Posts Tagged ‘Anime’

Satoshi Kon’s Last Words

August 28, 2010

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the sad, sad news of Satoshi Kon‘s passing. Kon-san was one of the greatest Anime directors in the world. He worked for the Anime production company Madhouse. Before he died, he composed a farewell letter meant for his blog as a way of saying thank you and actually explaining himself, as if anyone would demand such a thing! His family has posthumously published the letter. I came across it today in a translation by another blogger.

Before giving the link, I’d like to give a warning that if you have no particular interest in the director, or feel that the subject matter is too morbid, don’t press the link! In the post Satoshi Kon writes about how suddenly the cancer developed, about his wish to die at home rather than in a hospital and shares some of his thoughts about leaving his family. The reason I write this post is that while of course the letter is sad, it is not sentimental, and Kon-san himself meant for this to be published. He ends the letter with these lines:

“So, to everyone who stuck with me through this long document, thank you. With my heart full of gratitude for everything good in the world, I’ll put down my pen.

Now excuse me, I have to go”.

The letter is also interesting as it gives us an insight in not only Kon-san’s mindset, but perhaps also what for me seems a wider Japanese mentality, although I’m hesitant to generalize. I perceive a profound sense of duty and also shame not to live long enough to fullfill that duty. When his mother sees him for the last time, she asks his forgiveness “for not bringing you into this world with a stronger body”. But enough of me. The letter can be found here. And I’ll cease my comments now.

On a brighter side, Kon-san also left a list of his 150 favourite films, or films that had influenced him. It is a good list. Of course, I don’t agree with all the choices, but it is nice to see his love of John Ford, Frank Capra, Billy Wilder and quite some cult films. Of Japanese directors, he mentions of course Akira Kurosawa and Yasuhiro Ozu, but also Shohei Imamura and Kon Ichikawa are represented, to mention some. Anyway, the list can be found on the same blog as his letter, in this post.

Satoshi Kon; A Sad day for Anime and Film.

August 25, 2010

This was to be my fourth entry in my summer reading section, but right now I don’t feel like writing it. Today has brought some very sad news indeed, as I have just learnt that one of my absolute favourite film makers has passed away.

The work Satoshi Kon leaves behind, while not immense, is so impressive that we must rage against his passing, for the world is a poorer place now. While I am uncomfortable eulogising someone known, as if saying that this person deserves more than the next man, I can’t help but give Kon-san some words now. He has through his art arrested my attention for countless hours, and in consequence made my life richer, better. I am grateful to him.

I am sure that Satoshi Kon himself would be bothered by too much attention on his person. From all the interviews I’ve seen and read with him, I’ve perceived him as a modest man, downplaying his own importance and achievements. I’ve watched the commentary-tracks to all his films. There he always focused on his collaborators, never drawing attention to himself or his own role.
The field of Anime, in which Kon-san made his art, is extremely stressful. Fifteen hour work days is almost the norm. For the talented, there is better money and working conditions in other pastures. As a consequence there are fewer professionals working actively in Anime than ever. The shows produced are often cheap TV-productions without any artistic merit, and it is difficult to find capable Anime directors under the age of fifty.

A brief example: In 1994, Hayao Miyazaki finally found someone younger to groom for directorial work in his Studio Ghibli, planning for him to take over as the head director of Ghibli films. He chose Yoshifumi Kondo, then 44 years of age. Kondo-san made one very good film, Whisper of the Heart, before passing away at the age of 47. The reason was said to be work excess, causing Miyazaki to announce his own retirement from the field, a threat he luckily didn’t follow up on.

Still, even with financial problems and a scarcity of talent, the Japanese Anime field manages to produce some of the best cinematic art in the world.

Satoshi Kon made his directorial debut in 1997 with the thriller Perfect Blue. It is the only of his films which he didn’t write himself, but that he is not given a writing credit might as well be a result of his modesty. A word like Hitchcockian was often used in contemporary reviews of the film, but like all stock phrases, it is used altogether too often.

