Posts Tagged ‘Studio Ghibli’

New TV. The New World,New Edition.

August 6, 2010

Well, I have finally bought a new TV, thank God! I’ve been searching for half a year and gather I must have studied every Audiovisual forum known to more or less civilized languages. I couldn’t be happier with my final choice, a Sony LCD that sports better picture quality than sets costing the double of my new friend. Most people seem to want ultra-thin sets, and this is where their money goes. Me, I couldn’t care less whether my set is 3 or 10 centimetres deep, as long as the TV doesn’t turn David Lean into Aaron Spelling.


Anyhow… The first two Bluray films we saw on this 7th wonder of the world, were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The New World. Best to feed the TV some quality films, so it doesn’t pick up bad habits or thinks it can just begin to slack off! I think this was the third or fourth time I watched The New World, and this time in its Extended Edition.

While often just a marketing ploy, in the case of this film, I have to say the extra minutes – each 41 of them – contributed positively to an already very, very good film. Whereas before actions and motivations had to be surmised or guessed at, I felt that with its new running time of almost 3 hours, the film seemed a fuller and even more immersive experience. The director, Terrence Malick, never one to leave the technical aspects of his films to chance, re-edited the film and oversaw every nuance of colour and sound in the new high-def mastering. Do yourself a favour and seek out the new version if you have the means. That last long shot of the tree broke something inside of me. In a good way. If you have paid attention and are not a stranger to yourself, it will break something inside you as well. In a good way.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Malick’s new film is called Tree of Life. It was almost premiering this year in Cannes, but Malick decided last minute that he needed more time with it. This can, of course, mean anything from a couple of weeks more to a couple of years. Malick has only made four films, all of them masterpieces. Needless to say, I’m awaiting Tree of Life with baited breath and a slight fear that perhaps this time I will be disappointed. I never am, though. No, sir. I never am.

Incidentally, while watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it struck me that Snow White never calls her male companions dwarfs, rather Little Men. Political correctness in 1937?  The film itself has no qualms about calling them dwarfs, both in the narration and in its title…

Speaking of BluRays. One of the companies that has not immediately begun to flood the marked with more or less high definition editions of their back catalogue, is Studio Ghibli. Most expected that with the release on BluRay of the studio’s latest film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, the rest of the companies’ titles would follow suit. This hasn’t happened. Disney, who owns the Western distribution rights to Ghibli, has been in frequent contact with the company, requesting titles for the BluRay market. Ghibli, however, seem to take their time, hopefully because they want to protect their many masterpieces from fast and shoddy releases.

Former president of the company and leading producer, Toshio Suzuki, said that he suggested Ghibli’s break through film, Nausicaa, for the Blu Ray treatment, but sensed hesitation from the Disney side, who evidently wanted more commercially viable releases. Still, Suzuki has continued to digitalize Nausicaa, deciding to clean up the original print, but still taking care not to make it more clean than the original once was. Director Hayao Miyazaki only demanded that they not change the imperfections of the film: A film is an element of its time, it grows old like everything else, and perhaps herein lies its value. Any imperfections are signs of the process, and has as big a place in the history of the product as anything else. No artificiality!, the old master demanded. After having seen the near finished result, he only wanted they stress a bit more green in the colour spectrum. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could learn a thing or two…

Suzuki ends the interview with this: “Okui-san came (to) my room (the) next day (after the screening). He said “Miyazaki-san cried, didn’t he?” I answered in this way, “Nausicaa is not yet over.” Both I and Miya-san remember all of the events and every cut“.

Nausicaa is supposed to be released on Blu Ray in Japan one of these days. As for when it and other Ghibli films will reach “the West”, we have to wait and see. Amazon has put some titles on its web pages without suggesting any date.

