Howl’s Moving Castle: Miyazaki’s Missed Opportunity

*Caution: This article contains spoilers for both the novel and film adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle*

Let’s get one thing straight: I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. I don’t think it’s a bad movie by any stretch, and in fact, I would argue that Hayao Miyazaki is one of the few film directors who doesn’t have a single bad movie under his belt (and probably the only one who’s directed a considerable number of films, having helmed eleven himself, with a twelfth on the way some time in the future). The only movie to come out of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli that I would say is an outright bad movie is Tales from Earthsea, which was directed by Hayao’s son, Goro.

Point being, before it sounds like the contrary, I like Howl’s Moving Castle (my review of it stands at a 7/10 on my current grading system), but it is undoubtedly the most flawed of Miyazaki’s eleven features. A point that’s magnified by the fact that it was Miyazaki’s directorial follow-up to Spirited Away, which is a flawless masterpiece in animated storytelling. If you want to delve even deeper, Howl’s Moving Castle was really the only notable dip in quality in Miyazaki’s films. Again, that’s not to say it was a bad movie by any means, but when a movie follows up an unparalleled string of animated classics featuring The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke and, of course, Spirited Away, the shortcomings it does have are going to appear all the more prominent.

This is even more unfortunate because, having recently read the original novel of Howl’s Moving Castle (by Diana Wynne Jones) again, the book almost seems like it was tailor-made to be adapted into a Miyazaki film. It has the same strong character personalities, magical goings-on, whimsy and humor you find in a Studio Ghibli feature, albeit with a notably more British tone (which makes absolute sense, given that Jones was English). But even the British-ness of the novel could have been seen in a Miyazaki movie, considering that Studio Ghibli is one of the few anime studios that is willing to represent people and cultures outside of Japan itself.

While most of Miyazaki’s films are his own creations, Howl’s Moving Castle is in a minority of the director’s films which was based on an existing work (The Castle of Cagliostro was part of the existing Lupin III franchise, and Kiki’s Delivery Service was based on the novel by Eiko Kadono). Some anime fans (namely hipster podcasters) try to claim that Studio Ghibli doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to adapting other people’s work, though as evidenced by the fact that Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of the studio’s most beloved features, and films like The Secret World of Arrietty and other Ghibli adaptations were among the most acclaimed films of their respective years, Ghibli certainly hasn’t had any persistent issues when adapting other people’s works. Even Howl’s Moving Castle has a large fanbase, and Diana Wynne Jones herself loved the movie (we once again go to Tales from Earthsea for the one instance where the original author wasn’t happy with Ghibli’s adaptation).

But Howl’s Moving Castle slipped-up more so than Miyazaki’s other adaptations. While he still very much made Lupin III and Kiki his own with his takes on the material, Howl’s Moving Castle seemed like it needed very few changes to become a Miyazaki feature: It’s main character is a strong young woman named Sophie, who is transformed into an old crone by an evil witch (with the spell also preventing her from telling people about the situation, so she can’t simply ask a wizard like Howl to remove the curse). Howl himself seemed impossibly easy to translate to Japanese audiences, his description in the book fits the anime pretty boy archetype so clearly you’d think the novel were adapted from the movie. He’s a vain, perfume-wearing, effeminate wizard who obsesses over his looks to impress the ladies. The tritagonist is Calcifer, a fire demon who created and powers Howl’s castle, but he and Howl are in a similar situation to Sophie, suffering from a magical plight and being unable to tell anyone about it.

In terms of looks, Howl is the most accurately depicted in the movie, while Calcifer has seen the most change. In the book, Calcifer’s physical description is a little more detailed, being a face made out of blue fire, with green fire for hair and eyebrows, purple fire for a mouth, and small orange flames for eyes. In contrast, the film’s version of Calcifer is simply a traditional orange and red fireball with big eyes and a mouth. I don’t mind this change at all though. The multi-colored flaming appearance described in the book is interesting (and we get something of a glimpse of it in the film in one scene where Calcifer is performing magic), the simpler design of the movie makes for a more iconic character. And it’s always fun when a fantasy story’s most powerful character has such a simple appearance.

Sophie’s appearance (as a young woman) is changed slightly, with her hair being brown in the film, as opposed to red from the book. Again, this change is fine and doesn’t affect anything story-wise. What isn’t so fine, however, is the changes made to Sophie’s character. Miyazaki has always excelled at making strong heroines, which is what makes it so baffling that his depiction of Sophie is Miyazaki’s most uninteresting main character, when her description in the book seemed as though Jones was aware of Miyazaki’s work at the time, and purposefully wrote the character for Miyazaki to adapt.

