I’ve been quiet on this blog of late – that’s because I’ve been privileged enough to be writing for other people! For example, a Miyazaki Blu ray boxset came out recently, and I wrote about it for two different outlets. Below are a paragraph from each of those, and a link to the full article for those who are interested. Maybe 2015 will offer more opportunities for me to keep up with Animation Confabulation…
Miyazaki’s most distinctive quality, his vivid and unparalleled imagination, was present from his debut feature, The Castle of Cagliostro. Starting out in 1979 with this pacy adventure of dashing thieves and crumbling castles, the then young upstart established himself as a fiercely creative mind, injecting a formulaic princess-trapped-in-a-tower plot with as much visual verve as possible. Cars don’t turn, they careen (bad drivers are a recurring theme in his films), while the final action sequence takes place inside a clocktower, a scene so thrilling that Disney would homage it only a few years later in Basil: The Great Mouse Detective. His last film, 2013’s The Wind Rises, has invention spilling equally out of the frame, even though it is ostensibly his most realistic film. Whether in the gorgeous dreams of flight that punctuate the story, or in the way the earthquake is depicted as a series of waves swelling beneath the earth, the brightness of the man’s mind remains undimmed by non-fiction. And those are the only two films in his canon that couldn’t be classified as a fantasy – the rest of his work is even more dazzlingly inventive.
Equally remarkable is the way that Miyazaki can craft such compelling stories without resorting to clearly defined villains, and often removing conflict from his narratives altogether. Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises both clearly show a revulsion to war, although it is never quite as explicit as in the films of his colleague Isao Takahata, but this desire for peace and balance goes further than pacifism on a broad political scale; Miyazaki’s peace is ingrained in the very nature of his stories. In Laputa, Nausicaa, Mononoke and Ponyo, the conflict is with nature itself, but a peaceful resolution is achievable in every single one of them, often with nature triumphing. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, My Neighbour Totoro, and Spirited Away, there is no binary conflict at all, where the story lies in simply observing the characters, with a magical element thrown in to spice things up. This clash of the magical and the mundane is precisely the appeal of Miyazaki. His are films that champion the imagination of the everyday, revealing the mysterious beauty that hides beneath tree trunks and round street corners.
From The Castle of Cagliostro onwards, Hayao Miyazaki’s films have felt thoroughly Japanese yet also indelibly influenced by the director’s love of Europe. For instance, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is set in a mining village inspired by the Welsh countryside, yet the character animation and bonkers final act are undeniably Japanese. With Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, the master of the medium went firmly into the realm of Japanese mythology and landscapes, but before that he made his two most overtly European films, 1992’s Porco Rosso and this, Kiki’s Delivery Service from 1989. The non-specific setting of Miyazaki’s fourth feature film is one of its strongest assets – this is one of his gentler, almost plotless films so the great joy of watching it simply comes from spending time in the wonderful world he creates. Kiki’s is a tale of a 13 year old witch who leaves home for a year on her own to train as a witch, and during this year she has to make friends, set up a delivery service and try to balance the two, all whilst exploring a beautiful city by the sea.
This city that Kiki flies to and spends her time in is deliberately not named. Ostensibly, it is based on Visby, a picturesque coastal town in Sweden that has similar tall tenements and quaint clock towers to its animated counterpart. Yet Miyazaki confesses to cheating slightly, as he put in a mishmash of influences from all around the continent: a French classical fountain here; a Mediterranean sea-front there. The great director points out that any Europeans watching it will notice the incongruous styles, but to a Japanese audience it will just look like their perception of a typical city from anywhere in Europe. That’s a telling admission from Miyazaki, as it shows he is more concerned with creating something deliberately idyllic than anything in the realm of reality. This idea is further confirmed by the lack of definite period detail: this is a film set in a world that could have been, the 1950s if WWII had never happened. Japanese post-war guilt lingered long in the collective memory and whilst sometimes Ghibli confronted this guilt – such as in Grave of the Fireflies – or moved on from it – as in the recent From Up On Poppy Hill – the studio also used their animated films to escape it, and Kiki’s is an example of pure escapism.
The timeless, location-less nature of Kiki’s world makes such escapism hugely enjoyable and imaginative. If My Neighbour Totoro – a children’s film similarly untroubled by ‘plot’ – is an example of magic being found in the countryside then Kiki’s Delivery Service uses the city, instead, as the site of the supernatural. A lot of time is just spent travelling around the city, on broom or bike, and taking it in through the wide, innocent eyes of the newcomer. Joe Hisaishi, as ever an integral part of creating the awe and wonder in Miyazaki’s films, is playful here, experimenting with traditional European instruments like the accordion, to create a particularly lighthearted score that perfectly compliments the jovial tone of the film. It all looks and sounds incredible on Blu-Ray, too, bringing out the amazing levels of detail in each shot that were previously muted beneath the pastel colours on DVD. Kiki’s particularly benefits from this as the city setting – rare for a Miyazaki – means that the frame is often a lot fuller than in his other more rural films.
