Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko)

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko) 1994

I guess you could say Pom Poko appeared right in the middle of a golden period for Ghibli, and from a production standpoint it’s just as wonderfully animated as any others from the time. I also think it’s probably just as (or more) imaginative to my eye, in part due to the wealth of mythological creatures featured within.

But even though I still enjoy the movie I don’t think it’s my favourite by Isao Takahata and I wonder if that was due to my expectations upon first viewing, rather than any real deficiency in the film. For instance, I think I unfairly expected more whimsy from Pom Poko upon first glance, both due to Ghibli’s general history and the animal cast.

Of course – that was always my error, since everyone who has seen Pom Poko is well aware that it’s very much a David vs Goliath story, with the animals fighting against humanity’s quest to conquer wild spaces, and without spoiling the ending, I guess I’ll have to just say the words ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ to offer a general clue.

And so my misconceptions were all my fault and truly, there is whimsy. The tanuki can be just as playful as the kitsune are sly, and there is comedy too but I think of the movie as more of a drama, and one which wears its environmentalism very much upon its sleeve – even including a fourth wall break.

Again, it probably sounds like I don’t enjoy Pom Poko but that’s not true – I wonder if maybe I’m just comparing it unfairly to other works from the studio? Or maybe I wanted a different ending for an underdog story, even if I knew it wasn’t possible all along.

3 Stars

Origin: Spirits of the Past (Gin’iro no Kami no Agito)

Origin: Spirits of the Past (Gin’iro no Kami no Agito) 2006

In the years after Spirited Away won its Oscar it seemed that mainstream western journalists and reviewers suddenly had a benchmark they could refer back to in order to measure any subsequent release against – and I understand, it’s a clear reference and hallmark of superb quality, and one that a large readership would have recognised.

And all reviews are probably at least a little bit of a reaction to ‘what came before’ and I certainly do that myself and I like that approach when it contextualises a film. But what I think bugs me a little about bouncing any movie or series off a high water mark is that invariably, almost everything will fall short and then not be wholly judged on its own merits, and instead be discussed in light of all the ways it didn’t match the seminal text.

So I’ll try not to do that here and instead try and say that while Origin will make some viewers think of Miyazaki and Ghibli, it has its own problems that are unrelated to how much or how little it evokes Studio Ghibli.

And it’s not the animation or art, which is at times breathtaking, especially during the opening forest scenes or the fiery climax, but for me, a general flatness to the story drags it down. And I know that’s a vague, essentially useless descriptor for a review, right? But despite some great action sequences and big themes (around environmentalism and cooperation), the story didn’t captivate me.

Maybe it was a little rushed, because I wanted more time with the characters. I wanted to see them explore the world and magic and new societies a little more deeply too. And there were a few folks introduced that felt like they could have had a bigger impact on the story – but were somewhat reduced to cameos, like Jessica and Minka.

Still, I enjoyed Origin: Spirits of the Past despite my largely critical review here and maybe I’m most disappointed in how close it might have come to a real classic? There are some fantastic scenes throughout and again, wondrous imagery and animation to enjoy too, if you don’t mind a storyline that’s a little generic at times.

3 Stars

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Kaze no Tani no Naushika)
1984

I suppose you could argue that Nausicaa is not precisely a Ghibli title, since the success of the film was part of what actually enabled Studio Ghibli to be formed in the first place, but it’s always sold and labelled as such and of course, Nausicaa features the ‘power trio’ of Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki, who would go on to have such a big impact on the landscape of cinema in Japan.

Folks were making Nausicaa’s glider a few years ago but I’m not sure where they’re at now: http://www.petworks.co.jp/~hachiya/works/OpenSky.html

Generally, I consider this my favourite Ghibli film despite tough competition from a few other movies, in part due to the scale but also the small moments that humanise the characters throughout.

Looking back, it’s easy to see the roots of what might now be called a ‘classic’ mix of Miyazaki themes: environmentalism, fantasy settings, war, the joy of flight, and the use of a female lead whose ability to solve conflict with kindness (as opposed to endless violence) is both a key part of plot and charactarisation.

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On the off chance that you’re unfamilair with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, here’s a tiny blurb:

Threatened by spreading toxic jungles, Nausicaa’s people rely on their own vigilance and the wind to protect their homes and people. When a ship carrying an ominous secret crashes in their valley, warring nations converge on the Valley of the Wind and it’s up to Nausicaa to save her people.

Part of why the film is so enthralling for me is due to the world-building; it’s so detailed – you can feel that there’s so much more beneath the surface, the world in Nausicaa is so interconnected, from its environment and its tensions to the prejudice of its peoples, it’s just as realistic as it is fantastical. (This is no doubt in part due to the film basis in a multi-volume manga written by Miyazaki himself). The insects especially, are impressive and varied but also complex creatures – not in the least being the almost majestic Ohmu.

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Fans of Hideaki Anno will of course be aware that he was hired to work on the film’s climax with the great warrior – this gif offers a glimpse but not the whole sequence, though it’s still impressive enough (and I won’t say ‘for the 1980s’ because that’d be needlessly reductive).

Like many Miyazaki films, there’s another beautiful soundtrack composed by Joe Hisaishi too, this time with an electronic feel typical of the 80s, though the opening piece to the movie is still sweeping and orchestral. Below is a live performance for the 25th Anniversary where you can see Joe leap from the role of conductor to pianist 😀

5 Stars

Green Legend Ran (Gurīn Rejendo Ran)

For me, this OVA series was in no way terrible… but it just seemed like it included a pretty wide range of ideas that didn’t quite come together by the end, and so missed the mark a little for me.

Green Legend Ran (Gurīn Rejendo Ran) 1992

A lot of folks mention the influence of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind here and it’s definitely clear, though Green Legend Ran is both more violent and less assured in its storytelling, I reckon.

There were some haunting moments and some sharp action sequences in the series but even with a reasonably sympathetic hero and heroine, I still wasn’t enthralled.

I did like the character design from Yoshimitsu Ohashi (who has worked on Millennium Actress and Trigun among others) some of it was really memorable – especially the Bishops, who were both bizarre and creepy, that aspect was pretty great.

Other characters appear bold in a way that maybe evokes something common to kids animation, but this maybe clashes a little with the tone of the story for me.

Not the best example I could find actually, still somewhat illustrative despite the true size of the thing not quite being fully clear.

(In terms of more ‘cross-overs’ from other 1990s series, a minor character is also voiced by Kōichi Yamadera who is easily recognisable as the voice of Spike from Cowboy Bebop.)

Even though it’s not super-detailed, I did enjoy the setting – it had a good mix of dystopian desert and unnerving greenery, though I don’t want to talk too much about those scenes so as to avoid spoilers.

It was nice to be unsure as to who exactly was the bigger threat in this series, as nearly everyone poor Ran and Aira encounter have their own hidden motives.

Still, despite some big themes and some fun connections with other shows, I’d only recommend Green Legend Ran if you had always been curious about the series and perhaps can find it reasonably cheap/can stream it.

3 Stars