While Miyazaki’s interpretations of Howl and Calcifer are accurate (Howl being a whiny coward, and Calcifer always grumbling about how a powerful fire demon like himself deserves better), Sophie’s character seems barely touched upon. Granted, in the book she’s transformed into a 90-year old woman in the second chapter, but in the film, we know even less about her before she gets cursed.

In the book, we learn that in the story’s fantasy country of Ingary (which goes unnamed in the movie), Sophie is the eldest of three sisters, but in Ingary the eldest child is “doomed” to a simple life of inheritance, while the younger members of a family are told to seek their own fortune in life. Thus Sophie feels doomed to work at her late father’s hat shop her whole life, without being allowed to break away on her own.

While that’s a major factor of Sophie’s character in the book, the film shortens Sophie’s plight as the eldest child to a passing reference (“It’s what father would have wanted. I’m the eldest, I don’t mind.”). But this ends up affecting Sophie’s story arc. By downplaying Sophie’s position in life, and the fate her culture has seemingly decided for her, it also downplays her growth as a character when she seeks out her own destiny while under her spell (a spell which literally brings to life her fears of growing old in the same place she’s always been).

Also in the film, Sophie only has one younger sister, but the concept of the eldest child being doomed to a life of mediocrity could still work, so that’s alright. A movie has to omit some characters to account for running time, and the sister who was left out of the movie is also the one who didn’t return for the book’s sequel, Castle in the Air (which funnily enough has nothing to do with Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), so it’s not a major character omission.

The issue is that the film fails to properly show Sophie’s disappointment with her position in life. She looks sullen, but we never get the full extent of how trapped she feels in the film. So when she does become an old crone and shows some signs of change (“I seem to have become quite cunning in my old age!“), they don’t have the same effect as they do in the book.

With Howl and Calcifer being so beautifully realized, it magnifies how Sophie fails to connect as the driving force in the story. In fact, she rarely ever feels like its driving force in the movie, more like someone who happens to be witnessing its events (a concept which could make for a unique movie of its own, if that were the idea going in).

Compare this to Chihiro, the protagonist from Spirited Away. Within the film’s opening moments – which depicts her family’s drive to their new house – we learn who Chihiro is. We see that she’s a bit spoiled, more than a little apathetic, lazy, clumsy, and looking for reasons to complain. Within the span of a short family drive, we learn who this character is at the start of their journey, which makes the growth Chihiro sees throughout the film feel so profound. Sophie, sadly, doesn’t have that same effect. Whatever growth she has feels considerably less substantial.

Again, I don’t want to sound all doom and gloom in regards to Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s not like Miyazaki’s Sophie is unlikable, but for a filmmaker who’s known for making memorable heroines, Sophie is decidedly bland.

Miyazaki made some additional changes from the book, and while that may not sit well with purists, a movie making changes from its source material in some ways isn’t an inherently bad thing (in fact, Jones herself acknowledged ahead of time that she expected the movie to be different, because books and movies are different mediums).

These changes are mostly for the best in bringing Howl’s Moving Castle to the silver screen, as they trim down some sub-plots that may have worked in the book, but would have probably felt like detours in a two-hour movie. For example, in the book, Howl’s apprentice Michael is a little younger than Sophie (her actual age, not her transformed self), and there’s a sub-plot about him dating one of Sophie’s sisters (of course, with Sophie unable to reveal details that would expose her actual age, Michael is blissfully unaware of the relation). First of all, in the movie, the character has been renamed “Markl.” This was done out of necessity, given how the name Michael would be pronounced in Japanese. But they wisely kept the change for the film’s English version as well, which I very much appreciate, as Markl just sounds more like a wizard’s apprentice than a name as common as Michael.

Anyway, in the movie, Markl is just a young boy, which means the storyline with him and Sophie’s sister is dropped. And frankly, I just think it suits this story better to have a kid accompanying Howl and Calcifer as the third member of the moving castle crew.

A noteworthy-yet-inconsequential change from the book comes in regards to Howl himself. Despite the brunt of the story taking place in a fantasy world in the country of Ingary, the Howl from the book actually comes from the planet Earth. More specifically, he comes from Wales, with one of the four destinations of the magic portal of a door within the moving castle leading to his home in Wales.