Beyond the visuals, this is still an absolute delight, thanks largely to Kiki herself. This is a kind of coming of age story, only there’s no big revelation moment, it’s more about her developing friendships and slowly gaining a bit of self-confidence. She is the model of good behaviour when many of the other girls are spoilt, yet she is still real because her teenage problems are immediately relatable. At times she feels the weight of responsibility that comes with work, but often she is more concerned with her friendships with the people in the town, much like many teenagers. With short dark bob, red bow and plain black dress, Kiki feels plain and not very beautiful, but as a character she has become iconic, and there is a lovely note in the credits when a little girls walks past dressed like she is. Ghibli are famed for their strong heroines, but Kiki’s determination, kindness and charm make her one of their best. The dramatic conclusion to her story, both thrilling and thematically satisfying, cements this claim for her.
Taking in themes of pleasure and work, responsibility, friendship and self-confidence, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a great film to show young children, but a wonderful, inspiring heroine, jaw-droppingly beautiful animation and the occasional hint of magic make it one to be enjoyed by adults, too. Like all Ghibli films, then.
Extras: As ever, it’s always great to see the man himself, Hayao Miyazaki, expound a little on his work. It comes in little nuggets about different aspects of the film, but each little extra is a fascinating insight into the machinations behind the film – Miyazaki didn’t feel he could make a story about an adolescent girl, for instance. It’s lovely because, although he wasn’t originally set to direct the film, you can see that he puts his heart into it. He speaks of the daughter of one of the producers who was getting to the age where they can become ‘a bit of a handful.’ This was what inspired him to make the film, as he says ‘I was very determined to make a movie that would win over the hearts of spoiled girls like that.’ Insights like this are what extras were made for.
This week, Tim Popple looks at Studio Ghibli’s classic eco-anime Princess Mononoke with a new perspective, meaning I absolutely have to dig out my copy of the film and revisit this epic adventure. If you want to contribute a Guest Favourite post, put your review in a bottle and cast it into the sea.
Every once in a while a film comes along that you realise is something special. There’s a moment, a point, a glance, a word, something which causes a primal YES! in your heart. A film which works on more levels than Miss Kubelik. Princess Mononoke is such a film. It’s not just a great animation. It’s not just a great Japanese film. It’s one of the greatest films ever made.
Ashitaka is a young prince living in a village in Japan. When a boar god, tragically turned into a demon, attacks, he defends and, in the process, is wounded. The wound is proclaimed evil, infected by the same demon which infected the boar god. Regrettably he is banished, despite his bravery, and he sets off to search for what caused their boar god to be so slain, clutching just a small globule of iron as a clue. He finds Iron Town, led by Lady Eboshi, and there discovers the truth behind the corruption of the boar god.
Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and Studio Ghibli’s output in general, almost exclusively carry with them environmental concerns. It is Ghibli’s equivalent to Disney’s prevalent “be true to yourself” message. “Be true to your planet”, if you will. Some are more explicit than others – Pom Poko, while only written by Miyazaki, is nevertheless perhaps the most on-the-nose environmentally-centric of Ghibli’s films. Mononoke, then, is perhaps next. Humanity’s technological developments – iron smelting, rifle refinery, forest destruction – are directly impacting the natural world and, by extension, the spiritual world which inhabits nature. By manifesting nature in corporeal godly forms,Mononoke personifies the issue at the heart. Ashitaka meets San, a girl raised by wolves and, in particular wolf god Moro. Her wild ecological bent is entirely natural – nature is her world. She is its princess, named Mononoke by Moro. Initially distrustful of humans, this extends to Ashitaka’s appearance. His demonic affliction in his arm convinces her that there is more to him and, slowly, trust grows. Ashitaka is a conduit between the nature gods and the humans in a way that San could never have been.
What is particularly pleasing is that the humans are not depicted one dimensionally as “evil”. Eboshi is keen to evolve, to develop, to grow. She does this in the interests of humanity, even while she does this at the expense of the gods. She does not revere them; it is not an act of evil, but of dispassion. Humanity, rather than being opposed to gods merely see them as an inconvenience, something to be overcome. Humanity is ignorant, not evil.
