blabbering about the relationship-BS so much? Well, lemme tell y’all: cause it’s so damn fine to have family friendly movies with a female lead where she does not have to wed somebody at the end. Remember how strange that seemed back in the day when they did that with Pocahontas? Ain’t no biggie here. Nausicaä is friends with Asbel, Sheeta is friends with Pazu, Chihiro and Haku part as friends and even Kiki and Tombo are nothing more than platonic friends at the end of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Which is to say: Fuck yes, you can have friends of (one of) the other gender(s) and the interaction you can have is not limited to romantic love and/or sex. And I like that, because that is not something we encounter much when it comes to other movies (in general. Yeah, I just claimed that).
Interestingly, even the major love themed features make that point, Ponyo least of all (though we see Sosuke being friends with the girls at kindergarten and old ladies from the nursery home), Howl’s Moving Castle to a limited extent (with Sophie befriending Markl and the scarecrow) and in the probably most “chauvinistic” movie of the Miyazaki oevrue, Porco Rosso, explicitly with presenting a determined love interest, but also a pretty and headstrong mechanic friend.
And the mechanic friend brings us to another issue that is so nice about Miyazaki features: There is a woman who is a mechanic and as such she rocks. Miyazaki features don’t come completely without princesses though, but it’s really just the first two, Nausicaä and Laputa, that need to have their female leads be princesses, but even in Nausicaä being a princess does not hinder you from being an awesome biologist, a good pilot, or an effin’ cold-blooded general. If you happen to be a witch, you still gotta make it on your own and you better do so with the help of a female entrepreneur. Arietty is just a general survivor of sorts, which holds true for another “princess”, San, who is more like a soldier for the cause against humans. While Chihiro, Satsuki and Mei are all kids and do not yet have occupations, Ponyo is a fish, so no job in sight (yet), but Sophie is a hatter, which for us Alice in Wonderland infested minds is probably an occupation associated with mad men (heehee, lame pun, there it was!). Admittedly, we do not get to encounter every other job out there with the female characters in Miyazaki movies, but what we get is diversity and the sense that women come from all sorts of backgrounds, they don’t just have to be either princesses or poor/bullied beauties waiting for the prince to pick their asses up.
This diversity extends to the women themselves, with them coming in all shapes and ages. We encounter our youngest lead in Mei in Totoro, and even though she is supposed to be three or four years old, she is already a pretty complex character with plausible motivation and a healthy curiosity. We have her joyful sister and we encounter Chihiro of roughly the same age who is much less joyful, much less curious but turns out to be awesome nonetheless. There is a very angry San raised by wolves, and a very young Ponyo who decides that being a fish is just not enough for her. Okay, Nausicaä, Sheeta, Arietty, Fio and even Sophie are all roughly the same age and are pretty girls, so you might be asking: stretch much? Well, at least with Sophie we travel through the narrative with a woman much older and a woman actually coming to terms with it. Not to forget other mentionable female characters in not only Howl (the awesome Witch of the Waste, Madam Suliman, or even Sophie’s sister and mum), but also in other features. Who could forget Yubaba and her twin sister of Spirited Away? Or the she-wolf/godess who raised San? Arietty’s quirky mum and the no less quirky housekeeper Haru? The older women in Porco who are keen to help build his plane? I could go on and on. We encounter slim and fat women, young and old, pretty and non-pretty, sweet and sour and what they all have in common is that they are treated as human beings and not as objects for either the plot or even worse, the male gaze.
Because gurls in Miyazaki features know what they want. They are subjects, agents of their own fate. Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke is determined to kill a god, after all, and she actually succeeds. She also integrates lepers and believes in equality when it comes to work. Yubaba doesn’t kill gods, but she makes good money off of them. The interference with her plans is the determination of another female character, Chihiro herself. And in Porco Rosso we not only have Fio who builds Porco’s aircraft anew, we also have Gina who is intent on getting it on with Porco and eventually succeeds. Just like Sophie gets it on with Howl in the end, because she is dragging his ass out of his misery. And the “plot” that is happening in Totoro does so, because Mei wants to go somewhere and her sister takes it upon herself to find her and get her back.
