Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2013)

11. The Wind Rises
Kaze tachinu

Multiple times over his long career, Hayao Miyazaki has threatened to retire. “Spirited Away” was supposed to be his final film before the assigned director dropped out of “Howl’s Moving Castle,” bringing Miyazaki onto the project. I’m fairly certain he talked about retirement a few other times too. When the director announced that his eleventh feature, “The Wind Rises,” was going to be his final film, it was hard to know if he was being serious. As the release of the film approached, it became clear that the director was serious. Miyazaki was truly retiring, for realsy this time. For his last film, he chose an unusual project. As a drastic change of pace from his usual children’s film or fantasy action/adventures, “The Wind Rises” is a low-key drama about Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, the Japanese fighter jets that dropped the bombs on Pearl Habor.

Beginning in 1918, the film starts with Jiro as a thirteen year old, his love and fascination with airplanes already in place. He wears glasses which prevents him from being a pilot himself. After an encounter in a dream with Italian designer Giovanni Caproni, Jiro devotes his life to designing airplanes. Jumping ahead to 1927, Jiro scores a job with Mitsubishi designing planes for the Japanese airforce. As the threat of war looms, Jiro regrets that his beautiful creations will be used to destroy cities and end lives.

Despite being based in fact, “The Wind Rises” deviates wildly from the truth. The facts concerning Horikoshi’s career as a plane designer are more-or-less intact. The building and failure of the Mitsubishi 1MF10 is documented, along with the creative process that eventually led to the creation of the Zero. However, most everything else in the film is fictional. A major subplot is Jiro’s relationship and brief marriage to a woman dying of tuberculosis, which is invented whole-cloth. A long series of scenes revolving around Jiro befriending a German designer don’t have any basis in reality either. More-or-less, all of the insight the film gives into Jiro’s life is fictional and created for the film. “The Wind Rises” is a biopic in only the loosest sense. Instead, it’s mostly a fictional drama that takes loose inspiration from true events.

The story the film is telling is grounded in truth and mostly concerns the day-to-day life of normal people. Which raises the question of why the film had to be animated. A question that Miyazaki answers by including a number of fantastical dream sequences in the film. “The Wind Rises” actually opens with a stunning five-minute dream sequence, totally free of dialogue. In this scene, 13-year old Jiro jumps on a bi-plane docked atop his home. He flies through his small town, zipping under a bridge, pass the workers and farmers below. As he climbs higher into the sky, a strange air-ship emerges. Shadowy figures standing atop bombs dangle from the ship. Jiro tosses his goggles and cap aside, revealing the glasses on his face. His eyes bulge behind the lens just as one of the bombs crashes into his plane, sending the boy falling towards the ground. An interesting decisions has the noises of the airplanes not being canned sound effects but rather provided by mumbling, grumbling human voices. As in Miyazaki’s best films, an incredible amount of emotion is conveyed through the use of images, motion, and music. As far as openers go, this one is a stunner.

It is also the only dream sequence that truly feels like a dream. This is, perhaps, intentional. Early on, Jiro has a dream that has him meeting Caproni, his hero and the man who would inspire his profession. These dreams are reoccurring and are more like visions or psychic communications then genuine dreams. In the first, Caproni shares his vision of an air-bus before it is ever actually built. Another has the Italian inviting Jiro onto a giant bomber plane. For its test ride, he has invited the families of his workers to enjoy a flight. The film’s emotional conclusion has the two meeting again, above a destroyed field. In an image recalling “Porco Rosso,” the two watch a fleet of Jiro’s Zeroes fly by before they soar up into the sky, disappearing into a stream of stars overhead. The meetings with Caproni are potentially overwrought. However, they provide a structure to the film, giving a clearer look into Horikoshi’s ambitions and plans.

Miyazaki has never kept his love of aviation and air travel a secret. Considering how fascinated he is with airplanes, it’s surprising that “The Wind Rises” is only the second film Miyazaki has made to explicitly revolve around planes. The detail is, naturally, obsessive. The planes look as realistic as possible and are outfitted with an insane amount of detail. The film has a clever way of conveying Jiro’s innate understanding of plane physics. During one of the test flights, the designer can tell that the plane is about to shake apart under the high velocity. He focuses on the wing, seeing through the canvas to the frame swaying inside. Another moment has Jiro explaining his latest work of art to his co-workers, who see the design spring to life around them. “The Wind Rises” uses the animated form to convey a deeper, more intuitive understanding of what makes airplanes special.

The film is two different types of love stories. Horikoshi doesn’t see planes as vehicles or weapons but rather works of art and has an artist passion for designing them. The film is also a literal love story. While on a train headed back to the Tokyo university, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 hits. The land ripples around them, the train derailed and the city bursting into flames. Jiro rescues a young girl named Nahoko from the crash without ever revealing his name. A decade later, the two meet again, the girl having never forgotten about him. The second half of “The Wind Rises” is heavily devoted to the growing bond between Jiro and Nahoko. Some of the scenes drip with melodrama, primarily because of Nahoko’s inevitable death from tuberculosis. However, others are more low-key and touching. The two lovers walk through a rainstorm, both crouching under a hole-filled umbrella. After being married, Jiro works on his planes designs at home. Nahoko scoots his table closer to her sleeping bag so that the two can hold hands. The best moments concerning the romantic subplot are the ones that make the most use of the film’s dream-like tone. While Nahoko recovers in her room, her hat blows off her head. Below, Jiro dances back and forth in order to catch it, a moment of releaving Buster-Keaton-style slapstick. Another effective moment comes during the successful test flight of the A5M. Instead of being proud of his success, Jiro is distracted by a sudden wind. He has sensed that his wife has died. It’s a quiet, effective moment. The love story never quite connects with the film’s thematic concerns but is not without touching elements.

“Porco Rosso” also did a great job of capturing a world in transition. “The Wind Rises” does much the same, being set during a similar time period. In the time period after World War I, Japan is destitute. Banks are closing, thousands are out of work, and no one has any money. Meanwhile, the government is pouring money into the military. Jiro’s best friend Kiro Honjo points out that the two of them are making decent money while the rest of the country is fighting to survive. While overseas in Germany, Jiro sees the growing influence of fascism first hand. During the night, a fleeing man is cornered by the secret police in an alley way and beaten, expressionistic shadows cast on the wall behind them. While in the countryside, Horikoshi befriends a German named Hans Castrop, who is a vocal critic of both Hitler’s growing power and the militaristic tendencies of the Japanese Empire. For this friendship, Jiro is pursued by government agents for the rest of the film. The inevitability of World War II affects the entire film. The film paints a picture of a world still crippled from one world war while on the verge of another.

Which brings me the primary thematic thrust of “The Wind Rises.” Nearly all of the director’s films have an anti-war subtext. This film brings that reoccurring theme to the surface. As in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” the war is painted a futile, frivolous enterprise. The film does not go into the reasons behind the war, instead focusing on the lives that will be lost in the violence. Jiro creates his planes as expression of art. Throughout the film, he and other characters bemoan the fact that his artistic creations will be used as weapons. The war is never actually seen on-screen, instead merely refereed to. By focusing on Jiro’s desires to create something beautiful, the film makes the losses incurred during the war more personal.

It’s also somewhat impossible not to look at “The Wind Rises” as being about Miyazaki’s own career. During one of their imagined meetings, Giovanni Caproni tells Jiro that he is retiring, that his “ten years in the spotlight” are up. Is the director commenting on his own retirement here? Does he feel that he has wore out his welcome by staying in the animation business for so long? And how does this reflect on the rest of the film? Jiro is ashamed that his personal artistic creations are eventually misused by other people. Is this how the director feels about his own films? Does Miyazaki regret his films becoming so heavily merchandised? Or is he uncomfortable with the status Ghibli has come to hold in the Japanese animation industry? It’s hard to say for certain. However, this reading is inevitable and adds another interesting layer to the film.

Despite obviously being a passion project for the filmmaker, “The Wind Rises” might be Miyazaki’s weakest film. The movie’s pace can best be described as “meandering.” Long portions are devoted to Jiro and his friends sketching out planes, which is not the most cinematic action. The trip to Germany and back are broken up with long sequences of the two geeking out over German ingenuity or sitting in their hotel room. When Jiro is in the countryside, forming his bond with Nahoko, the pacing really takes a dive. Dialogue-heavy scenes devoted to two characters standing around and talking drag the film down. For a movie that’s already long at 126 minutes, “The Wind Rises” frequently feels even longer.

As his career went on, Miyazaki’s themes became more and more obvious. “The Wind Rises” has this trend coming to a head. The film is frequently didactic. Instead of expressing its thematic concepts through the story, the characters lay them out, speaking their feelings in lengthy monologues. This is most obvious during the final scene. Jiro and Caproni ruminate over their beautiful creations being destroyed in the pursuit of war. Jiro’s dead wife then appears to him, imploring him to move on with his life. Surely there were more elegant ways to express these idea. “The Wind Rises” too frequently feels like a lecture which only adds to its sluggish pacing.