Perfect Blue is not a perfect film, the animation is at times crude, but where the film shines is in the direction, the choices of angles and building of suspense. I detect more of David Lynch in the film than Hitchcock. The way the female protagonist sacrifices personal dignity for what she thinks is her art, to make it as a film star, is at times reminiscent of Lynches later Inland Empire. The fusion of dreams and reality, the dissolution of the borders between the waking world and one’s subconscious, is also very much Lynchian. In many of his films, it is clear that Kon-san was influenced by the American director, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Lynch was inspired by Satoshi Kon in return.
My first experience with Satoshi Kon was through what I still consider his absolute masterpiece, Millennium Actress from 2002. It is impossible to give justice to the film by any mere description. A TV interviewer who is a big fan of a classic Japanese film actress visits the actress in her later age. It has been some thirty years since she withdrew from the silver screen, but now her old movie studio has been torn down. The journalist comes to give her back a key once given her as a teenager by a young revolutionary. As she tells the tale of how she came to possess the key in the first place, and later spent her life looking for the young man who had given it to her, her story comes alive for the journalist and for us. This gives Kon-san the opportunity to jump between realities and genres.
It also gives him a marvellous opportunity to show us glimpses of Japanese cinema history. At one moment the eponymous actress is in a Jidaigeki film, for example something by Kenji Mizoguchi, the next in a Chanbara, like a Samurai drama by Kurosawa, then in a science fiction film or in a Gendaigeki, or Shomingeki, like a contemporary Ozu-film. At the time I first watched the film I wasn’t all that familiar with these different genres, but that is not a requisite to appreciate the film, not at all. I’ve later rewatched it many times, and I always find something new there, something I hadn’t noticed before.

Let me stress in case someone would think this film is only for the specially interested, that first and foremost Millennium Actress is a great work of cinema, period. Anyone should be able to find something to enjoy here. This was incidentally the first film in which Kon-san collaborated with Susumu Hirasawa, who has made the sound tracks to all his best films. It is hard to overstate the importance of Hirasawa-san’s contributions.

Millennium Actress works on many levels, all of them worthwhile. It is a love story in more ways than one. It is at times tragic, but often very funny; it has adventure, but dares to dwell on serious matters. The film also does more for female empowerment than any feminist tract could ever hope for. It can be heartbreaking in one moment, only for the viewer to be thunderstruck by its inventiveness in the next, followed by a heartfelt laugh. Most of all, it is a great example of what the medium is capable of.
His next film was the well received Tokyo Godfathers. It is by far his most conventional film, with few of the jumps between realities that has been one of his stylistic and thematic main concerns. It takes its title and initial idea from the 1948 John Ford film 3 Godfathers. The Godfathers of Kon’s film are outsiders, to say the least: a young runaway girl, a transvestite and a former professional cyclist turned hobo. They find a baby in the trash as they scrounge for food, and decide to track down its parents. This is very much like one of those classic Hollywood films where everything can happen on a Christmas Eve, as long as it all turns out well in the end. I could well see Frank Capra concoct something like this, and that I mean as high praise indeed. The animation is just beautiful, the characters extremely well written. This is the closest Kon-san has come to making a true family film, and indeed it can stand proudly with the best of them.
Immediately after Tokyo Godfathers, Kon-san began working on perhaps his most ambitious project: a TV series of 13 episodes called Paranoia Agent. Again, it is almost impossible to give a concise description of what it is about. In some ways, this is Kon-san’s Twin Peaks, but without the filler epsiodes of that series. The use of some genuinely weird characters, and especially how they are made to grin maniacally from ear to ear at the opening credits of each episode, is pure Lynch. Paranoia Agent, though, wants much more than anything Lynch has made. It is at one time an attempt to define the Japanese psyche, at another an examination of the power of the media. It shows how stories begin and how they are changed into myth and legend, and thus changing reality itself, making reality just another story among many.

