Friday, March 07, 2014

Studio Ghibli

[Note: All images herein are the property of Studio Ghibli and are used for illustrative purposes only.]

I first fell in love with anime (though I didn't know what it was) back in the mid-'80s, when I watched a heavily cut and altered version of Kaze no tani no Nausicaä on VHS (the infamous Warriors of the Wind release). Of course I'd seen bits and pieces of anime shows before that, including Star Blazers, which my brothers would race each other home from school to watch (it aired on "Captain Cosmic," a homegrown Bay Area TV show for pupating geeks that showcased anime, short-form science fiction and fantasy, and rubber-suit films from the '60s). But none of it caught my attention the way this film did, with its dystopic futuristic setting, toxic jungles, gigantic articulated pillbugs and a young heroine on a rocket-powered glider.

Woot!
Later, in college, I stumbled into an on-campus meeting of the local anime club and got hooked. (Many thanks to Douglas, Joe, and other members of Banzai! for helping fuel the addiction.) Some anime subgenres I could take or leave -- mecha, for instance, or shows with excessive amounts of fanservice (though to my memory Banzai! never showed anything truly hentai) -- but after a while I noticed I was consistently drawn to movies or TV shows created by one particular group called "Studio Ghibli." But I didn't make the connection until Banzai! showed an uncut, Japanese-language version of Nausicaä and let the non-Japanese speakers in the group follow along with a printed English translation of the script. The original was an almost completely different animal from the mangled, dubbed version of the film -- even though it's one of the most overtly didactic of the Ghibli movies, it was more thoughtful, more philosophical, and friendlier to adult audiences than any American animated film I'd seen at that point. (Although Nausicaä was technically made for Topcraft, it was the film that led to the founding of Ghibli as an independent animation studio.)

Although the storylines are pretty wide-ranging, there are some commonalities to be found in Ghibli films: taking the time to get the details right, a sense of the fantastic or magical even in everyday life, plucky young protagonists (often female), conflicted or buffoonish villains -- and sometimes no villain at all, a continuing fascination with the beauty and fragility of human flight, soundtracks by Joe Hisaishi, and the unspoken cultural understanding that animation is an art form as fit for adults as it is for children. Ghibli films are consistently good, and many are great. Disney/Pixar figured this out some time ago, as John Lasseter and several other Pixar bigwigs are huge Miyazaki geeks and urged Disney to buy the North American rights to dub and re-release Ghibli films. (Some of these recent American releases are better than others; although Ghibli stipulated no cuts after the Warriors of the Wind debacle, Disney sometimes alters the score or adds lines of dialogue to its releases. Fortunately, there's always the option to watch the original Japanese track with English subtitles on DVD. Yeah, I'm a subtitling snob; wanna make something of it?)

We haven't seen every Ghibli film in existence yet, but have been slowly working through the back catalogue, and I'm looking forward to seeing The Wind Rises in theaters very soon. Quite a few films are already in our permanent collection (Nausicaä, Laputa, Totoro, Kiki, Porco Rosso, and a handful of others). Even without having seen all of them yet, it's tough to pick a top-five list of favorites... but here's my best shot.

#5: Tenkū no Shiro Rapyuta (Laputa: Castle in the Sky)

The first official Ghibli-released film, this story of a mysterious girl who floats down from the sky, the orphan boy who befriends her, and the multiple entities (air pirates, the government, a ruthless pretender to the throne) who will do anything to get at the girl's locket is full of wonder, action and a good dose of humor (it isn't meant to be funny, but the last third of the movie seems overfull of the two protagonists frantically yelling each other's names -- "Sheeta!" "Pazu!"). The Swift- and Verne-inspired kingdom of Laputa is beautiful even in its decayed state, like a floating Atlantis or a technologically-advanced Roman ruin. And this is an unusual film by American standards, in that its two teenage heroes don't explicitly end up falling in love with each other.

#4: Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Borrower Arrietty)

Yeah, I know not everyone will agree that this film is one of Ghibli's greats, but hey -- would you really expect me not to have this in a Top 5 list, after I've already admitted to having a soft spot for just this subject matter? Further, this Japanese adaptation of Mary Norton's novel is, so far, the film that comes closest in spirit to the original Borrowers stories -- how they "borrow," where they hide, all the various adaptations and mechanisms they've created to live in relative safety and comfort in a large, hostile world. The animation details are fantastic, from the interior decoration of the Clock household to the odd surface tension of water. And the relationship between the boy (here named Sho) and Arrietty is touching and delicately handled.

#3: Majo no Takkyūbin (Kiki's Delivery Service)

This was my favorite Ghibli film for some time, until two others came along to knock it out of the #1 spot. Even now, this coming-of-age story about a journeyman witch and her smart-alec familiar remains one of my favorite movies. Kiki is only 13, but that's the traditional age for young witches to strike out on their own, choose a town to live in and begin some kind of specialty magic practice. All Kiki has mastered so far is flying, and even then her ability is somewhat precarious. But through a series of mishaps and lucky breaks, she starts a flying delivery service in her new town. (If you get the Disney DVD of this film, be sure to watch it with the Japanese language track; Disney interpolated a whole lot of extra comments for Kiki's familiar Jiji that aren't in the original film. Besides, are you really going to pass up the chance to listen to Japanese doo-wop music? Didn't think so.)

#2: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away)

This film is, to date, the high-water mark of Ghibli animation. The story of a young, somewhat petulant young girl named Chihiro whose parents are turned into pigs by angry spirits (kami) and who must navigate the world of the spirits in order to turn them human again is engaging, well-written, well-acted and gorgeously animated. The magic of the spirit world, if not precisely logical, has a sort of internal consistency (the words you say and the things you eat can affect what you become; many beings have more than one form; names have unusual power; if you hold your breath while crossing a bridge, you are invisible to the spirits; etc.) that jibes well with the magic of folk and fairy tales. And Chihiro's progression from child to young woman is remarkable -- contrast an early scene, where she is barely able to navigate a flight of steep stairs, with a later one where she runs resolutely along a crumbling pipe even as it twists and buckles beneath her feet. This is top-notch work.

#1: Mimi o sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart)

Even if you've seen most Ghibli films, you may not have seen this one. It didn't get a theatrical release in the United States, releasing directly to DVD in early 2006. It's not like most Ghibli films in that it doesn't take place in a world of fantasy or science fiction; instead it's set in modern Tokyo. I suppose some people would attempt to denigrate the film by describing it as an animated chick flick, and at first glance, that's what it is -- Shizuku, a somewhat prickly and stubborn young girl with a minor case of bibliomania, discovers that all her favorite library books have been checked out by someone named Amasawa Seiji. Her formative experiences -- following train-riding housecats to mysterious neighborhoods, igniting a passion for creative writing, discovering who Amasawa Seiji is -- make up the bulk of this film. But it is simply gorgeous. The loving attention to detail in every scene, every frame, makes you forget you're watching an animated movie. It is, unfortunately, the only film directed by the late Yoshifumi Kondō, who was being groomed as Hayao Miyazaki's successor until his untimely death in 1998.

Have you watched any Studio Ghibli films? If so, which are your favorites? (If not, WHY NOT?! Get crackin', slacker!)

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