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Studio Ghibli Retrospective: Volume Two

Welcome back to our retrospective of the Studio Ghibli catalogue. With most of the studio’s film on Netflix (United States excluded), we’re watching and reviewing all of them. Each one deserves their own attention, affection and respect, thanks to the dedication of Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and the entire Studio Ghibli family. There are many things that the studio can be regarded for, like their concern for the environment, treating their audiences with respect, and obviously producing fantastic animated films. We have another eight movies to go through this time, though the line-up has been shifted around a little.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

Hayao Miyazaki’s second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is based on Miyazaki’s 1982 manga of the same name. The movie was produced under Topcraft, bringing together Studio Ghibli’s future contributors. Amongst the animators was Hideaki Anno, founder of Gainax and creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

It serves as a breathing ground for Miyazaki’s themes of anti-war and environmentalism. The movie has had two releases in the west. The first was Warriors of the Wind, dubbed and edited by New World Pictures in 1995. Nearly 25 minutes were cut from this film, simplifying the story. A disgusted Miyazaki introduced a strict “no edits” clause for the licensing deal with Disney.

In a post-apocalyptic world, mankind seems to be on their last legs. A vast toxic jungle is consuming the land, full of gigantic insects and poisonous spores. Gigantic bioweapons called the Giant Warriors destroyed the world in an event called the Seven Days of Fire; one of Miyazaki’s more subtle references to destructive industrialisation. A few kingdoms survive, at war with the jungle and each other. One smaller, peaceful community lies in the Valley of the Wind, who have adapted to living alongside the jungle.

Our heroine is Princess Nausicaä (Alison Lohman), an adventurous, curious free spirit, who values all life with infinite fervour. She is resourceful, tactful, kind, an expert in flight, but can be stubborn and furious when needed. There is a harmonious idealism to her, and she is easy to love.

Nausicaä reunites with her friend Lord Yupa (Patrick Stewart), a wise swordsman who has been away exploring the ruined world. One night, a massive enemy aircraft crashes in the Valley, containing a deadly cargo sought by the other kingdoms. They are led by Princess Kushana (Uma Therman), an iron-willed warrior who forms a respectful rapport with Nausicaä. This soon sends Nausicaä on her own odyssey, into the jungle and beyond.

As with all of Studio Ghibli’s films, Nausicaä is a beautifully crafted film. The level of detail, particularly in the jungle itself, are gorgeous to look at. Though seen as a hostile threat to mankind, Nausicaä guides us to look at it differently. It feels like stepping into an alien world, complete with the giant bugs, magnificent flora, and a hidden layer of hope beneath the forest floor. The military planes resemble giant insects, so for all the cries for mass deforestation, man has taken inspiration from the Ohm.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Hayao Miyazaki intended to retire after directing Princess Mononoke, just as he has said with every film made since then. If it had been his final film, then what a picture to go out with. Some consider Princess Mononoke to be Miyazaki’s magnum opus. He conceived the film in the 1970s, though it wasn’t until a trip to the Yakushima forests that he was inspired to go ahead with its production. Taking liberties with historical medieval Japan, Miyazaki created a world that portrayed the beginnings of the conflict between nature and industrialisation.

Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), a prince of the Emishi people, is cursed by a demonic boar god, facing an excruciating death. A lump of iron found in the boar’s body guides Ashitaka to Irontown, led by the indomitable Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). She wishes to build a prosperous place for all people, at the cost of the ancient forest. The forest is home to surviving animal gods, including the wolf pack. Amongst the wolves is San (Claire Danes), the titular Princess Mononoke, who was raised as a wolf to hate humans. Ashitaka goes back and forth trying to bring about peace between the warring factions, hoping to find a cure for his curse.

The film takes much inspiration from Japanese mythology, folklore, and history. The Emishi were a historical group of people, but have since been lost to time. The peculiar white spirits are called Kodama, which inhabit ancient trees. The environment is inspired by the aforementioned Yakushima forests. As usual, the level of detail in the art is gorgeous, creating a vast, intricate realm where you would expect to find ancient gods.

Like in Nausicaä, the characters are complicated people, and none are downright evil. Lady Eboshi is a striking character, willing to destroy the forest and gods, but is generous, compassionate, and secure in her own strength. Jigo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a pretty nice guy despite his greedy intent. Ashitaka is a very selfless character, only wanting peace in a conflict that really shouldn’t concern him.