Needless to say, this is ambitious stuff, but Kon-san never makes the series into a mental exercise, focusing instead on simple human stories within the larger picture he draws for us bit by bit through the various episodes. Writing this now, I feel I must watch the series again, even though it is only a couple of months since I saw the last episode. Paranoia Agent manages to be a collection of short stories that turn out to be chapters of a novel. Each story is excellent, the novel very satisfying. Again it is Susumu Hirasawa who makes the music, giving the episodes his inimitable stamp. The full fruition of their collaboration comes first with their next film: Paprika.

Paprika, made in 2006, so unfortunately turned out to be Satoshi Kon’s last film. I say unfortunately, not because the film is bad, on the contrary, it is an unmitigated masterpiece. Rather, it shows us what Kon-san was capable of, his rich imagination and understanding of how to tell a very difficult narrative in an immediately understandable way. Without Paprika, I doubt that Christopher Nolan’s current worldwide hit Inception would have been made.
Paprika is again about different realities, about the relationship between dreams and reality. Here as well, the seriousness is offset by generous amounts of humour, which has been a trademark of Kon-san in all his films except Perfect Blue. Paprika is the character the heroine Chiba Atsuka becomes as she enters the dreams of others. She works for an agency specialising in a form of dream therapy that they perform by enabling her to enter other people’s dreams. There is a ghost in the machine, however, and soon the dreaming world, unbridled imagination, enters the waking world with potentially catastrophic consequences.

While one can detect inspiration from Lynch and Philip K. Dick in the narrative, the execution of the story is all Satoshi Kon. This must have been a labour of love for him, in which he could inject all the elements only hinted at in his earlier animation, and make a kind of hyper-Satoshi Kon film.

As an example of how well his collaboration with Susumu Hirasawa could be, one should check out the first parade of the dream creatures with its myriad of inhuman participants. While they walk merrily towards reality’s border, Hirasawa-san accompanies them with a nonsensical but highly addictive marching tune that seems absolutely perfect for the action taking place. It would be a fitting tune to play now, as Satoshi Kon is himself marching from this reality towards the big sleep, perchance to dream. If anyone will, it is him.

At times like this, I often think of Laurie Anderson’s words in the song World Without End: “When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”

Satoshi Kon loved film and film history. He had an innate understanding of the particular art of Anime, and how anime can do things live action can not. In this art he excelled. He passed away some hours ago. He was 46 years.

Studio Ghibli Part 3: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

April 8, 2009

Two years after the release of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki-san began his first and so far only manga: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. By 1984, he had finished the first two volumes and wrote a script for a feature length anime based on these volumes. The full story of the manga was completed in 1992, so – needless to say – the film is very much an abridged version of a longer work. That is not to say that the film is not complete unto itself.

nausicaa2coverAfter having completed his script, Miyazaki-san took the directing reins himself and the rest, as they say, is history. For the first time the master was able to write a story from scratch with his own characters and one has to marvel at how his directing abilities had blossomed in the four years that had passed since his last directorial venture. (In the meantime, he had, together with Isao Takahata, tried his luck in the US through the co-production of a film called Little Nemo. However, the Japanese delegation pretty much abandoned ship because of the differences between the two countries in how to produce a movie – and not least, what the movie should actually be about).

This is the first film that really has the full “Miyazaki-touch”. It’s both an ecological fable, an anti-war film and a grand adventure story. It features a complicated heroine, Nausicaa, who is no damsel in distress, to put it mildly. More than that, the villain of the piece is hardly a villain at all, not in the one dimensional way, at least. She as well is female, and one has to admire Miyazaki-san’s belief that the audience of a predominantly male genre will accept a story in which both the protagonists (and antagonists?) are female – and as far from bimbos as one can possibly get. While the feminism of Miyazaki-san’s stories stem in part from a much stronger tradition in Japan of granting females roles as strong – and often headstrong – characters, I think that his consistent use of female protagonists in his films also points to his societal concerns.

