Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

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

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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

Princess Mononoke Review

Princess Mononoke

Few animated films have had the impact of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. When it was first released in Japan in 1997, it became the highest-grossing film in Japan’s history at the time (it later lost that title to Titanic and, ultimately, to Miyazaki’s own Spirited Away). It won a number of awards, many of which were normally reserved for live-action films, and became a landmark animated feature not only to its native Japan, but for the entire world.

An interesting note about Princess Mononoke is that it is a reimagining of Hayao Miyazaki’s own Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, with many narrative and thematic similarities. Though excellent Nausicaa may have been, Princess Mononoke polishes Miyazaki’s classic tale and gives it a fresh coat of paint with a different setting and even more fleshed-out characters.

While Nausicaa took place in a postapocalyptic future, Princess Mononoke sets the clock backwards to an alternate, ancient Japan. The hero here is Ashitaka, a prince of a long-forgotten tribe bearing a curse in his arm, a result of an encounter with a demon. It turns out that the demon was actually a boar god, and that his hatred and rage devolved him into the hideous demon. Ashitaka’s curse threatens to slowly take his life, so he leaves his village and journeys to the west from where the boar god originated, in hopes of finding a cure for his curse.

Princess MononokeAn even bigger plot unfolds, however, as Ashitaka’s journey places him in the midst of a war between the humans of Iron Town, and the animal gods of the forest. The forest is home to a benign deity, a Deer God, whose presence allows the other gods of the forest to thrive. The forest is also home to a tribe of wolf gods, who have adopted a young human woman, San (the titular “Princess Mononoke”) as their own. Iron Town is ruled over by Lady Eboshi, a strong and fearless woman who wishes to destroy the forest so that her people and industry can thrive. A third-party in the scuffle comes in the form of Jiko, a monk who is willing to ally with Eboshi in a quest to retrieve the head of the Deer God.

San has sworn to kill Eboshi, and the animals of the forest wish to destroy Iron Town and the human civilizations as much as Eboshi wishes to remove the forest. This is where Princess Mononoke becomes something special, because while the “man vs. nature” setup may actually be a rather tame storyline for a Miyazaki feature, the character depth and dimensions make it so much more than any other film in the genre.

While movies like Avatar have an almost cartoonishly black-and-white depiction of the struggle between man and nature (trees good, humans bad!), in Princess Mononoke, there is good and bad to be found everywhere.

Lady EboshiSan, for example, isn’t simply a nature-loving princess, but a proud warrior who wants to defend her home, while also becoming dangerously hellbent on revenge because of it. Lady Eboshi – arguably the heart and soul of the film’s depth – is probably the most moral character in the film. While so many environmentalist fables depict industry as a faceless evil, Eboshi is a kind, compassionate individual who rescues women from prostitution and personally cares for lepers. Miyazaki’s antagonists rarely exhibit blatantly evil attributes, and Eboshi is one of the great director’s best creations. Even Jiko, with his Wario-esque appearance and seemingly sinister motives, is just a man trying to find his way through life.

Ashitaka of course is at the center of it all, trying to maintain peace between the roaring factions. He may seem similarly simplistic to Nausicaa – at least when compared to the more complex characters around him – but like Nausicaa, he works for the narrative at hand.

Admittedly, the similarities to Nausicaa are more than a few. Not only do the plot and themes reflect those of Nausicaa in many respects, but even the characters and settings can be seen as reworkings of Miyazaki’s previous film.

Ashitaka fills Nausicaa’s role, while San plays the part of Prince Asbel. Lady Eboshi stands in for Princess Kushana, while Jiko works as a more cynical Kuratowa. You could even argue that Nausicaa’s Toxic Jungle has been swapped for the forest, with the boars and wolves filling the roles of Nausicaa’s giant insects. Even the Deer God’s transformation into the Nightwalker – a colossal, blob-like apparition that is one of the great visual spectacles of animated cinema – is something akin to the God Warrior of Nausicaa.

I must repeat that Princess Mononoke was created as a remake of Nausicaa, so it’s understandable that the similarities are there. Still, said similarities do arguably make Mononoke the least original Miyazaki film from a narrative perspective.

Princess MononokeWith that said, it should also be repeated that Miyazaki did a better job at fleshing out the characters here, which is no small feat, considering Nausicaa already boasted a rather complex cast. Likewise, the themes here are also further delved into (Mononoke is arguably more about the destructive nature of hatred and rage itself, than it is about man and nature fighting each other). So the similarities to Nausicaa are ultimately a minimal gripe.

