Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti)

Arrietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietti) 2010

Before Hiromasa Yonebayashi became a founding member of Studio Ponoc, he was working at Ghibli on a lot of their blockbuster films. Arrietty was his debut as director, with a screenplay that Miyazaki adapted from The Borrowers. (Another example of his interest in storytelling from the UK).

This one is not in my top five Ghibli films, but I do prefer Arrietty to Yonebayashi’s other feature for the studio, When Marnie was There.

Ultimately, what keeps this one from climbing up the ranking in my mind, is the ending, which felt a little flat compared to the rest of the film… but I won’t try to claim that it’s a bad ending, because that’d be an exaggeration, I reckon.

What I loved most was the clear ‘world-within-a-world’ that existed in the film, with the borrowers having not only their own home and cast-off possessions, but that different perspective on human homes.

It’s a warm, intimate world where little is wasted and ‘simple’ tasks take on more epic dimensions – like that first quest for sugar. (Those scenes show the same beautiful attention to detail Ghibli is known for, mirrored in the natural world too, but for me I think of the house most whenever I remember Arrietty.)

I won’t ramble on much longer, but the tension between the Arriety and Sho’s storylines eventually meeting is great, and I always find it sad but sweet when he tries to switch the kitchen around. But of course – in the end, he cannot help Arrietty and her family, as the power of one small boy cannot fully stand up to the cruelty of the adult world.

Still, Arrietty isn’t a tragedy, so there’s an ultimately uplifting ending in store if you’ve never seen this one 🙂

4 Stars

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru)

Ocean Waves (Umi ga Kikoeru) 1993

Ocean Waves is a teen romance with a love triangle, which is where much of the drama comes from, though there are a few comedic moments too (like the bathtub-as-bed offer).

Compared to other Ghibli films it’s perhaps a little slight, being a bit shorter (as most TV movies are) and having a fairly narrow focus in terms of its story, but it’s still quite lovely visually.

Usually that’s enough for me to really enjoy an animated work on at least some levels but I can’t help but think of Rikako as a villain in most ways, which marred my enjoyment. Sure, it’s a story about teens and the things that hold them back from being honest… but still, I didn’t end up seeing her as someone Taku or Yutaka should have fallen for.

Having said all that, Ocean Waves is by no means a poor film and many folks regard it as an underappreciated part of the Ghibli catalogue. I guess it is in a way, since fewer people tend to mention it and I don’t believe it’s had a dub just yet. The ‘fathers’ of Ghibli were looking to develop successors in the early and mid 1990s and they had Tomomi Mochizuki in to direct Ocean Waves, and I recently learnt that other studios were involved in the actual production too.

Definitely worth a look for completionists perhaps, or maybe folks interested in 1990s Japan as there’s a bit of slice of life detail too.

3 stars

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) 2016

It’s always exciting to see animation helmed by folks from beyond Japan and the US, since those are the two production locations I’ve been most exposed to.

Having said that, Studio Ghibli is a co-producer but the look and feel of this feature film definitely reveals more of Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s hand, and an overall European aesthetic. For me, with my limited knowledge of animation in the wider world, I saw hints of Herge in the character designs but that’s not really important.

I’m trying to be brief for a change (hahaha), so instead, let me leap to a bit of plot – this is a fantasy, but chiefly a drama about a man stranded on an island and who encounters a curiously belligerent (it seems) red turtle. (Thematically, it’s more nuanced than that however).

Switching to the tone of the story I think you can’t go wrong by saying that it can be described as a cross between Castaway and a fairy tale. Yet The Red Turtle is ultimately more uplifting than the Tom Hanks film. Still, it’s fairly downbeat – but I remained enthralled by the visuals once a central mystery was resolved perhaps halfway through.

Focusing on the visuals, aside from the ‘line and dot’ look of a lot of the film, it’s an explosion of light and colour without being gaudy; it remains so natural, becoming almost hyper-natural in some ways. From the sand, water and forests, it’s like a work of art. There’s also a lot of dramatic composition too, with wide and sometimes extreme establishing shots to really drive home the idea that humanity is just one part of the world. Yet it’s hardly a preachy film, considering one feature is a lack of dialogue.

Very much worth seeing if you’re a fan of the art of animation.

4 Stars

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

The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi)

The Cat Returns (Neko no Ongaeshi) 2002

After 1995’s Whisper of the Heart I imagine at least a few folks were saying ‘I wish we could read one of Shizuku’s stories about Baron’ and luckily, that’s the premise of The Cat Returns.

It’s a loose sequel to Whisper of the Heart (as the carry-over characters are limited to the Baron and Muta) and it follows more of an adventure/isekai storyline – and those aren’t negative differences for me. The movie is also a little shorter than most Ghibli films but Aoi Hiiragi is still involved with the writing so the Baron is his usual charming self.