Totoro, together with Kiki’s Delivery Service, is somewhat of an exception IMHO, since both present storylines that rely on their female characters for the majority of time. Of course Totoro is cool and the Catbus is fantastic, but the whole movie revolves around Mei and Satsuki, their bond as sisters and as daughters to their mother and their exploration of the world around them.
In Kiki’s Delivery Service this is taken even further with a lot more of the agency made explicit. There is Kiki herself who tries to make it on her own, but there is also Osono, pregnant yet working and totally supportive of Kiki’s aspirations. There is Ursula, living all by herself and devoting herself to her art. And there are the elderly women who hire Kiki and root for her and her endeavours. Kiki seems to be a film made on the premise to present female solidarity and strength and boy, does it work in that respect, because the relationships feel real and heartfelt and the message is super-positive and uplifting. And for a movie to just go there and do it, tell the story that way with these characters, that’s fucking rare. Sad, but true. How often do you come across a movie that throws us into a situation of female networking and tells us how awesome it is?
Phew, all Miyazaki movies pass the Bechdel Test (ok, Porco…) and thus qualify for promoting female visibility. That’s what is so great about those movies: they are not based on the Smurfette principle with one female character and an all male cast for the rest. In these movies there are women and the interact and they talk about stuff other than just men.
Though they do that, too. What I like is that we see men lusting after women (Porco Rosso and Castle in the Sky most noticeably) and granted, taken for themselves, these two are very cliché in that way (we could argue that we encounter a critique of that in Howl’s Moving Castle), presenting it as “that’s just how boys are, you know?”, but women in Miyazaki movies are also luckily and redeemingly lusting after men. In Princess Mononoke it’s Ashitaka that all the female workers swoon over, and mind you, they do more than just swoon, you can tell they are thinking about IT. It’s kinda sad and shocking how refreshing that still feels, presented in this non-fussy way. We get a little of that in Howl’s Moving Castle, where we are to understand that Howl is sort of a womanizer, but damn, those ladies want a piece of him and they is persistent, honey.
Sure there are a few missteps here an there. Maybe we can attribute it to the debut, or to the 80s or WTF ever, but what is up with Nausicaä’s skirt in Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind? There are these three or four scenes were the wind hits it just right so us fine audience can see some crack. Verrrrrry reminiscent of some anime series out there.
Another personal pet peeve (here cometh the pun:) the female cat in Kiki. Graw, why? Gender-stereotyping for cats, seriously now? I could gladly do without that.
Now, here in my final paragraph I wonder if I’ve been a bit incoherent. What I was trying to say is: in Miyazaki movies we get a refreshing plethora of female characters in charge of their own fate and as such, these movies stand out from the majority of movies we usually get to see. That is what makes them so special to me. Sure there are a very few minor quibbles, and sure, not all the movies are of the same stellar quality, but even if the plot moves a little too slow, or the villain is too cookie-cutter, I never ever once have an issue with how women are portrayed in these movies and go thinking: “that some sexist bullshit”. There are so many other movies that are great for a variety of reasons, but where this is exactly what puts me off a little – they don’t get that right.
So Halle-lou! for Miyazaki movies and his brand of feminism and flaunting it.
Let’s go back to the beginning!
Welcome back to Miyazaki March (HERE is the directory to all posts related to Miyazaki’s features) where today we will travel back to 1984 and have a look at what is canonically considered to be the first Studio Ghibli animation feature: Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Fasten your seatbelts and ready for takeoff!
