Tag Archives: Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away and Me

*The following is a gushing love note detailing the history leading up to the first time I ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which was fifteen years ago today, on March 31st 2003.*

Spirited Away was originally released in American theaters on September 20th 2002, but I wouldn’t see it until March the 31st of 2003. This is largely due to the nearly non-existent marketing Disney gave the film in its initial release. I remember during some random night in mid 2002 I saw a commercial for what looked like a Japanese animated film with the word Disney attached. It immediately sparked curiosity and interest from me, unfortunately it was also around 2:00 AM or something, so I was also tired and didn’t catch the name of the film in question.

I kept watching the same channel (if memory serves correctly it was Nick @ Nite) every night to try and catch the commercial again, but it never seemed to show up. I even tried to search Disney’s website for any info on it, but that proved to be something of a needle in a hay stack endeavor (especially considering I didn’t have a particular patience for the interwebs then). There seemed to be no info of it anywhere, and it was driving me nuts. “What was that Japanese Disney movie?!” I kept thinking to myself. All I can remember from the commercial was that there was a girl, what I thought was a sand-worm (really a dragon) and a castle (really a bathhouse… again, I was tired).

A few months past and I was at a hobby/game store at a local mall. And there I saw an anime magazine with the movie from that commercial on the cover. “Praise the sun!” I thought to myself (in not quite those words). But when I opened the magazine up, I barely got to see the article on the movie before I had to leave (why I didn’t just buy the dang magazine is still a mystery to me), but the few pictures I saw of it were beautiful. I think I finally saw the name “Spirited Away” here, but for reasons unknown I didn’t look it up with my newfound knowledge. I didn’t even know if the movie had already been released or if it was still on the horizon. I guess I was just happy that a smidgeon of my curiosity had been fulfilled.

Fast-forward another few months (now well into 2003), and Oscar season was rolling around. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Oscars each year until they aired on TV, so I didn’t know any of the nominees for anything. But I did know that the year prior they introduced a Best Animated Feature category, and thats all I cared about.

So when the Oscars were on and they were giving out Best Animated Feature as the first award on the show (which is kind of a backhanded compliment to animated films on the Academy’s part, but that’s a rant for another day), I was ecstatic. The nominees were Ice Age, Treasure Planet, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Lilo & Stitch…but then they announced Spirited Away!

From the brief clip they showed at the Oscars (where the witch Yubaba magically silences Chihiro by zipping her lip) it finally hit me that the animation in Spirited Away looked an awful lot like My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro has been a favorite of mine since I was really little, and if this Spirited Away were anything like it – even remotely – then dang it it deserved the award! At that moment I immediately decided Spirited Away should win… AND IT DID! (perhaps not my most professional moment, but I was just a teenager then, so sue me).

How amazing it was. I didn’t know a Japanese animated film could even have been nominated, and it actually won! Even then, I still didn’t know anything about the movie. But if it had anything to do with the people who made Totoro, then surely it was gold! I wasn’t even sure if it involved the same people as Totoro, but I knew it didn’t look like most anime, and that it had that unique “Totoro look” (as I probably wold have called it at the time). The similarities couldn’t just be a coincidence, right?

Well, the awesome news was that, due to the Oscar win, Spirited Away was getting a quick re-release in theaters across America (despite the fact that it was due for a release on VHS and DVD about two weeks later…Yes, VHSs were still a thing in 2003). Simply put, I had to see it. And although it was actually re-released around March 24th (if I remember correctly), it would be a week before I got the chance to finally see it.

And then, on March 31st 2003, I finally saw that ever-elusive movie. To say it lived up to the hype I had engraved into myself is as big of an understatement as there is. I never had a movie experience like it. Spirited Away was endlessly creative, had an impossibly unique narrative, and couldn’t be more beautiful (both in terms of visuals and storytelling). Hyperbole nothing, I simply adored the movie. It’s among my chief creative influences, and to this day, fifteen years later, it’s still just as captivating.

After seeing the film, I also noticed the films proper title (in America, anyway) was “Miyazakis Spirited Away.” Naturally, after (finally) seeing some commercials for the film, I looked up Spirited Away and this Miyazaki fellow on Disney’s advertised website. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the decade and a half since that day, which seems so long ago and not long ago all the same, I have become a big fan of Studio Ghibli and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And this creative spark can be traced back to this day, March 31st, fifteen years ago. Spirited Away will spirit me away forever.

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Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro Review

To quote Hayao Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle: “They say the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The quote seems to ring true in many instances, with it being particularly poetic in regards to Miyazaki’s very first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970s were something of the dark ages of animated cinema. Mainstream animation was floundering after the death of Walt Disney (increases in censorship laws certainly didn’t help things out). Meanwhile, the only alternatives were the desperate and dated ‘adult’ animated films of the time, such as those from Ralph Bakshi. As such, the 1970s animation scene was riddled with features that were either insultingly childish or cringingly adult-pandering (sex and drugs, hyuk!).