Ignorance leads to poor action. Poor action leads to conflict. Conflict leads to tragedy. Only through the rebirth of the forest god can everything be saved. As one awed townsman says, “I didn’t realise the forest god made the flowers grow”. Now, I’m going to make a leap of equivalencies and draw parallels unintended by the filmmakers. This film is replete with Japanese legend, but it tells a universal story. That exclamation, that realisation by a bystander, to me, reeked of the lone Centurion stating, “truly he was the son of God”. A god is killed, darkness covers the forest, and only when the god is reborn does the earth rejuvenate. Death, rebirth, resurrection. It’s a familiar story. In Jiko-bo there is even a Judas figure, betraying Ashitaka after an initial association, to kill the forest god. It’s an imperfect analogy, but there are sufficient parallels to give another layer to this complex, rich, and fulfilling film.
Princess Mononoke is an adventure. It is the story of one man’s journey to save himself and, in the process, saving the world entire. His curse is the world’s curse. His salvation is found in embracing nature, saved by a god, and finding a path that is beneficial to all. There is no Disney happy ending. There’s no big song to rouse us out of our seats. There is a real world ending to a film which tells a remarkably mature story. This is not My Neighbour Totoro. This is not a children’s tale. This is a story for adolescents and up; which is not to belittle it, because its layers will reward all except the very young. There is humour, there is excitement, there is danger and love and fighting and beauty. So much beauty. Joe Hisaishi’s score is remarkable, punctuated by moments of silence which echo in your heart. It is inventive and wild, philosophical and calm. It is one of those rare films that has a bit of everything. It’s not pure adventure; it’s not pure message. It’s a perfect mixing of the two which never forgets to be both.
Tim is a sci-fi, animation and silent film loving geek with a twitter account and a blog which cover a vast array of topics. When not watching and writing about films, he sings, looks after his film buff kids and makes terrible, terrible puns. He thinks the Twilight films are ‘ok’.
Makoto Shinkai is being hailed by people who know what they are talking about as the future of animé, and as his latest film Journey to Agartha has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD, it’s important to take a look at why exactly people are so excited about this director. I’m going to look at three of his films briefly as an introduction to this great talent, in the hope that you will seek out some of his work. Thanks to @elab49 and @PatrickJGamble for introducing me to his work.
5 Centimetres Per Second
These three vignettes tell the story of the emotional, sensitive teenager Takaki, and his various romantic adventures during different stages of his life. It’s a perfect introduction to Shinkai, as it has a lot of recurring themes and images also seen in Voices of Distant Star and The Place Promised In Our Early Days. Most noticeable is the way he attributes adolescent relationships as life changing events, full of universal significance. Takaki narrates the opening vignette with a passion that most teenage boys seem incapable of; all he’s doing is catching a train to see his childhood sweetheart, but he observes how time seems to stand still in those moments of waiting and longing. It’s all incredibly sincere, but Shinkai directs with such conviction that the audience buys into that sincerity. The animation matches this emotionally expressive approach, the images of the film taking on a lyrical look as the snowfall fills the screen with a slow, ethereal beauty. It’s the kind of short where one kiss is a moment of personal epiphany.
The second story is even grander in the scope of Shinkai’s ideas, as a college romance takes place under a space shuttle launch. Shinkai plays with light to wondrous effect, as the stars and galaxies shadow a very personal tale of unrequited love, as if in the grand scheme of things this one story about a boy and a girl is as important as space in its entirety. Again, there is nothing more to the short than the aches and pains of being in love whilst at school, a subject many would dismiss as trivial. Shinkai doesn’t see it that way, and your enjoyment of the story may well depend on how much you are prepared to accept high school angst as heartfelt poetry. The final section is the most impressionistic of them all, as it becomes a dazzling montage and leaves you to work out what has actually happened. It’s intelligent, emotional film making, somehow utterly charming in its sincerity.
The Place Promised In Our Early Days
This feature film, unlike 5 Centimetres Per Second, is just one story, an emotionally charged romance set in a complex sci-fi world. Just as how 5 Centimetres used the image of a space shuttle to mix the cosmic with the mundane, so here a love triangle is framed by a larger narrative of two rival powers exploring the concept of alternate universes. The science fiction elements don’t entirely work, but again Shinkai manages to make a coming-of-age love story seem like the entire world as it stake. By the powerful, uplifting finale of the film, it actually is. He is similar to Summer Wars director Mamoru Hosoda in the way he seamlessly blends high concepts with apparently trivial school stories, but there is something even more beautiful about Shinkai’s images. The characters animation does not differ much from the majority of anime, but the scenes the characters occupy are gorgeous, the light causing the whole world to glow. He loves to linger on frames without any people in, such as the insides of empty rooms, or vast landscapes of green and blue. The beauty is in the details, and Shinkai can make even a chair or a car look beautiful.