Technically, Nausicaä is not a Studio Ghibli film since the studio was founded after production and release of the film. However, folks at Ghibli themselves don’t seem to think that’s true and consider the 1984 release as the starting point for Studio Ghibli, listing it as the first feature by the studio and including it in their DVD lines. Nausicaä is based on a manga series of the same name by, whoda thunk it, Hayao Miyazaki himself, but the series ended only after the movie had been released. It was presented by the World Wide Fund for Nature, and in the discussion below it’ll become clear as to why (not that reviews so far wouldn’t have pointed that out…). Internationally, New World Pictures released the film under the title Warriors of the Wind and re-edited the thing to erase the environmentalist themes and market it as a more action packed feature (with a ridiculous VHS cover featuring male characters that aren’t even in the movie). Miyazaki distanced himself from that version and adopted a no-edits clause for all his subsequent movies, to prevent disasters like this from happening again.
First off, re-watching the movie for Miyazaki March held a surprise in store for me: I didn’t remember the movie as that good. And boy oh boy, that good it really is. This whole re-watch has made me pay closer attention to the animation in particular and I was mighty impressed by how good Nausicaä holds up against the newer features with their CGI enhancement, but also how it seems much better animated than the following Castle in the Sky.
I guess a lot of that animation glory can be credited to the toxic jungle and the ohmus – they look amazing. Especially the glowing colors give the whole feature a much more current feel than Laputa (even though it has its own moments of glow). And yes, we know exactly where James Cameron got his visual ideas for Avatar from. Ts, thief.
Seriously, the toxic jungle looks magnificient and it’s a bit of a let-down that we get to spend so little time in it. I would have wished for some more exploratory scenes to just stare wide-eyed at the toxic wonders. But granted, the movie is as action packed as it gets already, so no time to waste.
There is war.
People fight people and nations attack nations. We have the Tolmekians attack the Pejites and because of that little stunt a plane crashed down in the Valley of the Wind (which is its own sort of … nation? State?). Which in turn brings the Tolmekians right into the Valley and with them a very ambitious and angry leader – her Highness Kushana – who is not only dead-set on burning the jungle down and killing all the ohmus, she is also determined to defeat all the Pejites and all the folks of the Valley of the Wind, because they are in her way. And while she’s at it, she actually turns against her own nation to build her own little power base with a giant warrior in her back. The whole giant warrior business was kinda interesting, because it feels like it’s there to be this either massive revelation or massive weapon and ultimately the giant warrior we get to see falls apart within seconds and all the rest has been figured out before anyways.
The war(s) in Nausicaä seem convoluted and rather pointless, but that’s exactly what they are. The movie is very overt in its endorsement of pacifism, represented by the main character Nausicaä herself, who goes out of her way to make people realize that they should stop killing and working against each other. As such, the movie is even more explicit in that respect than the following Ghibli feature Castle in the Sky, which was also presenting us with scenarios of war and death, but in Nausicaä there is more blood, a little less fire, but a lot more pleading for peace and pacifism. Which is not a bad thing per se and which I found handled rather well in the movie and not as heavy-handed as it actually sounds when I write it out. The only thing that bugged me about it, was how inconsequent Nausicaä was. Whenever someone from another nation shot she was screaming “Stop it!” from the top of her lungs, but when Mito shoots the airship she is trying to escape from she just looks and says nothing. Girl, what’s with no more killing each other? Got too inconvenient there? Mmmph. But I’ll let that slide for once.
And then there is a hostile toxic jungle.