Also, I suspect that he wishes to erase the sometimes artificial borders that the Japanese put up between different forms of manga/anime. Shonen, for example, is supposed to be manga stories that appeal to the typical young boy, with space crafts and robots; s/f-motifs and general adventure stories. Shojo is meant for girls and young women, featuring romance stories, female super heroines or depictions of girls working together (such a group is called sentai, with military connotations). Bishojo are comics that feature pretty single girls, as far as I can understand, while seinen is meant for boys or young men too old to read the shonen. I could go on, but you get the point.

nausicaa-on-a-hillThus, a part of Miyazaki-san’s project seems to be to move past the separation of comics – or films – meant for only boys or only girls, but also to move past the barriers around what these films can depict. While this can initially seem strange for a westerner, as we don’t have these barriers as pronounced in our culture, I’ll venture that they still exist, we only haven’t been smart or calculated enough to put names to them. Well, that is not entirely true. The media has long since coined terms like “chick-flicks” and most recently, in desperation I suppose, “Dick-Flicks”; about stories of platonic male romances. This, though, has more to do with marketing and the decline of the Western civilization, and is thus slightly too wide a topic to cover in this post.

Of course, the problem with western films is that they are pretty much all shonen or shojo, with the majority by far being the former. (Although, as I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, for every 300 or The Dark Knight, we now increasingly seem to have a Sex and the City and Confessions of a Shopaholic. The problem with this has less to do with making genre films predominantly for only one sex, but the quality of the product and the depiction of women in the “women‘s films“).

But I digress. Miyazaki-san consistently uses young girls as his protagonists, and intermittently women as the antagonists. As a man, I’ve never cared one way or the other while watching the films, meaning I’ve never had any problems identifying with the plight of the characters, their desires or joy of life, their ways of acting in the world they inhabit. And, while this may put into question my manhood, I think that’s a part of the reason he has done so. (Not to put my manhood into question, but to create stories that go beyond sexually grounded consumerist definitions).

He is showing us by example of his stories that separations between the sexes, as well as between groups of people, are artificial and easily overcome by all that we have in common. The real enemy is lack of imagination and what causes said lack. Work is such an antagonist, if work is not heartfelt, if it is not based on something one enjoys. Certainly, the capitalist system is questioned, both as an alienating force which removes us from a sense of ourselves, but also as a downright destructive force that is eating away at the ground beneath our feet; our connection to the earth, and thus to where we come from. Often the steps to adulthood is seen as a crisis for his characters, and his films celebrate a more natural state in us, something that made us more human before we became human in society’s definition. Innocence, another word for nature, is grieved with its passing, not with fey sentimentalism, but by showing us the consequences of a world too grown up to see whence it grew.

frederick-leighton-nausicaaI’ll try to be more concrete, and I’ll begin by returning to the film at hand. Miyazaki-san has surely taken the name Nausicaa from the character in The Odyssey. A young girl, wiser than her father, introduces Odysseus (Ulysses to some of you) into her society through the help of her mother. While she clearly has love for Odysseus, the relationship is never made sexual. Also, Miyazaki-san mentioned in an essay that he was inspired by the “Princess Who Loved Insects“. This is a Japanese story that takes place in the Heian period. The story revolves around a young princess who prefers to study insects and other creatures rather than finding herself a husband. In the essay he very much hints that his Nausicaa is an amalgamation of the two.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a post-apocalyptic tale that takes place some 1000 years from now. Large parts of the Earth is uninhabitable, as the land has been made toxic by “the sea of decay”. What we see of the human world is mostly primitive, with different states having access to different kinds of technology – of differing sophistication. The states seem to be ruled after a monarchical/ feudal model. We don’t know how the world came to be this way.

We first encounter the young heroine as she is out in the wilderness, exploring the “sea of decay”, collecting samples and traversing the overgrown remains of some former civilization, now almost undistinguishable from the seemingly chemically ravaged nature. Upon returning on her “glider”, a flying apparatus that she controls to perfection, she comes across an “Ohmu”, which we learn is one of the more intelligent creatures to have evolved from the wastelands. It is very fast when it wants to and is armoured and looks like a gigantic caterpillar. Nausicaa seems to have a knack for communicating with the Ohmu.

nausicaa25zcThe film is actually very plot-heavy, so I’ll limit myself to some introductory remarks. Back home in her village, or “The Valley of the Wind” of the title, we see her at work, experimenting with growing plants picked in the contaminated areas. Her findings lead her to believe that only the top soil of the wastelands is contaminated, and that by letting the insects (nature) do their work, the world can again be inhabitable. While at heart a pacifist, she is also a warrior princess and when her father is killed by the invading Tolmekians, she goes on a rampage and kills a large number of the enemy before being overtaken. This dichotomy in her character lifts her above clichéd and Disneyfied portrayals of young females. (Although Mulan is perhaps an exception from the Disney norm of the last 40 years).