In the book, we get to meet Howl’s sister, niece and nephew, and it gives us more insight into Howl’s history. It may seem like a major change for the movie to leave out this detail, but in all honesty, aside from adding a little something to Howl’s character, the concept of Howl hailing from Wales doesn’t really play into the main plot. It’s an interesting bit in the book, but it’s understandable why Miyazaki would leave it out.

Despite these changes, the earlier portions of the movie are actually pretty faithful to the book. The elderly Sophie becoming Howl’s cleaning lady. Calcifer’s meeting with Sophie leading to the two striking a deal to break each other’s curses (Calcifer, being a fire demon, is powerful enough to see through Sophie’s curse without needing explanation). Even the scene where Howl throws a tantrum over his hair color by summoning dark spirits and emitting green slime from his skin, all more or less play out as they did in the book.

Things play faithfully to the book at first, but then, the film version of Howl’s Moving Castle adds an element that ends up changing the second half almost entirely.

In the book, the land of Ingary is on the brink of war with a neighboring kingdom (Strangia, which also goes unnamed in the film), and Ingary’s prince – the king’s younger brother, Justin – has gone missing, which is a double problem because not only is he a missing prince, but he’s also the country’s best general. Additionally in the book, there is another wizard of comparable reputation to Howl named Suliman, though he too, has gone missing.

By the end of the book, we learn that the Witch of the Waste (the full title of the witch who cursed Sophie) is responsible for both missing persons, having magically rearranged their bodies – one’s head on the other’s body – and subsequently transformed both chimeras into other forms (one into a scarecrow, and the other into a dog who can briefly return to human form before turning into a different type of dog. Yeah, the book can get wonderfully weird). There’s also a character who appears briefly in a chapter or two named Mrs. Penstemmon, a royal wizard who trained Howl in magic, who ends up murdered by the Witch of the Waste.

These elements are changed from the book, and ultimately cumulate as the film’s most misguided element.

The war doesn’t take place during the events of the book, instead happening between the book and its sequel. It’s a looming threat, but it only gets a few passing references. In the movie, however, the war becomes the focal point of the whole thing.

In the movie, the war is happening because the prince of a neighboring kingdom has gone missing, and that kingdom blames the unnamed Ingary for the disappearance. In the film, the prince is still revealed as the true identity of the scarecrow (though in the movie, the prince wasn’t transformed by the Witch, and instead simply claims he stumbled upon the curse while traveling).

The change in the prince and his disappearance being the cause of the war aren’t too drastic of changes, but things get more complicated. In the film, the characters of wizard Suliman and Mrs. Penstemmon are merged into one character. This character uses the name of the Suliman, but is an elderly woman, Howl’s former teacher, and wizard to the king, like Mrs. Penstemmon.

Miyazaki’s Suliman becomes the main antagonist of the film. As we find out, she has influenced the king into going into war, as a roundabout way of recruiting Howl back into her services as a soldier under the king. I actually like the film’s Suliman as a character, but her sudden ascension to the role of primary antagonist creates problems of its own.

The Witch of the Waste is the book’s villain. Simple as that. Well, the Witch and her own fire demon (who, unlike Calcifer, has the appearance of a human woman). In the film, Suliman briefly mentions that the Witch had a demon at some point, but that’s the only reference of it. In the film, the Witch falls for a trap laid by Suliman, and is robbed of her magical powers. She becomes an afterthought. And that’s an important change because it reflects the differences between the book and film as a whole.

From that point on, the film seldom resembles the book. Again, that in itself isn’t a bad thing (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of my favorite films, is vastly different than the book it’s based on, and is all the better for it). But the change ends up robbing the film of its magic and wonder.

As soon as the film’s version of Suliman is introduced and the Witch’s role in the story is demoted, the film becomes all about the war at hand. Howl reluctantly fights battles at night (despite never officially joining the king’s army), we see towns going up in flames from bombings, and we are repeatedly told over and over again about the horrors of war, and how unnecessary the war in the film is.

Now, any Miyazaki fan knows what the acclaimed director was going for with this change. Miyazaki is a noted pacifist, it was really only a matter a time before he made a movie whose main theme was an anti-war one, and he made no secret of his disdain for the Iraq War (he famously skipped the Oscar ceremony where Spirited Away won for Best Animated Feature out of protest). I certainly can’t blame Miyazaki for incorporating something he feels so strongly about into one of his movies. But there’s a time and place for things, and while the film’s 2004 release may have seemed like the time, Howl’s Moving Castle just wasn’t the place for such an anti-war theme.