BIFF, Day Seven: Still Walking

October 29, 2009

Today we are travelling to South America and Japan. One journey I will take only once, the other I can’t wait to take again.
The Colombian road movie Los Viajes del Viento has two strengths that make up for many of its conventional traits: It never descends into a too typical South American sentimentality and it has the luxury of taking place in a geography that is seldom seen on films. The story is about an old, taciturn accordion master who recently lost his wife, and the young boy who may be his son. The old master wants to travel across the entire country in order to give back his accordion to his master. As legend will have it, he once won the instrument in a duel with the devil. The boy sees apprenticeship with the old man as his only possibility to make something of himself and thus follows his unwilling companion stubbornly through some spectacular landscape and hairy situations.

los-viajes-del-viento1While beautiful to look at, the film didn’t really stand out in any particular way. You could substitute the old accordionist with, say, a kung fu master, or a literature professor, or any old sage with a special gift to impart on the young, and the basic story would pretty much be the same. And in the history of films, God knows this has been done again and again. The accordion only really comes to the fore in an early duel with a younger braggart in a music contest. Like the rapper’s duels in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, the accordion contest consists in psyching out one’s opponent by rhyme and insult while sticking to the chosen accordion tune. It may sound far fetched, but this part of the film really worked.

vientoThe travelogue, or road movie, is often an excellent way of highlighting a country’s geography and supporting the local tourist industry. Often, the tourist industry will help finance the film if the country is represented as a series of tourist vistas. This being Colombia, I’m not convinced that the ploy will be entirely successful, but we, the audience, win anyway. Especially since most of us will not get the chance – or take the chance – of visiting the country, I can’t think of a better way to be able to experience Colombia’s breathtaking natural vistas than in the comfort of the cinema chair, where the most immediate danger is an aneurysm triggered by some popcorn-munching moron by our side.

los-viajesUltimately, the film is worth seeing for its depiction of nature and the very varied geography – or geology. The stone formations towards the end were a sight to behold, as was the endless salt flats, the village built almost on the lake itself, and the Indian village atop a mountain. I have not seen exactly these sights before and felt fortunate to witness them in this way. The film also strikes up some laconic humoristic moments and I did chuckle a time or two. As for the main plot, I didn’t feel that it resolved itself entirely satisfactorily, but, as is my habit in these posts about films that most have not yet seen, I shan’t be spoiling the end here. The titular symbol of the travelling wind has a double bottom, referring both to the literal wind that has shaped the country and the various wind instruments. There is a scene where the wind blows through a piece of wood with a whistling sound, perhaps telling us that the tradition of these men has its roots in nature itself, in a time before Man, and that all we contribute are complications of that theme.

afterlifeHirokazu Kore-eda has made some seven films, not including his TV-work and some short films. Unfortunately not all of these are readily available in the west. His first film, Maborosi, an Ozu-style examination of a young widow trying to find a new lease on life after the loss of her husband , had a limited international run. But it was his second feature, the often wonderful After Life, which made him into a household name, if that house was an art house. (Yes, I know, bad pun…) In 2001 he made Distance, perhaps inspired by the gas attacks of a suicide cult in Japan; the Aum cult‘s nerve gas attack on the city’s subway system. Then came Nobody Knows, which got a wider release and was nominated in Cannes and won a number of Asian awards. The story of a group of children left to their own devices after their mother takes off, was a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. Kore-eda directed over almost two years, and the children visibly live in the film. There are scenes in Nobody Knows that should break most hearts that are not already irredeemably broken. In 2006, two years after Nobody Knows, he made Hana, about a samurai who doesn’t really want to be a samurai. He is no good at fighting and wishes he could spend his days helping the poor people of the village in which he takes up residence. His very latest film is Air Doll, about a blow up sex doll that turns human Pinocchio-style. I have not seen this yet, but those that have, comment that it is remarkable in that the film never is exploitative, nor even is interested in the sexual aspects of this offbeat story. The film is more about what it means to be human and the innocence of the non-human in comparison. The first thing the doll learns after becoming human with a beating heart, is to lie.

still-walkingThis lengthy introduction is spurred by my absolute satisfaction with Kore-eda’s penultimate film, made in 2008, and shown this day in the BIFF-festival. Still Walking is perhaps the first perfect film I’ve seen this year. I really can’t find any faults with it. The only film coming near it in quality is the Swedish Burrowing, which I spoke of in a former post. The two films have in common that they are influenced by other directors. In Kore-eda’s case, the spectre of Japanese master, Yasujirō Ozu, is present, but not overwhelming, while in Burrowing, Terrence Malick is perhaps an even more present godfather.

