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’.
Edinburgh Filmhouse is currently hosting the Scotland Loves Anime film festival (which you can also find in Glasgow), and so of course I jumped at the chance to watch Studio Ghibli’s latest film, which made it’s Scottish debut here. I will also be covering a re-release of Ninja Scroll and Mamoru Hosoda’s new film Wolf Children.
One of the many things to love about Studio Ghibli – the powerhouse Japanese studio most famous here for films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo – is that their films are always about so much more than their plots. So Whisper of the Heart holds appeal because it is not just a high school romance, but a tribute to the power of imagination, whilst Princess Mononoke contains within its fantasy epic story a powerful ecological message about the balance of nature. The layers in these films are sometimes a little difficult to see for those unfamiliar with Japanese culture (Pom Poko and My Neighbours the Yamadas are firmly rooted in folklore), but in almost everything the studio produces there is more to it than meets the eye.
So it is with From Up On Poppy Hill, their latest film and the second from Goro Miyazaki, the son of Ghibli’s legendary founder and most prolific director, Hayao Miyazaki. The plot focuses, as always, on a strong female character. Here it is Umi, a schoolgirl whose father died in the Korean war and whose mother is in America studying. Left to look after the house and their lodgers, Umi soon gets distracted by a charismatic boy at her school, Shun, and a mission to renovate their school’s clubhouse. Yet the film, really, is about the hope of restoration in a country that had been shattered by fascism and war, and was seeking to rebuild itself and its culture after a period of American occupation. It is these undercurrents of hope and redemption, as well as the incredible artwork and beautiful score, that elevates the film above a standard teenage angst drama, and establishes it as one of the finest, most moving animations to come out this year.
The film is set in 1963, the year before Tokyo held the Olympics, and more importantly, the year when those who were born in 1945 would be turning eighteen. It’s the start of a new generation of those who would not remember the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a time when those in school would be free from the national guilt that came with the atrocities at Nanking. When better to set a film about an old building being renovated? Both Umi and Shun have had their lives permanently affected by war in Korea (Japan proved to be a crucial ally to America in that ugly conflict), yet it is in their brightness and their enthusiasm that the future of Japan lies. Umi raises signal flags each day from her house on the titular hill, in memory of her father, showing that the nation is still recovering from war. But her burgeoning and often awkward romance with Shun represents a hope that, even in the face of loss, rebuilding is possible.
Not only that, but the clubhouse, a wonderfully animated building full of creaking beams and old books piled to the ceiling, is a beautiful representation of the dilemma that faced Japan after the war and occupation. Should they start all over and create something wholly new, or preserve their culture and everything that went before? The crucial role of women in the building renovation also shows a new Japan emerging. There is still a very noticeable gender divide in the schooling system, from uniforms to social spaces, yet it is the women of the film who prove to have the most agency and resilience. It is Umi who spearheads the preservation of the building, and the women in her life are all creative, intelligent and independent. Ghibli films have always had strong women at their centre, and here it is evident that women are an essential part of a new Japan, and that it is crucial that the genders begin to integrate.
It is fitting, then, that a film imbued with such a sense of promise for the future, and focussing on a new generation, is directed by Goro Miyazaki. That the film was written by his father and that he is the one to direct shows a nice synthesis between art and life. Goro’s last film was the much derided Tales From Earthsea, one of the very, very few films that could be considered a ‘bad’ Ghibli film. It was a sloppily structured mess that (apparently) showed no respect for the source material. It also arrived in a storm of rumours that father and son argued intensely, and that it was never intended for Goro to take over the reigns at the studio (the director of Whisper of the Heart, and Miyazaki protégé Yoshifumi Kondo, sadly died after his first film). So after an inglorious debut, and with time marching ever on for Miyazaki Senior, the question of what would happen to the studio hung heavily over their future projects. That Goro can then deliver something as heartfelt as this, and working on a script written by his father, is promising indeed. It’s a beautifully drawn, moving film that sits on the mature, personal end of the studio’s spectrum. This is one of their most fantasy-free films, closest to Whisper or Only Yesterday in tone. It’s a quiet, tender film that truly shows the promise of Miyazaki Junior, which forms a rather poignant parallel with the story that’s being told. From Up On Poppy Hill shows once again that with Studio Ghibli, there’s is always so much more to it than meets the eye.