Voices of a Distant Star
This early short by Shinkai manages to tell a perfectly self-contained story within the space of half an hour, building a world with space battling robots and distant planets where all that matters is the distance between two sweethearts. This showcases all of the themes that become so prevalent in his later films, and shows the promise of a director who can create unforgettable images and can make us care about romance, adolescence, long distant relationships and galactic robot wars. He proves himself, once more, to be a singular talent that can find beauty in the simplest of stories, even whilst dazzling us with big ideas and traversing worlds and lightyears.
Makoto Shinkai, then, is a director that seems like a cross between Ghibli director Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday) and thoughtful French auteur Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum), yet he still retains a unique voice, mixing the cosmic with the quiet and infusing everything with a heartfelt beauty. There’s a poetry to the aesthetics of his films, but what really marks him as a talent to watch is that his language is equally lyrical. He treats adolescent romance as the most important thing in the world and, astonishingly, he makes the audience believe it, too.
2012 has been a bit of a mixed bag for cinema. There have been many notable disappointments, and a fair few pleasant surprises to balance it out, too. Animation wise, I’ve enjoyed almost everything I’ve seen this year, but I still wish there would be far more done in my preferred medium, good old hand drawn and 2D. Thankfully, two of the best animations of the year, both from Japan, are still to be given a wide release in the UK, so you can look forward to that in 2013. Here are my thoughts on 2012 in cinema. It’s quite long, but you might enjoy reading it on the toilet on your smart phone.
Best Performance: Animation
Hugh Grant – The Pirate Captain, The Pirates: In an Adventure with Scientists
The latest offering from Aardman, a lovably daft stop-motion animation chock full of their trademark visual jokes, all revolved around the irrepressibly silly and rather useless Pirate Captain at the centre of it all. Hugh Grant, erstwhile boring English rom com star and the scourge of News International, finds incredible form here in the best overall voice cast of the year. He’s wonderfully British, and his bluster and pride only makes him all the more sympathetic when his plans don’t quite go according to plan. He may not hit the heights of Peter Sallis’ immortal voice work as Wallace, but he nevertheless makes The Pirate Captain one of the most lovable, memorable animated characters of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Jude Law, Pitch, Rise of the Guardians, Alec Baldwin, North, Rise of the Guardians, Kelly Macdonald, Merida, Brave
Best Performance: Live Action
Domnhall Gleeson – Levin, Anna Karenina
When I first saw it, my biggest problem with Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina was that the central character, Anna, was so conceited and self centred that the whole film was left a little cold. Were we supposed to root for her or hate her? Both seemed quite unpalatable options. Upon second viewing, however, it was Domnhall Gleeson’s restrained, passionate performance as Levin that truly won me over to the film. It helps that Levin is a far more sympathetic character, but it is Gleeson’s portrayal of him, as a bashful, heartfelt outsider in the aristocratic world of the city, that really lifts the film. Some may find it cloying, but I was fully won over round about the point where he declares his love for Kitty (Alicia Vikander) using a child’s spelling blocks.
Honourable Mentions: Quvenzhané Wallis, Hushpuppy, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Elle Fanning, Ginger, Ginger and Rosa, Suraj Sharma, Pi, Life of Pi
Best Visuals: Animation
Traditional animation styles are always going to win out in this category for me, but ParaNorman truly blew me away with the sheer energy they manage to achieve with stop motion models. Not only is the jerky movement usually associated with the medium is totally absent, but they are astoundingly ambitious with the action sequences. Car chases, giant storms and violent trees all make this the most astonishing piece of stop motion animation ever. When you consider the craft that goes into this, it makes it all the more impressive.
Honourable Mentions: Brave, The Pirates: In An Adventure with Scientists, A Cat in Paris, Rise of the Guardians
Best Visuals: Live Action
Vivan Las Antipodas!
It’s unlikely that you’ve seen Vivan Las Antipodas as it is hardly likely to be hitting a multiplex near you, or any cinema for that matter, in the immediate future. I was lucky enough to catch this conceptual documentary at Edinburgh Film Festival, and I was astonished by what I saw. The idea is that documentarian Victor Kossakovsky looks at Antipodean points – that is, two places that are diametrically opposed in the world – and sees how life is different (or similar) in these worlds apart. It’s an abstract, absorbing film with very little content but somehow ends up being both moving and inspiring, and Kossakovsky captures our planet in a way unlike anything I’ve seen before. I don’t know when you’ll be able to see this, but make sure you do, as soon as you can.