It’s fitting then, that in 1979, the last year of that dark decade, an animated feature was released that would change the animation world for the better from that point on. The film in question was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Based on the popular manga/anime series, Castle of Cagliostro is still seen as the pinnacle of the Lupin III franchise even today. More importantly, it was the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to have the single most prolific career in the history of animation. And in turn it also lead to the eventual creation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and, by extension, Studio Ghibli. Castle of Cagliostro even inspired the western movie scene; seemingly reinvigorating the Disney animators (who often paid the film blatant homage in their own movies) and inspiring many of the key minds who would later form Pixar Animation Studios.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a milestone achievement Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was. Perhaps the best news is that – although it showcases some obvious limitations as Miyazaki’s first feature – it remains a timeless classic, one of the best in the action-adventure genre.

The story here is that master thief Lupin III and his accomplice Jigen have successfully pulled off their biggest heist at a national casino. Shortly after their getaway, however, Lupin discovers that their newfound riches are counterfeit, being among the legendary “Goat bills,” a counterfeit operation that has been increasing its influence on the world’s economies for centuries.

Lupin and Jigen track the operation to the small country of Cagliostro, where the malicious Count of Cagliostro has taken charge after the nation’s rightful rulers perished in a fire. The Count of Cagliostro is of course behind the counterfeit operation, and is also planning a forced marriage to the nation’s rightful heir, a young woman named Clarisse. Lupin then sets his sights on exposing the Count, sending his calling card to the Count in order to summon inspector Koichi Zenigata – Lupin’s longtime pursuer – to the location, to try and set a plan in motion to expose the Count’s schemes. Additionally, Lupin becomes enamored with Clarisse, and the romantic idea of saving her from the dreadful Count Cagliostro.

It’s a simple action-adventure setup, but its execution makes for one of the best films of its kind, with a consistently fun pace and many memorable set pieces. The film opens with a fantastic car chase (while still taking time to pause for a quiet moment – in true Miyazaki fashion – when Lupin and Jigen need to change a tire), and things only pick up when the gentlemen thieves make their way to the titular castle, where booby traps, ninjas and mysteries abound.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is also one of those delightful animated films that takes full advantage of the medium to express its vision. In the aforementioned opening car chase, Lupin drives his automobile up a vertical surface to get to higher ground, effectively breaking the laws of physics. Later, Lupin manages to leap from one of the castle’s turrets to another, performing a superhuman feat of agility. Of course, no one in this movie is a super hero or wizard of any kind, so these aren’t directly feats of fantastic powers. Lupin III is simply an animated franchise, and so fantastic occurrences such as these are allowed to happen when need be. And there’s something charming about that.

Of course, being part of a franchise, the series’ key figures all come into play. Along with Lupin, Jigen and Zenigata, Lupin’s samurai-themed cohort Goemon also shows up (albeit sparingly), and the sexy lady-thief Fujiko is on her own undercover mission in the castle. Some fans of the overall franchise lament that some tweaks have been made to the characters’ personalities (most notably Lupin himself, whom Miyazaki depicts as a gentlemen thief, in stark contrast to the character’s often lewd, womanizing behavior, which is only referenced in the film as being a part of Lupin’s past as a “dumb rookie”). But truthfully, the changes work for the story being told here, and I personally prefer “gentlemen Lupin.” The fact that much of the character’s motivation in the film is to live out some romanticized adventure adds to the film’s charms. Besides, when a franchise lasts long enough to branch out into different continuities, such character changes happen all the time. This just happens to be Miyazaki’s personal interpretation of the characters, and it’s an interpretation that works.

There are, unfortunately, a handful of aesthetic elements that show the film’s age. While the main cast of characters are more fluidly animated than anything else at the time, and the environments are – as is the norm in Miyazaki features – truly captivating, the background characters can be a little on the stiff side. And while the music is still catchy and serves its purpose, this is the only Miyazaki-directed film not to be scored by Joe Hisaishi, and when compared to the scores of Miyazaki’s later features, it falls a little short.

Admittedly, those are only quibbles, and they’re only really present for those who may be familiar with Miyazaki’s later work. Seeing as Castle of Cagliostro was the legendary director’s first feature, and before he was one of the leading forces behind his own studio, it’s understandable that the film would have some noticeable limitations. Even with those limitations though, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro has held up better than any other animated feature from its decade, and by quite a large margin.

Yes, Miyazaki would later perfect his craft (the subsequent Castle in the Sky is perhaps an even better adventure film, and features more of the director’s lavish imagination; while My Neighbor Totoro would mark Miyazaki’s shift in focus from simpler entertainment to deeper artistry). But there’s no mistaking that Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro lives up to its hefty reputation and influence. There’s never a dull moment, with the film often being as sweet and funny as it is action-packed and exciting. The film is even cited as being a precursor to the beloved action-adventure movies of the 1980s, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro began Miyazaki’s unparalleled streak of animated classics, and helped cement the director’s indelible style (the characters here seem to be a bridge between the traditional Lupin III look and what would later be Miyazaki’s own character designs). Just as impressive as its influence is how much fun Castle of Cagliostro remains even today. It’s still one of the most entertaining action-adventure films out there. Animated or otherwise.