The leader of the Tolmekians turns out to be a woman, Princess Kushana, who is like a dark grown up twin, or a version of someone Nausicaa could turn out to be if she didn’t have her love for nature to ground her. It turns out that the Tolmekians are there to secure a weapon of mass destruction that ended up in the valley by accident, namely the embryo of an ancient giant warrior. Their plan is to grow the embryo into full size and use it to destroy the sea of decay. Thus, two perspectives arise; that of Nausicaa, who wants to give nature a chance to fix itself if humanity leaves it well enough alone, and Kushana, who wants to fight fire with fire, so to say, to impose her own will on nature under the guise of wanting to restore it. Nausicaa’s approach is accepting, penitent and almost Buddhist in its non-confrontational way. Kushana’s way out of the human-made disaster is very human in its belief that humanity can restore what it has destroyed, the irony being that it must do so through further destruction.

nausicaa3In a sense, both of the characters do what they believe is best, not necessarily for themselves, but for humanity. As a consequence, it is hard to view Kushana as a villain, and she is certainly not a one-note bad guy. Both of them want to see nature restored, but they differ in their view of what place humanity should have in the restoration as well as in nature itself.

The ecological theme of the film is just one aspect of it, but it is the one that informs all the other elements that the film entails. Narrative doubles such as war and pacifism, love and duty, religion and myth are all given attention, but are very much connected to – and perhaps subservient to – the overriding views on Nature. An example is Miyazaki-san’s handling of Nausicaa as a messianic figure. While she certainly has elements of the christian and redeeming Christ, it is treated here more like a fulfilment of a mythical prophecy. Through Nausicaa’s bond with the Ohmu and the rest of the entomology of the “sea of decay“, she gets a kind of vision of what the earth itself needs. When she sacrifices herself, it is not to save humanity, but in service of a nature that is complex, in that it is partly already contaminated – much like the church’s view of humanity itself, one might interject – and seen as at least as important as the people populating Earth. (By the way, I am not giving away the ending here!)

nausicaa2There are so many things I could say about the film, but I fear it would ruin the appreciation for the first time viewer, so I’ll stop myself here. A danger of offering interpretations of films, is that it will make them seem more clear cut and boring than they are. Let me assure you, that this film is anything but boring. Even if you don’t care an iota or an inch or at all about the above, it is perfectly possible to view the film for its imagery, the unbridled joy of soaring above the fields on quiet wings, or for the adventure of it all – a princess defending her people in times of war – or its high quality animation; in short, for telling a better story than you are likely to see this or pretty much any year.

Studio Ghibli Part 2: the 70s

March 6, 2009

230px-pandagopanda_dvdAs we recall from last post, the underwhelming sales of Horus, Prince of the Sun, forced Isao Takahata to look for other companies in order to continue directing. Miyazaki-san stayed for a year or so more at Toei, but in 1971 left to co-direct with Takahata-san the bulk of episodes of the action/adventure series Lupin III. After this, he wrote – together with his wife – the two shorts that constitute Panda! Go, Panda! These shorts were directed by Takahata-san as well, while Miyazaki-san served as animator and chief-designer on the project. (Evidently there was a bit of a panda-craze in Japan – and the rest of the world – at the time, as China had just begun to lend out their national animals to foreign zoos).

