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

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.

4 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.

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.

Ohm-nausicaa-of-the-valley-of-the-wind-32776892-800-449

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 😀

Ideally, I’d write a lot more about this movie but I will only ‘oversell’ one of my favs, and I probably shouldn’t do that 😀

5 Stars

Mary and The Witch’s Flower (Meari to Majo no Hana)

Mary and The Witch’s Flower (Meari to Majo no Hana)

2017

It’s hard now, even a couple of years later, to remove myself from the sense of expectation that swept (what seemed like) most of the world during the lead up to the release of Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

There was a lot to look forward to – Studio Ponoc had formed from the ‘ashes’ of Ghibli and had Yoshiaki Nishimura and Hiromasa Yonebayashi on deck, bringing a lot of Ghibli animators with them. More, they were adapting a British children’s tale as Studio Ghibli had done so successfully before and the teaser art seemed to evoke the familiar wondrousness of both Kiki and Spirited Away.

Then the actual preview was released and my anticipation for the movie rose again; it felt like the film was going to be a stunning work, despite the lurking knowledge that not only was it rare for a successor to really live up to its predecessor, but that it was also entirely unfair of me not to judge Mary on its own merits.

And right up until the end of the opening sequence of Mary and the Witch’s Flower I’d thought that I could manage to step away Ghibli’s legacy but by the end of the story I’d caught myself making too many unfavourable comparisons.

Now, I know I tend to start more than a few reviews with a structure that outlines what I didn’t enjoy before finishing with the great things – so you can probably guess where this is going, right?

Because as with so many of my short reviews, I’m going to say that this is still a beautifully animated film with bold colours and character design, that the music is still distinctive and that there’s fun and adventure here and that if you haven’t seen it for whatever reason, you should still give it a shot.

Just go in expecting something bright and imaginative but something that doesn’t have that timelessness that Ghibli managed, nor anything quite so exciting as the thrilling opening sequence – as there’s nothing quite that impressive after, but again, I’m not at all claiming that it’s a bad film or even only an adequate one, it’s truly great but it’s not stunning.

And maybe that’s a cruel yardstick to try and hold a film up against, huh?

4 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 the art of adaptation.

Back in the 1980s the title Howl’s Moving Castle referred to a fantastic, semi-satirical and wonderfully imaginative book by English writer Diana Wynne Jones – and if any anime fan out there isn’t aware of it, go grab a copy as it’s heaps of fun.

For the film adaptation of Howl’s Miyazaki created what some reviewers have argued was another visually stunning film but one that suffers from a dense plot.

Personally, I’d argue that Howl’s Moving Castle 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 book 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 :D)

But back to Howl’s Moving Castle!

Because it’s the castle itself that will probably enchant you as much as the characters or story, I thought a couple of images would be in order (just in case you’ve never come across the film) 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 aspect of the plot. Woven between their developing relationship, is magic, war and domesticity all offset by a curse placed on young Sophie, trapping her in the body of 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 is on board to work on the soundtrack, with lush waltzes and sombre moments to offset the drama of the action sequences.

Two pieces really stay with me whenever I watch the film, the first is one of the most haunting pieces in the OST, with that classic Hisaishi sparseness that builds:

And the other is the signature theme – but as I really like it as performed on acoustic guitar too, I thought I’d share this by Sungha Jung:

So far of course this review has just been me blathering about how good the fulm is – well, maybe the second half isn’t quite as fun, as everything is getting more serious and that’s not actually a criticism, so much as a necessity, really so basically – I have no real complaints as a viewer.

Still, on the off chance you haven’t seen this yet – do so 😀

5 Stars

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)

As much as I enjoyed many things about Tales From Earthsea when I first saw it back in 2007, it took me six years or so to watch it again.

I put it off a few times (though I’m curious to watch it again now, which oddly enough – is about six years later once more!) Even though I remember enjoying the usual beautiful Ghibli colours, especially in Hort Town, which is wonderful, I didn’t rush back.

tales-from-earthsea1

Tales from Earthsea (Gedo Senki)
2006

However, I also loved Cob, both the way he was animated (in each stage of his character development) and the fantastic performance by Willem Dafoe.