The majority of Still Walking takes place within 24 hours, but including the epilogue, the time covered is three years. The real scope of the film, however, reaches much longer, as both the past and the future is so implicit in these 24 hours, that the film nears an almost general understanding of the human situation, particularly our place in the everlasting links between generations, from the very first to the last. I was most impressed by the way in which the director achieved this generality from a very specific time in a specific family.

still walking grandfatherA man who has just lost his job brings for the first time his wife, who is a widow, and her son to the annual family reunion. He clearly is not on good terms with his mother and father; “you should call your mother more often“, the father tells him. “I can’t stand listening to all her complaints“, the son answers. The father is a retired doctor who feels useless and socially in a no-man’s land, as he hasn’t anyone to continue his practice, and therefore must still play the role of village doctor himself, even though he is not up to it.

Seemingly, much of the reason for the family’s strained relationship, is that the eldest son lost his life in a drowning accident many years before, while saving a young boy from the waves. This son was the father’s favourite, and is in hindsight made to have represented the hopes for the family’s future. Every time the conversation begins to run more or less easily, the mother mentions some details about the dead son, and the family is thrown back into non-communication.

The reason for the reunion, is indeed that it marks the anniversary for the son’s death. Also present here is a sister with her husband and two children, who the father finds noisy. We can only assume that had the dead son had any children, they would be just as noisy. This is a film where I don’t want to tell much about the plot, as much of the enjoyment comes from gradually piecing together the dynamics of the family and just what has gone wrong in their lives. It is never -apart from the death of the son, which paradoxically has brought them together – the big, life-changing events that make these people be who they are, what they have become. Kore-eda is a master in communicating much bigger truths by very small movements and glances. Sometimes he lets a phrase linger a bit longer than necessary in order for us to grasp not only the context of the phrase, the feeling behind it, but its consequences, insignificant as they may seem before we have the entire picture.

still_walking_02_148953cIt’s a cliché, but movies is really a universal language. I almost can’t think of better ways for us to see the common humanity between us all, than by immersing ourselves in works by masterful directors like Kore-eda. I felt more recognition in this film than in any Hollywood work I can recall. Nothing sudden or life-changing happens in the film, yet I felt a wiser person after having seen it, perhaps even wanting to be a better person. In this film, the characters don’t have “arcs”, as they evidently teach in Hollywood script classes. The characters that we observe become persons more than characters, and persons, for the most part, don’t suddenly learn something or change just because they have attended a family dinner, even though a number of American Thanksgiving films want us to believe this. They go on with their lives, as best they can, or maybe not even that.

What makes the film magic to me is also a consequence of the characters not only being oblivious to their shortcomings that we as spectators can detect in them, but that they actually go on living as if there never was anything particularly important about the day we have spent with them. They just go on, or as the film says in its title, they are still walking. (This phrase also comes up in a song the grandmother insists on playing on an old record player, and which she says she has a special relationship to. The song so subtly illuminates something of the past of the characters that we don’t quite grasp it before a shot of the grandfather doctor’s later reaction. The world of memories and forgotten times that comes into light here is staggering).

The only hint of sentimentality in the film, is when the unemployed son’s voiceover comments on what has happened in the three years since the family dinner. The words are spoken very matter of factly, but that very restraint is heartbreaking in its seeming neutrality to the lives that are commented. I would love to present the importance of the grandmother’s speech about butterflies and how that speech is reproduced later on, but this is such an integral part of the experience that I must leave it for the individual viewer to assess.

Still_Walking_2_149507aNot only is Kore-eda a master of presenting the social interaction and directing the actors into an almost completely naturalistic style, also his setting of the story deserves some mention. The film is shot in Yokosuka, Kanagawa, a seaside town with streets climbing upwards the mountainside from the sea. Seeing the wonderful locations, I couldn’t help but think of the kind of streets so typical of Studio Ghibli films, particularly Whisper of the Heart. There just is something very magnetic to me about this kind of setting, some serene quality that helps convince me that this site is ideal for the family home, a piece of childhood we all will always carry with us. The lack of the typical features of the big city helps the film to achieve a feeling not only of timelessness, but of placelessness. While very much a Japanese setting, the feeling is more general, of the kind of place that we find beautiful in hindsight, but that we had to move away from. The reasons probably felt important to us at the time, but any place we have lived in our formative years is bound to hold the ghosts of our younger selves in some way or another, still offering us possibilities of who we could have been had we by chance chosen differently.