 

9.5

My Neighbor Totoro Review

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro is pure magic. Though director Hayao Miyazaki’s trilogy of previous films were all terrific, it was with this 1988 feature that Hayao Miyazaki became the legend in animation that he is. My Neighbor Totoro is a film that’s as wonderful as it is unique, and an absolute joy for all ages.

While Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Castle in the Sky were all epic adventures, Hayao Miyazaki decided to make something more subtle for his fourth feature.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro – originally conceived as a children’s book by Miyazaki over a decade before it became a reality on the silver screen – is not a film featuring action, suspense, or daring adventurers. Instead it’s a film all about the little moments in life, every day occurrences made magical. My Neighbor Totoro is all about childhood wonderment and imagination, and yet is also deeply grounded in real emotion. It’s a film that’s as beautiful as it is adorable.

My Neighbor Totoro tells the story of 10-year old Satsuki Kusakabe and her little sister Mei, two girls who are moving to the Japanese countryside with their father. Their move is meant to bring them closer to their sickly mother, who is in a hospital near the new home. Unbeknownst to the family, their new home is haunted.

My Neighbor TotoroNot haunted in any traditional sense of the word. There are no scary apparitions at work here. The house, it turns out, is invaded by Soot Sprites. These small, fuzzy creatures – who would later appear in Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away – simply produce dust in the old house. But an even bigger supernatural presence happens to live next door. Inside of a gigantic camphor tree that stands behind the girls’ new home live the Totoros.

These Totoros are gentle forest spirits who can easily be seen by children, but are more elusive to adults. The camphor tree is home to three such Totoros: a tiny, white one who can disappear. A slightly larger blue one who carries a magic bag full of acorns. And finally, the gigantic gray Totoro – the “King of the Forest” – who can make trees grow, produce gusts of wind by flying on a magic top, and rides around in a Catbus.

My Neighbor TotoroLittle Mei is the first to meet the magical Totoros, and her sister Satsuki is soon to follow. Together, the two sisters have several amazing encounters with the Totoros as they get accustomed to their new home and deal with their mother’s illness.

There really isn’t a more detailed plot than that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My Neighbor Totoro is not a film about a plot (it’s only real conflict doesn’t arrive until its third act). Instead, its story is all about its wonderfully realized characters and their daily occurrences: some mundane, some magical. Some happy, some sad.

My Neighbor TotoroSatsuki and Mei are quite likely the most realistically depicted characters in animation. Their personalities, mannerisms and interactions with each other and everyone around them capture an amazing sense of realism. They may be animated, but they’re depicted in such a way that makes them as believable and lifelike as any characters in cinema. Because of their believability, we are able to get all the more emotionally invested in the film. It’s easy to smile in the moments when the girls are playing, and it’s downright heartbreaking to see them argue or worry about their mother.

My Neighbor TotoroTheir father is similarly memorable. Though he doesn’t partake in the girls’ magical adventures (he’s a busy university professor, and adults aren’t aware of when Totoro is around) he is loving towards his daughters, and completely respectful of the tales they tell him. While any other movie might have adults openly doubt their children, or simply humor them, Professor Kusakabe firmly accepts and believes his daughters when they tell him about their adventures with Totoro or the Catbus. He may or may not fully understand what his girls are telling him about magical forest creatures, but he never once doubts them. The same goes for the girls’ mother, who is delighted to hear that the family’s new home also occupies spirits. While many animated features often feature a conflicting dynamic between parents and children, My Neighbor Totoro’s depiction of family comes across as refreshingly loving.

My Neighbor TotoroThe girls also encounter Kanta, a neighborhood boy who develops a crush on Satsuki, and his kindly grandmother, who watches over the girls while their dad is at work. These characters also have a strong sense of believability about them, and help add to the film’s realness.

Then we have the Totoros themselves, arguably Miyazaki’s greatest creations. They’re as mystifying as they are adorable. They are capable of utterly wondrous feats, yet are as simple and cuddly as a household pet. They are certainly cute enough to justify their standing as Studio Ghibli’s mascots, yet there’s also a reverent, spiritual quality about them, making for a completely unique combination.

In terms of animation, My Neighbor Totoro remains a captivatingly beautiful film. Though it may not have the same sleekness of Miyazaki’s later features, the backgrounds are as stunning as they’ve ever been, the character designs as unique as any of the great director’s features (and certainly the most adorable), and the film (once again) captures a striking realism with each of the character’s mannerisms.