“The Wind Rises” is a visually stunning film and one full of fascinating, gorgeously created scenes. It’s a highly personal statement but occasionally hampered by an uneven execution. It’s probably Miyazaki’s weakest film. His thirty-year-plus career was one largely without misstep and even his weakest film is ambiguous and impressive. [Grade: B]


As of now, it's hard to know if Miyazaki's retirement will stick, with rumors of a possible new project already circulating. Either way, the studio the director founded is in a state of transition. Studio Ghibli is not closing down, not yet anyway, but the company's future is uncertain. If Ghibli closes down forever, it would certainly mean a huge loss for the animation world, especially since there are still talented filmmakers at the studio, beyond Miyazaki and Takahada. Maybe in a year from now, we'll have more concrete answers. At this moment, we fans can only hope and wonder.

As long time Film Thoughts readers are surely aware, the blog will be going quiet for a few days before returning at the end of the week in a big way. You know what I'm talking about. See you soon.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2008)

10. Ponyo
Gake no ue no Ponyo / Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Studio Ghibli in general and Hayao Miyazaki specifically are both called the Disney of Japan. In one way, this is correct. The popularity and massive success of their films, and unlimited merchandising of their characters, is comparable to the status the Disney empire holds in America. (And most everywhere else in the world, let’s face it.) However, Disney is a huge conglomerate. Even when Walt Disney was alive, he was more of a supervisor than a hands-on filmmaker. Ghibli, meanwhile, is a smaller operation with Miyazaki still hand-drawing major parts of his films. Still, the comparison holds some water and it’s, no doubt, one the director himself is aware of. I can imagine him looking at the films Disney makes and thinking “I can do that!” “Ponyo” has similar roots to the films of the Disney Animated Canon but ultimately a style and a tone that is pure Miyazaki.

Set on a tiny island in the middle of a massive sea, the film follows two young children. The first is Sosuke, a serious and focused five year old boy, living on a small house on a hill with his mother, who works at the local nursing home. Sosuke’s father is a boat captain and frequently away from home. The other child is Brunnhilde, the fish-like daughter of a human man and the goddess of the ocean. When the rebellious Brunnhilde escapes her father’s care, she spots Sosuke playing on the coast. The little girl is immediately smitten with the boy, who adopts her as his goldfish. Renamed Ponyo, the girl steals her father’s magic, transforming into a little girl, and reuniting with Sosuke… And flooding the island in the process.

“Ponyo” has a visual design and look distinct from any other Ghibli film. The animation style is simpler and more colorful. The waves of the ocean are a cartoonish, bright blue, like a child’s crayon. The character designs are looser and more expressive. The backgrounds are less detailed and more simplistic, often looking like slightly abstract shapes set against colorful backdrops. The change in style doesn’t represent a drop in quality. Instead, it’s a deliberate choice. The film’s look reflects the energetic drawling of a child, full of big, bold colors and simple, highly defined shapes. It’s an interesting choice, and one linked to the story, for Miyazaki to change up his style on his tenth feature film.

Don’t get the impression that “Ponyo” is lacking in the crazy, meticulous detail we’ve come to expect from Studio Ghibli though. The vehicles, homes, and clothes are the characters are as life-like and dutifully recreated as expected. The film opens with some of the most visually stunning and beautiful animation the studio has ever created. From under the sea, Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father, stands in a giant bubble, seemingly directing the sea life around him. Huge colonies of jellyfishes, shrimps, and other sea creatures swim around him. Squids, glowing multiple different colors, float overhead, the man flicking lights at them. While he’s distracted, Ponyo sneaks out of her inclosure, floating on the back of a giant jellyfish, snoozing under a bubble. After the island is flooded, accurate recreations of ancient sea creatures are seen swimming underwater. Even the sea monsters have a sense of character to them. While Ponyo and Sosuke are climbing onto his ship, a little octopus can be seen in the background crawling over a shoe. It’s that attention to detail that make Ghibli films such a wonder for the eyes.

The North American DVD cover, in an oddly prominent way, proclaims that the film is based off Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” “Loosely inspired by” would be more accurate than “based on.” As in “The Little Mermaid,” Ponyo is a princess from under the sea who rebels against her anti-human father after falling in love with a human male. If the boy’s love fails her, Ponyo will die and turn into sea foam, as in the frequently excised original ending of Anderson’s story. Beyond that, there isn’t much resemblance between the two tales. “The Little Mermaid” is, in its original incarnation, a tragedy. While “Ponyo” is a softer, sweeter story. (The film also throws in an unexpected reference to the Nibelungenlied too, what with the rebellious daughter being named Brunhilde.) What “Ponyo” most resembles is Miyazaki’s own “My Neighbor Totoro.” Both are simplistic stories about children and their encounters with the fantastic. Both are set in rural areas and both deal with the relationship between kids and parents. Keeping on in this trend, “Ponyo” is the first straight-up kid’s flick Miyazaki has made since “Totoro.”

You could say the director is repeating himself. “Ponyo” is certainly awash in the filmmaker’s trademarks. Early on, while swimming towards the surface, Ponyo is caught up in a net full of garbage. Fujimoto’s hatred of mankind is based on the pollution humanity has pumped into the ocean. Miyazaki’s ecological themes take a backseat to another one of his pet themes. The film is full of strong, fully-formed female characters. Sosuke’s mom, whom he calls Lisa instead of “mom,” is a headstrong woman. She drives her tiny car in front of a ship just as it’s pulling into dock. Later on, when the island is being quickly submerged by massive tidal waves, she races the same tiny car around tight corners, huge waves threatening to swallow it up. She’s somewhat petulant when dealing with her husband, sending angry messages to his ship through Morse code blinkers. Yet she’s loving towards Sosuke and accepts Ponyo’s magical reappearance at their home. The nursing home Lisa works at contains three older ladies. Toki is equally headstrong while Yoshie and Kayo are more whimsical. All three love Sosuke and its clear that the little boy livens up their lives. A wonderful moment occurs at the end, when we discover the older women running freely for the first times in years within Fujimoto’s magical underwater bubble. Ponyo herself and her mother are both examples of this tendency too, of course.

The film is concerned with something else too. A topic frequently oversimplified, if not out-right ignored, by most children’s media is the relationship between parents and their kids. This comes to the forefront in “Ponyo.” Ponyo is rebellious towards her father. As the film opens, she is contained in a bubble, along with her hundred little sisters. Fujimoto is protecting her from the world of man but, in a wider sense, is simply protecting her. As it is sometimes, the parent putting a leash on the child makes her want to wander more. Meeting Sosuke and becoming infatuated with the boy is just the catalyst needed to push the two apart. Fujimoto’s resistant towards his daughter is somewhat hypocritical. After all, he was once a normal human who fell in love with a mystical being from the sea. Sosuke and Lisa’s relationship contrasts. The absence of Sosuke’s father has had a profound effect on the boy. He’s mature for his age, with his mother frequently coming off as the more care-free one, like when she shares an ice cream cone with her boy or romps on the bed with him. Ponyo’s mother is the great Goddess of Mercy and happily accepts her daughter’s crush on the land boy, recognizing the similarities between their relationship and her and Fujimoto’s. The ocean mother is a figure of understanding and all-abiding love.

Like “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Ponyo” has an accurate grasp on the energy of youth. This is mostly evident in the first meeting between Ponyo and Sosuke. When she’s a fish, Sosuke is very excited to have her. He obsesses over the little fish, showing her to his pre-school friends. When the fish is taken back to the sea, he’s visibly sad, wishing for her return. Ponyo returns that devotion in kind. After being reunited, she leaps on the boy in a full-force hug. Ponyo shouts, leaps around, and is a little ball of energy in general. When introduced to ham, a towel, or hot tea, she goes crazy with enthusiasm. One tiny, notable moment has her running around the room in a circle, climbing over a couch, instead of walking to the dinner table in a straight line. She’s a good contrast to Sosuke’s controlled personality. Ponyo is pure, unrestrained childhood id.

It’s interesting that the film presents the two kid’s relationship as unabashedly romantic. The film makes a good case for “puppy love.” Ponyo’s feelings for Sosuke is something between a precocious crush and a kid finding her best friend. Sosuke, meanwhile, seems to have a calm, understated attachment to his fish girl. The film’s dramatic climax comes with what Ponyo’s mother calls the Test of Love. The mermaid princess turns back into a fish, shrinking in the boy’s arms. As she swims around him, Sosuke is asked if he’ll love Ponyo even if she’s a fish. He answers in the positive, providing this kid-friendly fairy tale with its happy ending. Inverting the usual trick, it’s the fishy kisses the little boy before turning into a little girl. Whether or not Sosuke and Ponyo will grow into lovers or be something more like brother and sister is up for the viewer to decide.