stillwalking2Again, all this essaying runs the risk of making the film sound as if it could be boring. It is not. In fact, there are many scenes with a wonderful understated humour, not least in the comments by and about the grandmother and grandfather. As in any real grouping of human beings, be it a family or a group of friends, there is humour to be found in familiarity. Kore-eda, being concerned with reality, has the gift of finding the humour that springs from a common humanity, from recognition, even in the idiosyncratic. The actress You (yes, that is her stage name), who played the irresponsible mother in Nobody Knows, here gets the chance to use her quirky personality in a role that never seems as it is an imposed vehicle for her brand of acting. Her presence and comedic (her voice makes me think of a Japanese Meg Tilly) timing is so strong that when she leaves the film, we suddenly feel that we have been deprived of a comforting presence in what is, after all, a scary situation; reality. Or as close to reality as we want to come.

Offering us only a short glimpse into these characters’ lives, Kore-eda still makes us feel as if we’ve known them for a long time. His telling of this story is so effective that, even as we think that nothing very important happens, we get to learn everything that we need in order to fully grasp the situation as well as its ramifications. All the characters are given flesh and blood and lives that are not neatly solved by a contrived Hollywood script. Still, the miracle is that we don’t miss the solution, even though we’ve been indoctrinated to expect it. When all is said and done, we can leave and know that all is not said and it is not done. In fact, the way the characters are not able to come to terms with their shortcomings, or their disability to solve their conflicts, is the very thing that gives the piece such a powerful end. After this film, I really had to take some minutes to let the credits roll before I could or wanted to move. Those were good minutes.

BIFF, Day Six: 9 and Sin Nombre

October 28, 2009

I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal to say about the two films of the day. One of them was good, the other very good. They are both the first feature films of directors I think have the potential to make even better films.

99 is an animated film directed by Shane Acker. He is formerly known only for a short film, also called 9( you can see it by pressing link), which won an Oscar in 2005. I was a big fan of the short film and therefore had my hopes up for the expanded feature version. Unfortunately, the transition hasn’t been to the film maker’s advantage, at least not artistically.

What made the short film 9 such a unique creature was that it threw us smack into a world that seemed familiar and alien at the same time, never offering any explanations for what we saw or why. While having many of the characteristics of a post apocalyptic earth, the protagonist was a rag doll with the number 9 painted on his back. There were no humans in sight. Exploring this destroyed world, he came upon a monstrous creature that started an intense chase of the frail doll. He found a round metallic object that, put properly together, released ghostly forms of other rag dolls who faded away into the ether or afterlife. This was the plot, and I didn’t feel I needed to know more, really. There were no dialogue and this strengthened the pure chase concept. It was certainly clear that Acker had an eye for design and a good understanding of what makes animation work. His sense of movement and gravity in animation was particularly impressive.

acker05_9shortFor the feature length version, the chase of the short film constitutes the beginning of the film and yes, ghostly figures – souls of the dolls? – are released at the end. In between we have an hour of more chase scenes and so many stock situations that I wondered if the script writers had encountered some paint by numbers guide to how to write trite dialogue for scenes seen a hundred times before.

As in the short film, the character 9 starts out mute, but unfortunately that situation is quickly remedied. As soon as these dolls start speaking American, they lose a lot of mystery, but also intelligence, it seems. All of a sudden they spout feelings that are supposed to sound dramatic or even political, but comes off as something a child would say. And no, this is not intentional. “We must save him! You are a coward! I’m sorry! You can’t hide from reality!” For some reason, the script writers have only been able to think in exclamation points while writing the dialogue. The same heavy-handedness can be found in the plot as well; never offering dilemmas we haven’t seen many times before, spouting Disneyfied sentiments about the importance of sticking up for one‘s friends and reducing everything to a fight between the good guys and the bad guys, with no grey scales. This is where animation studios like Pixar and Studio Ghibli really excels, never going for the easiest solutions or indeed world views.

7As the film, then, is never more than a question of getting from here to there, I found myself bored even by the generous amount of action taking place in the plot. What saves the film is that the animation is absolutely gorgeous and that Acker hasn’t lost his eye for design and for making the characters move in exciting and fresh ways. The world he has created is indeed fascinating and had the script been better, especially the dialogue, this could really have been something. As it is it is never more than entertaining, at times it is less.

