Miyazaki Retrospective: “The Wind Rises”

So here we are. Miyazaki’s final latest! film, “The Wind Rises”. What is there to say about it that hasn’t been said about the great man’s other films?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. “The Wind Rises” is one of the most difficult and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever watched. So of course I watched it twice.

The movie is a very, VERY fictionalized biopic of the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the creator of the Japanese airplane the Zero fighter, one of the most remarkable fighter planes of WWII and most notoriously one of the planes involved in the Pearl Harbor attacks. Given this knowledge, a movie that gives an extremely sympathetic, even kind-hearted, portrayal of the designer should be incredibly tasteless at best and horrifying at worst.

Well, perhaps for a normal director, but Miyazaki is no normal director. “The Wind Rises” is many things – an exploration of the role of art in society, the horror of war, the fleetingness of life, and one simple tragedy: In life, there are endings. But one thing it is very much not is tasteless.

As far as the production quality, well, it’s Studio Ghibli. Yet I can’t help but think that the visuals are stunning even for a Miyazaki film; the only one that really comes close on visuals alone is “Ponyo”. Jiro’s fantasy sequences, where he meets with his hero, the (real life!) Italian aircraft designer Caproni, are nothing short of stunning, and Miyazaki’s airplanes (also real airplane designs!) are magnificent. Miyazaki made the interesting artistic decision to have actual humans imitate the various airplane noises rather than use sound effects. It sounds kind of crazy, but it works, enhancing the already vaguely dreamlike feel of the world: This is all happening in a real historical place and time and even with real people, but not QUITE in the real world. This is the real world as imagined by Hayao Miyazaki.

One must be careful psychoanalyzing creators through their art, but after reading some interviews and quotes from Miyazaki it becomes difficult not to imagine Miyazaki’s version of Jiro as a creator analogue. The debates and discussions Jiro has with Caproni in his head don’t actually sound very confident; Miyazaki doesn’t seem overly sure of the answers he’s giving to the questions Jiro is asking. This is actually to the movie’s strength – instead of being lectured at with a message we’re exploring an idea.

You can perhaps say that the main conflict of the movie is reconciling Jiro’s love of aircraft design with Japan’s involvement in WWII. Miyazaki was inspired by a quote from the real Jiro Horikoshi: “All I ever wanted was to make something beautiful”. There’s something highly unsettling about the phrase due to the context – the “beautiful” thing Jiro is making is a WWII fighter plane that was used to kill thousands of people.

In one of the dream sequences Caproni addresses the conflict with this question: “Would you rather live in a world with pyramids or without them?”. When  I brought this up to a friend, he said “Well, no pyramids if it means not killing slaves, right?”

And he’s right! If it means not enslaving people and getting them to work to the bone, then it’s wrong to make pyramids!

But making planes for your country is a little more complicated, isn’t it? Helping your own country in a war is also a matter of patriotism and loyalty. After all, in our own country, draft dodgers are shamed, even if the war is a controversial one. Is it really fair to blame a man for making something beautiful to serve his country?

It’s not an easy question, and Miyazaki doesn’t shy away from it. By the end of the film, Jiro points out to Caproni that every single one of his planes has been destroyed in the war. As he says, flying is a cursed dream; for man to fly is also for man to use flying machines to kill each other.

The heart of the movie is the (in this case, fictional) romance between Noriko and and Jiro. For the first time I’ve seen so far (two films to go!) Miyazaki doesn’t have a strong female protagonist or deuteragonist to go with his male hero (his sister, who becomes a doctor, is a major character but not really on the level of a lead). This really isn’t a bad thing. Noriko is a lovely character, and her romance with Jiro is charming.

And tragic, of course. Noriko and Jiro’s doomed romance serves as another exploration of Miyazaki’s theme of endings, and of balance. Jiro’s love for his wife leads to him to…

…Okay, I’m going to stop here for a moment and talk about briefly why I stalled so long on this section of the review. Because I’ve been stuck, and now I think I know why.

Both times I watched “The Wind Rises”, the romance was actually my favorite part of the film. This is quite rare for me, as I don’t particularly like romances, but this one moved me. For a long time I wasn’t sure why, but I think I do now. It’s because I’ve been making a category error.