Since so much of the film revolves around water, it’s appropriate that it should treat magic as a fluid, natural process. Fujimoto’s main ability is to summon water-like creatures to do his bidding. The creatures, recalling the Blob Men in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” have big eyes amid thick, fluid bodies that stick out amidst the water. He draws his powers from strange, glowing potions, kept in elongated bottles in his underwater lair. When Ponyo escapes, she rockets to the surface on golden, glowing fish. Her little sisters swim around her, transforming into giant blue fish, and exploding out of the surface into the sky. Later on, the same batch of little sisters morph into older women while swimming around their sister again. The ocean goddess swims across the ocean’s surface as a giant reflection, gathering all the lost boats next to a still, huge wall of water. Ponyo’s transformation is the film’s best example of how fluid its use of magic is. She often shifts between human and fish while using her abilities, sometimes sprouting chicken-like arms and legs. Like Sophie shifting between ages in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” Ponyo’s face and body stretches between forms naturally and without comment.

“Ponyo” is not an action movie and is generally short on big set pieces. Save for one. When Ponyo’s escape, she unleashes her father’s ancient magic, causing torrential floods to surround the tiny island. This is portrayed as massive waves sinking around the small landmass. Sosuke and his mother attempt to outrun the flood waters behind them. Only the son notices Ponyo skipping across the surface of the water like a stone. The mother is more preoccupied with getting away from the giant waves threatening to swallow them. “Ponyo” is a kid’s flick and the viewer never really doubts that Lisa and her kid will make it out safe. It’s a testament to the skills of the filmmaker that, even then, the viewer is on the edge of the seat during the sequence.

After the floods subsides, the aftermath is treated in a surprisingly relaxed fashion. Despite a whole town being buried underwater, no one is hurt and no lives are lost. Instead, the film treats the flooded area almost like a fantasy wonderland. Ponyo uses her powers to turn Sosuke’s toy boat into the real thing. The two set out over the water, awing at the sea creatures below. They come across a husband and wife in a small boat, a baby in her arms. The little kids quickly make friends with the adult couple. Because there’s no threat of the kids being harmed, the two of them setting off on an adventure over the waves has almost a cozy feeling. It’s fun and danger-free. Considering the film is about a huge flood, it treats the situation in a surprisingly laid-back fashion.

“Ponyo” is not a game-changer. It’s a low-stakes kid’s flick and repeats many of the themes Miyazaki stated in bigger ways in previous films. However, the director’s skills with characters and creating fantastic worlds on-screen have never faded. It’s a charming, sweet, if light-weight, adventure for the youngest set. I was fortunate enough to catch “Ponyo” in the theater when it was released in America, even if it was in Disney’s respectful if slightly distracting English dub. I can say Ghibli’s vividly animated, beautifully detailed films deserve to be experienced on the big screen, even in a more minor film like this one. [Grade: B]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2004)

9. Howl’s Moving Castle
Hauru no ugoku shiro

Some time ago, my older sister and her soon-to-be-husband lived in a home without a television. Instead of a TV, they had an entire room of shelves, lined with hundreds of science fiction and fantasy novels. In order to pass the time while spending long weekends there, I read many of those volumes. One title that always caught my attention yet I never got around to reading was “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones. Years later, it was announced that Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were making a film of the book. I knew nothing about the source material but the title was memorable enough that I recognized it. After seeing the film, it’s not surprising to see why the novel appealed to Miyazaki, as the story contained many of his favorite themes.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” is a full-blown fantasy revolving around wizards, witches, the demons they draw power from, and set in a fantasy world that resembles turn of the century Europe. Sophie, a young hat-maker, lives a town where rumors of a dashing wizard named Howl, and the moving castle he lives in, abound. By pure happenstance, she meets the handsome wizard, which incurs the wrath of Howl’s primary rival, the Witch of the Waste. Young Sophie is transformed into an old woman and seeks out Howl, hoping to find a cure. She’s quickly adopted into the wizard’s odd family of outcasts. The group has to survive as the countries around them march towards war.

Two of Miyazaki’s favorite character types are the spirit-filled young girl, just on the cusp of adulthood, and the tough elderly woman, determined and set-in-her-ways. “Howls’ Moving Castle” affords the director an oppretunity to include both of those personalities in the same character. Sophie comes from a family of beautiful, social women, including her stylish mother and newly married older sister. Because of this, she sees herself as plain and unexceptional, toiling away at her day job of making hats. Sophie is actually lovely, talented, and intelligent but is unwilling to acknowledge these facts about herself. When the Witch of the Waste curses her to become an old woman, Sophie maintains those personalities traits. She tracks down Howl’s castle and forcefully integrates herself into his household, giving herself the job of cleaning lady. What’s fascinating about Sophie’s curse is that its dependent entirely on her. While she sleeps, Sophie maintains her youthful appearance. When describing Howl’s positive qualities, she shifts from an old woman back to a young girl. In the second half of the film, her age is constantly morphing between the two extremes. The curse becomes a reflection of her own self-confidence. Sophie believes herself to be homely, so she looks like an old woman. Only after she learns to accept herself, with the help of Howl’s love, does she return to her original age again.

Howl is an equally interesting character. He fits the anime stereotype of the bishonen. He’s not only handsome but slightly androgynous, with wide eyes, a thin face, earrings, and shoulder-length hair. Howl is enough of a classic bishonen that he only superficially resembles the usual Ghibli character design. He also maintains the moodiness of the archetype. After Sophie cleans the bath room, moving the potions around, Howl accidentally dyes his blonde hair red. This has such an affect on him that he slumps into a depression, summoning shadow monsters into the room and producing a green slime over his skin. Yet Howl, in time, proves more complex than your average temperamental but good-looking bad boy. In exchange for his magical powers, he gave the fire-demon Calcifer his heart. This has caused his humanity to slowly erode, transforming Howl into an inhuman, bird-like monster when stressed. At night, he flies into the war zones but can’t bring himself to directly intervene. As his relationship with Sophie evolves, Howl’s humanity returns to him, forcing him to finally make a stand in the growing conflict.

The romance between Howl and Sophie is one of the most charming out of all of Studio Ghibli’s movies. The two are introduced when Howl walks up to Sophie on the street and lifts her up into the air, the two literally walking over the town. Though she can’t bring herself to admit it, she’s immediately smitten with the sorcerer. The girl’s co-workers talk about how Howl eats young girl’s heart, which they mean in a literal sense, but he takes Sophie’s heart in the strictly figurative sense. He accepts her into his home. His growing affection for the girl is evident when he takes glimpses of her as she sleeps. Howl’s declaration of love comes when he gifts Sophie with access to his secret hiding place, a beautiful valley field full of flowers and home to an isolated cabin where he spent his childhood. The emotional crux of the film is built around Howl and Sophie’s love for each other. The film wouldn’t work unless it earned that honest emotion.

As has become tradition, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features exquisitely detailed animation. The town, vehicles, clothing, and movement of the characters are all fantastic. One element stands above the rest. The titular moving castle is an amazing triumph of animation design. The castle is steampunk dream come true. Its belching smokestacks, clanking gears, and jittery spider-legs creates a kinship with similar clockwork devices in other Miyazaki films. The castle has multiple layers that are constantly overlapping and bumping into each other. A rough face is form by the different floors, two smoke stacks making eyes and the front of the castle forming a crude mouth. The shakiness of the design not only gives the castle a lived-in quality but also makes it seem like it could fall apart at any minute. When it does fall apart in the last act, a smaller version of the castle, sleeker and faster but no less home-made, crawls out of the wreckage. Amusingly, even after falling apart, the castle keeps on moving, even when its just a floor, a wheel, a belt, and a pair of wobbly legs.

The castle moves in more then one way. The film’s approach to magic, overall, is interesting. It’s less flying fireballs and mixing potions and more intuitive. One of the few classical magic spells Howl performs has him carrying his fire-demon into a magic circle, causing the interior of the castle to shift around his whims. But maybe my favorite element is a magical door inside the castle. A multicolored circle is connected to the doorknob. By turning the knob, the circle rotates to a new color. Each color corresponds to a different location. By changing the settings, the characters can step through the door to a different store front. This allows Howl to pose as different alchemist in different towns, maintaining his reputation and creating steady streams of income. It’s a clever idea and deployed fantastically.

The biggest assets of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is its cast of characters. Though not as free-form as “Spirited Away,” the film has a loose plot. This creates a “hang-out” feel, where most of the joy of the film comes from the audience enjoying hanging out with the characters. Howl has gathered together an unusual collection of friends on his castle. Firstly is Calcifer, the fire demon that lives in the castle’s fire-pit. Animated as a living ball of flame, he is expressive, mouthy, and frequently sarcastic. His flames stretch and change depending on his mood and how much fire wood he has to live on. His life force is connected to both Howl’s and the castle’s, so should he ever run out of firewood, it could be problematic. Amusingly, he’s quite bitchy about his food source. Howl’s apprentice is a little kid named Markl. At first, the kid acts older then age, frequently wearing a magic robe that disguises him as an old man. As the story goes on, he forms a bond with Sophie and begins to treat her as an older sister. Two sweet moments has the young wizard playing with his pet dog in a newly acquired courtyard and tearfully telling Sophie he loves her while hugging her deeply. Also among Howl’s crew of misfits is Turnip Head, a friendly scarecrow that hops around on his pole. Despite his face being frozen in a smile and having no movable limps, Turnip Head is surprisingly expressive and endearing. His frantic hopping provides a lot of characterization.