Princess Mononoke also saw a solid dub hit Stateside in 1999. Though it may fall short of the later dubbing work for Ghibli films provided by Disney and Pixar, Princess Mononoke’s dub is still a great alternative to the original Japanese track, and features Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver and Billy Bob Thorton as Ashitaka, San, Eboshi and Jiko, respectively.

Another highlight to Princess Mononoke, like any Miyazaki film, is the animation itself. Princess Mononoke ranks as one of the most beautifully animated films ever made. At the time of its release, Mononoke was the most expensive animated film of all time, and it shows. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in every movement, and the environments are some of the most breathtakingly beautiful of any animated feature.

There’s a strong sense of variety in the character designs, and the beasts and demons are all sights to behold. Every Miyazaki film is a visual feast, but Mononoke raised the bar with a visual sheen that would then become the standard for Miyazaki’s subsequent films.

Then there’s the musical score, composed by Miyazaki mainstay Joe Hisaishi. While all of Hisaishi’s scores for Miyazaki’s films are strong enough that it’s hard to pick out a best of the bunch, Princess Mononoke’s score is certainly a strong contender for that title (though it falls slightly short of a couple others, in my personal opinion). It’s a simply captivating soundtrack.

Princess MononokeJust like every Hayao Miyazaki film (except, perhaps, Howl’s Moving Castle), the profoundly pleasing visual and audio qualities are only secondary to the story and characters of Princess Mononoke. While it may not have the originality of the director’s other works in terms of structure, the depth and complexity (not to mention the imagination) at hand are up there with any of his films.

Princess Mononoke remains a classic of animated cinema. Its memorable, detailed characters, stunning animation and soundtrack, and compelling story and action sequences make it an absolute landmark in the world of animation.

 

9.5

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind Review

Nausicaa

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is one of the great landmarks of animated cinema, comparable in impact to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Toy Story. The second feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Nausicaa can be seen as the feature that laid the groundwork for Miyazaki’s style, and its production ultimately led to the creation of Studio Ghibli. It’s hard to understate Nausicaa’s impact on the world of animation.

It certainly wasn’t an easy road to get Nausicaa made, however. Hayao Miyazaki originally envisioned the idea for Nausicaa as a feature film, but back in the 80s, an anime film not based on an existing manga was something studios didn’t want to bother with. So Miyazaki decided to make Nausicaa into a manga. A manga which Miyazaki attempted to write in such a way that it couldn’t be translated into a film (possibly to prevent anyone else from getting a hold of his creation). But the manga – which would be published over the course of thirteen years – would lead to a feature film version of Nausicaa getting the greenlight, with Miyazaki in the director’s chair. The film would end up being released when the manga was only in its second year of publication, so suffice to say Miyazaki had quite the challenge in giving Nausicaa its transition to the silver screen.

Thankfully, Miyazaki managed to overcome these insurmountable hurdles. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind – while far from Miyazaki’s best work – exudes a level of quality and imagination that make it an animated classic.

NausicaaNausicaa of the Valley of the Wind takes place in a distant future. Almost all of civilization was destroyed over a thousand years before the events of the film, in an event known as the “Seven Days of Fire.” This post-apocalyptic world has unleashed toxic jungles with gargantuan insects – the mightiest of which being the Ohm – and produce fungi which spread the jungles’ poison across the world.

The few kingdoms that still exist struggle for power in the devastated world. The nations of Tolmekia and Pejite in particular try to gain the edge over the other. Tolmekia and Pejite believe they’ve found the solution to not only end their struggles with each other, but also the Ohm and the Toxic Jungle.

NausicaaPejite has unearthed a long-dormant “God Warrior,” one of the artificial beings that destroyed the world in the Seven Days of Fire. The Tolmekians seize the sleeping giant from Pejite for themselves, but an attack by giant insects leads the ship carrying the God Warrior to crash into the Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom of few citizens and whose ocean air helps protect them from the poisons of the Jungle.

The princess of the Valley of the Wind is the titular Nausicaa, a selfless champion of her people who set the stage for Miyazaki’s unique brand of heroines. When the Tolmekians – lead by their own princess Kushana and her head officer, Kuratowa – occupy the Valley of the Wind in order to further tend to the sleeping God Warrior, Nausicaa volunteers as a hostage to the Tolmekians to find a way to make peace between the roaring nations.