It just makes the film feel disjointed. This is a fairy tale that’s supposed to be about a girl being transformed into an old hag, and how she ends up changing a self-centered wizard for the better. But then it pulls a 180 and becomes all about the travesties of war. Again, I don’t fault Miyazaki for making an anti-war movie (in fact I’m inclined to agree with him), but everything that makes Howl’s Moving Castle feel special is dashed by its sudden tonal shift. The film even seems to forget about its original premise, with Sophie inexplicably becoming young again by the end, before she even frees Howl and Calcifer from their contract. The story becomes so engrossed in the war aspect that the main plot fades into the background, before it’s abruptly resolved out of seemingly nowhere.

One of Miyazaki’s previous films, Porco Rosso, was set between both World Wars, and has a much subtler yet far more affective anti-war stance. And Miyazaki’s later film, The Wind Rises, a biopic about Jiro Horikoshi – an actual, real-life designer of warplanes during WWII – isn’t as focused on war as Howl’s Moving Castle, and that film had a much more appropriate opportunity to be. Yet it’s Howl’s Moving Castle, a wondrous fairy tale set in a fantasy world filled with eccentric character likes Calcifer and Howl himself, that Miyazaki saw fit to turn into his most overt ant-war picture. And it just doesn’t mesh.

Now, the book isn’t perfect, either. It’s a wonderful read, filled with unforgettable characters and humor (in fact, the book was my introduction to the idea of comical fantasy in literature outside of parody). But the book does keep too many loose plot threads up until the very last chapter, which resolves so much in such quick succession I wonder if Diana Wynne Jones had reached the eleventh hour of a deadline (it’s not that the events of the final chapter are bad, just that they should have been more spread out, but instead feel rushed. Basically it’s like the final episode of Samurai Jack). And the Witch’s aforementioned plot of making chimeras of people has a motivation that kind of comes out of nowhere, as she wants to use the different pieces of Suliman and the Prince Justin (and plans on topping off her golem with Howl’s head) in order to create what she perceives as a “perfect being” and to appoint him the new king of Ingary, with herself as the queen. Up until the final chapter, the Witch of the Waste seems like a powerful and feared sorceress who doesn’t have any greater agenda, she just uses her power for petty vengeance on people she thinks have wronged her one way or another. So the reveal of the motivation for her plot feels kind of random.

Still, while it may have its flaws, the book at least feels like a concise vision. And Jones excels at explaining the elements of her fantasy world with little exposition, something which Miyazaki usually has down pat as well. But when adapting the book into a film, Miyazaki seemed heavily distracted by the outside world, and it ended up hampering his vision for the film.

Okay, I know I’m sounding incredibly negative here. I repeat that I think Howl’s Moving Castle is an enjoyable movie: it’s fun and imaginative, filled with stunning visuals and a fantastic musical score (courtesy, of course, by Joe Hisaishi, whose work alongside Miyazaki probably makes them the only director/composer duo more wonderful than Spielberg and John Williams). For those who love imaginative worlds, stories and characters, Howl’s Moving Castle provides a unique experience. The problem is that its imagination may be wondrous, but its execution is only adequate, whereas most of Miyazaki’s films tell stories that are as excellent as their ideations. Howl’s Moving Castle could have lived up to Miyazaki’s unrivaled resume of animated classics, had Miyazaki set his thoughts on war to the side and saved them for another day, and instead focused on Sophie and her story.

Now, it’s also no secret that Studio Ghibli’s adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle was originally going to be director Mamoru Hosada’s debut outing for the studio, before he dropped out and Miyazaki stepped out of retirement (again) to take the reigns. Some might argue about the “what if?” scenario had Hosoda directed the film instead. While Hosoda is one of the better anime directors of today, I don’t think he would have done a better job with Howl’s Moving Castle. I’ve enjoyed Hosada’s films, but his movies have a more – for lack of a better word – “anime feel” about them, which I don’t think would have meshed with Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas Miyazaki’s films have a more ethereal fantasy aspect about them, which feels more in tune with literary fantasy like Howl’s Moving Castle (or even the works of Tolkien, of which Miyazaki is a big fan), and less like an “anime movie.”

But that’s why the shortcomings of Howl’s Moving Castle speak so loudly. Reading the novel again, the story of Howl’s Moving Castle may as well have been gift wrapped, topped with a bow, and hand delivered to Miyazaki. It just made so much sense. So for it to be Miyazaki’s weakest film by a wide margin is kind of disheartening.