At the story’s beginning, the film seems to be setting up the slovenly Witch of the Waste as its villain. The character, though dressed in a silk dress, a fancy hat, and expensive jewelry, is morbidly obese. Huge rolls of fat push up against her face. She travels in a small booth carried around by her “blob men,” animated globs of black ink that she controls. She has a rivalry with Howl, possibly based in a failed romantic connection but is generally unelaborated on. At the midpoint of the film, there’s a great sequence where Sophie goes to meet the queen of the land, posing as Howl’s mother. The Witch is also there. Both old women laboriously walk up the steep steps, the Witch’s becoming more shapeless with each footstep. Once inside, the kingdom’s magic adviser zaps the Witch with giant light bulbs, draining her power. Suddenly, Howl’s most feared enemy is reduced to a senile old woman, tiny and feeble. She has lucid moments that come and go but seems to be changed for the better. They started as enemy but the Witch is quickly accepted into the family. By the end, Sophie and Markl are referring to the old woman as “Grandma.” There’s a dog too, Heen, a small breed with stubby legs that communicates in wheezing barks. Though intended as a spy for the army, he sticks around as a cute animal sidekick.

As with many of Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” features a strong anti-war message. A military conflict between the two unnamed countries provides the main plot points for the film’s second half. Why the two countries are battling is never fully explained. This is an intentional move. The war is completely frivolous and no reasoning could justify such a destructive conflict. Their ramping military complexes seem completely self-serving. War planes, flapping on bird-like wings, drop giant fire bombs on innocent towns. When Howl finally involves himself in the war, it is to protect the people he cares about, not because he believes in either sides’ cause. It’s not subtle and not as well illustrated as some of the director’s older films but it makes its point nevertheless.

Despite its pacifistic undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” still features some interesting action sequences. The most notable moment has Howl defending Sophie and the Witch from his former mentor and current wizard for the government, Suliman. The way the magical conflict is carried out is unlike any other I’ve seen on-screen. The room disappears, a field of stars cropping up around the characters. Vague, human-like shapes made of sparkling starshine surround the captives, light flickering from their hands. Howl and Sophie escape just in time, which sadly cuts the sequence short. Miyazaki’s trademark flying scene comes soon after, with Sophie and the others escaping on one of the military’s flying vehicles.

Yet the film’s most visually impressive moments feature no action at all. My favorite is a dream-like sequence that has Sophie, unaware that she’s a young girl again, walking into Howl’s inner sanctum in the middle of the night. The dirt walls of the tunnel are decorate with children toys, unexplained remnants from Howl’s innocent days. There, she encounters the wizard at his most monstrous, where the two share a short dialogue before he flies away, leaving Sophie an old woman again. The scene might literally be a dream, it’s hard to say, but its implacable tone makes an impression on the viewer.

The last act features Howl flying among exploding airships, fighting off monsters, and ducking under bombs. Yet the story’s climax is strictly an emotional one instead of an action-packed one. The castle is destroyed, the Witch’s greed and obsession with Howl comes to a head, and Howl and Calcifer nearly die. The true conclusion happens when young Sophie talks the fire demon into returning Howl’s heart. The wizard is made whole again and the demon is freed. However, before the end credits roll, Calcifer returns and the moving castle is rebuilt. The war subplot is resolved off-screen, Turnip Head being revealed as a prince under a curse. Ultimately, the relationship between the characters are more important then the battles. Howl and Sophie kissing on the balcony of the new castle is more satisfying then any fight scene could be.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” might be the most underrated entry in Miyazaki’s career. It was greeted with a horde of critical praise, as you’d expect, but the glow has faded with time. The script has some of the same problems as “Spirited Away” and, no, it’s not as fresh or impressive as his earlier films. But there’s something to be said for a film full of lovable characters that are simply fun to be around. The animation is gorgeous, the music lovely, and the world memorable. The film’s limitless charm outweighs all of these successes. [Grade: B+]

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (2001)

8. Spirited Away
Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi

Where “Princess Mononoke” failed to break Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli into something near the American mainstream, “Spirited Away” succeeded. The film was an enormous hit in Japan, exceeding the director’s previous picture’s grosses. In other countries, “Spirited Away” generated a massive amount of buzz on the film festival circuit, even being the first animated film to win the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Despite receiving a small theatrical release and, in much the same way as “Princess Mononoke,” having its advertising buried, the film rode a wave of hype all the way to the Academy Awards, where it became the first (and thus far, only) anime to win Best Animated Feature. All of this is very unexpected since “Spirited Away” is an exceptionally weird movie.

Ten year old Chihiro is displeased with her parents. The family is moving to a new town, forcing the young girl to leave her friends behind. While on the road, her dad takes a wrong turn, parking the car in front of an odd tunnel. Walking ahead, the family discovers a seemingly abandoned town. It’s no ordinary town though. In actually, the place is a town for spirits, based around the bathhouse run by old witch Yubaba. Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs, forcing Chihiro to take a job at the bathhouse, in hopes of earning their freedom. However, the witch steals her name, rechristening her Sen, so her parents’ freedom isn't the only thing on the line.

“Spirited Away” has an extraordinary first fifteen minutes. Chihiro sits in the back of her parents’ car, glumly holding onto a bouquet of flowers. Attached to the flower is a note from her friends, wishing her well. By using visual shorthands like this, the film establishes so much about its main character in very quick ways. After her parents stop the car, a genuine sense of eeriness comes over the film. Chihiro doesn’t want to explore the empty buildings, already sensing that something is off. As is usually the case in fables like this, her parents pay the girl’s warning no heed. Before her eyes, her parents transform into pigs, which are huge and appropriately grotesque. As the sun sets on the area, strange black spectres begin to lurk around. The panic and fear begins to subside as soon as Haku finds the girl and begins to establish some order to the chaotic setting. For those first fifteen minutes, “Spirited Away” is truthfully sort-of creepy. It’s the closest Miyazaki has ever come to directing a horror movie.

As “Princess Mononoke” and “Kiki’s Delivery Service” were both takes on established genres, “Spirited Away” belongs to a genre that includes stories like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Wizard of Oz,” “Labyrinth,” and others. A normal young girl accidentally stumbles into a strange, other-wordly dimension and, by discovering her own inner strength, makes her way back out again. There’s nothing extraordinary about Chihiro to begin with but, over the course of her time at the bathhouse, she shows amazing strength, generosity, and foresight beyond her years. The film is more surreal than most versions of an all-ready odd genre, filled with distinctly Japanese oddities. Yet the roots that connect it with older stories are easily seen. Some of the inhabitants of this new world are friendly to the girl, like Kamajin the old man who runs the furnace, but others are less then greeting. More than a few times, they even threaten to eat Chihiro. The film equally works through the fear and wonderment that usually accompanies the genre.

“Spirited Away” is also, unexpectedly, an example of a far more recent genre: The work place comedy. In a round about way, the film is about a young girl’s first job. Her boss is belligerent and hostile. Many of her co-workers openly resent her. She’s low enough on the totem pole that Chihiro gets stuck doing the worst jobs in the business. Despite being in such a lowly position, she pulls off a crazy task, pleasing an important client, and winning the respect of her employer and co-worker. However, the differences matter. Chihiro’s boss is an elderly witch with a giant head who, literally, steals the young girl’s name. The annoyed co-workers that don’t respect her are odd creatures that just as actively want to eat her. In this case, the grunt work is cleaning out an especially filthy bath. The difficult customer is a Stink God, a blatantly excretal, ambient pile of sludge. As a way to spite the girl, her employer chooses Chihiro to works with the client, whose odor is strong enough that people collapse around him. Despite the difficulties, Chihiro proves herself when she notices something is wrong with the Stink God. The movie does a clever play on the “thorn in the lion’s foot” fable. Instead of pulling a single, small shard out of the monster’s body, an entire sludge-caked bicycle is yanked out. Turns out, the Stink God is actually a River God and his body was clogged with pollution. By noticing a small thing and solving it, Chihiro proves herself to those around her and quickly finds her place at the bathhouse.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, the film was mostly inspired by Miyazaki spending time with friends of his family and their ten-year old daughter. As with “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” the origin of the character comes from wanting to make a film that more accurately reflects the target audience. At story’s beginning, Chihiro appears to be a perfectly ordinary pre-teen girl. She is slightly moody and prone to panic but otherwise there’s seemingly nothing special about her. As the story evolves, so does her character. One notable example has her running down a drain pipe just as its about to collapse. She becomes braver and more confident in her own ability. Yet even then the movie is playing with expectations. In most stories of this sort, the climax would be a big confrontation between the young heroine and her captive. Here, the film builds towards… Sen spending some time in a nice old lady’s cabin and helping her spin some thread.