Saying that the war seems pointless does not mean that those people don’t find their reasons or justifications. The major one being: there is a toxic jungle, it spread, we don’t want to be consumed so we do whatever it takes to not get consumed. I’ve said it before and gladly say it again: the toxic jungle itself is beautiful. Luscious, full of wonder and eerily at peace. It is an interesting concept to have something like a jungle, which for us represents something alive and vibrant (and endangered itself) presented as deadly, toxic and dangerous. The imagery connected to the spores and the spreading of the like is awesome, however, the whole jungle business poses some interesting question, especially with regards to the revelation that the jungle might be toxic but is actually just absorbing all the poison that humankind has left behind, so that there can be life on earth. But if the earth is poisened how come that people still live and find enough food? Ok, the explanation for the Valley of the Wind is, ermh, the wind, which okay, I’ll accept. But in the other nations? It it said that they are not as close to the toxic jungle as the Valley, but then again, they too surely must live in the same sort of post-apocalyptic world. What do they eat then if they too are endangered by the jungle? How are they kept safe? If you start to think about it the whole idea seems to not make too much sense pretty quickly but to the movie’s credit, while watching it I didn’t question the premise.
All of the above is there because we fucked up. Is what the movie is trying to say. While it concentrates mostly on the anti-war message and condemns the excessive violence used by humankind which led to the 7 days of fire there is a strong environmentalist underpinning. I was a little surprised to find that they actually don’t explicitly mention anything about us polluting the earth like crazy (cause I kinda thought they would), but from the movie itself it reads like an atomic catastrophe that destroyed the lands for hundreds of years to come. Which does not prevent me from imagining that the movie is also saying that we are polluters in general. So, yeah, the movie is a bit finger-pointy saying “see, you better stop that fighting!” and keep in mind that this was first half of the 80s, Cold War still intact and looking like it would go on for a lot longer. Not that Japan would need the Cold War to be reminded of the dangers of atomic weapons though. I like how the movie manages to keep the balance between getting the feeling across that they are talking about events that we in our time caused while not being super-judgemental about it a la “these assholes”. Not that blows should be softened, but because it prevents the message from being heavy-handed.
And before we close this one on Nausicaä, three more quick things:
Let us all just admit and acknowledge that we encounter an early Pikachu with Teto here. Totally out of the question. Okay, I see the differences, but come on. How in 2012 can you not look at Teto and go “what’s Pikachu doing in this movie?” Or one of his many closely related Pokemon co-creatures (cause frankly, my Pokemon knowledge covers only the red and blue edition a.k.a. I am stone-age old).
The whole thousand years in the future thing feels hardly sci-fi, but what is hilarious is the steampunkish mash-up of tanks and airships and all sorts of shooting weapons and then the Tolmekians with their armor and capes and … swords? SWORDS, you guys! So you can stab the airplane that’s shooting you? Too cute. Also: How ridiculously good is her Highness Kushana’s armor? And I won’t even get started on how I dislike the whole royal families system displayed here. Nah.
And last but not least with the first Miyazaki directed Ghibli feature we also get our blueprint for movies to come: the independent, active and engaging female lead (with red hair). While I get the vague sense that Nausicaä has a personality, she is really much more of the shining hero without flaw type, which is something we encounter in all sorts of variations in Miyazaki movies to come (ermh, or rather also those already discussed). But let us not get ahead, because the issue of the female lead will get its own discussion in tomorrow’s post.
Two thumbs up for Nausicaä from the Valley of the Winds. It’s not that from the first one on every movie got better and better. Nausicaä is actually is strong start and a stronger movie than other Miyazaki directed Ghibli features.
Keeping with the unconventional castle theme we’ll have a look at Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky for Miyazaki March (all other posts HERE), in which we will discuss why pirates love the color pink, why mining cities are awesome and how robots will save all our asses. Take a seat, enjoy the ride.
To me at first it seemed that Castle in the Sky was a rather new Miyazaki/Ghibli feature because it was released to theaters in Germany after Howl’s Moving Castle. However, it is the first ‘official’ Ghibli feature and was released in Japan in 1986. It was released to German theaters twenty years later. You are probably not surprised by this, but Castle in the Sky is one of the lesser financial successes of Studio Ghibli. It made enough, but wasn’t a massive smash and in the US it was a straight to DVD release.