I love Howl’s Moving Castle, in its own way. But it’s the one Miyazaki feature that, when reflected upon, I can’t help but imagine what could have been had he approached it with the same imaginative purity that made Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke such treasures. Oh, what if?

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Remake/Re-Release

One of the dumbest complaints gamers make (and boy, is that saying something) is how they hate it when publishers “force them to play the same game over and over” in regards to remakes and re-releases. Unless these publishers are villains in a Liam Neeson movie and have taken your loved ones, no one’s forcing you to play anything.

Re-releases and remakes in the video game world exist for a reason: gaming  advances so quickly, that re-releases are a necessary way to preserve them. It’s a very self-absorbed way of looking at things to assume that, just because you’ve played a particular game before means it doesn’t need another release (of course, gamers and shortsighted, self-absorption tend to go hand-in-hand). Movies get home video releases, which continue to be adapted into whatever the latest form of home video is. More popular movies even get theatrical re-issues. Video game technology advances so fast and moves on to the next thing so quickly, the medium needs some way to keep the classics around. Hence, remakes and re-releases.

They exist for the people who may have missed out on them the first time around, but still want to experience them. And they exist for the people who loved them enough the first time around that they want to experience them again. No one’s “forcing” anyone to play anything.

2019 was a pretty strong year for such remakes and re-releases, and though I didn’t get around to playing them all (sorry, I’ll try to eventually), I definitely know which ones stood out to me the most.

 

Winner: Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Remastered

 

One of my favorite handheld games/RPGs, Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story, was also re-released in 2019, and was a strong contender for this award. But I admit I agree with some of the issues fans have with the remake adding more dialogue (making it feel more bloated with words like Super Paper Mario or all the post-Bowser’s Inside Story Mario RPGs), and the new visuals just don’t have the same charm.

Thankfully, the remastered version of one of my other favorite RPGs – Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch – didn’t suffer any such unnecessary changes. It’s the same fun, deep, emotional RPG it was back in 2013, only now with the additional sheen of the PS4 to make the Studio Ghibli provided visuals pop all the more. It’s just a shame that the Switch release of Ni No Kuni was in its original state and not the remaster for some reason (I get that the Switch isn’t the most graphically powerful console, but it seems like it should be able to handle Ni No Kuni, considering some of the other stylized games it houses).

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was my favorite game of 2013, and one of my favorite games of the decade. So to experience it all again – looking better than ever, no less – is nothing short of a treat. Now I just hope that if Ni No Kuni 3 ever happens, that Bandai Namco actually teams up with Studio Ghibli again for the artwork (yeah, they had some of Studio Ghibli’s artists work on Ni No Kuni 2, but it just wasn’t the same).

It’s good to be back in the other world.

 

Runner-up: Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story + Bowser Jr’s Journey

 

Past Winners

2017: Mario Kart 8 Deluxe

2018: Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch Version)

The Cat Returns Review

The Cat Returns was always one of Studio Ghibli’s smaller features. As only the studio’s second animated film not to be directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, The Cat Returns was aiming to be a means to groom a new director for the studio, Hiroyuki Morita. Strangely, The Cat Returns remains Morita’s sole feature film as director. While Morita may not have become the successor to Miyazaki or Takahata, his single feature remains a delightful if small-scale installment in the Studio Ghibli canon.

The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru, a Japanese high school student. She’s shy, quiet, and a bit clumsy, not to mention she tends to be late for class and other events. Basically, she’s the most uneventful student at her school. That is until one day when she saves the life of a cat that’s about to be hit by a truck. This cat turns out to be Prince Lune, the prince of the Cat Kingdom, who begins to speak to Haru and thanks her for her bravery, much to Haru’s astonishment.

That night, a parade of cats – which includes the Cat King himself – visit Haru at her home. They tell her that for her actions, she will be showered with gifts. Though these gifts are more cumbersome than anything, and include boxes of live mice (the cats being unaware of the difference between human and cat diets) as well as planting cattails (which Haru happens to be allergic to) all over her front yard. Things get even weirder for Haru when she learns that the Cat King has decreed that she will marry Prince Lune!

Understandably not wanting to marry a cat, Haru is desperate for a way out of the situation, as the cats seem entirely naive to her objections. Suddenly, Haru hears a mysterious voice that tells her to seek out a “big, white cat,” who will lead her to the “Cat Bureau.” Haru finds the obese feline, a marshmallowy cat named Muta, who guides Haru to the Bureau. There, they meet Baron Humbert von Gekkingen (or simply “The Baron”), a magical cat figurine who comes to life when people seek his help. Soon after meeting the Baron, Haru and Muta are whisked away to the magical world of the Cat Kingdom, with the Baron and his ally Toto – a crow statue who comes to life similar to Baron – giving chase to save Haru from becoming a cat herself.