I separated the incredible visuals of the film from the storytelling. This cripples some of my language as a result, like talking about what I thought was so great about “Firefly” after passing over the dialogue in the first paragraph. The visuals aren’t separate from the movie, they’re at the heart of it (this was even more the case in “Ponyo”, which was a weaker movie and so leaned – quite successfully – even more on the quality of its animation than “The Wind Rises” does).

The romance is so wonderful because the images we get associated with the romance are some of the most memorable of the film. The umbrella scene – partially portrayed in many of the posters for “The Wind Rises” – is not only charming, but amazingly animated; only Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli cold make fighting over a windswept umbrella so compelling.

Similarly, later scenes intended to build the romance are sweet on their own but coupled with the animation sing with life. One scene has Jiro making and throwing paper airplanes off a balcony to Noriko. The scene is cute in itself but the effects of the wind on the little paper planes is simply stunning, bringing new energy to a simple, quiet moment between the couple.

This energy and life serves the movie well later when Noriko’s illness takes a turn for the worse. Early scenes with Noriko were deliberately set outdoors and in a bright, breezy, almost dream-like environment, but after Noriko’s first health setback everything shifts. The spark of life and energy to the scenes is gone; Noriko spends almost the entirety of the rest of the movie literally lying down. The brightness is gone – there is no sun. Everything is set indoors. There’s no umbrella chasing, no flying paper airplanes.

Much like in “My Neighbor Totoro” some of those earlier scenes seem to have no obvious point, but suddenly when Noriko is framed as the only thing that could potentially unfocus Jiro from his planes – and, perhaps tragically, does not – it all fits, because we saw the relationship, why it formed, who they are, and what makes it so wonderful and special. We know why Noriko puts rouge on her cheeks to hide the extent of her illness from Jiro, and why Jiro makes sure to move so he can be next to her every day. The biggest tragedy of the film isn’t really Noriko’s death; we knew that was coming. It’s that Jiro also knew it was coming but still decided it was worth it to leave town.

In a way, this reframes Caproni’s initial question: Would you rather live in a world with Noriko or without her?

Jiro ultimately makes the decision to leave his extremely ill wife behind for several days to see to his planes, yet in the end his planes are all destroyed, while his wife dies alone.

Was it worth it? Really?

In the end it doesn’t matter. The choices were made. And even while the whole world dies around him, for Jiro, the wind still rises. He must try to live.

And he does.

Jiro Horikoshi lived to be 78 years old. Excerpts from his personal diary made it clear that he greatly opposed Japan’s involvement in World War II.

Anthony’s Notes: “Howl’s Moving Castle”

Corey already did an excellent review, so this is just my personal impressions after having just finished the film.

“Howl’s Moving Castle”, going by reviews and the Rotten Tomatoes score, is considered “lesser Miyazaki”, as Corey said. This utterly baffles me. Thus far in the Miyazaki retrospective it’s one of my favorite films.

I think it’s that people miss the point of it. I’ve seen people criticize the ending before; “Howl’s” ends on a  happily ever after note after several scenes that seem to make such an ending completely impossible. Some people thought it was a cheat, or a cliche, or a cop-out.

This is because they do not understand fairy tales. Fairy tales end in two ways: They either have grotesque endings (see much of the Brothers Grimm if you want examples of those), or they have happy endings. That’s it; there’s no in-between ending for a fairy tale, no “mostly happy” ending. Fairy tales exist to make a particular point: True love conquers all. Work hard and persevere and the universe will reward you. Be lazy or evil and suffer horrible consequences.

And the point of “Howl’s Moving Castle” is that Sophie’s love for the people of Howl’s Castle, and Howl’s love for Sophie, redeemed and saved them all. That’s the message, and to not give it a fully happy ending you lessen it. People who argue that it’s overly simplistic don’t understand what Miyazaki was doing. When you look at the ending of “Howl’s Moving Castle” from the perspective of the fairy tale, it not only succeeds, it succeeds brilliantly. The ending couldn’t be more perfect.

Some criticize the story as over-complicated. I suppose that’s a matter of taste; I was never at a loss as to what was happening. Some of the stuff that happened to Sophie near the end of the film seemed to come sort of out of nowhere, but again, it’s a fairy tale; in fairy tales, a certain amount of coincidence or randomness is allowed so long as it services the main point – like the animals in “Cinderella” coming together to help Cinderella with her chores.