So, right away: the beginning felt too long. I missed being thrown into the whole narrative, even though the movie tried to do just that. We get main characters and pirates and falling from the sky within the first few minutes. But then the whole introduction of Pazu and where he works and where he lives and how he and Sheeta get to know each other and how they are chased and how they escape… It just seems to never end. I want them to get to the damn castle already, but it takes soooooo long. And while I usually really appreciate movies taking their time I am especially frustrated, because I know that the whole Laputa bit is pretty exciting and brings up some relevant points and plot developments. So I get super-impatient if I have to sit through the third chasing scene where they just barely escape when I know that so much more interesting stuff is going to happen. And on top of that I believe that some of that time could have been used way better in giving us some more so see in Laputa itself. Some more time for wonder, some more time for the movie’s eco-friendly message, for example. Grah!
Having bitched and moaned about the too long intro in the mining city: the mining city is an awesome place. Sure, it probably sucks to live and have to work there, but the way the city nestles itself into the crevices of the cliffs and rocks just looks really amazing. Oh, and the railroad-tracks are ridiculous! In the best way imaginable, of course. There is so much steampunk going on, it’s even going to hurt modern reinterpretation Sherlock Holmes’ head. While I am actually a proponent of shortening the time the narrative spends in the city, at the same time I want more time to just have to look at it. Maybe this is really my critique: we get to see those incredible and incredibly beautiful places, but spend too little time there to appreciate their full beauty and wonder.
But let us move on to the characters.
The pirates are a lovely lot. Castle in the Sky is an exception to an otherwise pretty accurate Miyazaki rule in that we have a clearly identified villain who remains a villain until the very end. And since he sucks and is rather lame cause his motivation is a little movie-villain-esque I am just going to omit any discussion of him as a character. However, we also witness the occurrence of another basic rule: introduction of villains that turn out to be good guys actually, which in this case is of course Dola and her pirate gang. And holla, are they hilarious or what? From Dola herself and the pink color palette chosen for their vehicles and uniforms alike (most probably due to Dola’s hair color), these pirates are very reminiscent of the Porco Rosso air pirates and as such they are both sweet and adorable (although they also heavily play into the stereotype of men thinking with their dicks, which is something that the movie will not outright state, but which is certainly what’s going on). And Dola is just one heck of a character. If I ever wanted to encounter a pirate, it would most certainly be her. Also, what is going on with the family ties? She clearly isn’t everyone’s mom, and the dad clearly isn’t everyone’s dad (and the two of them might never even ever had any sort of romantic or sexual involvement), yet they all consider each other close family. How utterly endearing. I’m all pro-choice (so much for controversial statements today), especially when it comes to choosing your family ties.
Castle in the Sky, together with Nausicaä and Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki’s strongest and most overt message for the conservation and preservation of nature, coupled with the graphic damnation of the brutality of humankind (and certain forms of technological ‘progress’). Which is really interesting in this case, because it is an unlikely setting and actually not something the movie seems to be about in the beginning. Does it work as the eco-friendly tale it tries to be? I am actually not sure. I think the robots taking care of trees and animals on Laputa are powerful imagery, but as I’ve stated before, I think we spend too little time with them. I think the impact could be much stronger if only we got to witness their commitment a little more.
And are those robots iconic characters? Well, I know there is a replica of one in the Studio Ghibli museum in Japan, but then again, there are other rather similar robots in other animation features. But that should not distract us from the fact that these robots here in Castle in the Sky are sickening in the most positive sense of the word (drag-references, ahoi!), because those dude_ttes care and do so with a (electronic) passion. Besides them being really super-cute as animal shelters and tree-huggers I am also fascinated by how efficiently the movie presents the various sides of them. We first encounter one as a relict from ancient times just to see it become this machine on a killing spree, and honeys, a killing spree this is. Make not mistake about Laputa being pretty and cozy and alla that, these robots are crazy weapons. They blast through anything and make it burst, which looks (aesthetically) amazing but also really scary. But then there are those who ran out of power, and my oh my, am I the only one who is so thoroughly touched by the imagery used here? Them sitting down on the roots of the tree to slowly be enshrined and absorbed by it? Because when we talk about choosing your family ties, this is what we need to address as well: These robots are beings we think of as unrelated to or even existing in opposition to nature, but here in the floating castle of Laputa they choose to “return” to nature and lie down in the embrace of a ginormous tree. This conception alone is so freaking fantastic, it makes me shed some tears of joy (at least theoretically).