It sounds like a silly plot, and that’s because it is. But it’s also sweet, charming, and has a bit of heart to it. It has a nice message of being true to yourself, and it’s often hilarious with characters (particularly Muta and the Cat King) and its visual gags.

Of course, being a film made to groom a new director, The Cat Returns is one of Studio Ghibli’s simplest films. It barely exceeds the hour-long mark by ten minutes, and just feels like a much smaller-scale picture than most other Ghibli features. There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Cat Returns, but when compared to the usual standards of Studio Ghibli, it does feel relatively uneventful.

It’s also of note that The Cat Returns was the closest thing Ghibli made to a sequel to one of its feature films. The characters of Muta and the Baron were originally featured in Whispers of the Heart (ironically the studio’s previous attempt at grooming a new filmmaker). Though the stories are largely unrelated, with the popular belief being that The Cat Returns is a story written by the protagonist of Whispers of the Heart, who was an aspiring author. The Cat Returns doesn’t quite match Whisper of the Heart, but it does serve as a fun, quasi-continuation.

Not being a Studio Ghibli masterpiece is hardly a complaint, however, as everything that is here in The Cat Returns is quite charming, and it’s all too easy to be won over by it. The Cat Returns is the kind of movie that’s impossible not to smile at.

Along with the fun and whimsical story and the cute characters, The Cat Returns features some truly stunning animation. Though a Ghibli film having fantastic visuals is stating the obvious, The Cat Returns boasts a unique look for the studio. The Cat Returns looks akin to a Mamoru Hosada film, with simple and clean character designs that are its own. The character movements are smooth and fluid, and every last scene is filled with life and color. The Cat Returns is simply a joy to look at from the very first frame.

Complimenting these visuals is a soundtrack that is somehow both energetic and soothing. It may not rank alongside Joe Hisaishi’s compositions for the best Miyazaki films, but the music by Yuji Nomi is a joy to listen to, and really adds to the film’s dreamlike qualities.

Per the norm, The Cat Returns also features a stellar English dub. Anne Hathaway provides the voice of Haru, and gives the heroine a strong sense of believability and sympathy, while still hitting the right comedic notes when necessary. Cary Elwes voices the Baron, providing all the dapper British charm you could hope for, while the late Peter Boyle adds a good deal of comedy to his portrayal of Muta. And Tim Curry provides the gravely, somewhat lecherous voice of the Cat King. It goes without saying that Tim Curry is brilliant.

The Cat Returns may be a small film by Ghibli’s staggering standards. But it’s an undeniable charmer that will entertain audiences both young and old. It should leave you with a big grin beaming across your face and a warm feeling in your heart by the time the credits roll.

 

7

Ponyo Review

Ponyo (or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, as it’s known in Japan) has always been Hayao Miyazaki’s most misunderstood feature. Though it received strong reviews from critics, fans of the famed Japanese animator often referred to it as Miyazaki’s “weakest film,” due to it being aimed at a younger audience (apparently these people forgot that Miyazaki made his name with films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service). It was even more bizarrely the only Miyazaki-directed feature not to receive a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Academy Awards since that category’s introduction. Ten years later, and Ponyo is only now being more widely recognized for its merits. And while Ponyo may not be as synonymous with Miyazaki’s name in the same way Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro are, it is the strongest of the director’s trilogy of ‘post-Spirited Away’ features.

On paper, Ponyo may sound like Hayao Miyazaki’s most straightforward film: it tells the tale of a young boy named Sosuke, who finds a magical goldfish whom he names Ponyo (her ‘real name’ being Brunhilde). The two form a bond, with Ponyo defying her wizard father Fujimoto and transforming into a human girl to be with Sosuke.