A reoccurring element throughout most of Miyazaki’s films is a budding romance between a young girl and boy. “Spirited Away” is partially a romance between Sen and Haku, the young boy who first rescues her at the beginning of the film. Haku is actually a dragon, who can merely shape-shift into human form. After saving her life earlier in the film, Sen returns the favor by saving Haku. After being injured running an errant for Yubaba, the witch is prepared to sacrifice the dragon’s life. Sen doesn’t stop at preventing the dragon from being dropped in a hole. She ventures on a quest, riding a ghost train and ready to walk submerged train tracks back to the bathhouse. The most emotional moment in the film comes soon afterwards. While riding on the dragon’s back, Sen recalls a childhood memory of falling into a river and being rescued. Remembering his name for the first time in eons, the dragon separates into a cloud of white butterflies. The two youths fall through the sky, holding hands, tearfully pledging to return to each other. It’s the sort of poetic, visually beautiful moment that the director specializes in.

Probably the biggest joy of “Spirited Away” is the truly bizarre and unforgettable characters put on-screen. Every frame has something interesting to look at. If the film has a villain, it’s Yubaba. She’s not just an old hag. Instead, she has a head that’s as big as the rest of her body. I’m not sure if we ever see her feet moving. She seemingly levitates everywhere she goes. For reasons that aren’t entirely explained, during the day she transforms into a vulture and flies off. Amusingly, the transformation is simple and cartoonish, wrapping herself in her cloak, her long nose becoming a beak. As stingy and unreasonable as Yubaba is, she has a soft spot. Surely the weirdest element of “Spirited Away” is the Baby. The old witch takes care of a giant baby who spends all day inside an elaborate nursery. The baby’s bigger than an adult male and expresses some homicidal tendencies towards Sen. For a large portion of the plot, the Baby is turned into a chubby little mouse. Yubaba’s pet bird is shrunk down to tiny size and proceeds to carry the baby-mouse around, buzzing from scene to scene. Meanwhile, Yubaba’s trio of disembodied, bouncing heads combine and transform into a copy of the Baby. Did I not mention the green, leaping heads with unfocused eyes? “Spirited Away” can be fucking weird, is my point.

The film is certainly full of bizarre characters. Some of the more interesting are barely glimpsed. While fleeing through the bathhouse, Sen catches a ride on an elevator. She hides behind an obese bathhouse patron who can only be described as a cross between a naked mole rat and a sumo wrestler with a starfish growing out of his face. Literal bipedal frogs, along with humans with stretched-out faces that resembles frogs, are employed in the bathhouse while the clientele include giant cartoon ducks, animated robes, and oni-masked piles of colorful goop. Even the relevant characters are bizarre, like Kamajin the spider-like old man who tends the furnace. He also lords over the soot sprites, reappearing from “My Neighbor Totoro,” who carry the single lumps of coal into the fire.

“Spirited Away” is, of course, visually spectacular. As is to be expected, an amazing amount of detail is put into the animation and background. One spectacular sequence has Yubaba, with a curl of her fingers, sending Chihiro flying through a series of hallways. Each one of those hallways is impressively detailed, with ornate pillars and bright red walls. Another example is the furnace, with its door routinely opening and closing. Haku in dragon form is attacked by a swarm of paper angels, latching to his body and cutting his skin. Naturally, the detail is not limited to the environments. The film successfully captures the mannerism of a young girl, with Chihiro tapping her shoes onto her feet or crying over a note, her body trembling.

“Spirited Away” is visually captivating and features things happening on-screen that no other film can boast. However, I can’t rate it as highly as other Ghibli fans do. The film doesn’t have much of a story. Sen essentially wanders from encounter to encounter. A lengthy series of sequences has a spirit called No-Face wandering into the bathhouse. The faceless entity is glutenous, swallowing hordes of food and plying the bathhouse employees with handfuls of fake gold. Sen has a few encounters with No-Face, even prompting his rampage around the film’s mid-section. The characters don’t have much to do each other otherwise. The way No-Face exits the film, becoming Yubaba’s twin sister’s assistant, seems like especially messy writing. Speaking of Yubaba’s twin, she enters the film suddenly without build-up or earlier references. Why the twin sisters have a rivalry is left up to the viewer. After over two hours of Sen’s encountering random characters, the plot is resolved in a very quick way, with her picking her parents out of a selection of hogs. For all its strength, “Spirited Away” lacks in the story department.

By this point in his career, it’s easy to pick out Hayao Miyazaki’s trademarks. The required flying sequence is accounted for, when Sen sails on Haku’s back. Kamajin’s bushy mustache covers most of his face and his saucer-wide glasses cover the rest, like the old men in many of the director’s movies. Though it’s a small moment, the River God having pollution removed from his body is where the filmmaker’s ecological themes occur. Yubaba even resembles Dora from “Castle in the Sky” or other tough, older women featured in his films. Miyazaki’s affinity for pigs is evident in Chihiro’s parents being turned into fat hogs. The biggest trademark of all is Chihiro herself, a resourceful, intelligent girl on the cusp of adulthood.

Despite winning an Oscar and being critically beloved, I can’t warm up to “Spirited Away” too much. It’s fantastic to look at, is limitlessly creative and thematically rich. On the other hand, the story has less to offer while the director seems to be repeating himself in some regard. Nevertheless, Ghilbi films became easier to find in theaters and video stores in the aftermath of “Spirited Away’s” success and, no doubt, urged more people to check out both anime and the films of Miyazaki. [Grade: B]

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1997)

7. Princess Mononoke

When Hayao Miyazaki’s seventh feature film, “Princess Mononoke” was released in Japan, it immediately became a phenomenon and would go on to become the highest grossing film made in the country. The film’s success in its native land was so overwhelming that Hollywood had to come calling. “Princess Mononoke” was the first of Miyazaki’s films to receive a major release in America. Produced by Disney and released under their Miramax heading, the English version was written by Neil Gaiman with a voice cast full of name actors. Some of them, like Minnie Driver or Keith David, were natural choices while others, like Billy Bob Thorton, were baffling. Instead of giving the film the major release it perhaps deserved, Miramax stuck it on the art house circuit where it failed to break through to the mainstream. As a teenager in 1999, whose growing interest in anime was fed by Toonami and similar programs, I immediately grabbed the movie as soon as the VHS cropped up on my local video store’s shelves. It was my first exposure to Miyazaki and blew my mind at the time, with its epic storytelling and gorgeous animation. Even if the Weinsteins had given the film a decent release, I doubt it would have been successful. “Princess Mononoke” is the darkest and most violent of Miyazaki’s films and features quite a lot of cultural specific mythology and themes.

The film is Miyazaki’s version of jidai-geki, a phrase that is usually translated as “samurai movie” but more accurately means “historical fiction.” Or, in this case, historical fantasy. Set during the rarely explored Muromachi period – 13th century Japan – the film follows Ashitaka. A warrior of an Emishi village, Ashitaka’s life is disturbed when a boar god, mutated into a demon by some unknown force, attacks his village. Though he kills the boar, Ashitaka is poisoned by the creature’s disease, which grants him demonic strength but will, in time, kill him. Seeking answers, he heads west. Soon, he finds Irontown, an encampment and ironworks led by the tenacious Lady Eboshi. Eboshi is clearing the forest which has enraged the animals and spirits that live there. San, a girl raised by the giant wolves of the forest, leads the attacks on Irontown but soon catches Ashitaka’s eyes. A conspiracy, involving an army of enraged boars, the great Deer God of the forest, and a team of mercenaries working for the Emperor, is soon uncovered.

The primary theme of “Princess Mononoke” is the conflict between man and nature. Ashitaka’s village lives in harmony with nature, in simple huts on a grass plain. Eboshi and Irontown, meanwhile, are on the technological vanguard. They use massive billows to power huge iron forges. They cut down trees to build their forest and raze more of the woods to gain access to ironsand. They are also, pointedly, building guns that are highly advanced for the time. All of this is presented as a violation of the balance between nature and humanity. When the animal gods are struck with iron bullets, they transform into squirming, twitching masses of body horror who infect those around them with a life-sapping cancer. In the final act, it is revealed that the Emperor of Japan desires the Deer God’s head, in hopes that it will grant immortality. This is the ultimate betrayal and shows that men are willing to kill the literal god of life and death to further their own, petty needs. The ecological themes of “Princess Mononoke” is something Miyazaki had been building towards his entire career.