As beautiful as the visuals are, the soundtrack seemingly pulls off the impossible and equals them. As is the case with every Miyazaki feature starting with Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and it is possibly his finest work. Appropriately, the soundtrack to Totoro is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The film as a whole brilliantly captures the happy and the melancholic, and the soundtrack brings out these emotions all the more.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the few Miyazaki films to have been dubbed into English on two separate occasions. The first dub (released on home video in 1993 and no longer in print) was distributed by Fox, and is easily the best of the early dubs of Japanese animation. The second dub, distributed by the Miyazaki-mainstays at Disney, is more readily available, and features a more star-heavy cast (with sisters Dakota and Elle Fanning providing the voices of Satsuki and Mei). Perhaps because I grew up watching the original dub, that tends to be my go-to English version, though in many ways Disney’s effort is just as great. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

My Neighbor TotoroWhen it was first released in Japan, My Neighbor Totoro was a revelation, winning numerous awards – many of which were normally reserved for live-action features – and becoming one of the most cherished family films of all time. Though it never saw a wide theatrical release in the western world, its impact has been no different, becoming a beloved classic as much in the United States as it is in its native Japan. It’s acclaim couldn’t be more deserved.

My Neighbor TotoroMy Neighbor Totoro is a film entirely void of wickedness. There are no villains, and not even the tiniest shred of cynicism. But despite its consistent happiness, My Neighbor Totoro is anything but naive, as it never shies away from the existence of sadness and tragedy. It captures the feelings of childhood better than any film I’ve ever seen, and is relatable to both children and adults.

My Neighbor Totoro is one of the greatest animated films of all time. It finds magic in the mundane, adventure in the average, and depth in the simplistic. And it does so with a sincerity and grace that seems unapproachable to other filmmakers. My Neighbor Totoro is the most gentle, sensitive and sweet film I’ve ever seen.

 

10

Spirited Away Review

Spirited Away

If ever there were a movie that could be described as indescribable, surely it’s Spirited Away. Hayao Miyazaki’s animated masterpiece is a work of ineffable imagination. Its storytelling and inventiveness are as spectacular as they are unique.

When it was released in Japan in 2001, Spirited Away broke many records, and ranks as the highest grossing film in Japan’s history to this day. When Disney brought it stateside in 2002, it managed to finally get Miyazaki some worldwide recognition, not to mention an Oscar and many other accolades. Spirited Away has since become regarded as a classic of animated cinema, and its praise couldn’t be more deserved.

Spirited Away tells the story of Chihiro, a ten-year old girl in the middle of moving to a new home with her mother and father. Chihiro is apathetic, somewhat spoiled, and bitter about her family’s move.

On their way to their new home, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn, and the family ends up at the entrance to a mysterious tunnel, which leads to what appears to be an abandoned theme park. The tunnel and park turn out to be a portal to another world. Not a portal in the traditional fantasy sense, as they show no inherent otherworldly attributes. But once night falls, Chihiro finds herself surrounded by ghosts and monsters, her parents – who were quick to consume the many delicacies found in one of the park’s restaurants – are transformed into pigs, and the tunnel that lead her to this world is now a distant speck across an ocean.

YubabaFrightened and confused, Chihiro manages to find a friend in a mysterious boy named Haku, who informs her that if she hopes to survive in this new world of gods and monsters and save her parents, she must find employment at a nearby bathhouse, which is ruled by the witch Yubaba. But working at the bathhouse won’t be so easy, as employment comes at the cost of surrendering one’s name to Yubaba. Should Chihiro (now dubbed “Sen” by the witch) completely forget her name, she will never return to the human world.

The bathhouse, perhaps the most alive location in all of cinema, is where most of the film takes place. It is a place where deities and specters visit for some relaxation and replenishment. The designs for these countless spirits are all richly imaginative, whether they get a decent amount of screen time or are simply background characters. The creatures of Spirited Away are so wondrous and weird they make the denizens of the Mos Eisley Cantina look mundane.

Such wonderfully designed creatures are the least of Spirited Away’s triumphs, however. There is a profoundness and depth within Spirited Away’s storytelling that ascends it to the highest level of artistry.

Each character Chihiro comes across has something of a story to tell, and nearly every scene works as an allegory with double and triple meanings, sometimes even more. There isn’t a moment in Spirited Away that doesn’t present audience with much more than what’s immediately on-screen.

Spirited AwayEvery character within the bathhouse is wonderfully realized: Haku becomes something of a guardian angel to Chihiro, but also has a loyalty to Yubaba that makes his motives ambiguous. Kamaji, an elderly man with six extendable arms who bears a resemblance to Dr. Robotnik, is a slave to his job as the bathhouse’s boiler man (he literally sleeps where he works). At first Kamaji appears bitter, but he is won over by Chihiro’s determination. Lin is a young woman who becomes something of Chihiro’s boss, confidant and mentor. Even Yubaba is more than just a villain. Although she’s capable of despicable deeds, Yubaba is also given human and relatable traits as the film progresses.