Honourable Mentions: Life of Pi, The Mirror Never Lies
Best Score: Animation
Takagi Masakatsu, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki
Takagi Masakatsu does what the best film composers do – he captures the feelings of the characters on screen and expresses them through music. And as much of the film is concerned with the joys of childhood, and follows two children as they grow up, this makes for an uplifting, energetic musical accompaniment to the film. Certain scenes, when Masakatsu’s score plays a prominent role, really make Wolf Children quite an unforgettable cinematic experience.
Honourable Mentions: Patrick Doyle, Brave, Satoshi Takebe, From Up on Poppy Hill
Best Score: Live Action
Dan Romer and Benh Zeitlin, Beasts of the Southern Wild
This isn’t just my favourite score of the year, it’s my favourite album of the year, too. A vibrant mixture of Cajun folk music and soaring trumpet motifs, complimented by singers from Louisiana, this feels as authentic and magical as the film itself. The music that plays over the credits (you can find it on youtube, it’s called Once There Was A Hushpuppy) is one of the most powerful pieces of music I’ve heard all year.
Honourable Mention: Johnny Greenwood, The Master
Biggest Disappointment: Animation
A great idea, a brilliant director (The Clone Wars’ Genndy Tartakovsky) and some really funny jokes all come to nothing when part of a bland plot with uninspired visuals and some really weak voice acting. I wanted to like this, and I stayed that way through most of the film, and then they had a singalong at the end and it lost me.
Biggest Disappointment: Live Action
The Dark Knight Rises
It’s not really a bad film. I don’t think Christopher Nolan is capable of making a bad film. In fact, the first time I saw this I thought it was amazing – big on spectacle and ideas and with a great finale. And then I saw it again. Oh dear. The first act is just dull. Anne Hathaway prances around spouting some truly awful dialogue that wouldn’t look out of place in something like The Green Lantern, whilst Bruce Wayne mopes a lot then suddenly gets better because of some miracle leg brace. We never hear about any problems with his body again, for the whole film. Then the plot holes begin piling up, no one stops to question how stupid Bane’s plan is, we are treated to approximately 20 hours of back story that we don’t really care about, Robin turns up and just guesses Batman’s secret identity because of some miracle orphan connection and then Batman climbs out of a pit in Jodphur, India before making it back to Gotham in time to paint a bat signal on the side of the building and save the day. And what does he have to do to save the day? Stop the bad guy from setting off a bomb. What a wonderfully original idea. Presumably the studio then forced Christopher Nolan to have that ridiculous ending with the café in Florence. Really, this is one of the most dizzyingly stupid films of the year, but it masks it all by posing as an adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s also kind of boring.
Honourable Mentions: Almost all the blockbusters this year. The Hobbit and Prometheus were two that disappointed me on different levels. The Master was also a bit of a let down.
Biggest Surprise: Animation
Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted
No one really wanted another Madagascar sequel. Well, no one but critic and fellow animation fan @popcornaddict. Everyone else was kind of tired of this franchise, and far more interested in everything else that Dreamworks were up to. Then along came Madagascar 3 and suddenly it turned out to be a really funny, crazy adventure with a loose commitment to plot and a dedication to over the top slapstick. It’s not going to win any awards for script writing, but this is a bright, colourful film that just about everyone can enjoy. It almost, almost makes me want to see a Madagascar 4.
Biggest Surprise: Live Action
Ginger and Rosa
I’d never seen a Sally Potter film, I was under the impression that she was just a slightly experimental, weird film maker that was perhaps just a little too out there for my tastes. But I fancied a trip to one of my favourite cinemas, @Filmhouse, and the trailer kind of looked interesting. What I encountered was a gripping, emotionally charged drama about two teenagers and best friends who go their separate ways as one pursues politics where the other pursues men. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is fantastic, Elle Fanning gives one of the best performances of the year, and the period detail is superb. Unforgettable.
Honourable Mentions: Cabin in the Woods, Berberian Sound Studio, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Skyfall
What you may have missed: Animation
A Cat in Paris
One of the token non-studio nominations for the Best Animated Feature Film, this slipped under the radars of most cinemas. It’s not an incredible animation, and is painfully hampered by one of the worst English dubs I’ve ever come across in an animation. But this has a jazzy, carefree style and some gorgeous picture book animation that makes this well worth checking out for any fans of the medium.