Like much of the director’s other features, the film also harshly criticizes war. Ashitaka is, essentially, a pacifist who abhors taking life and only does so as a last resort. The other characters around him desire war for conflicting reasons. The wolves and the boars want revenge for the destruction of the forest. Eboshi desires their land for more profits and more power. The forest spirits are driven by rage. They are slaughtered by the human’s guns and bombs. The humans, from Eboshi to the opportunistic mercenaries who disguises themselves as monks, are driven by greed. Countless human lives are ended by the stampeding boars. Then there are the roving bands of samurai who only seem interested in raiding village and killing anyone who gets in their way. None of the characters are interested in balance and instead seek to destroy the other side. Miyazaki is repeating a thesis he has stated throughout many of his films: That war is fruitless and only leads to more death and destruction.

At the center of the film is one of the most fascinating characters Miyazaki would ever feature in his films. San, the titular Princess Mononoke (which roughly translate to “Spirit Princess”), is one in a long line of fictional humans raised by animals. She is literally raised by wolves and doesn’t even consider herself human. Like Tarzan, living with animals has given her abilities beyond those of normal people. Having seen humanity be cruel to animals all her life, she has a deep-seated hatred of people. However, after encountering the kind and virtuous Ashitaka, she begins to change her mind. Her character arc could best be summed up as an animal slowly realizing she’s human. It’s notable that, unlike Mowgli and many others before her, she doesn’t end the film by returning to civilization. Instead, San stays with the wolves, becoming the much-sought balancing point between the woods and Irontown. She’s an involving, mysterious character and cast an unearthly pall over the whole film.

The film features many inspiring fantasy creatures. It’s notable, though, that some of the most memorable creations in “Princess Mononoke” do not appear especially strange at first. The wolves and boars of the forest, from a distance, would seem to be normal specimens. Their something mythic about the film turning them into fantasy creatures simply by increasing their size. The only explanation the audience is given for these changes is that, in the distant past when magic was still alive, gods took the forms of everyday animals. Moro, San’s adopted mother and the leaders of the wolves, cuts a memorable figure. Though she talks, her mouth never open and closes like a person’s. Instead, her growling voice reverberates out of her half-opened jaws. Moro is bigger than any of her children and even sports two tails, signifying how powerful and old she is. Her frequently expressed desire to crunch heads adds some levity to the serious film. That her head returns from death to deliver the finishing blow to her enemy is another fantastic touch. The leader of the boars is Okkoto, a massive, white pig whose face is covered with scars and whose blind eyes leak yellow pus. The film goes a long way towards establishing what enormous, powerful creatures wild pigs can be. It’s a very Japanese idea that if animals can grow big enough and old enough they can, essentially, become gods.

Also central to the film is the romance between San and Ashitaka. Not only do they fit the tradition of someone from the human world winning the wild child’s heart. They are also classic star-crossed lovers, torn apart by the very nature of their identities. In one notable moment, Ashitaka implores San to work with him. She, burying her face in his chest, angrily tells him that she is a wolf but in a self-denying way, that makes it clear she’s uncertain. There’s actually very little reason for Ashitaka to fall in love with her. She’s beautiful but is unerringly hostile to him at first. However, the film makes his affection for her clear strictly through his actions. Ashitaka watches her sleep during a lovely, lyrical moment set to the beautiful “Nobody Knows Your Heart.” The guy leaps onto a giant, demonic boar in order to save her life, for goodness’ sake! In the final act, the two accept their feelings for each other which is shown when they stand together, both of their body’s riddled with the demons’ cancer.

The conditions of Ashitaka’s curse provides some interesting moments, as well. When the spirits are corrupted, bizarre black tendrils grow out of their bodies. They burn human skin upon contact and leave a black scar that continues to grow. After being infected, Ashitaka’s arm pulsates and contorts in bizarre, unnerving ways. Sometimes, he has trouble controlling it, Dr. Strangelove style. However, it gifts him with incredible powers. A great moment is when he breaks up the conflict in Irontown. His corrupted arm glows, transparent tendrils floating over it. When Eboshi’s head general tries to fight him off with a huge sword, Ashitaka grabs the blade and gently bends it into a circle. He pushes a massive wooden door open with ease and takes a bullet to the gut without flinching. Slowly dying from demonic boar poisoning probably wouldn’t be much fun but having all sorts of crazy superpowers might be.

While many of the fantasy creatures on-screen are larger versions of normal creatures, the film makes the most powerful of all the forest god deliberately strange. The Deer God, or the Great Forest Spirit in the English dub, does resemble a deer. Multiple rows of antlers grow from its head and back, looking more like plant life the further down they go. It’s face is strangely expressive and human, despite its baboon-like coloration. As its three-toed feet touches the ground, new life grows from its footstep before immediately dying again, visually illustrating its mastery over both life and death. Strangest of all, at night the Deer God grows into a spectral being called the Night Walker. Inspired by the Daidarabotchi of Japanese mythology, the creature looms over the forest and mountains. Its shape is amorphous and its skin is transparent, a loose skeleton floating inside. Long tendrils grow from its back, its body and limbs morphing as it sees fit.

It’s hardly the only strange creature in the film. The cutest spirit in the film are the Kodama. Their child-like bodies and playful behavior makes them likable. Their faces are vaguely humanoid and their heads click back and forth mechanically. This behavior is uncanny enough to remind the viewer the Kodama are spirits and not cuddly toys. (They’ve still made them into cuddly toys.) In addition to the wolves and boars, there are also apes living in the woods. When they first appear, they don’t look human. Their bodies are vague and the only defining features on their faces are huge, red eyes. It doesn’t help that they want to eat Ashitaka’s body. When the apes appear again later, they look more like normal apes which I’m sure was a deliberate move. The forest is successfully sold as another world, beautiful but mysterious and strange.

One of the bravest aspect of “Princess Mononokee” is that neither side is completely evil. Lady Eboshi is ambitious and dangerous but she’s far from evil. Irontown, honestly, seems kind of nice. She invites misfits and outcasts to live in her village. Former prostitutes rescued from brothels work the billows. Despite their checkered past, the women of the ironworks are strong and independent. One example, Toki, even bosses around her nincompoop husband. Eboshi also invites lepers to work in her factory, designing guns despite being covered in bandages. The billows and the ironworks are brought to vivid life, as you’d come to expect from a Studio Ghibli production. The world of man is as gorgeously created as the lush forest.

“Princess Mononoke” is an epic fantasy and a mythic parable but it’s also an action movie. It had been a while since Miyazaki directed a full-blown action film but he clearly hadn’t lost a step in those years. The opening conflict with the possessed boar is intensely orchestrated. The creature is covered with swirling tendrils, disguising what it is at first, and it doesn’t move like a normal animal. The camera follows Ashitaka’s arrow as it flies into the monster’s face. After gaining his special abilities, Ashitaka has an encounter with a band of samurais. His magically-charged arrows take off arms and whole heads, a startlingly violent moment. San’s raid on Irontown displays her abilities too, as the wolf-girl leaps across the roofs and quickly flashes her blade, all while wearing a dehumanizing mask. Even smaller moments are dynamically directed, such as Asitaka leaping over a group of soldiers and skillfully bouncing off the rocks in the lake.

The apocalyptic finale that closes “Mononoke” is perhaps its most impressive sequence. Beginning with a group of mercenaries crawling around under boar skins, it leads up to the Deer God having its head blown off by Eboshi’s gun. Notably, the neck ripples like water before the head flies off. With the Deer God dead, nature is out of balance. A sickened version of the Night Walker rampages over the valley. Everything that touches it immediately dies, the God of Life being perverted into a juggernaut of death. Lifeless kodama fall from the trees while the forge of Irontown is crushed. The way the creature moves is unforgettable, shimmering like cloudy water as its body morphs in multiple directions. The film’s heroes are surrounded on all sides by the death-creating waves, making the scenario seem bleak. When the head is return to the god, it collapses to the ground, a life-returning wave blowing over the whole valley. The final image is one of hope, a single kodama walking across a tree, showing that life continues.

With a gorgeous and varied Joe Hisaishi score and animation that is as incredibly detailed as you’ve come to expect, the film is one of my all-time favorites and one I’ve revisited many times. It’s huge and epic but still strangely personal, resonating with many of the director’s reoccurring themes. The action is impressive and the fantasy elements are inspired yet the film still generates pathos and emotion. “Princess Mononoke” is Studio Ghibli’s crowning achievement and Hayao Miyazaki’s undisputed masterpiece. [Grade: A]

Monday, September 8, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1992)

6. Porco Rosso
Kurenai no buta / The Crimson Pig

“Porco Rosso” probably has the oddest origin of any of the Studio Ghibli films. It began life as a short manga, painted in watercolor by Miyazaki, that was basically an excuse for the artist to indulge his love of old airplanes. (To the point that it was even printed, not in a manga anthology, but in a magazine devoted to model building.) Apparently impressed with the source material, a Japanese airline company commissioned Ghibli to turn the manga into a short in-flight film. Being the kind of director that he is, Miyazaki quickly saw the project bloom into a 90-minute feature. Despite this, the movie still wound up appearing in airplanes before theaters. Studio Ghibli being a hugely trusted brand by this point, it also became the highest grossing film of the year in Japan.

