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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…

Kiki's Delivery Service  © 1989 Eiko Kadono - Nibariki - GN

Astonishment And Empathy – My piece for Vodzilla

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.

The greatest director ever – a review for Front Row Reviews

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.

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.