A synopsis such as that might imply that Ponyo is simply a Japanese version of The Little Mermaid, but its execution makes it something more complex: Ponyo is described as a goldfish, but has a human-like face and a dress-like tail fin, and she becomes human after tasting Sosuke’s blood (by licking a cut on his finger to heal it) and tampering with one of her father’s magic wells. We also learn that, by becoming human, Ponyo breaks the laws of nature, and her transformation sends reality out of whack. The moon falls closer to Earth, leading the ocean to rise and satellites to fall from the skies, ancient fish come back to life, and tsunamis turn Sosuke’s world upside down. This all leads to a series of adventures between Ponyo, Sosuke, and Sosuke’s mother Lisa. All the while, Fujimoto – the closest thing the film has to an antagonist – tries to separate Ponyo from Sosuke to set things back to the way they were, while Ponyo’s mother, the goddess of the seas, more calmly tries to find a way to fix nature while not interfering with Ponyo and Sosuke’s relationship.

It is undoubtedly Miyazaki’s weirdest film, but it’s impossibly charming and sweet, and its imagination is seemingly infinite. While its immediate predecessor Howl’s Moving Castle’s weirdness often came at the expense of a consistently solid narrative, Ponyo’s story benefits from its surrealism and absurdities. Howl featured a strange tonal shift midway through, surrendering its fairy tale plot in favor of an anti-war narrative, ultimately feeling like two different, clashing stories. Meanwhile, Ponyo is a children’s adventure, and is running on “child logic.” As delightfully weird and surreal as Ponyo gets, it all feels like one cohesive whole with its imagination. The weirdness enhances the flow of the story, as opposed to clashing with it in the way Howl did.

It’s that childlike wonderment that is Ponyo’s biggest strength. It is impossible not to smile when watching the film. Like Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, there’s a gentleness and sensitivity to Ponyo that’s unique to Miyazaki’s features. While many animated films feature one scene of hustle and bustle after another to hold the attention of younger audiences, Ponyo trusts that children are capable of following a less hectic plot and can appreciate a good story. And though Ponyo’s story is smaller than something like Princess Mononoke, it shares a similar scope to Miyazaki’s more dramatic works, making for an interesting combination of simplicity and complexity.

The characters here are among Miyazaki’s most memorable: Ponyo’s naivety makes her as humorous as she is cute, and Sosuke’s determination makes him an easy hero to root for. Lisa is head-strong and independent, and Fujimoto is an eccentric who looks suspiciously like David Bowie. They may not be Miyazaki’s most complex characters (though Fujimoto continues the rich Miyazaki archetype of a “villain who isn’t really a villain”), but they’re possibly his most charming sans Totoro.

Speaking of My Neighbor Totoro, that is the comparison people always seem to make with Ponyo and Miyazaki’s older catalogue, since both share a  more childlike narrative. And I suppose if there is one area in which Ponyo does fall relatively short, it’s that it doesn’t quite match up to its inevitable comparison. For all its charm and lovability (Ponyo equals Totoro in those departments) it doesn’t match its predecessor’s depth. The drama of Ponyo is almost exclusively fantasy, whereas Totoro’s dilemmas evoke a sense of relatability that is almost unheard of in fantasy films.

Still, if the big issue with Ponyo is simply that it isn’t quite as good as arguably Miyazaki’s most cherished film – which it shares elements with – I’d say that doesn’t exactly equate to a major flaw. If Ponyo served as a return to form for Miyazaki after the confused Howl’s Moving Castle, is it really much of a complaint if it isn’t quite Totoro or Spirited Away?

“Ponyo’s insatiable love of ham is a recurring dose of adorableness.”

While Ponyo may not match the depth of Miyazaki’s best work, it is among the acclaimed director’s most entertaining features. Its utter adorableness should have you smiling from ear to ear, and as mentioned, the weirdness adds a good dose of comedy to the equation, and packs on to the film’s charm. The story unfolds both beautifully and uniquely.

Disney was once again responsible for the dubbing, as they had been for most Miyazaki features to this point, and the dub of Ponyo is another winner, perhaps surprisingly so. While Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas – younger siblings of Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers – may have seemed like gimmicky casting as Ponyo and Sosuke on Disney’s part (given the dub was released in 2009, when Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers were still a thing), their voices ended up fitting the characters nicely. Tina Fey served as the English voice of Lisa, while Liam Neeson voiced Fujimoto and Cate Blanchett voiced Ponyo’s mother Gran Mamare. Getting such actors not only showed how much care Disney put into the dubbing, but their performances have helped the dub age gracefully. Perhaps the only downside is that the adorable end-credits song has a pop-y remixed second verse, which seems really out of place.