Almost as much as this, I enjoyed Sparrowhawk’s calm manner and the scenes at the farm, but in the end, this was a film that never quite came together for me. I guess that’s clear by the way I’m once again highlighting disparate, enjoyable elements rather than rhapsodising over the whole, right?

And that reason was one of the protagonists, Arren.

Unfortunately, the film introduces him in a manner which ensures he is a completely unsympathetic character. From that point on (and this is very early in the film) I didn’t care about him as I should have – mostly because any motivation for his actions were not addressed until late in the film, and by then it was almost a moot point. I’d already made up my mind about him.

Which is a shame, because I understand that the direction of the film was fraught with tension, which doubtless contributed in some way to the issues as I see them. And it’s heartbreaking that Goro’s first film directing for Ghibli, wasn’t as strong as his follow up From Up on Poppy Hill (which I loved), and because it was sad to see a son strive and perhaps fail to meet his father’s expectations.

And for those curious about how the author of the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin, felt upon seeing the film – here is an interesting read. I feel like an author responding to criticism/adaptation of their own work is often risky, but she is of course both eloquent and respectful.

So, to sum up I guess – for me, an almost tragically flawed film with some wonderful elements.

3 Stars

(Still hoping to watch this again and then update this review)

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)

Reviewing Totoro is tough for me because with a film that’s loved by millions and which has enthralled audiences for decades – what’s left to say, right? 🙂

My Neighbour Totoro (Tonari no Totoro)
1988

But I love it and so here we go anyway!

While Nausicaa is actually my favourite Miyazaki film, My Neighbour Totoro has a few similarities such as its environmentalism and female leads, but what seems most satisfying to me as a viewer is that the drama is located around a (seemingly) small event.

(Small compared to the world-changing or boldly magical aspects of many other Miyazaki films at least.)

But for sisters Satsuki and Mei, moving to a rural landscape and coming to deal with the illness of their mother is clearly an example of incredibly high stakes. (Even more so when young Mei sets out with her corn and we get those dusk-search scenes that are so powerful.)

Obviously, Totoro and his friends really provide a sweet side to the magic, along with adding a lot of humour, but I think it’s probably the bright-eyed nature of the kids themselves as they roam the beautiful, pastoral settings and explore, that really makes the film endearing for me.

Internet theories about a darker undertone to this one aside (even with a sad story as possible inspiration for one plot point) I always see Tororo as warm and entirely uplifting. It’s the kind of film that makes me think of a child’s memory of a place – idealised and comforting, everything safe to explore.

So, on the off chance that you haven’t seen Totoro – definitely watch it!

And again, if you’re not familiar with its history – Ghibli released this and the gut-wrenching Grave of the Fireflies at the same time in 1988 and the ‘double a-side’ really helped cement the studio.

It’s since become an absolutely mammoth industry – my favourite example of Totoro‘s reach isn’t just the merch or the global adulation, but when the house was built for an expo back in 2005 I think.  

5 Stars

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)

Compared to my last Ghibli-related post, this time I’ve chosen a film not directed by Miyazaki (though he did write the script) but instead by Yoshifumi Kondo.

Whisper of the Heart is another Ghibli adaptation, this time of a manga written by Aoi Hiiragi. While Whisper of the Heart has less action than early Ghibli works, it is full of conflict – and not simply the cliched teen angst to be found in many works aimed (unfairly?) at younger audiences.

Whisper of the Heart (Mimi o Sumaseba)
1995

Instead it focuses on the conflict of the writer which immediately hooked me of course, or perhaps, the conflict of the creative person – whether it’s main character Shizuku (who desperately wants to be a writer) or Seiji, her love interest, who is striving to become a violin-maker.

Most of the film focuses on the struggle these characters go through, trying to please themselves, take their dreams seriously, to work for them, while also trying to accommodate their families’ wishes and deal with their feelings for each other.

