Since seeing my first Studio Ghibli film in 2015, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, I’ve spent the last five years trying to catch up on some of their key works. That project remains ongoing, though the appearance of many of them on Netflix doesn’t hurt, but this documentary gives an insight into their working methods. It’s comforting to see these figures at work, knowing the care and effort they put into each film, which unlike a lot of contemporary animation in the cinemas, aren’t just blatant attempts to make money by any means necessary.
I’m fairly recently new to Studio Ghibli’s films, having spent much of my teens and 20s resisting going to see any (which in retrospect was obviously a very foolish decision), but watching these key figures in the world of animation at work — along with their studio of animators (and producer Toshio Suzuki) — is a fascinating insight. The gentle, beautiful, sometimes dark films of Miyazaki and Takahata are not born out of chaos and noise, but a similar kind of peaceful dedication to craft. Miya-san (as he’s called) wears an apron for much of when he’s working, while Paku-san (that’s Takahata) barely ever shows up at all, though he’s much discussed, not least his infuriating inability to complete projects to any kind of schedule. There’s a gentle humour at work, but also just a sense of a really grounded and open central figure in that of Miyazaki, as he works through the last year of making his film The Wind Rises. It may have been billed at the time as his last one, but even his retirement letter wished for 10 more years of work, and one can but hope to continue to hear from him (indeed, he has a film currently in production).
Director/Cinematographer Mami Sunada 砂田麻美; Starring Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿, Toshio Suzuki 鈴木敏夫, Isao Takahata 高畑勲; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 13 April 2019.
As my Japan-themed week goes on, I need to be careful not to just review films nobody’s seen and can’t easily watch, so I’m turning to one of the major Studio Ghibli films, albeit one directed by its less-famous partner, Isao Takahata, who nevertheless is responsible for many of its great works like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and My Neighbours the Yamadas. It’s a World War II-set film, and given it’s Japanese, you can imagine it’s hardly triumphal; in fact, it’s one of the more heart-wrenching animated films you can watch.
I put this on at home, more or less without thinking, after returning from a screening of A Hidden Life (2019) and it strikes me that they make a sort of thematic double-bill, both being stories from World War II that find empathy amongst the defeated peoples in that conflict. Nobody really wins in war, to a certain extent, but it’s very clear from this story of Seita and his sister Setsuko that it’s particularly difficult trying to survive near the end of the war, when resources and empathy are scarce. Of course, the elegiac, mournful aspect is set up right from the very outset, as this is a film narrated by a dead body, but even so it wrings out enormous amounts of pathos from its story, in which the fireflies of the title become a beautiful visual metaphor for a certain sort of transcendence that perhaps the two find which eluded them in life. It’s grim, of course, but suffused with light and joy and hope — and a keen graphic stylishness — even in its darkest moments.
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the short story by Akiyuki Nosaka 野坂昭如); Starring Tsutomu Tatsumi 辰巳努, Ayano Shiraishi 白石綾乃; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 17 January 2020.
I’ve reviewed a few of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s films on my blog (such as My Neighbours the Yamadas earlier today, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), but I’ve not yet touched on the most famous figure from that studio, Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve now seen a number of his films, though, and for all my sneering at the idea of them when I was younger, they are in fact all remarkably good. My favourite remains Spirited Away which perhaps one day I shall write about here, but in the meantime here’s the one with the catchiest theme song…
I’m not honestly sure how one reviews Miyazaki-san’s films. I resisted them for so long when I was younger, assuming them to be twee nonsense, but they have a genuine sense of wonder that is difficult to express in a critical discourse — something about the rush of colours, the transformative and magical that lurks in the everyday, and the blending of quotidian reality with supernatural undersea elements. The set-up is that Sosuke is a five-year-old boy living at home with his mum (who works at the local retirement community) while dad is out for long stretches on the high seas. This land-based reality is mirrored by an alternate underwater family structure: his absent father becomes Fujimoto, a grumpy sorcerer who hates humans and is trying to repopulate the oceans, the mother is now a mystical deity, and the magical fish-human of the title is like a reflected sister/partner for Sosuke. The themes of the environmental devastation (which Fujimoto is working to counter), and the way that this is reflected in the dangerous volitility of the ocean, are all expressed very gently, but even in the joy of the animation you get a sense of this threat underlying it all.
Director/Writer Hayao Miyazaki 宮崎駿; Starring Yuria Nara ならゆりあ, Hiroki Doi 土井洋輝; Length 101 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.
Looking back at my favourite films I saw for the first time in the past year (ones that I haven’t already written up), it always feels somehow seasonally appropriate to talk about Studio Ghibli’s animations — not because they’re about Christmas, but they’re often about the idea of family and finding some kind of strength and shared communality with your family, which may not always be a lesson people take from Christmas, but it seems like it should be. My Neighbours the Yamadas may not be the most famous of Ghibli’s output, but it deserves to be better known, given it gently pokes fun at ways that families come together and fall apart, while also showing what can be good about them.
I feel like I’m still just starting my journey into Studio Ghibli’s animation, having not seen any until Isao Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya about four years ago, and since having watched a number of the Miyazaki films (almost all extraordinary). In a sense, My Neighbours the Yamadas is less easily categorisable, given it has the sense of a serialised comic strip (which it is, after all, based upon), just these little self-contained stories, introduced by titles and often book-ended by a haiku. The animation focuses on the details that matter, so this isn’t the kind of richly-detailed visual worlds that you get in Miyazaki or, say, Your Name. (2016). Instead, there’s a caricaturists’ sense at work in capturing the personalities of these six characters (grandma, mum and dad, son and daughter, and pet dog), which, while setting it aside from some of these other titles, also gives it an immediacy and vibrancy that is somehow even stronger. In telling these little stories, it’s elucidating something of the mystery (to us as Western viewers, but perhaps even to them) of Japanese life and customs, while also showing the evident care that works within the family. The humour is all very gentle, and this is ultimately a likeable, sweet film about family life.
Director/Writer Isao Takahata 高畑勲 (based on the manga series ののちゃん Nono-chan by Hisaichi Ishii 石井壽一); Starring Toru Masuoka 益岡徹, Yukiji Asaoka 朝丘雪路; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 30 November 2019.
I’d never actually seen a Studio Ghibli film before, which seems like quite an oversight, especially given that this film by one of the studio’s founders, Isao Takahata, is so delightful. It uses a traditional folk tale about a bamboo cutter who chances across a mystical baby (and huge wealth) while out at work. The baby grows at a rapid rate, eventually being hailed as a princess and relocated by her now-avaricious father to the city. The film itself, for all its narrative incident, unfolds at a relaxed pace that allows for lengthy sequences such as the Princess choosing from her suitors. However, just as it has plenty of openness to its narrative structure, so the visual style has a beautifully balanced sense of space, with impressionistic use of watercolours and charcoal shading, which at times (such as a scene of the Princess running across the countryside) is pushed into an almost abstract dimension. There’s little attempt to restrain the story’s mythical qualities, such that the ending is surprisingly similar to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as the expansive running time should suggest, this film is less about how the story is concluded as about the telling, which is immersive and yet meandering.
Director Isao Takahata 高畑勲; Writers Takahata and Riko Sakaguchi 坂口理子 (based on the folk tale 竹取物語 Taketori Monogatari “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”); Length 137 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Wednesday 25 March 2015.