What you may have missed: Live Action
You may have missed Grabbers because the studio distributing it did that silly thing of an almost simultaneous cinema/DVD release. So it only came out on the big screen this boxing day, and on New Year’s Eve you should be able to purchase it on DVD and Blu-Ray. I heartily recommend you do so. It’s an alien invasion film set on a island off the coast of Ireland, with budget-defyingly brilliant CGI and a ballsy central conceit that makes the final act one of the most fun, outrageous pieces of cinema this year. Think The Guard meets Shaun of the Dead, although that comparison doesn’t really do this gem of a film justice. Essentially, it’s the best genre film of the year.
Honourable Mentions: Shadow Dancer and Elena are two criminally underseen films released this year. Both very thrilling, well worth your time.
Worst Film of the Year:
This Means War
Two spies fall in love with the same woman! They compete with each other to win her affections! This should be light hearted fun, right? WRONG. This Means War is the most vacuous, offensively stupid film of the year. I don’t know what I hated most: Tom Hardy’s smug, phoned in performance; the scene where the two men effectively stalk a woman with sophisticated technology so they can find out her secrets; the conversation two characters have about Hitchcock films; the fact that some people actually gave this positive reviews. Everything about this film is utterly abysmal, and what the portrayal of relationships in it is downright offensive. Awful, awful film making.
Honourable Mention: Dark Shadows
Best Film of the Year: Animation
I’ve explained my love of Brave on the site before so I won’t go into it here. Needless to say, I don’t buy in to the argument that this is a simple story that doesn’t dare to do anything different. It’s a moving, gorgeously animated film that has a beautiful relationship between a mother and daughter at its centre. The argument about which Pixar film is the best is slightly arbitrary, but I’ll say this much: I think this is the Pixar film with the biggest heart, and it is certainly my favourite.
Honourable Mentions: From Up on Poppy Hill, Wolf Children Ame and Yuki, Rise of the Guardians
Best Film of the Year: Live Action
Moonrise Kingdom/Beasts of the Southern Wild
Having two films as my favourite is something of a cop out, but I think, in some way, these two films are linked. They are both about America, they are both about childhood, they both celebrate imagination, they both have a big storm as a crucial plot point. These two visions of American childhood, however, take rather different approaches as one is an idealised, warm and symmetrical New England where children act like adults and vice versa. The other is a messy, poor and grainy Louisiana where children just want them and their parents to survive. Both are magnificent pieces of cinema.
Honourable Mentions: Anna Karenina, Berberian Sound Studio, Grabbers, Shadow Dancer, Elena, The Mirror Never Lies, Life of Pi, The Muppets
I promised yesterday an article on the Blu-Ray release of the greatest animated film of all time. All those of you who were waiting for a review of Happy Feet 2 may be disappointed. So here it is, My Neighbour Totoro, which, in fairness, ties with The Lion King for the spot as my favourite animated film ever. The latter has nostalgia value which may, from time to time, give it a boost. But Totoro is a film that I have been nuts about for years and now it’s out on Blu-Ray. There’s a risk when writing reviews of long established favourites that it will just become hyperbolic fawning. Whilst this will probably be a very, erm, enthusiastic review, I’ll try to explore exactly what makes it so great. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it straight away (it’s on DVD, too).
To people of a certain generation, the giant grey forest spirit Totoro may look like nothing more than a Snorlax from Pokemon. Older people won’t even have that frame of reference, and they wouldn’t recognise a Totoro if it got on a bus with them. Yet in his native Japan this fuzzball is a national icon, as big as Mickey Mouse and with a line of merchandise to match. He’s the figurehead of animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, and a growing popularity in the West has seen him become a more familiar site here, too, even turning up for a cameo in Toy Story 3. Yet there are still many for whom Totoro is undiscovered, waiting, asleep, for yet another unsuspecting viewer get lost in the forest, and to fall inside the camphor tree and meet this happy creature.
The plot, or as close as the film has to one, revolves around Mei and Satsuki, who move with their father to the Japanese countryside to be near their mother, who is in hospital with an unspecified illness. When there, Mei follows a tiny translucent creature and its bigger, more opaque companion into the forest, where she discovers the biggest creature of them all. These Totoro are forest spirits, who then turn up at crucial times in the girls’ lives in the country. They grow giant trees overnight, help them when they get lost and, in one unforgettable, iconic scene waits with them at the bus stop, although not for the kind of bus you might be expecting. It’s clearly not a film driven by narrative, favouring instead to simply observe the two sisters as they interact with the Totoro and experience the magic of nature and of old houses.