And yes, the anti-war message was more simplistic than it was in “Princess Mononoke”, but fairy tales exist to make simple points, and there’s no denying that the imagery of Howl’s transformation into a hideous bird-monster was powerfully effective.

The film was not as good as “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. It didn’t have the moral or metaphysical depth of either of those films. But looked at from the perspective of what Miyazaki was attempting to accomplish, it was a smashing, brilliant success, and for that reason – to me, anyway – it is not only NOT lesser Miyazaki, but in fact stands as one of his very best films.

Corey Reviews Howl’s Moving Castle

My first experience with the works of Hayao Miyazaki was with a film called Castle in the Sky, previously reviewed on this site. I was a very young child at the time, so I didn’t understand everything, I just liked the robots and the weird flying city.

However, I had rewatched it a few years ago, and fell in love with Miyazaki’s work. So, I went to watch another movie, one whose title was similar to Castle in the Sky, named Howl’s Moving Castle. (I originally had mistaken the two, but the dates they were made cleared that up.)

The tone of the two movies is a little different. While Castle In the Sky has threads of a coming-of-age story, Howl’s Moving Castle does not. And while there is a romance in Castle in the Sky, the romance formed in Howl’s Moving Castle is much more mature and realized (and by mature, I do not mean mature in content. There are no steamy scenes seen, nor any of that kind of action even implied. I mean the romance is handled in a much more serious, and deeper, way than it is handled in Castle in the Sky.) Howl’s Moving Castle is also based off of a book by the same name, which it deviates from considerably, while Castle in the Sky is completely original from Miyazaki.

But above all else, Castle in the Sky is an adventure story. It may have hints of a fairy-tale settings, especially with the levitating castle, but other things (Such as the super-destructive robot-golems, and the sky pirates) place it in the category of an adventure movie.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a fairy tale.

That’s clear from the opening shot, where you look across the misty hills of the countryside, and see the gigantic, semi-alive castle walk past on its gigantic chicken-feet (giant metal chicken feet). That is the first sign, but the first hint occurs when the main characters, Sophie and Howl, finally meet.

Sophie, a hatter, is walking to the bakery after work while her town is having a military parade. Instead of fighting her way through the crowds of the parade, she decides to walk through the back alleys, and on her way, she is confronted by two soldiers, who are unpleasantly persistent in making advances on her. A few seconds after these guys confront her, the wizard Howl (though unnamed) appears by her side. With a few magical gestures, he sends the men on a stiff-limbed forced march away, and offers to escort Sophie.

However, things very quickly take a turn for the mysterious, as Howl informs her they’re being followed. It soon becomes obvious that their pursuers are no ordinary people, but strange, sorcerous blob-monsters that ooze out of the walls. Howl and Sophie’s brisk walk turns into a run through the alleys as more of these things pour after them. After they round a corner, more of these blobs appear in the way out, blocking their exit. And then, when all hope seems lost, and they’re about to be overwhelmed by the magical monsters…

…they leap. Howl grabs Sophie, and they soar into the air in one of the most wonder-inducing moments of the movie. They soar up, and then, slowly, they walk through the air, across a bustling city, over colorful crowds, before Howl sets her down on a balcony, before promising to draw the things away.

There is the wonder, the awe and mystery of magic shown, not as a form of arcane and esoteric science as many fantasy novels would show it (I myself can appreciate that style of magic) but as a thing of beauty and wonder, that makes your eyes go wide. That is one aspect of the fairy tale.

There is the darker aspect of fairy tales that must be remembered. For every Sleeping Beauty, there was her curse that put an entire kingdom to ensorcelled slumber, and a wicked fairy with all the powers of Hell at her disposal. For every Snow White, there was a poisoned apple, and a jealous queen who was suddenly no longer the ‘fairest of them all.’ For every Beauty and her Beast, there is the Beast’s curse, and the stubborn pride that earned him that curse. And Howl’s Moving Castle is no exception.

The curse is the hex placed on Sophie, turning her from a pretty, if slightly plain, young woman into a ninety-year-old crone, and the one who does it is the Witch of the Waste, an evil enchantress who targets Sophie after seeing her with Howl. Trying to hide from her family, so they don’t see the results of that curse (part of which prevents her from speaking of it), she flees, uncovering an animated scarecrow named Turnip Head, before stumbling upon the wizard Howl’s titular Moving Castle.