By now, it must have been pretty clear that the two animators were a hell of a team. The biggest project they participated on during the 70s, is probably what is called World Masterpiece Theatre, a production of Nippon Animation. The concept was to take famous works of children’s literature and to tell the stories as fully as the television format allowed. With the possibility to make series into 20 or 30 episodes, Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san sharpened their knack for being able to extract true and recognizable moments from their characters. If a situation required time and reflection, the anime-team let the action slow down, introducing everyday moments in a genre that so often had – and at times still has – an inbuilt resistance to rest and inactivity.

heidi_dvd_1Very often the works of this period focuses on nature and the relationship between children and nature. Often the protagonists are girls, as in Heidi, Girl of the Alps (which technically was a precursor to Nippon Animations Masterpiece-series) and Anne of Green Gables. (Miyazaki tried to get the rights to Pippi Longstocking and even flew to Sweden to meet Astrid Lindgren, but to no avail. Not the Swedish author’s best decision…) It is clear that these early works are, to a larger degree than what was to be Studio Ghibli’s own films, meant as children’s entertainment If there is a darker undercurrent in these series, it is well hidden. Mostly the problems facing the protagonists have to do with the grown up’s inability to understand the children’s needs and how they perceive the world, usually because they have become alienated from nature and the natural world.

anime-001Of course, seeing as these series are based on literary works, most of or part of the narrative is taken from the books. But the different series almost all feel as if they are made by the same intelligence, so to say. The animation, clearly, is similar from series to series, but more than that, I find the themes and ways of presenting the world is very similar as well. This signifies -at least to me- that the directors are pursuing a definite project that actually means something to them. And, certainly, while I can easily sit through six hours of a simple peasant girl running around the alps as long as Heidi is directed by Takahata-san, I have found all other versions of the story pretty near unbearable to watch. This as well leads me to believe that there is an undeniable quality present in these series, and that Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san are pretty much incapable of making anything thoroughly uninteresting, no matter the age of the viewer.

conanAnother work Miyazaki-san did for Nippon Animation is Future Boy Conan from 1978. Here Miyazaki-san himself directed the bulk of the episodes, maybe giving him the confidence to make his first feature length animated film the year after. This series, by the way, was for some reason an enormous success in Yemen. Or so I am informed.

Thus, after quite a long apprenticeship, mostly under – or in collaboration with -Takahata-san, Miyazaki was finally given the opportunity to undertake a full-length project as director. The Castle of Cagliostro is a feature film of the Lupin III hero that Miyazaki-san had directed intermittently before in its TV-series incarnations. Here we see the Miyazaki-touch in pretty near full bloom. While the film is more violent and cynical than most of his later works, he uses his eye for directing tremendous set pieces while at the same time balancing the action with an almost archaeological interest in the natural earth his characters inhabit.

cagliostro_450The Castle of Cagliostro was voted 5th place on a list that Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs published in 2007 of Best Anime. While such a list is not terribly interesting in itself, I note that Cagliostro had to see itself beaten by two other Miyazaki-films, which gives an indication of his popularity in Japan.

The film is also famous for Steven Spielberg’s praise of an initial car chase scene (The best ever filmed!). And quite rightly so, as we can see homages to Cagliostro’s car chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, released a year after, as well as in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But the film is much more than the action, impressive as that is. Miyazaki-san at times goes for a kind of hyper-exaggeration in the characters, almost Bugs Bunny-like, but while this only contributes to a feel of overall fun, when the characters need to be serious or act in pivotal scenes, the animation is much more down to earth, for lack of a better phrase.

lThe plot of the film is perhaps not that important. Lupin is a kind of Mediterranean hero of the kind Jean Paul Belmondo so often inhabited (see: That Man From Rio). In the TV-series he had been rather rash and cynical, with few redeeming qualities. Now he is, as he says, no longer as stupid as he was in his younger days, meaning in the TV-series. Thus, the film at times dares to slow down to reflect this, and our rascal-hero even falls in love with the lovely Clarissa, whose bloodline holds the key to the mystery/treasure of the Cagliostros. While the plot initially seems decidedly whimsical, a more serious undertone gradually creeps into the film, making us care what happens. There is love in this film, both visible in the directorial touches, but not least in the film’s love of history and of telling a thoroughly entertaining yarn or two.