As ever, the animation is great. Both the real world and the Cat Kingdom that main character Haru finds herself dragged into are bright and memorable but for me, despite Haru being a good lead, I was mostly thrilled to see Baron get to take (mostly) centre stage. There’s daring rescues, thrilling chases and even a bit of swordplay, and also comedic moments here and there too – not just slapstick, but also things like the neat little pun in the form of the CIA-like tuxedo cats.

And in a way, the film is worth it to see Muta in action too 🙂

During the years of Ghibli powering along and releasing back to back blockbusters, it seemed like maybe there wasn’t much time for the leaders of the studio to support new directors as much as they’d perhaps like… although, I haven’t read deeply on the subject but I’m very curious nevertheless.

Because obviously Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki have at times given the reins to other staff members and results have mostly been great, I reckon – especially with the most obvious choice in Yoshifumi Kondō (who directed Whisper of the Heart.) Here, in The Cat Returns, Hiroyuki Morita was given director’s chair. Over the years, he’d been involved in a lot of impressive titles before being given the spotlight, like Akira, Lupin III, Memories, My Neighbors the Yamadas and GITS2 among others.

In the end, I don’t know if The Cat Returns ended up being overall as enchanting for me as Whisper of the Heart but obviously they’re different films by design, and The Cat Returns is still worth watching at least once.

3 Stars

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta)

Porco Rosso (Kurenai no Buta) 1992

Ah, the Crimson Pig – another classic Ghibli film, and another chance for Miyazaki to explore romance and the thrill of flight, along with the planes themselves too.

Having opened with that statement I’ll quickly add that Porco Rosso is still most definitely an action film but there’s a real sense of a sweeping, even war-time Hollywood romance to a lot of the story and setting, which is no surprise given the historical aspects.

Doubtless everyone is aware that this movie was based on a Miyazaki manga and commissioned (at first) as a shorter film for flights upon Japan Airlines. But it quickly grew into a full-length feature and I reckon it’s one of his best, though Porco doesn’t get the same attention as say, Spirited Away, Howls or Totoro.

In brief, Porco Rosso is the story of an Italian ace fighter pilot who has turned his back on humanity and even cursed himself into having a pig’s head. He now works the Adriatic sea as a bounty hunter and struggles to deal with his old life – perhaps chief amongst his worries is former love Gina (voiced in the dub by Susan Egan who some will recognise as Lin from Spirited Aaway).

Again, I’ll skip away from too many details of the plot but there’s a lot of comedy in the movie too, mostly provided by Porco’s rival, the ego maniac (yet somewhat honorable) Curtis. But there’s plenty of room for slapstick too and some good one-liners, and perhaps most amusingly, Miyazaki gets to expand upon the comical (even silly) fist fight routine he also used in Laputa: Castle in the Sky years earlier.

But I think most of what really enthrals me each time I see the film is the stunning scenery – it’s an idealised but still enchanting version of Europe – even with the fascists. And having Porco’s plane painted red really makes it pop against the sunny blues and greens; I guess it’s an obvious but still effective choice.

Of course, being a visual medium I’m gonna mention the actual plane designs and attention to detail there too, which seems stunning, and the dogfights are always fantastic. I wish I knew more about aviation to really appreciate the work I think Miyazaki and Ghibli put in to those aspects, actually.

But another aspect that stands out to me was the dub – it felt like, post the success of Spirited Away, Disney decided to put a fair bit of money behind the voice acting. I always feel a little sad when I don’t give the original actors enough credit, since they deserve to be heard, but I’ve grown really accustomed to Michael Keaton as Porco and Cary Elwes as Curtis (in fact, all of Cary’s work for Ghibli feels perfect to me :D). There’s even a gruff Brad Garrett right around the peak of Everybody Loves Raymond in a smaller role.

Aside from the adventure, romance and aerial battles, this might be Miyazaki’s most intertexual film for Ghibli, since it comes jam-packed full of references – I’m sure I’ve missed some but it feels like there are so many: Hollywood-style movie posters, Gina’s lounge-singing scene, the Disney and Betty Boop homages in the cinema, the historical context of course and the haunting Roald Dahl scene to name a few. I guess there’s also a few in-jokes, and maybe Fio hearkens back to Nausicaa somewhat, in the way that the fist fight looks back to Miyazaki’s earlier work too. In fact, there’s one of his quotes that I found when I went digging:

“When a man becomes middle-aged, he becomes a pig”

And I wonder if middle age (I guess he was around 50 at the time) influenced a lot of the nostalgia found in the movie? (As opposed to Miyazaki claiming that he himself was a pig).