Due to its often graphic violence and adult themes, Princess Mononoke was produced by Disney’s Miramax branch. Twenty-five minutes faced the chopping block, which would go against the Disney/Studio Ghibli distribution deal. To settle this, producer Toshio Suzuki sent a katana to Miramax, with a note reading “No cuts.” Brilliant!

Whisper of the Heart (1995)

Whisper of the Heart is an intimate slice of life story based on the manga by Aoi Hiiragi. Yoshifumi Kondō headed the film in his lone directing role. Kondō was an animation director, considered the successor to Miyazaki and Takahata. Sadly, he died of an aneurysm in 1998, but left this gem as a token of his skills.

Contrary to the English fantasy-orientated marketing, the film is very subdued and small scale. Set in modern Tokyo, Shizuku Tsukishima (Brittany Snow) is a middle schooler and aspiring writer looking for a path in life. Shizuku faces many changes, pressured by important exams and her own creative desires. She learns a boy named Seiji Amasawa (David Gallagher) has been borrowing the same library books, discovering he is actually a boy who has repeatedly been teasing her. In a moment straight out of a fairy tale, Shizuku meets a cat on a train, following it to a quaint antiques store, owned by Seiji’s grandfather Shiro Nishi (Harold Gould).

Whisper of the Heart deals with lost, unrequited and young blossoming romance, the struggles of a creative soul, and the familiar childhood trials of friendship, crushes, and trying to find one’s true talent. The familiar fantasy elements of Miyazaki’s influence come into play whilst Shizuku is trying to write her novel. The Baron (Cary Elwes), based on a cat statue in the antique store, comes to life as a gentlemanly adventurer within Shizuku’s imagination. Though he has a minor role here, the Baron will play a much bigger role in our next film.

The dub slightly dampens the movie with the inclusion of corny lines (lamp-shaped in the dialogue), but is an affectionate, heartfelt film. Yoshifumi Kondō may be gone, but he left behind a wonderful movie which deserves just as much attention as the studio’s more well known titles.

The Cat Returns (2002)

A semi-sequel to Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns was directed by Hiroyuki Morita. The film began as a short film for a theme park, but evolved into a manga by Aoi Hiiragi, and then into a feature film. In context, the film is implied to be one of Shizuku’s books after becoming a novelist, based around the Baron seen in Whisper of the Heart.

Haru Yoshioka (Anne Hathaway) is a shy, clumsy teenager who can talk to animals. Hathaway’s casting may have been intentional, considering how similar Haru is to Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. After rescuing a cat from being run over, Haru finds herself the attention of the Cat King (Tim Curry). The cat she saved was his son Lune, the Cat King inviting her to move to his kingdom to marry his son. To escape this madness, Haru is told to seek out the Cat Bureau, who help those in need.

The Cat Bureau is led by Baron Humbert von Gikkingen (Cary Elwes), the fat, snarky cat Muta (Peter Boyle) and Toto (Elliott Gould), an animated stone raven. The cats abduct Haru, taking her and Muta to the Cat Kingdom for her wedding. Haru learns she will turn into a cat, facing the decision to either stay in the kingdom or return to normal. This film is a fun romp, mostly played for laughs, and is light in tone.

Aside from Anne Hathaway, the rest of the cast is solid. Cary Elwes is the perfect voice for the Baron, having briefly voiced him in Whisper of the Heart. Peter Boyle’s sense of sarcasm somehow fits perfectly into the movie, and Tim Curry is, well, Tim Curry. He depicts the ditzy Cat King as an old hippie, immature in his old age and able to get away with just about anything. The comedy and quips are translated quite easily, with Elwes, Boyle, Curry, and Gould able to bounce off one another within the film. Anime dubs sure have come a long way in translating foreign comedy.

Though not the strongest of films, The Cat Returns has an entertaining story, some lovable characters, and great use of comedy.

Arrietty (2010)

Our next film is Arrietty, based on The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The book had previously been adapted in two films and a television series, but our current subject is the best. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who had worked on past films as an animator. It should be noted that there were two dubs released for the film: an American and a British one. We shall be reviewing the British one, though I’ve heard good things about the Disney release.