castle_of_cagliostro_the_1980_685x385On the way to the resolution, we can marvel at Miyazaki-san’s designs of aeroplanes – or baroque machines that somehow can fly, I should say – and architecture (houses and castles all seem as if they have a history, and as if the history is about to win; with cracks and wild growing vegetation trying to take over the stone world that Man has built) and his mastery of showing people and objects in motion, giving the animated cells a kind of kinetic dirty energy that has lacked in Disney films since uncle Walt left us. I shall not reveal here how the film ends, just say that the Castle of Cagliostro holds a treasure in its foundations, but it is not for one man only, and that is my kind of treasure. (At least the days I feel more benevolent and magnanimous and all around a better person than is my habit).

Oh, and I must not forget to mention the creepiest assassins in memory, animated or not!

Studio Ghibli Part 1

February 28, 2009

image147The first film I ever watched on DVD was the Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s magically excellent Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) back in 2001 (pardon the slight hyperbole!). This was also the first film I watched by Studio Ghibli, a Japanese anime studio that was formed in 1985 with Miyasaki-san and his erstwhile mentor Isao Takahata as creative directors. Needless to say I was immediately convinced about the qualities of the new technological medium as well as the studio’s storytelling abilities. I decided, with a fervour I seldom feel, to immediately delve into Ghibli’s back catalogue. It turned out that I had to wait for the Oscar-success of the studio’s next film, Spirited Away, before Disney/Buena Vista, who held the distribution rights outside Japan and the east, saw fit to grant these other films a DVD release. Well, that is yesterday’s snow under the bridge, and let’s not spoil the good mood these films are bound to instil in any human being with a more or less sound mind and soul.

I won’t be recapitulating the entire story of the company’s formation in this post. I wanted, rather, to concentrate on the films themselves, and what makes them so worthwhile entries in the annals of film (you can snigger at the word if you want to…), and I wouldn’t be too surprised if a tentative history of Ghibli’s place in anime will threaten to surface as well. In short, what are the films about, and why are they so much better than pretty much anything any animation studio in the west has produced since Bambi? (The possible exception being, of course, Pixar, a studio that has taken to heart Ghibli’s insistence upon story over spectacle).

horusAs mentioned, the creative force behind Studio Ghibli, consists of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. (I use here the western custom of not putting surnames first). They first collaborated on what has later been called the first modern anime film, Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyo no oji: Horusu no daiboken), in 1968. The film is also known as, among other things, The Little Norse Prince and Hols: Prince of the Sun. Horus was directed by Takahata-san and Miyazaki-san served as “chief animator and concept artist”.

While later seen as a landmark in animation, the film was upon its release a financial failure prompting the two to seek employment elsewhere, to put it carefully. (The Toei Studio only allowed the film a ten day limited release, which goes a way to explain the lack of success). While originally conceived of as a run of the mill-anime, Takahata-san decided to expand the scope of the film both in terms of animation as well as in narrative. As a result the film went over budget, over time, and, according to the producers, all over the place.

The film is the story of Horus, or Hols, depending on which translation/edition one sees, a young boy, who in the film’s very first scene is being attacked by a pack of wolves. It’s an impressive action scene that shows the considerable skill of the director at this early stage in his career. At the end of the fight, Horus is saved by the stone-giant Mogue, out of whose “hide” he manages to pull the “sword of the sun”. He is told that once he manages to reforge the sword, he will be “the prince of the sun”. So far, so Arthur. We learn that his father, who is dying, once escaped the village where they lived because it was under attack by “the demon”, Grunwald. The film then plays out as a classic adventure where the boy will have to “find his way” or “find himself” in order to destroy the evil of the land. On the way he encounters a mysterious girl, Hilda, who, it turns out, holds the key to understand what hold Evil has over the people. The battle within her is mirrored by the battle between Horus and Grunwald; both of them claiming a part of her. In the end it is herself who decides the outcome of both the internal as well as the external battle. While this on the surface is hardly a groundbreaking plot, the real meaning of the story is found in the details as well as in the more complex parts that I allude to above.