Woven within the film’s central narrative are smaller stories, the mystery of the cat Muta, the story behind the fantastic statue ‘The Baron’ and his lost love Louise, and the story young Shizuku is writing (starring the Baron), and finally the struggle to produce a complete draft that she is happy with.

Any writer or creative person should be able to relate to her frustration and excitement. On one hand, she can’t wait for someone to read it, on the other she’s convinced she’s not good enough yet. I definitely relate, and it’s part of why the movie appeals to me so much, I reckon.

Whisper of the Heart also features a classic country song written by John Denver as something more than simply soundtrack – throughout the film Take me Home, Country Roads is rewritten and performed by Shizuku, and also by Shizuku and Seiji in addition to appearing over the opening sequence – I’ll got youtube links for each (John’s version, the very earnest Olivia version and the English dub of Shizuku and Seiji on vocals and violin).

And before I wrap up the review – I should mention the ending – apparently some folks feel the proposal scene is a little too much, and years ago I remember thinking I was in agreement… but I since the, I’ve come to feel that it was meant to be a sweet (perhaps somewhat naive) gesture, which suits youth pretty well.

And here’s Miyazaki on the ending (taken from Nausicaa.net):

Q: Wasn’t Seiji’s proposal a bit too sudden?

Many thought so. In the manga, Seiji merely says “I love you”, but Miyazaki changed it to “Will you marry me?” Miyazaki defended his position by saying, “I wanted to make a conclusion, a definite sense of ending. Too many young people now are afraid of commitment, and stay on moratorium forever. I wanted these two to just commit to something, not just ‘well, we’ll see what will happen’.”

5 Stars

Ah yes, the terror of asking someone to read your work for the first time.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)

For the first post here at the Review Heap, I wanted to jump back to a write up I did a fair few years ago – because if I’m going to review/highlight anime (amongst the other things I’ll ramble on about here) then I should start with the studio that really had an impact on me (though as a kid of the 80s I remember mostly Astro Boy :D).

So, up first it’s Spirited Away!

Miyazaki’s work as a director seems so warm and I guess I naturally gravitate toward his films. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy Takahata’s work, or the films of the other directors from Studio Ghibli, but I’ll probably end up reviewing the Miyazaki ones first.

Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi)
2001

Perhaps like many Western audiences, this was my first exposure to Studio Ghibli and its wonderful films – though I didn’t see this movie until about three years after it’s English-language release.

I was actually at uni and had recently borrowed the impressive 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Inside, I noticed Spirited Away and went straight to the university library where I borrowed the DVD and that was it. I was hooked.

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the story of a young girl who has to work in a spirits’ bathhouse in order to save her parents, who’ve been transformed into pigs by their own greed.

A pretty simple description of the plot, right?

But it gives an idea of the main source of tension, I hope. What it fails to show is the stunning attention to detail found in the animation (common to Ghibli of course) and the great character arc at its heart.

The way protagonist Chihiro goes from being basically an annoying child to a person of resolve, and one who can turn those around her into friends, is one of my favourite aspects. It also provides an emotional core that’s a big part the reason I’ve watched the film a fair few times now.

But perhaps my favourite element of Spirited Away is the setting.

The bathhouse is located in an abandoned amusement park and it’s beautiful, detailed and vivid, both in terms of its social and physical structure. And part of that colour definitely comes from the variety of spirits who visit it, among the most memorable being the close-mouthed Radish Spirit and the old River Spirit, who also embodies the environmental themes Miyazaki often includes in his films.

Another stand out aspect of the movie (and most Ghibli films) is the music.

Provided by Joe Hisaishi, it’s a moving score, I reckon with so much of it feeling both magical and familiar.

An Academy Award winner and an amazing film, Spirited Away isn’t quite my favourite Ghibli movie, but I’m kicking off with it because it’s where I started and if on the off chance you’re looking to see what Studio Ghibli is like, you probably couldn’t find a better starting place.

5 Stars