Within, she ends up meeting the ancillary characters, Howl’s apprentice named Marco, and a fire demon named Calcifer (He calls himself a ‘big scary fire demon,’ but he’s too cute). She bargains with Calcifer to break her curse if she can free him from the castle, which imprisons him.

Now, there were a few aspects of this movie that worked wonderfully. A subplot involves a war going on, between two rival kingdoms. Howl fights both sides, trying to end the war himself, risking his own life (and a fate worse than death) to do so. This doesn’t detract from the romantic arc that takes place, and ends up mixing in, where all the story arcs begin to intermingle in such a good way.

Another, that I had briefly touched upon, was the subject of the magic. This is pure fairy-tale sorcery, animated par excellence by Studio Ghibli. Some scenes that stood out involve ‘moving’ the Castle, where, after drawing a symbol in chalk on the ground, Howl casts a spell that causes the room to warp, throwing furniture into existence, reshaping the walls and ceiling until the room around them has changed completely. Another scene involves a battle between two magicians, with one summoning strange, shadowy apparitions that dance in oddly mesmerizing patterns.

The magic has that primal sense of wonder to it, but has its own rules, though not as well defined as the works of, say, Brandon Sanderson (who I have read quite a bit of). The lack of definition allows for a sense of wonder and open-ended possibility, the kind that permeates the fairy-tale wizard. One scene, where Sophie enters Howl’s bedroom, had shown him hoarding all these wondrous devices, and you were never offered an explanation as to what any of them did (except for one device, and then Howl only said it detected someone was looking for them). That only added to the mystery and wonder of the strange arts that Howl, and others, had mastered.

The final aspect I liked was the ending. There was a moment where you could have said, ‘They lived happily ever after,’ and you wouldn’t be wrong. But instead of being overly-saccharine and unrealistic, it is the natural end result of the story. A villain (as there are several) is redeemed. Love triumphs when all hope seems lost. And they lived happily ever after.

A quick note. This is considered one of the lesser Miyazaki films. I have a special liking to it, as my own stories often involve wizards and magic, and I understand that his other films, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke are much better. I understand, but because of the visuals and the subject (wizards and magic) this remains one of my favorite films.

In short, definitely recommended for any Miyazaki fan, as with the rest of his works.

The Miyazaki Retrospective: Miyazaki Got Game

A guest post by my sister Mariel Marchetta, assistant editor and co-writer of “God, Robot”.

So as a woman, and a young one at that, it might not be surprising that I tend to be a fan of a good romance in my stories. I’m certainly no fan of The Notebook by any means, but there’s nothing like a well executed romantic subplot. My recent foray into Miyazaki has been three movies so far–Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke, in that order–and each one has included a romance, and each one has caused me to reflect on the way we approach romance in western animation. I’m not an anime fan, so I don’t know if it is a culture-wide difference, but whatever the reason, there is something about Miyazaki’s approach that is just fundamentally different; something that I think a lot of aspiring storytellers could learn from.

Let’s start with the most obvious: there is no Big Damn Kiss. At first I thought this might be attributed to the characters’ ages. After all, Pazu and Sheeta are at most 14, just on the border of being too young for romance, and Chihiro is only 10 in Spirited Away. But the trend continues in Princess Mononoke, with protagonists that have to be at least 16 years old, and probably older. Despite their obvious deep devotion to each other, despite other characters commenting on how in love Ashitaka is, the most the two get is a hug. And yet, you find yourself rooting for them just as much as any couple in a Disney movie. So what is it that makes this work?

The secret lies in two things. The first is that Miyazaki never puts the focus on the romance. There is no moment in those films that feels like it was put there to show their compatibility. For example, in Tangled, there is a scene where Rapunzel and Eugene explore the kingdom of Corona; it’s basically just a montage of them having fun together and Bonding, all to lead up to the Oscar bait love song they share. Western movies have these kinds of things all the time; here’s a falling in love montage, here’s them getting a moment to just talk to each other to show their chemistry.