Set in the late 1920s in the Adriatic Sea, the film follows Porco Rosso, a World War I veteran and fighter pilot that has, through unknown means, transformed into a pig. Flying around in a bright red bi-plane, he hunts pirates and occasionally wins races. After pissing off one group of aero-pirates one time too many, they hire a hotshot American pilot to take the pig down. He survives but remains on the run, from his rivals and the increasingly fascist government in Italy. While on this latest adventures, he befriends the granddaughter of his mechanic and reflects on his life.

“Porco Rosso” is the first time in a while Miyazaki made a film revolving around an adult male character. Porco is introduced sitting on a beach, reclining in a chair with a magazine over his face. He comes off as aloof and seems to intentionally distance himself from those around him. Gina owns a hotel and serenades the infatuated men there with beautiful Italian songs. In time, we discover that Gina is the widow of Porco’s best friend and has lost two other husbands since then. Upon news of her previous husband’s death, she says she’s “out of tears.” She is also, obviously, in love with Porco. After his latest brush with death, she calls him and begs him to give up flying. His retort, “A pig’s gotta fly,” says so much about his character. Over the course of the film, the young Fio comes awfully close to breaking through his shell. The older man clearly comes to care about her and she for him. However, he keeps his distance from her too. Solely through implication, the film makes it clear that Porco never recovered from the war. He’s afraid to get close to others because he knows death could come for him at any minute. Porco is fascinating and his silence speaks to a quiet depth.

Miyazaki started out making pure fantasy but, over the course of “Totoro” and “Kiki,” move more into the realm of magic realism. “Porco Rosso” moves even further in this direction, as the title character’s transformation into a pig-man is the only fantastical touch in the film. “Porco Rosso” is also set in a very clear time and place, the Mediterranean during the interwar period, while most of the director’s films have more vague settings. Despite this, “Porco Rosso” still winds up feeling like a fantasy. It is set in the magical world of airplanes. The planes are brightly colored, ranging from purple to polka-dotted and camouflaged. The air-pirates, roving bands of goofball thieves that fly around in massive planes, are another touch of pure fantasy. They even seem to have unions they belong to, big organization of air-pirates. Planes communicate through blinking lights, sending Morse code, while the entire world of the Adriatic seems to revolve around air travel. “Porco Rosso” is a plane lover’s vision of the universe.

Even though its lead is a man, “Porco Rosso” is not short on strong female characters. If any thing, it seems more concerned with women’s role in the world than any of his other films. Gina carves out a living for herself as the owner of a hotel and her beauty and singing seems to instill peace among her rowdy boarders. Fio, meanwhile, has to prove herself to Porco because of her young age and, pointedly, her gender. She winds up being an innovative mechanic and an important companion. Interestingly, the only people who work in Piccolo’s repair shop are women. The husbands have left for better jobs elsewhere, leaving the wives and grandmothers to tend the local businesses. Porco is surprised by this at first but quickly accepts it. The film shows women accepting non-traditional roles in order to survive in a quickly changing world.

The world is changing for good reason too. And not necessarily for the better. “Porco Rosso” is set in Europe wedged between two world wars. Economically, the country has yet to recover and the money is, literally, not worth the paper its printed on. This is clear when Porco pays for his plane repairs with piles of bills. While in Milan, Porco and Fio are stalked by government agents, spies for the emerging Fascist government. He’s being pursued not because he’s a bounty hunter but because he’s against the change of policy. The characters’ personalities are informed by World War I. The film, meanwhile, is haunted by the looming spectre of the next great, terrible war. Patrons in a shop make references to the government “changing again” while most of the characters around Porco tell him that the air fighting he knows will be a thing of the past soon. The audience’s knowledge of what’s to come bring darker resonance to the scenes on-screen.

“Porco Rosso” is one of Miyazaki’s most dynamically directed films. The mastery of speed and motion the director showed on “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is built upon here. When Porco and Fio are making their last minute escape from Milan, the plane rushes through the canal, having near misses with the arches of a bridge and a boat. In a first person perspective, the walls of the canal whiz pass the viewer. An earlier chase scene with the secret police has Porco turning a tractor and trailer around quickly, spinning around in the center of the street and forcing his pursuer to crash into a shop-front. It’s a brief moment but masterfully animated and quickly conveys movement, with debris flying through the air and the audience feeling the clanging of the vehicles.

The film also contains some superb action sequences. The movie opens with one, in fact. When the air-pirates have kidnapped a ship full of school girl, Porco flies around them, disabling their engines and slowly chipping away at the plane. The moment establishes both Porco’s speed and ability while also giving us an idea of his personality. It’s also a lot of fun to watch. The climax of the movie is the big showdown between Porco and Curtiss. As the dog fight begins, the camera swirling around with the characters, the viewer’s heart really starts to pump.

However, “Porco Rosso” could probably be primarily classified as a comedy. As exciting as the beginning of the duel between Porco and Curtiss is, it quickly degrades into madcap comedy. Both of their guns jam causing them to toss stuff at each other. Soon, the two dock their planes and go at each other in an extended fist fight. The sequence goes on for a while, the two beating each other black and blue. It goes on long enough that the fight goes back around from tedious to amusing. There’s funny stuff throughout the film. In its opening moments, the aero-pirates quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the little girls on their plane. The girls' giggly reaction undercuts any of the serious of the situation, making the blustery pirates look like goofballs. Later on, the pirates are mocked again when seventeen-year-old Fio talks them out of murdering Porco on his beach hideout. The tough-guy leader of the pirates takes a liking to the girl and the way the tough men fawn over the girl is quite charming.

For its action and humor, the film makes time for quiet moments too. There are three that spring to mind immediately. The first comes when Porco flies over Gina’s garden, the two catching sight of each other. Without explanation, we flash back to an earlier time in both of their lives, when the two were younger. We see Marco, as he was known at the time, piloting a plane with Gina behind him, both clearly experiencing flight for the first time. Powered by Joe Hisaishi’s score, the scene gets across so much emotion with only the characters’ faces. Another brief moment comes when Porco stops by a small town, Fio in town. The two mingle briefly with the townsfolk, Porco buying the girl a soda in the shop while she rebuffs the romantic advances of a young boy in the boat. It’s a tiny, brief moment but one that’s quiet enough that I can’t imagine an American animated film making time for it.

Probably the best moment in “Porco Rosso” is another quiet, character-oriented moment. While staying on his beach, preparing for bed, Fio asks Porco for a bedtime story. He tells her of how he became a pig. Not long after being the best man at his closest friend’s wedding, Marco and his gang are forced back into combat. Their planes come upon an enemy fleet and a fire fight ensues. Marco is the only one left alive and experiences either a dream or a vision. Still in his plane, the motor idling, he floats above a sea of white clouds, a clear blue sky above. From below the clouds, the planes of his comrades fly up towards a stream of stars above. Marco wants to join them but can’t, only being able to watch his friends disappear into the sky. It might be the most lyrical moment in Miyazaki’s entire library and is stunningly beautiful and touching. It, in no concrete way, explains how Marco became Porco. However, the sequence is dripping with symbolic weight, bringing to mind issues of survivor’s guilt and an inability to move on.

As always, “Porco Rosso” is packed full of incredibly detailed animation and designs. The planes are ridiculously detailed, with much attention paid to the wooden interior of the planes, the intricacies of the motors and guns, the shining quality of the paint, and much more. The character’s clothing, their homes and buildings, are pulled from genuine historical documents. An interesting difference between this one and some of the director’s previous films is that the character designs are frequently more cartoonish and exaggerated than normal. Piccolo’s big head, constant whiskers, and round glasses almost makes him look like an unflattering caricature of Japanese men. (Which is odd, considering the character is Italian.) The Mamma Aiuto Gang is characterized by bristly, obscuring facial hair, oblong heads, and noticeable scars. Even Porco himself is somewhat exaggerated, when you consider that he doesn’t look that different as a person than he does as a pig.

“Porco Rosso” ends on a funny but longingly sweet note. As she is flown away on Gina’s plane, Fio reaches out and kisses Porco on the cheek. Without revealing his face to the audience, he rushes back to his plane, leaving it up to the viewer if his curse has been lifted or not. Considering Miyazaki has talked about making a sequel from time to time, perhaps it hadn’t. Reportedly, the film is a favorite of its director. While not miles-above better than his few preceding films, “Porco Rosso” is another strong contender from Miyazaki’s low-key period. [Grade: A-]

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Director Report Card: Hayao Miyazaki (1989)

5. Kiki’s Delivery Service
Majo no takkyƻbin / Witch's Special Express Delivery

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” got a big push in the U.S. when it was released on video in 1998, nearly a decade after its original Japanese release. Disney slapped advertisements for it all over their shows and other video releases. The film got the first of many all-star dubs, even featuring the last vocal performance of Phil Hartman before his untimely death. Because I’m a jerk and a loser, I never saw the movie until years later. By then, I was aware of Hayao Miyazaki and where the film fell in his career. Studio Ghibli being well established by this point, the director was looking for a new challenge and found himself adapting a popular novel by Eiko Kadono. The risk paid off as the movie became another huge hit for Ghibli.