Spirited AwayPerhaps the most important of the lot is Noface, a mysterious apparition who is the embodiment of loneliness and despair. Noface – who is according to Miyazaki the film’s deuteragonist – has his own story that becomes as rich and detailed as Chihiro’s, and both characters’ stories intertwine beautifully.

It is of course Chihiro herself who’s at the heart of it all. She is a flawed character; clumsy, whiny, and apathetic. But it’s her flaws that make her character growth all the more powerful, and make her quite possibly the best leading heroine in any animated film.

One of Spirited Away’s greatest strengths is the way it manages to tell its story and bring its characters to life. Very little of what happens in Spirited Away is explicit. Chihiro’s journey is told with a subtle and ethereal grace that’s all its own. It tells only what needs to be told, and leaves the rest of its details to the viewer’s interpretation.

ChihiroYet, despite its artistic depth, Spirited Away is also a very fun movie. Hayao Miyazaki has claimed he specifically made the film for 10-year old girls, and yet it’s a film that can appeal to anyone. The characters win us over with their charming personalities and sympathetic qualities, and the film sprinkles in a good amount of humor and heart. It’s as entertaining as it is deep, and a real treat for audiences of any age.

Spirited AwayTo top it all off, Spirited Away boasts some of the most gorgeous animation ever seen. All of the character designs leave an impression. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in all of their actions and movements. Even the background characters are always doing something, with each one acting differently to the others. The backgrounds are consistently stunning throughout, with every last frame being a captivating work of art.

Spirited Away, like most of Miyazaki’s works, was scored by Joe Hisaishi, and its soundtrack remains one of his finest compositions. It is (quite appropriately) the most “Japanese” of all the scores of Miyazaki’s films, and many of its tracks are some of the most beautiful and soothing I’ve heard in a movie.

Rest assured that Disney once again did a fine job with the dubbing. Though this was one of Disney’s earlier efforts in dubbing a Miyazaki film, and thus there weren’t as many “big name” actors jumping at the chance to voice a character like there would be in later Miyazaki films, the quality of the dub is just as good as any of them.

Many actors who previously voiced Disney characters can be heard (such as David Ogden Stiers, a Disney veteran, voicing Kamaji, and Pixar’s “lucky charm” John Ratzenberger voicing one of the employees of the bathhouse, complete with his famous ad-libbed one-liners). Daveigh Chase, Jason Marsden and the late Suzanne Pleshette voice Chihiro, Haku and Yubaba, respectively, and help give life to the characters (Plashette’s cackling vocals are a particular highlight). Simply put, you can’t go wrong watching Spirited Away in its original Japanese track or the English dub.

ChihiroSince its release, Spirited Away has had a profound impact on animated films the world over, with the likes of Pixar aiming to give their films a richer artistic depth in the years that followed, to name the most prominent example. And yet, despite how far animated films have come in the decade and a half since Spirited Away’s time, none of them have truly replicated its magic. No matter how many times I’ve watched it, I’m just as enchanted and enthralled as I’ve ever been by it. It’s an ineffable work that is entirely its own, and quite likely the most imaginative film ever made.

Its title couldn’t be more appropriate. After watching Spirited Away, you may feel like you’re very much in Chihiro’s shoes, and have been spirited away yourself.

 

10

Howl’s Moving Castle Review

Howl's Moving Castle

It’s a true testament to Hayao Miyazaki’s mastery of animated cinema that his 2004 film, Howl’s Moving Castle, is probably his weakest effort, and yet still stands head and shoulders over many other animated films. Though it loses its focus and the story can be flimsy at points, Howl’s Moving Castle is still a highly imaginative and beautifully animated treat.

Howl’s Moving Castle, loosely based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, had something of an interesting production. Originally set to be director Mamoru Hosoda’s debut film for Studio Ghibli, Hosoda dropped out of the project early on. Ghibli’s most iconic director, Hayao Miyazaki, decided to take up the reigns of the film and continue his filmmaking career, after having previously retired upon completion of Spirited Away.

It’s perhaps because of the rougher production, and the fact that it followed such an opus as Spirited Away, that Howl’s Moving Castle falls considerably short when compared to some of Miyazaki’s other works. But it still showcases the legendary director’s unique filmmaking and storytelling abilities.

Howl’s Moving Castle takes place in a fantasy world of wizards and magic. A young woman named Sophie lives a simple life running the hat shop her late father left behind. But Sophie’s life changes forever upon a chance meeting with the wizard Howl. A rival of Howl’s, the blobby Witch of the Waste, harbors unrequited feelings for the young wizard, and grows jealous of Sophie. Thus the Witch of the Waste casts a spell on Sophie, aging her into a 90-year old woman and unable to tell anyone of her curse.

Howl's Moving CastleThe now-elderly Sophie travels to the Wastes to search for her younger sister (who is more understanding and level-headed than anyone else in Sophie’s life), but along the way, she encounters an enchanted, turnip-headed scarecrow, who leads her to Howl’s castle, a colossal machine made up of houses and scrap metal that walks on four metallic talons, and is a character in its own right.