Miyazaki doesn’t do that. The romance doesn’t come in big moments, but in small gestures during the big moments. One of my favorite moments in Castle in the Sky is when Pazu and Sheeta are keeping watch together while staying with the Dola gang. Pazu shares his blanket with her, tells her that it’s great that they could keep watch together, and promises that when they find Laputa he wants to go back to the place she grew up. But narratively its purpose is for Sheeta to give exposition that sets up how they defeat General Muska at the end; it is never about Pazu and Sheeta’s relationship. Even the scene of them laughing and rolling in the grass together after landing on Laputa is really an excuse to show off the stunning visuals of the floating city. Likewise Spirited Away uses scenes of Haku imparting important exposition to Chihiro interspersed with small gestures like giving her food and having a genuine smile on an otherwise cold face. Even in Princess Mononoke most of the romance comes from the intensity of Ashitaka’s devotion to protecting San during climatic battles.

That’s not to say ‘bonding moments’ are bad, of course. Where would Aladdin be without ‘A Whole New World?’ Or Lion King without ‘Can You Feel the Love Tonight?’ But there is something authentic and refreshingly organic about the way Miyazaki weaves together small moments to let the viewer figure it out for themselves. When Pazu begs Dola to let him join her to rescue Sheeta from the army and exclaims that ‘Sheeta means everything to me!’ after knowing her all of a day and a half (maybe), we believe him. Not because we were given a montage of them falling in love, but because they’ve had each other’s backs 100% of the time up until that point. You don’t need a declaration of love when Sheeta gives up her freedom and throws herself into Pazu’s arms before tearfully sending him away to protect him. It feels more like the romance happened because that’s just who the characters are, not because he wrote it intending one from the start.

There’s something else about a Miyazaki romance that I think really speaks to the superversiveness that permeates his work. Love is never, ever a weakness. Now that isn’t to say that it’s portrayed as a weakness in a Disney movie, per se, but it’s certainly an obstacle at times. Hercules almost dies because he gave up his strength for Meg’s freedom, Eugene almost dies because he cuts off Rapunzel’s hair rather than letting her be Gothel’s prisoner, etc. But this isn’t ever the case in a Miyazaki movie.

 

Pazu’s love for Sheeta gives him the courage to do everything from fighting the army to joining a gang of pirates. Not once does he waver in his mission to rescue her. Not once does he look scared, even while being shot at; after all, the most important thing is that Sheeta is in danger. Haku is injured by a witch’s spell and healed by the power of Chihiro’s love for him. One of the most powerful moments of Princess Mononoke is when Ashitaka falls into the water during a battle, while San is being suffocated by the demon tendrils of a boar being consumed by his own hatred. Ashitaka hears a voice ask him: what will you do for the one you love? And Ashitaka bursts out of the water with renewed strength to rescue San from the demon boar. Princess Mononoke is practically a Romeo and Juliet story where they bring together their feuding families instead of dying. Love never hampers anyone’s ability to achieve their goals. Love is never an inconvenience. Instead it’s a weapon in the arsenal, providing healing and strength. So how can the viewer come to any conclusion but that their connection is just as deep and meaningful as any western romance?

When it comes to Miyazaki himself, he says:

I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.

I offer a challenge to any writers that are thinking of adding a romance to their stories. Do not frame the question as ‘how can I show these characters are in love with each other?’ Or even ‘why are they in love with each other?’ Don’t worry about if they get a kiss. Instead, ask ‘how will they inspire each other to live?’ And work from there. I guarantee that if you do, a kiss is the least important thing they’ll need. I know I would take Pazu and Sheeta flying off into the sunset together over a peck on the lips any day of the week.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Porco Rosso”

I have heard it said that Miyazaki, as a director, becomes very predictable the more of him you watch.

I haven’t found this to be true at all.

There was a point in “Princess Mononoke” where I actually turned towards my family and said “I honestly have no idea how he’s going to bring this film to a conclusion”. I had no idea what was going to happen next in “Spirited Away”. I certainly didn’t see the dirigible ending coming in “Kiki’s Delivery Service”

True, Miyazaki goes back to certain themes and motifs, and he has an obvious and unabashed love for flying – but so what, really? What director doesn’t explore things they’re passionate about? Do we criticize Tolkien because he stuck to fantasy?