Clearly, then, the usual tropes of a children’s cinema are abandoned; there is no conflict, and only one scene of what the BBFC would call ‘Mild Peril.’ After the dramatic fantasy adventures of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Hayao Miyazaki wanted to make something more personal and intimate. He saw a trend in culture towards fast cars and violence, and so went completely in the opposite direction, making his most tranquil, event-free film to this day. This was also his first film that was set in Japan, as an encouragement to a younger generation that their country was beautiful and worth exploring. The result is a film filled with a sense of exploration; a curiosity that is evident in Mei’s fascination with tadpoles, or the way she will amuse herself outdoors for hours merely playing with rusty buckets and flower heads.
Mei and Satsuki are perfectly realised child characters, not precocious or self righteous, just kids happy to roam and play. Their mannerisms and movement feel natural and believable, and their relationships with each other and their father are beautifully observed. The result is that the first half hour of the film plays out like animated realism, content to linger on every day scenes of family life. Yet what makes this a truly special film is that even before Totoro turns up there is a palpable sense of magic in the air; not some cheap tricks but the magic of childhood and of imagination. Dust sprites skitter through the dark spaces of the house, acorns seems to appear from nowhere and the wind carries firewood soaring into the air. The house and surrounding area are stunningly drawn, and the atmosphere is set for something quite extraordinary.
When the titular Totoro turns up, however, the film reaches new levels of wonder and happiness. The giant furball has entered into Japanese popular culture (and increasingly ours, too) for a reason: he’s a loveable, hilarious creation and, crucially, he is as curious and as fascinated by the world as the two human protagonists. As he is a creature largely without language (he yawns a lot, and can kind of say his own name), some of the best scenes in the film are wordless. The most famous section of the film sees the creature joyously discover the sound of rain on an umbrella, and it is as entertaining for us as it is for him. But this carefree curiosity is also seen when he first meets Mei and the two stare each other down and learn about each other just by looking; you can also see this when he roars with delight as they soar through the night sky. His two smaller companions are simply adorable – look out for the tiny white one doing a tiny roar alongside his big brother. Aside from one unnerving sequence when Mei gets lost trying to find the hospital, Miyazaki doesn’t force any narrative drive into the film, which means that the adventure lies in our own back gardens. This joie de vivre that permeates the film is what makes it such an unforgettable piece of story telling.
Miyazaki makes the most of this exploratory, wondrous tone of the film by matching the children’s playful spirits with playful film making of his own. So when Granny talks about the soot sprites having a conference to discuss their future, he cuts to them doing exactly that. The catbus – based on the idea of a transforming cat in Japanese mythology – similarly displays this inventive, carefree direction. It’s one of his most bizarre and brilliant creations, a giant, lumbering animal/vehicle hybrid that is somehow able to balance on electricity wires and move through the hilly countryside at great speeds. It’s headlamp eyes will undoubtedly be slightly sinister for those who don’t really like cats, but its such a fun, memorable addition to the film that even the most feline averse should be won over. Joe Hisaishi, Miyazaki’s regular musical collaborator and genius composer – matches the wondrous visuals with a score that is equally playful. Big bass notes accompany Totoro as he joins the girls at the bus stop, and the strings soar as the catbus races round the countryside. It’s a light, frolicsome score that perfectly complements the happy tone of the film.
Ultimately My Neighbour Totoro is such a huge success as a film because every element works together to create a film that is quite unique. It’s Miyazaki’s most intimate film, simply observing the life of a family going through a time of transition. Yet unlike his counterpart Isao Takahata‘s realist films, the family drama of Totoro is infused with a carefree, wondrous spirit that revels in exploration and discovery, revolving around his most winning, memorable creation ever. Some may accuse the film of being slight and having nothing to say, yet this is a film that treasures imagination and childhood, and suggests that life is there to be enjoyed. It’s eighty minutes of joy, stunning to look at and uplifting to experience. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.
Extras: The brilliance of these extras is that the man himself, Hayao Miyazaki, is present and correct, giving candid interviews about the creation of Totoro and the processes behind it. He comes across as a humble, fascinating man and it’s great to see him talking about his work. There are lots of little snippets for you to dig into, about the creation of the characters, the inspiration for the film and all sorts. Each clip presents a new little nugget about the creation of the film, and it’s all gold for the Totoro devotees out there. The highlight is a segment about the composer Joe Hisaishi, who is a crucial part of Miyazaki’s work and here you see why.
There’s also a longer, informative documentary about real locations in Japan that inspired the film. It’s not especially gripping but shows exactly how good the art work of the film is by contrasting it with real life settings. Then there are trailers, textless credits and storyboards for the real hardcore fans.