Arrietty Clock (Saoirse Ronan) is a Borrower – little people who borrow items from humans to live. However, their lives are a dangerous one, as being seen by humans can spell their doom. She lives beneath a Japanese mansion with her stoic father Pod (Mark Strong) and anxious mother Homily (Olivia Coleman). Arrietty’s first borrowing trip is jeopardised when she is seen by Sho (Tom Holland), a sickly boy who has moved into the house pending a life changing operation. His discovery puts the Borrowers in a dilemma whether or not to move or stay put.

Right away, the highlight of the film is the level of detail. Considering the film is mostly seen from Arrietty’s point of view, the depth of her world is phenomenal. It is amusing and imaginative seeing how the Borrowers have repurposed everyday objects. Everything from leaves to water droplets are masterfully brought to life onscreen.

Arrietty is a very likable character, curious about the bigger world, but sensible and smart enough to know its dangers. The rest of the cast are a mixed bag. Arrietty’s mother Homily teeters on being obnoxious, whilst Pod has one lone emotion of being calm. Sho ends up causing a lot of trouble for the Borrowers, though his intentions are pure.

Arrietty plays out like a cautionary tale of sorts, though celebrates the literal smaller pleasures in life. The movie takes pleasure in exploring the world of the Borrowers, as well as their own trials. The one sour note is that the credits begin rolling whilst the film is still playing out, and the usual environmental message is shoehorned into the dialogue during a rather important scene.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of My Neighbours the Yamadas. Normally placed amongst the least favoured of the studio’s films, there isn’t technically anything wrong with it. It was directed by Isao Takahata, adapted from a four-panel comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii. The most notable part of the film is its unique art style. In place of the expected animation style, the movie sports a simpler manga-style design. It invokes similarities to the highly popular Shin-chan. It is the first fully digitally animated Studio Ghibli film.

The movie follows the daily lives and weird antics of the Yamadas, a Japanese middle class family. The family consists of bumbling dad Takashi (Jim Belushi), mother Matsuko (Molly Shannon), son Noboru (Daryl Sabara), daughter Nonoko (Liliana Murray), cool grandma Shige (Tress MacNeille) and the dog Pochi. Each one of them have their own quirks, hang ups, and hobbies, often played out with comedic gags, slapstick, or the Yamadas just being thickheads.

There isn’t really an overarching plot; the film consists of a number of vignettes that involve the family getting caught up in every day problems or their own issues. The family do seem particularly absentminded, struggling with the most basic of tasks. The characters are likable enough, with the English dub cast doing a good role. Tress MacNeille steals the show as Grandma Shige, the rock of the family who likes good values, but has no time for idiocy and immaturity.

The humour translates easily into English. I found myself laughing out loud a few times, and the banter between the characters always comes off as genuinely amusing. Although mostly played for laughs, the film does have some surprising moments of humanity and catharsis, such as a vignette focusing on Shige.

It would be unfair to compare My Neighbours the Yamadas to more well known Studio Ghibli films. It has its own unique identity, and has enough heart and plenty of humour to it.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

Based on the classic Japanese folktale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was the final film directed by the late Isao Takahata. The film is magnificently animated, taking inspiration from traditional Japanese water colour paintings. It stands out amongst Studio Ghibli’s films, particularly how the animation and art serve to show our protagonist’s behaviour and feelings.

In rural Japan, a bamboo cutter discovers a young girl within a bamboo shoot. He and his wife adopt the girl (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), though she rapidly ages, enjoying her simple woodland life. The bamboo cutter becomes convinced that the girl is divine royalty, forcing his family to move to the capital where his daughter is introduced as the Princess Kaguya. Kaguya finds herself trapped in a gilded cage, suffocated by the restraints of nobility and conformity. She must deal with proposed marriages, the continuous exploits of her ambitious father, and lingering desire to return to her lost home in the woods.

The film takes a very harsh tone to the cultural lifestyle of Japanese nobility. Kaguya has to endure strict gender roles and everything that comes with it. All of the characters are well explored, and no one is intentionally cruel or vile. For all of its sorrowful drama, the film is superb.  As said before, the animation is magnificent. I would honestly consider it one of the greatest animated scenes in history. Critics have described The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as Isao Takahata’s swan song, and I am inclined to agree.

The entire film catalogue are available to watch on Netflix (United States excluded). Which of these Studio Ghibli films are amongst your favourites? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed!


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Mark Russell

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