The castle is not only home to Howl, but also to his apprentice, a young boy named Markl and, most importantly, a powerful fire demon called Calcifer, who powers the castle’s movement and can see through Sophie’s curse. Calcifer is under a curse of his own alongside Howl, and makes a bargain with Sophie that if she can find a way to break his curse, he’ll break hers in return.

Howl's Moving CastleThe setup is, for the most part, excellently done. The big drawback of the opening being that we probably don’t get a lot of time to know Sophie enough as a character before her transformation, but the rest of the story builds up nicely. However, later parts of the film begin to lose the story’s original focus, and the film seems to be at odds with the story of the original novel, and the story Miyazaki wants to tell (this perhaps could be the reason Miyazaki usually creates his own stories, instead of adapting others).

First and foremost, a sub-plot in the film involves a war that breaks out between the kingdom where the film takes place (known as “Ingari” in the novel) and a neighboring kingdom. If a war already sounds misplaced in an adventurous family film about a girl being turned into a hag, you’re right. The worst part is what starts as a sub-plot eventually takes over the film, and Sophie’s deal with Calcifer is largely forgotten in the middle of it.

Miyazaki has been outspoken about his pacifistic ways, so if he wanted to make an anti-war movie, then more power to him. The problem is that this wasn’t the film to do it with. Even his later film, The Wind Rises, which focuses on a historical figure in the times just before WWII, doesn’t deal with the subject as much. What starts off as a fantastic and whimsical journey of growth in Howl’s Moving Castle ends up feeling confused amid the devastation of war.

Howl's Moving CastleThe film’s other notable flaw is, sadly, Sophie herself. Hayao Miyazaki is famous for creating strong and memorable female characters, yet Sophie is something of the exception to that rule. Though her elderly self shows some strengths in small doses, she as a character ultimately feels like a mere moving piece in the story, as opposed to its driving force. Miyazaki was clearly more fascinated with Howl and Calcifer’s characters, and while they end up being memorable, Sophie, the supposed main character, doesn’t leave much of an impression.

This is in stark contrast to most of Miyazaki’s heroines. While Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Chihiro of Spirited Away and their kin carried their stories, Sophie just seems to be plodding along in the narrative.

Howl's Moving CastleWith that said, I don’t mean to sound too negative towards the film. Aside from Sophie, the characters are a fun parade of personalities: Howl is humorously effeminate and conceded, Calcifer is bitter about being reduced to performing chores for Howl, and even the despicable Witch of the Waste, with her blob-like neck and unfounded arrogance, leaves an impression.

The film also boasts some of the most exquisite animation of any Ghibli film and, by extension, any animated film. The character designs stand out with originality, their movements are fluid and complex, the backgrounds are richly detailed, and the film creates many memorable moments that could only be created through animation (one scene in which Howl transforms the inner rooms of the castle is a wonder to behold).

Howl's Moving CastleThe titular castle itself is one of animation’s great places. Its outward appearance makes it equal parts character and location, and its inner workings – with portals that lead to different parts of the kingdom – are pure imaginative delights. Calcifer perhaps catches the eye the most, being a perfect combination of the simple (he’s a fireball with eyes and a mouth) and the complex (he’s animated as believably as sentient fire ever could be).

Howl’s Moving Castle can also claim to have one of the most memorable soundtracks in the Ghibli library, with composer Joe Hisaishi pulling out all the stops with a score that echoes European influences and captures the magic of the film’s images.

It should also be stated that Howl’s Moving Castle is a great film to watch in either its native Japanese language track or its English dub. Like many of the Studio Ghibli films, Howl’s Moving Castle’s English-language version was provided by Disney. In this case, it was directed by Pixar’s Pete Docter (the filmmaker behind Monsters, Inc., Up and Inside Out), and includes voices from Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons as young and old Sophie, respectively. Lauren Bacall provided the sinister vocals for the Witch of the Waste, and Christian Bale – who was cast largely due to his love of Miyazaki’s films – provides both mystique and lightheartedness to Howl’s voice. Once again, however, Calcifer probably steals the show with the voice of Billy Crystal, whose performance here rivals that of his Mike Wazowski from the Monsters, Inc series.

On the whole, Howl’s Moving Castle is a delight, with staggering imagination and enough heart and humor to live up to its gorgeous visuals. Its main character is sadly underdeveloped, and its storytelling can’t match Miyazaki’s other works, so for those accustomed to the director’s films it may feel a bit flat by comparison. But by its own merits, it is still a fun and unique cinematic experience that provides good entertainment and depth all these years later.

It may not be up to par with Miyazaki’s other films, but being a “minor work” amid such giants is hardly anything to be ashamed of.

