Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka)

Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka) 1988

I wanted to watch this again before writing a new review… but I just couldn’t manage it, the story is too harrowing.

And I guess, due to that fact, I believe the film does work as an anti-war statement – despite that not being the intent of the movie. (Director Isao Takahata mentioned that he does not see Grave of the Fireflies that way and I certainly won’t argue that he also succeeded in critiquing the follies of pride so, so well).

5 Stars

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta) 1986

The first official Ghibli film, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a steampunk adventure that will feel similar in some ways to Miyazaki’s previous epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, though Castle in the Sky is overall, a lighter story due to the inclusion of more comedy.

It’s one of the first things I noticed when I originally saw the film actually – the slapstick and wacky characterisation even feels cartoonish this time, as if those aspects were pitched at a younger audience perhaps, but the themes and trials the characters go through are just as serious as in Miyazaki’s other works. There’s more than a few echoes of Future Boy Conan too (which shouldn’t be a surprise of course) but the steampunk elements are more grounded, if you can permit me a pun, featuring one key setting of a mining town and the underground.

Of course, the classic Miyazaki delight with the power and nature of flight still features heavily in Castle in the Sky too and the ‘older civilisation with greater tech’ trope is in full force, one I suspect I will never tire of! There’s plenty of action like chases and fights, along with top notch animation as to be expected, and I still get a bit of a chill when the Robot first comes to life and goes on its rampage.

In fact, I think the most memorable aspect might just be the Robots and the ruins of the flying city – I reckon I was almost transformed into a kid when I first saw those scenes; the sense of wonder is so strong and I suspect, even if people don’t know the film they know what the robots look like. It was also pretty cool to see what I still think of as the clear inspiration for both Pikachu and Eevee, in the form of the Fox Squirrels from Nausicaa making a cameo in the garden scene.

Actually, I shouldn’t forget Dola and her pirate gang, she’s one of the best Miyazaki characters around – she tends to steal pretty much all the scenes she’s in 🙂

Anyway, on the off chance that you’ve never seen this adventure there’s lots of other aspects to enjoy – for instance, if you’re watching the dub, Mark Hammil is a great villain and whichever audio track you choose you can enjoy more stirring music from Joe Hisaishi – my favourite is the theme:

(It’s actually the second song here – sorry :D)

5 Stars

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

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