All in all, this is not my favorite Miyazaki film, but it certainly is a good movie with a powerful message that could be a tad shorter than it is. Indeed, I consider it to be one of Miyazaki’s weakest, but that is really just a testament as to how amazingly superior these films are to other material in general, so a strong movie like this can be ranked that low on a list.
Tonight (or today, or tomorrow?, well: now) we shall discuss one of Miyazaki’s finest gems and his financially most successful movie to date: Howl’s Moving Castle. Other posts of Miyazaki March can be found by clicking THIS LINK, where you will find my discussion of other Hayao Miyazaki directed features. But now, my dears, let us focus on the Moving Castle of Mr. Magician Howl.
Howl’s Moving Castle followed right on the heels of arguably Studio Ghibli’s biggest critical success – and the one that propelled the Studio and in Miyazaki’s name to new heights. Hitting theaters after Spirited Away, there was a lot of pressure on Howl’s Moving Castle to repeat the success. And so it did. As of today, Howl’s Moving Castle ranks as the most successful Studio Ghibli feature internationally with regards to making bank. Which is rather surprising on the one hand – on the other hand, not so much.
The movie is, like several other Ghibli features, an adaptation, this time of a 1986 novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who approved of the film and thought it to be fantastic, even though she had no input in the films making, which differs significantly from the novel.
When people ask me for a Top 3 Miyazaki movie ranking I’d go with Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and…yeah. My Top 3 is made up of four movies, because no. 3 is a tie between Porco Rosso and Howl’s Moving Castle. There are a lot of reasons why it could rather be Howl’s Moving Castle, but there are also very few, but very significant missteps that make it less stellar than it could be. Why Porco Rosso has so much going for it to deserve this tie-in is something I will cover in a later post.
That being said, besides Porco Rosso the Top 3 have one thing in common that distinguishes them from many of the other Miyazaki movies (not all, mind you): An epic scope. There is a grandeur to both scenery and stakes that makes these three stand out from the others. It lends them weight and meaning that transcends that of other beautiful movies like Totoroor Kiki’s Delivery Service, which are awesome and beautiful, but there is much less of an emotional ride waiting for us in them.
In that, Howl’s Moving Castle is different, and one of the most ambitious Miyazaki movies. There is war and magic battles, a great love story and the forging of an unlikely family. So many issues are covered, yet there is enough room to squeeze in action at every corner. But let us get to this in orderly fashion, cause orderly fashionistas we are.
I rewatched all the movies for Miyazaki march, and what I found striking about Howl’s Moving Castle is how it feels like a culmination of all the other Miyazaki movies and yet manages to take it a step further. The city that Sophie lives in feels a lot like Kikoro, the city that Kiki chooses for her witch training, right down to the narrow little streets and the presentation of masses of people. There is Porco Rosso in there with Sophie becoming something other than she actually is, an old lady when she is actually a woman in her twenties, but every now and then her appearance changes back and gives other characters glimpses on who is underneath there. There definitely is Nausicaä with the depiction of the flying war vessels and the depiction of the bombings. There are powerful witches and black blob creatures reminiscent of Spirited Away and though it might be a stretch, we can associate the moving castle with Totoro’s catbus. It feels like the folks at Studio Ghibli thought “hey, wouldn’t it be fun if in our next feature we just took elements of all our other features and glue them together with an all new story?”. And then they did just that.