And it’s not as if he doesn’t do unique things with his ideas. “Porco Rosso” gives the impression of being lighter or “lesser” Miyazaki, without as much depth or ambition or insight as his very best films, like “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away”. But while “Porco Rosso” isn’t quite as good as either of those films, there’s a lot more going on there than it’s often given credit for.

The movie, of course, is about a fighter pilot named Marco Rossolini (in the American dub) who has been transformed into a pig. One interesting aspect of the film is that we never actually learn why; Miyazaki gives us several potential options and the symbolism is fairly clear, but he leaves it intentionally ambiguous, both for us and for Marco himself.

The dogfights in “Porco Rosso” aren’t as well choreographed as the action scenes in “Castle in the Sky” or the fight scenes in “Princess Mononoke”, but some of the imagery is – as always -still wonderful, and the setting is one of the most visually fascinating of all of Miyazaki’s films, being the first one he made rooted in a real, historical place and time. The detailing on the planes is exquisite; you can feel the care he put into the designs bleed through.

“Porco Rosso” is structured as a comedy, and it is – a good one. The real highlight of the movie is the sparkling dialogue, which shines even through the dub. Marco is a wonderful character, one of Miyazaki’s most entertaining, essentially Humphrey Boggart in pig form. He’s excellent at trading barbs with whoever he happens to be talking to and his facial expressions are priceless.

The mechanic, Fio, and a potential love interest, continues the Miyazaki tradition of creating a character feminists swoon over that they would never actually create themselves. Fio proves herself fit to fly with the big boys, but in precisely the “Wrong” ways. When Marco balks at her being his mechanic, she asks him if it’s because she’s too young or because she’s a woman (“Both excellent reasons”).

Her reaction is brilliant. Instead of yelling at Marco, or getting offended, or getting mad, she shows him her design and begs him to give her a chance, pointing out that he started flying at 17, the same age she happens to be. No anger, no nastiness, and no frustration – and that is why we like her. She wins him over with optimism, ingenuity, and sheer hard work.

Ultimately what elevates the movie from a fun and atmospheric adventure film to something truly great is its brilliant ending. Because for all its lightheardedness and fun, this movie is one thing that no other Miyazaki film is: a tragedy. And you know what? It’s perfect.

SPOILER for the ending coming:

The great irony at the end of the film is that it’s only after Marco finally turns back into a human (so it’s implied, at least) that he commits his very worst act: Abandoning Fio and Gina.

But that’s the thing about Marco. In the end, he’s not so important. Fio and Gina do perfectly well without him. And now when he finally has no excuse, the only person he hurts by leaving is himself.

And that’s why “Porco Rosso” is a great movie. Only a bold, brilliant director would or could have ended “Porco Rosso” like that (just as, conversely, only a bold, brilliant director could have given “Princess Mononoke” a happy ending), and Miyazaki is both. This is just further proof to me that, far from being predictable, Miyazaki could do pretty much anything he wants to and succeed with flying colors. It’s a shame that this one isn’t more famous.

I know this will shock you, but – recommended.

EDIT: An interesting spoiler:

Apparently, going by reviews and various things about “Porco Rosso”, it is implied that Marco actually does get together with Gina – the other love interest of the film, and the one Marco is really in love with – in the end.

I think this still works very well BECAUSE it is only very lightly implied and still left ambiguous. In the end the important thing is that “Porco Rosso” doesn’t end in a straightforward victory for Marco; if it is not a bad ending for him, the possibility of a bad ending needs to be there. That possibility exists, and so it still works well.

Miyazaki Retrospective: “Ponyo”

Once upon a time there was this movie.

This movie is, still today, considered by most a classic, and by some one of the greatest animated films ever made. It wasn’t the story, which was simple but surprisingly powerful. It wasn’t even the characters, though one of those characters became a sensation in her own right.

No, what made that movie legendary was its stunning view of undersea life, its gorgeously varied lights, textures, and creatures used to create a detailed and beautiful world simply never seen before, and arguably never seen since.

The movie I’m referring to, of course, is “Finding Nemo”, made by the only studio in the world able to consistently rival “Studio Ghibli” at its peak (one day the Pixar retrospective is coming!). “Finding Nemo” was a landmark film in the world of animation, proving that CGI could provide phenomenally beautiful backgrounds and creatures that even traditional animation couldn’t. It was statement movie, proof that CGI was not only cheaper than traditional animation but in the right hands just as beautiful as well.