The richness of the allusions continue to Joe Hisashi’s soundtrack too – which is perhaps not as lush as that of Howl’s Moving Castle, but when I listen to it now I wonder if it isn’t more romantic? So much is beautiful:

But there’s also the moments like this, to circle back to the allusions, where it seems Hisaishi is channeling Flight of the Bumblebee:

And I’m sure there are other aspects I missed there, but since this ended up being far longer than I first imagined, I think I’ll wrap it up now and just say that I love this movie 😀

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

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hauru no ugoku shiro)
(2004)

Miyazaki and the Ghibli team are almost always stellar at adaptation. Very occasionally, I wish they worked a little more with original stories over the course of their run, but I’ll set that aside for this post 🙂

Howl’s… was first (and still is) a fantastic, semi-satirical and wonderfully imaginative book by English writer Diana Wynne Jones, who first published it in the 1980s. For the film adaptation of Howl’s, Miyazaki created what some reviewers feel was a visually stunning film but one that suffered from a dense plot, from what I remember reading around the time of release.

For once I have some knowledge of the source material, since I’ve read the novel, and so I’d argue that Howl’s the film actually uses a simplified plot, where characters in the book might be combined into one for the film (Sophie has two sisters in the novel for instance), or where subplots are either left out or melded.

(And I personally have no problem with this approach (by any filmmaker.) A film is not a book. They are meaningfully different and attempts to attack one for failing to reflect the conventions of the other is tedious.)

But back to Howl’s Moving Castle!

Because the castle itself will probably enchant you as much as the characters or story, if you’ve never seen the film by chance, pay extra attention to the castle because it’s an amazing piece of work, blending CGI and cel animation in a very fluid manner.

Living in the castle is the mysterious Howl, a wizard who enchants (not literally – someone else does that) the main character, Sophie, early on in the film, establishing the strong romantic plot. Woven between their developing relationship, is magic, war and domesticity all offset by a curse placed on young Sophie, aging her to a 90-year old woman.

As with many other Miyazaki films, there is a familiar anti-war theme, but he’s not heavy handed – even if some of Howl’s dialogue might been seen as such. More value for the viewer will probably come, once again, from characters’ relationships – take fire-demon Calcifer for one, whose relationship with Howl is not only complex and amusing, but vital to the plot in more ways than one.

Once again, Joe Hisaishi provides such a memorable soundtrack, with lush waltzes and heartfelt themes, many of which are kinda key pieces in a few of my writing playlists. Now, today, rather than link to the OST, I thought I’d share a great cover of one of the signature pieces from the film, as performed on acoustic guitar by Sungha Jung:

To finish, I do admit that maybe the second half of Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t quite as magical as the first but for me, that would have been a big ask, as I remain utterly enchanted by the first hour; there’s just so much to love 🙂

5 Stars

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara)

From Up on Poppy Hill (Kokuriko-zaka Kara) 2011

I came quite late to Studio Ghibli – my first experience being Spirited Away, and only then on DVD a couple of years after the dub was released – and so when From Up on Poppy Hill was screened at a festival back in 2013, I jumped at the chance to see a Ghibli release in a cinema. (Previously, the only Ghibli film I’d only seen at a movie theatre was Ponyo, which remains my least favourite Miyazaki film.)

And so I remember being keen to enjoy From Up on Poppy Hill and maybe even a bit nervous, due to the mixed reception Goro Miyazaki’s last film received.

But for me, those fears proved to be unfounded because I definitely enjoyed the experience.

https://ashleycapes.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/fromupon.jpeg?w=300&h=162

From Up on Poppy Hill is a coming of age story set in post war Japan (in the Port of Yokohama). The animation is top notch as to be expected, with the colouring beautiful as ever and as is fairly often the case with Ghibli releases, the film is an adaptation of an existing manga. It’s probably quite faithful, but I can’t tell of course – though if it’s of the quality that Howl’s Moving Castle was, then it’s probably a great adaptation.

In any event, I don’t think you’d need to have read the original to enjoy this if you like the genre. It features an almost typical romantic plot and a good deal of humour, along with what is perhaps its strongest feature: a keen sense of nostalgia (which is aesthetic for me of course).

Being a period piece, From Up on Poppy Hill has a focus on the cultural details and day to day living, revealed via the wonderful attention to detail that I love about Ghibli films. Part of this is the use of pop songs from the era, one from 1963 (which I hadn’t realised was also a number single in the US at the time) is used to great effect in the movie. It’s by Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, and it’s known as ‘Sukiyaki’ – you can read about it here and hear it below:

For me, it’s hard to remove some of the production context – I think there was one part of me that enjoyed the film in part because it felt stronger than Goro’s Tales of Earthsea adaptation but also because Hayao’s involvement suggests that maybe the father and son relationship was in a better place back then? Maybe I just want it to be so, but I hope it was and still is.

Definitely recommended if you’ve never seen this Ghibli film or if you like the time period and the Romance genre.