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are known for their stunning animation, and Ponyo is certainly no exception. In fact, in many ways, it may be Miyazaki’s most visually ambitious film. There’s a fluidity of movement at play that is close to unrivaled in hand-drawn features. Also of note is that the film seems to occasionally simplify its art direction, while never sacrificing the hard work and effort that went into the animation itself. Ponyo subtly changes its style from time to time, and combined with its settings both on land and the world under the sea, as well as its penchant of characters rapidly changing shapes, Ponyo is an absolute marvel of visuals. Fittingly, it was probably the most impressive hand-drawn animation since Spirited Away.

Complimenting these visuals is one of the best musical scores of any Miyazaki feature. Per the norm for the director, Ponyo’s score was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who created one of his strongest soundtracks here. The music of Ponyo captures an ethereal quality similar to that of the visuals, which perfectly compliments the story at play. Ponyo, almost secretly, boasted one of the best musical scores of any animated film of its time.

Sadly, that “secret” quality seems to speak for Ponyo as a whole. Despite its many merits and acclaim, Ponyo never quite reached the same heights in legacy as many of the Miyazaki-directed films that preceded it. Only now, a decade after its initial release, is Ponyo starting to get its due. Admittedly, Miyazaki’s resume does feature some giants of the animation medium that are hard to live up to, but Ponyo always did live up to that legacy, albeit a bit differently than you’d expect. It may not have attempted the same thematic depth of some of the director’s films, but it was something of an avant garde for animation, presenting a narrative that seems comprised of one idea after another that could only exist in its medium. And it does it all while being as fun and adorable as it can be.

Ponyo has lived in the shadows of Miyazaki’s other films for far too long. While it may not be the director’s best work, it has always, in its own way, deserved to sit right alongside them.

 

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Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review

A kingdom reborn…

The original Ni No Kuni, Wrath of the White Witch, is not only one of my favourite games on what is arguably my favourite Sony console, but it is arguably the greatest modern JRPG in recent memory – ranking meteorically high amongst the small repertoire of contemporary greats. With its brilliantly realized world – complimented with gorgeously animated sequences produced by the masterful Studio Ghibli –, an exquisite musical score co-composed by the brilliant Joe Hisaishi, a Tales meets Pokémon battle system, and a surprisingly poignant narrative that resonates on multiple accords, Wrath of the White Witch is a rare treat of an RPG that never fails to impress. Its sequel, Revenant Kingdom, takes a number of steps forward -establishing some new ideas while polishing the original’s foundation – but questionably stumbles in other areas, arguably taking a few steps backwards. Studio Ghibli’s involvement is objectively non-existent, exposition is divulged in extensive text-based dialogue sequences, the intuitive hybrid active/turn-based system is entirely replaced by a simplistic, yet fun, action-based combat system, and its narrative is disappointingly shallow in comparison to the original’s emotional brilliance. Despite its disappointing nature, Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is an undeniably fun experience that is exceptionally beautiful and surprisingly engaging. Revenant Kingdom never reaches the resonating heights of its predecessor but manages to establish an aura of its own, thanks to its fantastic world-building and unexpected level of gameplay variance.

Continue reading “Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom Review”

RIP Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata, one of the world’s premiere animation filmmakers, has passed away at the age of 82.

Together with his protegé Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata served as co-founder of Studio Ghibli, which quickly became one of the world’s leading forces in animated cinema, inspiring other filmmakers across the world. Takahata personally directed five features for the studio, starting with Grave of the Fireflies, widely regarded as a masterpiece in the medium, and well known for being one of the most emotional impactful films ever made. From there, Takahata would direct Only Yesterday, a romantic drama that continued Ghibli’s trend of proving animated films can tell stories for any audience, not just children.

Takahata would later direct the ecological fairy tale Pom Poko, followed by the family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. After Yamadas, Takahata would enter something of an unofficial retirement, which he would come out of for one final feature with 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, which it really, really should have won).

Isao Takahata’s career didn’t start with Ghibli, however, as he had been making animated features and directing TV episodes since the 1960s, including Chie the Brat and Panda! Go Panda!. Once he and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, Takahata personal produced Miyazaki’s earlier features.

Takahata’s films are well known for their emotional strengths, as well as for how distinct as each individual film is from the others. Like Miyazaki, Isao Takahata boasted a unique versatility in his handling of different materials, giving each one of his films an identity all their own. His films were (relatively) more “slice-of-life” than Miyazaki’s fantasies, but were no less magical. Isao Takahata’s films had a unique way of speaking to the child (and adult) in all of us.

The worlds of animation and cinema will never be the same without Isao Takahata, and already the world seems less magical. Rest in peace, Isao Takahata.

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.

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

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 films. 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.

 

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