I praise the animation of the discussed feature in basically any Miyazaki March post, but it was with Howl’s Moving Castle that it became really apparent what the difference was between some of the newer ones and others from the 80s and early 90s. There is a depth to the animation that wasn’t there before. Kiki and Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky and the like are beautiful, but with what seems to be more CGI and also more willingness to experiment there is more depth to rooms and scenery all of a sudden. Distance and proportions seem more lifelike, as if the animation was edging towards 3D. The same holds true for Spirited Away and the most recent one, Arietty, but somehow it really caught my attention here, because even in the first few scenes within the hatter’s shop the rooms seem more dimensional and deeper than they did in features before.
And basically needless, but worth mentioning anyways: There is some magnificent imagery in Howl’s Moving Castle, from the Castle itself to the flying warships, the palace and the houses in Kingsbury. I really liked the star-headed rainbow creatures that Madame Suliman sends after them and that Howl had encountered as a kid. And then there are of course the scenes in the Alps mountains, with beautiful lakes, snow-topped mountains and the fields of flowers. This is some serious high class animation. Gag on its extravaganza, children.
What I am really conflicted about is an aspect that works to Howl’s Moving Castle’s advantage most of the time, but destroys some of its impact at the very end. I have said it before, and I will say it again: Some things are better left unsaid. Or unexplained. Sure we know that Sophie was cursed and that’s why she inhabits the body of an old lady now, but it’s fine that we never get an explanation as to how it works that sometimes she does no longer. Because that is not only part of the mystery, there is the fun of figuring it out. Of guessing if it is her confidence, the love she feels, or the love she is given that turns her back into the young woman she is. Other elements don’t get an explanation either. Like Markl. What is he doing there? Who’s kid is he? Why does nobody ever ask these questions in the movie itself? But that’s alright. He’s there and rad. And more questions unanswered: Why is Heen so ridiculously awesome? Why do his feet look like that? What’s with the shape of the castle, why does it look like some monster-fish? All these things are fine without explanation. I dare you to make something up in the comments. It’s interesting to think about those things, and probably better than any sort of answer they could have come up with in-movie. But then, well, there are things that need an explanation and don’t get one. And boy, does that suck.
Talking about the ending of course. Well, to be honest, it starts before, because we talk about the war, actually. We never get an explanation why the war is happening. And up until the end it doesn’t really matter, since the point the movie is trying to drive home is that war is irrational anyways and there is no need for all this violence and cruelty. But then one mystery gets solved, surprisingly. The scarecrow is the neighboring country’s prince. Why he was a scarecrow and how the kiss rescued him when it wasn’t true love are really only the minor quibbles. The big mistake in all of this is that it implies that the war was fought because the prince was missing. That is a weak argument for a war and a much too simplified solution as to why governments send their troops to war. But he promises to go home and end it and oh wonder, Suliman sees everyone happy and united and says “call the minister of defense” and we’re led to think, alright now, she ends this war. She labels it even silly. So, this whole war happened because one king was without his son and Suliman just wanted to have a little fun with her magical terror-troupe? That is not only a lame-ass explanation, it is also one that sucks, because it doesn’t make any sense. It offers a solution that feels simple and cheap, partly because it is too rushed and forced (heck, we never knew about the prince, we get to see him for like 2 seconds, and then we’re supposed to care?) and the other part being that it diminishes the impact of the imagery shown before. So the war was maybe not so terrible after all since it really was just some quabble that can be called off like that. This ending is in my eyes the movie’s gravest mistake. It is the reason why Howl’s Moving Castle is not undoubtedly my Top Third (or even #1) favorite Miyazaki movie and it chops off some of the epicness that powers the rest of the narrative.
Oh, whine, whine, I know. I hate the ending with a passion, but even with that Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the best animation features out there and not only one of Miyazaki’s most ambitious, but also most thrilling and beautiful. I may hate a tiny little part of it, but I absolutely adoringly love the rest of it.