I think I’ll blame one of the producers, Tim Burton, for this. Hell, I’m feeling magnanimous, I‘ll blame the other producer, Timur Bekmambetov, as well. For one thing, I guess it was Burton who made Pamela Pettler write the screenplay. She also had a finger in the screenplay for Burton’s Corpse Bride, so I assume her presence here is no coincidence. I have a feeling that all my objections to the dialogue should be directed to her, and to Burton. Let me take a moment to explain why I consider Burton poison to the film.

9 would probably not have been made without Burton’s name attached to it, so for that Acker must be grateful. But when did Burton really make a more than passable film? His latest, Sweeney Todd, had its moments, well helped by the dependability of Stephen Sondheim’s wonderful songs. Big Fish is a cinematic atrocity best forgotten. Sleepy Hollow should have been a horror film, but was turned into an exercise in style and quirkiness and never remotely scary. His two stop motion animation films, Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, seem designed only to be different in concept from most mainstream animated features, but are they really that good? Sure, some of Danny Elfman’s music is catchy, but what is really the point of the films? That outsiders have feelings too? Burton is the cosy Goth, never daring to be different enough to be disturbing, intent on turning the borderline strange into the definite mainstream. Has he ever had any meaning behind his films other than the aforementioned call to accept the goth, the freak, the outsider? Subtle, he is not, and intelligence you have to search for elsewhere. After Edward Scissorhands, he should maybe have called it a day, realizing that he had made his masterpiece and not emulate the same formula again and again.

The point to make here, is that while the original short film of 9 retained much mystery and, by necessity of its format, perhaps, allowed the audience to actively make its own interpretations of what they were seeing. After Burton’s hands have fondled the package, every movement now has to be given a reason and that reason is never very interesting when you peel away the, grantedly, spectacular surface. Much like so many of Burton’s own films.

Pretty much all the protests I have directed at Burton’s cinema, I could also send the way of the film’s other producer, Timor Bekmambetov. He as well has made a career on pure surface, seemingly having little interest in what he is actually trying to say, or even accomplish, with his films. Daywatch, Nightwatch and Wanted all look very good, but have so many narrative problems that were they a person, Mel Gibson would seem sane in comparison.
While these big name producers ensured that Acker could bring “his vision” to the big screen, they also ensured that said vision would be severely diluted, turning all mystery into cliché and placing something that had aspirations of being original plump into the safety of the still waters of the mainstream. And that, my friends, is not where you catch the biggest fish, and certainly not the most succulent.

sin-nombre_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85Sin Nombre is a film about people seeking escape because they have to. The young Honduran girl, Sayra, has no prospects in her own country and chooses to set out on the long journey towards USA with her father, who she hasn’t seen for many years. El Casper(or Willy, as he sometimes calls himself) is a young man – or boy – who has pledged his life to a local street gang, seemingly in perpetual war with the rival Los Chavalles. After he kills the leader for a number of reasons, he knows that his life is over, but chooses to make his way to USA as well, on the same train as Sayra. I don’t want to say more about the plot, again not to give away too much.

The director, Cary Fukunaga, has formerly made a short film about the subject of Mexican immigrants dying of overheating in a truck, trying to make their way into USA. However, Sin Nombre, separates itself from a number of films about the crossing over the Mexican/US border by treating USA almost as a MacGuffin. USA is some vague goal that we doubt will influence the proceedings in other ways than to bring the action forward.

sin-nombre-gangThe film is as much about the possibility of starting anew in a philosophical sense than in the particular case of USA as the necessary site of this renewal. More than that, it is about innocence and the limits of innocence; the mechanisms that taints us by some sin, some overstepping of a boundary we only realize that we have crossed when it’s too late to go back.

I hear that the director spent some time travelling on top of trains the same distance as the protagonists, in order to get a grip of what they are going through. This, if true, serves the film well, as the train riding scenes seem very realistic, while at the same time offering the director the opportunity to show how evil and good is often a question of the geography of chance.

I should not forget to mention that Sin Nombre works very well as a thriller. It shows us a world we don’t often see and there is not a false scene or sentiment in the film. The guns are primitive, and they don’t make the explosive noise of a Hollywood actioner, but they are just as deadly. And in many ways they are more fatal.

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 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!