 

8.0

Tales from Earthsea Review

*This review contains some spoilers for certain story elements found early in the film*

Tales from Earthsea

In 2006, the impossible happened when Studio Ghibli, creators of so many classic and mystifying animated films, made a bad movie. Granted, you’ll find plenty of worse animated features out there, but for such a movie to come from Studio Ghibli still seems unthinkable. Yet such is the case with Tales from Earthsea which, despite a few aesthetic highlights and a handful of memorable moments, ultimately stumbles with uneven storytelling and incoherent character growth.

It should be noted that Earthsea is not among the films of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki or is mentor Isao Takahata, but was the debut film of Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. It should also be noted that prior to Earthsea, Goro Miyazaki was an architect, and had no prior affiliation with the worlds of filmmaking or animation aside from his famous father. Perhaps Ghibli’s then-president Toshio Suzuki thought the senior Miyazaki’s filmmaking abilities were so great that they would surely pass down to his son, though Hayao Miyazaki himself was infamously against the idea of thrusting his son into the director’s chair of a feature film with no prior experience. It may have been best had Ghibli headed the legendary director’s concerns.

Tales from Earthsea is based on a series of fantasy novels by author Ursula Le Guin, a series which Hayao Miyazaki once attempted to adapt himself. It is perhaps that large task of adapting an entire series of novels into a singular film by the hands of an inexperienced director that ultimately lead to the film’s undoing. There are hints at a bigger world and histories in Tales from Earthsea, but the story it contains feels so small scale its pacing can come off as episodic,  a cheap means to drag it out and justify its would-be grand scale.

Tales from EarthseaThe story centers around three central figures: Arren, a young prince who has spells of psychopathy, Sparrowhawk, an old wizard who takes Arren as his apprentice, and Therru, a young woman with a scar burned on her face. Additionally, there’s Tenar, a woman who has taken Therru into her home and is an old friend of Sparrowhawk’s; and the film’s villain, Cob, an androgynous sorcerer who becomes one of the more terrifying Ghibli foes.

The problem here is that most of these characters don’t leave much of an impression, or are downright unlikeable. Sparrowhawk is entirely inoffensive, but perhaps the most archetypal character to appear in a Studio Ghibli film (he’s basically a wise wizard who wise wizard’s his way through the movie because wise wizard). Tenar had the potential to be one of the many strong Ghibli heroines, but never gets a chance to show any real uniqueness as a character. Cob gets a bit of a pass, since he’s supposed to be hatable, so he does his job for the narrative (even if he’s one of the less fleshed-out villains in the Ghibli catalogue, despite his creepiness and mildly sexual personality).

Tales from EarthseaTherru is probably the only real sympathetic character, having been abused and abandoned by her birth parents, she’s developed a sensitivity and kindness towards others that makes her more likable than the rest of the cast.

It is Arren who really breaks whatever emotion you might have otherwise been able to invest in the film, however. Within the first five minutes of the movie, this supposed “hero” murders his own father in cold blood, with no reason given other than he was “possessed by fear.” Perhaps if Arren were treated as a villain that happens to be at the center of the film, or a man seeking redemption for the irredeemable, it could work. But the story just expects the audience to sympathize with him despite murdering his kindly father without any shred of reason behind the heinous act. Arren succumbs to a few other psychotic episodes during the film, which make him come off as one of those needlessly evil and angst-y villains you’d find in an action-based television anime, which is as far removed from Ghibli characterization as you can get.

Anyway, to give a brief summary of how this all comes together: Arren flees his kingdom after his inexplicit crime, meets up with Sparrowhawk, who makes Arren his apprentice. And later they meet up with Tenar and Therru, and somehow they all get caught up in Cob’s quest for eternal life.

Tales from EarthseaAs I said, there are bits and pieces of a fantasy epic in here, but the overall execution of Tales from Earthsea is so underdeveloped that it misses the mark. Despite its overall blunders, however, there are a few good aspects going for Tales from Earthsea.

Most obviously, the film, like all of Studio Ghibli’s library, is beautifully animated. The character movements and attention to detail are astounding, as are the stunning backgrounds. The character designs are unfortunately the least inspired of any Ghibli movie (Arren essentially resembles Ashitaka, the hero of Princess Mononoke, but without the complexity and range of emotion), but the technical aspects of the animation are as great as ever. Tales from Earthsea also boasts a pretty good musical score that sometimes sounds as epic as the film itself should have been.

I also have to admit that the film’s final act, where the focus shifts more onto Therru, is actually well done for the most part. The final confrontation she and Arren have with Cob, while not one of the more original Ghibli endings, does what it needs to with a confidence that you wish could have been present in the journey that got us to that point.

Tales from Earthsea might be worth a look then, if even just to complete the Ghibli library of films. But it should say something about it that when Disney finally released the film stateside in 2010, they didn’t give it the same loving treatment they gave to the other Studio Ghibli films. Spirited Away, Ponyo, The Wind Rises, Arietty, even Howl’s Moving Castle, were lavishly touted by Disney upon their worldwide distribution, even with their limited releases. By contrast, Tales from Earthsea felt like it was released out of contractual obligation. Nothing more.