a894-12The film was originally meant to be based on the Ainu, an indigenous people of Japan who were persecuted by ancestors of the modern Japanese. For some reason, be it of a commercial or political nature, Toei Studio felt that the film shouldn’t have a Japanese setting. As a result, we are in, I assume because of the title, a Norse settlement. However, with characters called Drago, Hilda and Grunwald, I suspect a kind of pan-European placement, with Germanic sprinklings. The geographical reason for the name Horus – or Hols, which is the pronounced Japanese equivalent – escapes me. Symbolically, though, it’s probably a reference to the Egyptian god Horus. (I mean, how many Horuses are out there?) He is traditionally considered “a protector of the people” and associated with hunting through his sometimes form as a falcon. This is all fitting to the story at hand.

The name of the villain, Grunwald, is also worth a short note. On one hand, it is deeply ironic, signifying “green forest” in German. Grunwald takes the form of Winter and his weapon is snow and ice. His way of destroying the villages is to cover everything green and freezing the land. On the other hand, it might be a reference to the Battle of Grunwald, which was decisive in ending the reign of the Teutonic Knights in Prussia, if memory and Wikipedia serves me. I’m sure interpretative strands can be extracted in this context as well.

The year of the film’s making is also worth a thought. 1968 bears with it many connotations, and while the student protests of Europe and USA were maybe not felt as strongly in Japan, I understand that quite severe unionist disputes were taking place there as well. This can maybe account for the communist tableaus and iconography I noticed a couple of times during the film. The music is also vaguely communist sounding, without me being able to be very clear about this point. (Let me stress that this – communist leanings – is not at all problematic to me!) The protagonist’s main message also seems to be that the people must work together to overcome an evil that has paralyzed them and made them live in fear. As I’ve hinted at, though, the resolution of the film turns out to be a personal, individual resolution as much as a coming together of the people on a macro-level. The interplay between the individual’s concerns and need and the needs of the society to which he and she must belong to, leads us away from uncomplicated dogmas. Maybe the final winner is nature, which awakening and blossoming coincides with the people’s renaissance.

The joys of the film is in its fine action sequences and “unbridled imagination“, as reviewers like to say about films that don’t contain a tenth of the creativity this film has going for it. However, considering the things that were to come from the hands of these anime artists later on, the film is mostly of historical interest as an early intent to utilize the Ghibli touch. Here as well we have benign and evil giants alike, we see the joy of flying and have a complicated female character who turns out to be at least as important in the narrative as the male protagonist. It is only natural that the animation style is not as accomplished as in the works that would appear 15 or 20 years later, but the film is also marred by the studio shutting down production before some key scenes were filmed. While two large-scale attacks on the village (the first by wolves, the second by rats), is presented in still pictures, this does not really harm the film that much. More serious is the fact that Takahata-san had to remove some thirty minutes of the film because of the shut down. As a result, the film can at times seem disjointed and without sufficient resolution of various plot threads. Also, the film is almost burdened with a cutesy side-kick bear cub. I assume this was a demand of the studio, as they probably figured they could sell some cub dolls and earn back its money in merchandise. I say the film is almost burdened with it. Takahata-san gets rid of the talking bear cub immediately after the first scene in which it appears by conveniently having it be separated from Horus. When it returns to the narrative many scenes later, it never achieves a purpose in the film and mostly just lingers in the background. I can imagine the producers were not terribly happy with this handling of their cash-cub.

little_norse_prince_006Anyhow, as they say, this was a brief introduction to the first collaboration between the creative fathers of Studio Ghibli. I chose to begin with this film not only because of its historical significance, but because it was directed by Isao Takahata. When one mentions Ghibli, most people think only of Miyazaki-san. While he undoubtedly is the more famous – and productive – of these two, I’ll try in the coming posts to make a case for the equal importance of Takahata-san. As we get past the seventies and into the eighties and the formation of their studio, I promise that most of the films under discussion will all be not only worthwhile, but indubitable masterworks of Film in general. Sayonara for now!