The latest animation Blu-Ray to come out marks the HD upgrade of the debut of a certain director who this writer likes rather a lot…
Lupin III is a thief, a rascal and a gentleman, obsessed with finding the biggest job that would prove his assumed position as the greatest thief ever. When he discovers some counterfeit money, a city supposedly hiding some legendary treasure and a princess in peril, what else can he do but get involved? Alongside his loyal sidekick Jigen, Lupin tries to rescue the girl, but finds he may have got more than he bargained for when he clashes with the villainous Count of Cagliostro, whose castle hides many secrets. Cue rooftop sneaking, clock tower duels and physics defying car chases, all of which you can now watch in bright, beautiful high definition, courtesy of Studio Canal.
Before the poetry of Studio Ghibli came the pratfalls of The Castle of Cagliostro, Hayao Miyazaki‘s debut feature film and something quite tonally and aesthetically different to the classics we know and love (Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle etc.). Yet in spite of this being a zany, madcap franchise entry that feels more like a Saturday morning cartoon than anything like the sophistication of his later work, Cagliostro subtly hints at the future master Miyazaki would become, foreshadowing many of his favourite themes and obsessions. Not only that, but it is, as with all of his work, a superlative piece of story telling, and a riotously inventive film that shows a director primed to become the greatest animator ever. It may not be what you expect from Miyazaki, but it’s a fascinating and fun entry into his body of work, and a wonderfully creative début.
The most immediately noticeable difference of Cagliostro from the rest of his body of work is the look of the film. From Nausicaa onwards, Miyazaki tended to favour gentler, although no less bright, colours. The pastel shades of his Ghibli era films allow for greater detail in the landscape, and give the films a grander, more artistic feel. Here however, loud, blocky colours are the order of the day, with thick, clearly defined lines and only the occasional flourish of landscape detail (the castle, for instance, is an impressively drawn feature). The full title of the film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, hints at the film’s basis in a franchise, and indeed the gentleman thief at the centre already had his own manga, television series and one film. Miyazaki had worked on several episodes of the series and so was a natural choice to direct the second feature film, but it also meant he was working to intense studio demands, and within an already established world and aesthetic. As such, this looks far more cartoony than his other films, which is complemented by the rather Looney Tunes sound effects and people flailing in the air before plummeting through trap doors.
The action sequences, therefore, are suitably bonkers but so energetic and vibrant that it’s difficult not to get swept along with them. It’s in these sequences that we see two recurring images with Miyazaki crop up for the first time: a love of all things that fly and insane, death defying motorists. In the opening car chase, along a precarious looking coastline, Lupin manages to overtake a car full of goons by driving at 90° along the cliffside before crashing back down onto the road. This is a world where people can jump and fall impossible distances, or swim upwards against a waterfall. Yet in spite of this being the most action packed, cartoonish film of Miyazaki’s canon, such ludicrous scenes are echoed in the way the mum in Ponyo careens round corners at high speed, or even when Kiki clatters her way round town on a broom. Miyazaki loves transport, and its possibilities within animation, and it is perhaps most evident in this, his debut film.
Aside from the look of the film, this also feels tonally very different to Nausicaa and the Ghibli films that followed it. Where his other films veer between epic fantasies or intimate childhood stories (often combining the two), nothing really comes close to the crazy capers of Cagliostro. Miyazaki’s love letter to aviation, Porco Rosso, is perhaps closest in tone, with its European setting (something else that he continually returns to) and adventurous spirit. But really this is more like an anarchic, kleptomaniac version of Tintin, with lots of disguises, snooping and even a snarling villain for them to investigate. Yet where Hergé’s hero is a rather bland do-gooder, here Lupin is a womanising, self-interested charmer. In fact, the central character was even toned down from the more lecherous narcissist of the manga and the TV show. Spielberg reputedly loves this film*, and his version of Tintin clearly owes a debt to the light-hearted, hugely inventive way the action pans out (see the brilliant motorcycle chase in that film to see what I’m talking about).
The Castle of Cagliostro is a bold, bright action film and a wonderfully entertaining debut from Miyazaki. It’s not as complex as his later films, but it is perhaps more fun than any of them; the fledgling director clearly enjoyed making it, and he shows a real flair for action and story that served him well in later films. Set to a carefree jazz soundtrack and featuring some mind boggling action sequences, this is far better than you might expect of a sequel a film based on a TV series. It also allowed Miyazaki to make Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, which then paved the way for the beginning of Studio Ghibli. As such, enjoyment of this hugely entertaining film is made all the more sweeter by the knowledge of what Hayao did next.
Extras: A trailer and picture-in-picture storyboards, which show a fascinating insight into the animation process, but you could have hoped for a bit more.
Keep your eyes peeled on the blog tomorrow (hopefully) for an article on the Blu-Ray release of the greatest animated film of all time.
*Thanks to @adamhopelies for this Spielberg nugget.