Young Kiki comes from a family of witches, living in the countryside. It is tradition that at the age of 13, witches set out on their own, jumping on their broom and flying off until they find a place where they’re needed, where upon they will practice their trade. Despite being inexperienced, having only mastered flying, Kiki and her talking cat Jiji set off on an adventure. Settling in a city by the sea, Kiki makes friends with a husband and wife bakers, setting up a delivery service out of their attic. From her new business, Kiki encounters many new friends.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is a coming-of-age story, above all else. Kiki is thirteen years old which is important. Unlike many hyper-sexualized female anime characters, Kiki looks her age. She’s short and, under her shapeless black dress, has no discernible figure. This combined makes her look much younger. The way she acts characterizes her youth as well. Kiki is constantly running, skipping, nearly tripping, and, at the story’s beginning, nearly always excited about something. If “My Neighbor Totoro” accurately captures the energy of young childhood, then “Kiki’s Delivery Service” accurately captures the similarly effervescent but distinct energy of young adulthood. Yet the story concerns her maturation. By the end, she is more mature and that youthful energy is more focused. She knows the pride of running her own business now and the ups and downs of adulthood.

Miyazaki’s films are full of well-rounded female characters, whose youth never holds back their strength or ability. Kiki might be the most important of all of Miyazaki’s female leads. If Studio Ghibli lore is to be believed, the film was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki sitting on a park bench and observing the fashion young women of the day were wearing. Kiki was designed in opposition to such ideas. She’s deliberately un-hip. Throughout the whole film, the only clothes she wears is a black dress, white bloomers, and a red bow in her hair. Her separation from modern conceptions of cool are set up early. As she flies away from her home, she encounters another young witch, who wears sparkling earrings and has her hair up in a stylish fashion. After arriving in town, Kiki has to walk around a trio of teen girls, who barely notice, so self-adsorb are they in their chatter. After spending all afternoon helping an old woman bake a pie, she flies the meal out to her granddaughter, who is highly unappreciative of the gift. Yet Kiki is very self-conscious about her lack of fashion sense. She pauses outside a clothing store, wishing she had the money to afford a pair of fancy shoes. More than once, she seems to be jealous of Tombo’s more obviously feminine friends. Kiki is a fully developed character, not an attitude spewing caricature. She’s a role model and a feminist character but also a real person. To make this explicitly clear, the film ends with Kiki rescuing her male love interest, instead of the other way around.

The movie handles the topic of witchcraft in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Kiki’s mother is introduced at work, mixing potions for an elderly customer. Why witches set off on their own at age thirteen is never explained, only that they do. Kiki’s mother insists she takes her old broom, instead of a newly carved one, presumably because it has more built-in power. The audience is left to guess. The film is vague enough with its fantasy elements that it practically works in archetypes. “Witches always wear black,” Kiki’s mother tells her. Accompanying the young witch on her journey is Jiji, a talking black cat. To a kid born in the nineties, Jiji immediately reminded me of Salem from “Sabrina the Teenage Witch.” It’s a troupe the film intentionally recalls. None of these are complaints. By working in broad strokes, the film quickly establishes its magical world in easy to understand terms.

The original Japanese version ends with a song that translates as “Wrapped In Kindness.” From the moment she arrives in town, Kiki experiences the kindness of strangers. She lands on the street and awkwardly introduces herself to a random selection of people. Most look at her in puzzlement but an old woman at least says hello. A cop gives her trouble for nearly crashing her broom into traffic. Before she can’t get arrested, Tombo distracts the cop, allowing her to get away. Kiki becomes a kind stranger herself by returning a pacifier to a forgetful mother with a baby. This action is all Osono needs to see before allowing Kiki to live in her home. Later on, Kiki takes the time to help an old woman bake a pie. That kindness is returned in time. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” makes the case for doing nice things out of the goodness of your heart.

The book “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is based off of was set in a non-specific part of Northern Europe. The movie names the fictional town Koriko and visually patterns it after Gotland, Sweden. The place certainly looks like Europe, with its peninsula setting, thick forests, and flat-stone architecture. Despite its blatantly European visuals, Koriko still feels very Japanese. The customs and style of the area seems less like an idealized European city and more like an idealized Japanese town. Koriko is a pretty big city and even has a clock tower. However, it winds up feeling more like a small town. Everyone seemingly knows each other and, despite lots of cars being around, most of the people walk wherever they have to go. The film is also oddly timeless. The cars looks like classic models from fifties or sixties. There are few televisions and the one we do see is in black and white. The most advanced technology displayed in the film is a portable radio. The movie is never placed in a defined time period, creating a nostalgic tone for the entire story. There’s a relaxing feeling to the setting and it’s the kind of place a viewer would actually like to visit.

Which isn’t to say that the film isn’t without its exciting moments. The thrills are of a lower key variety at first, anyway. During her first big delivery, Kiki flies over the forest, carrying a stuffed black cat in a canary cage. A rogue wind blows her down, dropping the gift into the woods below. Kiki races for the present, barely catching it in time. However, the gift inside the cage is gone, forcing Kiki to explore the forest below, earning the err of a group of angry crows. The action is beautifully animated, giving the audience a clear sense of motion and speed. Another moment that has the same element is when Tombo shows Kiki a bicycle he’s built with a plane propeller attached to the front. The two swerve around curves, going faster and faster, until the bike actually leaps the railing, falling down the cliff, barely kept afloat by the still spinning propeller.

Despite its slower pace, the film still has a surprisingly action-packed finale. Teased throughout the film is the dirigible docked in town. Tombo, an aviation fanboy, is lucky enough to get a ride on the blimp. However, there’s a problem, the airship becoming uneven and floating lop-sided across town. Amusingly, a police car is dragged along, dangling below and eventually falling into a pool. The big moment comes when the blimp collides with the clock tower, Tombo’s grip on the rope lessening every minute. Kiki rushes to rescue her friend, quickly grabbing a broom from a guy on the street, and leaping into the sky, regaining her ability to fly at the last minute. The climax creates great suspense, holding off on the reveal for as long as possible.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is about something else interesting too. In her adventures, Kiki meets a young artist named Ursula. Living in a cabin in the woods, the two befriend each other following the crash-landing with the crows. Inspired by Kiki’s adventurous spirit, Ursula begins to paint an abstract portrait of the girl. The two strike up a friendship, spending a day together. Ursula is a kindred spirit of Kiki and shares the film’s feminist themes. She doesn’t conform to feminine stereotypes either, even being mistaken for a boy later in the film. During the informal sleepover she and Kiki has, the two talk about her respective arts, about Kiki’s difficulty with maintaining her abilities. Ursula says “magic is like painting.” And with that line, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” becomes a movie about the creative process. Kiki can’t use magic because she looses confidence in her own abilities. Creating any art, whether it be paintings, animated feature films, or movie reviews, is fifty-percent self-delusion. You have to believe its good or else you’ll never see it through, which means working through loads of self-doubt. Just like Kiki has to when she finds she can’t fly her broom any longer. She doesn’t regain her abilities until she regains her self-confidence.

Naturally, the film is elevated by the trademark Studio Ghibli attention to detail. From the cars to the buildings and clothes, everything is intensely detailed in a way that suggest a history and a personality. Amusingly, the cows and birds, briefly seen though they are, look surprisingly realistic. More importantly, the tiny movements and quirks of the characters give them a realistic sense of life. Kiki is endearingly clumsy, stumbling over her own feet more than once. This carries over to her attempts to fly, as every lift-off has her bumping into trees or bouncing off walls. A delightful moment has the old woman and her assistant dancing by swinging an office chair around. Osono’s husband, known only as the Baker, never has a proper line of dialogue, only granting once. Amazingly, he is still a fully-developed character strictly through his body language and facial expressions.

I’ve been hard on Joe Hisaishi’s score over this retrospective but the composer’s skills are developing. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is his best score yet. The music has a calliope sound to it and makes great uses of strings and other unconventional instruments like the mandolin. It’s a lovely score and invokes the film’s tone very well.

While I’ve often considering “Kiki’s Delivery Service” one of Miyazaki’s lesser films, it is still a perfectly charming experience. The characters are beautifully realized, the film ebbs and flows fantastically, and the film has a surprisingly deep stream of subtext flowing under it is. Coming off the massive success of “My Neighbor Totoro,” it can’t help but pale some. Yet the two films compliment each other nicely and “Kiki” quickly became another beloved part of Ghibli’s catalog. [Grade: A-]