Studio Ghibli has provided audiences with many of the world’s finest animated features, which often boast such wondrous imagination they make us feel that anything is possible. The fact that Studio Ghibli managed to create a movie as muddled and uneven as Tales from Earthsea is proof that, indeed, anything is.

 

5.0

Castle in the Sky Review

Castle in the Sky

Castle in the Sky holds a very important role in the history of Japanese animation. Though it wasn’t the first film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, it was the first feature released under Studio Ghibli. Though the then-new studio was gambling with Castle in the Sky (an animated film not based on an existing comic was considered unpopular in Japan at the time), the film ended up being successful enough for Studio Ghibli to flourish for nearly three decades, thus setting in motion the most legendary catalogue of films in animation.

In many ways, Castle in the Sky is a much simpler film than other Miyazaki features. Whereas most of Miyazaki’s later works would be famous for their character depth and their more character-based stories, Castle in the Sky is a tried and true adventure film. But due to its staggering imagination, and the excellence of its execution, it easily ranks as one of the greatest adventure films of all time, animated or otherwise.

Castle in the SkyThough it was released in 1986 and was Studio Ghibli’s first feature, Castle in the Sky remains  a timelessly beautiful animated film. Though it can’t match the sheer visual splendor of Ghibli’s later movies, the memorable character designs, fluid movements, and attention to detail the studio is famous for are all still present. It’s a joy to look at from the very first frame.

The film takes place in a world of pure fantasy, with magic crystals, robots, and flying machines galore. The story sees a young boy named Pazu, a miner’s apprentice, meet a mysterious girl named Sheeta as she falls from the sky, wearing a glowing crystal on her necklace.

Pazu dreams of seeing the legendary flying castle of Laputa, long-believed to be a myth by all but his father, who took a single photograph of the castle before the world called him a liar (as Pazu cryptically states, “being called a liar is what killed him.”). Sheeta and her crystal hold secrets connected to Laputa, and together, the two orphans set out to find the legendary kingdom.

Castle in the SkyTheir quest won’t be easy, however, as a gang of notorious air pirates, lead by the elderly Dola and her sons, are after Sheeta and her crystal to find Laputa and its countless treasures. An even bigger threat looms in the form of the military, who are under the command of the mysterious Colonel Muska, who has even darker desires for finding Laputa.

From the get-go, Castle in the Sky is captivating entertainment. It’s a real testament to Miyazaki’s versatility as a director that he’s most famous for creating more calm features like My Neighbor Totoro, yet films like Castle in the Sky show that he can create action as well as any filmmaker. There’s not a single action scene in Castle in the Sky that disappoints.

The sheer imagination that Miyazaki crafted into the world of Castle in the Sky is a thing of beauty. It’s a combination of fantasy, science fiction and European inspirations that feels entirely unique. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that countless anime and video games have been inspired by the world found in Castle in the Sky.

Castle in the SkyThough the characters are simple when compared to many of Miyazaki’s later casts, they are just as memorable: Pazu and Sheeta are likable and cute, but more importantly, there’s a sense of believability to them that makes them more relatable and sympathetic than most characters in adventure films. Colonel Muska, though a far more blatantly evil villain than most Miyazaki antagonists, is one of the most effectively evil foes in animation. By the film’s third act, he’s genuinely terrifying. It’s Dola who probably leaves the biggest impression though, with her eccentric, hard-nosed personality and boisterous energy, she can be seen as the forerunner of Miyazaki’s unique archetype for elderly characters.

The English language version was provided by Disney, and like most of Disney’s dubs of the Ghibli films, it’s a top-notch translation. Admittedly, the English voices for Pazu and Sheeta (James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, respectively) sound a bit older than the characters should, but the voice work is still solid. On the stronger side of things, Cloris Leachman and Mark Hamill are perfectly cast as Dola and Muska, and rank as some of the best dubbed voices in a Japanese animation. Cloris Leachman fits into the role so well it almost seems like it was written for her, and Mark Hamill’s vocals have seldom been so sinister (he might even outdo his iconic take on the Joker here).

As is the case with all but one of Hayao Miyazaki’s features, the film was scored by Joe Hisaishi, and it is another magical soundtrack by Hisaishi that perfectly compliments the sense of wonder from the world Miyazaki created.

Castle in the SkyAll of the film’s elements come together beautifully. Although you could argue that many of its individual elements were bettered by some of the Ghibli films that would follow, as a whole Castle in the Sky remains one of the Studio’s finest works. It’s an immaculate adventure that would feel right at home in an Indiana Jones or Star Wars feature, and it combines that sense of adventure with the impeccable Ghibli spirit.

It’s exhilarating, magical and highly entertaining. And it was one hell of a start for Studio Ghibli.

 

9.5