It’s a rather grand sci-fi/fantasy adventure that is equal parts entertaining and intriguing. The world Miyazaki created for Nausicaa is as original and distinct as any other he’s made. The creature designs for the insects are imaginative and grotesque, and the look of the Toxic Jungle itself is far more visually unique than its name may imply, and provides some breathtaking background environments. The machines in the film may be fantastic at a glance, but given the nature of the film’s world and its limited recourses, they also have a believable crudeness about them. This gives the machines a similarly “used” quality to those found in Star Wars (and much like Star Wars, many of the inventions’ uses are immediately apparent to the audience, with no need of unnecessary rants to how everything works a la Star Trek). Like the majority of Miyazaki’s works, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a beauty to behold in both visual beauty and in the imagination of its world.

Unfortunately, the animation itself isn’t quite up to par with many of Miyazaki’s other works, with many of the character designs looking similarly to each other, and limited movements from the characters in the background. Granted, given that Miyazaki and company were getting off the ground here, Nausicaa’s limitations are a bit forgivable. But in retrospect, after having watched Miyazaki’s later works, the limitations really stand out.

NausicaaThat’s a small price to pay, however, considering that the characters themselves leave quite the impression. Though Nausicaa is almost simplistically “perfect,” her undying selflessness works wonders in helping the audience become invested in the film’s rather bleak world. Lord Yupa is a master swordsman and something of Nausicaa’s surrogate grandfather, always ready to dispatch sagely wisdom. Asbel is a Pejite prince who becomes Nausicaa’s friend and confidant. And the villains began Miyazaki’s trend of complicated antagonists, with Kushana having relatable goals of her own, and Kuratowa being able to find humor and amusement in even the darkest moments.

NausicaaOnce again, Disney provided a solid dub for the film: Alison Lohman voices Nausicaa, Patrick Stewart dubs over Yupa’s mustache movements. Shia LaBeouf voices Asbel, while Uma Thurman and Chris Sarandon voice Kushana and Kuratowa. Each actor gives a strong vocal performance and captures the intended nature of the film.

The characters and the world they inhabit really help the film come alive, while the suspense and action sequences help it maintain a high level of entertainment throughout. On top of the narrative and visual strongpoints, Nausicaa also marks the first time that Joe Hisaishi scored a Miyazaki film, meaning that there’s a good deal of memorable music to be heard as well. Admittedly, the film’s limited production can sometimes be found in the soundtrack (Hisaishi worked mostly with a soundboard here, as opposed to a full orchestra), but the music still stands out as a unique and emotional score.

Nausicaa, despite its many merits, falls a bit short when compared to a number of Miyazaki’s works that came after it. Though this is probably more of a case of Miyazaki perfecting his craft, than it is a statement to any particular flaws with the film itself. Though it may be of note that Hayao Miyazaki himself was no fan of the finished product, and was disappointed enough in it that he eventually remade it under the guise of Princess Mononoke.

Perhaps this is simply an instance of a creator being overly critical of themselves, however. Aside from some relatively limited animation and an admittedly abrupt ending closing an otherwise stellar third act, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind has all the hallmarks of a Miyazaki classic. Without it, we may never have seen the Miyazaki classics that were to follow. And a world without Miyazaki movies? We’d be better off in the Toxic Jungle.

 

9.0

November is Animation Month!

Moana

While I still plan on reviewing a few video games in November, for the most part, I’m going to dedicate this month to catching up on my reviews for animated films. It seems like my animation reviews have taken a backseat for far too long now, so I figured prioritizing them for a month would be a nice way to get things back on track.

I figured November would be a good time to do this, because later this month, Disney’s Moana will be released. Seeing as Disney is the most popular animation studio in the world, the release of their latest animated film seemed like a good excuse to get this going.

I have a lineup of Disney animation reviews I want to get done before then, but I should also be writing on other animated films as well, notably Pixar and Studio Ghibli.

This also gives me an excuse to get back to writing some of those lists I had planned back in my “Pixar month” back in June (which sadly fell flat with very little to it).

Again, I’ll still be writing some video game stuff, but November will be mostly dedicated to animated films. Of course, this may change some of the plans I had for December (meaning my list of Best Games Ever may be delayed for the umpteenth time), but nothing’s set in stone just yet. So I guess I’ll keep you posted in that area.

For now, I hope you enjoy whatever I end up writing about animated films.

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