Okay. Now let’s fast forward six years. Arguably the greatest animator in the world has finally, years after he announced his retirement (again!), come out with his new movie.

His last movie? A supremely imaginative fairy tale known as “Howl’s Moving Castle”, a movie more in line with his films like “Castle in the Sky” and even “Princess Mononoke” than his earlier children’s oriented entertainment.

So the question on everyone’s mind is: What is he going to do next?

Let nobody claim Miyazaki isn’t full of surprises. He stumped the world and turned back the clock to his earlier works for young children and came out with “Ponyo”, the wonderfully weird Miyazaki perspective on “The Little Mermaid”.

The trouble with Miyazaki films – for me, anyway – is that even when I find myself saying “This film is better” or “This film is worse”, I still don’t really have any specific flaws to pick on. Put another way – his execution is generally flawless, or close to it. The differences lie less in how well each particular film happens to be made and more in the ambition of his ideas and certain creative choices. Past that you get down – as my sister did in the “Mononoke” review – to nitpicking.

This very long prelude is all set up for me to say that “Ponyo” is an engaging and creative film. The darkness in “Ponyo” splits the balance between “Totoro” and “Kiki’s”. Unlike in “Kiki’s”, there is definitely an underlying sense of danger to the whole proceedings, but it’s never as real or tragic as Satsuki and Mei’s mother’s sickness in “Totoro”. Sosuke’s father is lost at sea, yes, but we cut to him multiple times, and neither Sosuke nor his mother seem overly worried about him. Later on it gets a little more serious when Sosuke can’t find his mother, and there’s definitely the nagging feeling that the senior center where his mother works is in danger, but in the end Miyazaki deliberately chooses not to focus on the more frightening parts in favor of Ponyo’s childlike whimsy and the pure beauty of his animation.

Oh, and what animation it is! Amazingly, this might be the most gorgeous Miyazaki film I’ve seen so far. The “Finding Nemo” was mentioned because of how interesting the contrast is between Miyazaki’s animation and Stanton and Unkrich’s. The animation in Nemo isn’t quite photorealistic – the fish ultimately look very human in their own way – but it definitely leaned very far in that direction. As a result it felt less like looking at the creation of a new world and more like we were taking a peek into our own backyard, and all of the beauty it contained.

As Nemo used CGI to do something traditional animation simply couldn’t, “Ponyo” used traditional animation in ways I’ve frankly never seen before or since. For Miyazaki, “Ponyo” is a painting, but not a static one. The artistic style isn’t very close to realistic but – interestingly – the people are, giving the impression that regular humans are interacting with an artist’s canvas.

The animation of the water is quite simply some of the best ever. It has to be. There is a scene where Sosuke and his mother outrace a tsunami to their house. Unbeknownst to the mother, the tsunami is not only following them – lead by Ponyo, who is skipping across the top – it is transforming into fantastical underwater creatures, sometimes looking like fish or whales or rays and other times simply forming into a gigantic many-eyed monster. It is a jaw-droppingly beautiful sequence, and like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s a sequence CGI just can’t replicate. It’s literally impossible.

The story is actually one of Miyazaki’s more straightforward, weird as it is, and the message of the film feels more typically Disney – the power of love will save the world – than Miyazaki, who tends to have layers of meaning in his films. Sosuke is a fine protagonist and Ponyo is lovable enough, but ultimately I found neither as well drawn or interesting as some of his other heroes, like Pazu and Sheeta, or even Satsuki and Mei. Liam Neeson’s wizard character was fascinating, but I’d have liked to figure out a little more about his and Ponyo’s relationship. We know Ponyo doesn’t really like him but while we get some hints, it’s not fully clear why.

So for those reasons this is probably – again, for certain values of the phrase – my “least favorite” Miyazaki film so far. On the other hand, I’m not willing to go further than probably. The gorgeous animation is so stunning that it alone might pull it up in the ranks. Either way, like all of his work, it’s highly recommended.

The Miyazaki Retrospective: “Princess Mononoke”

Today’s article is a guest post by my sister, Mariel Marchetta. You can find her stories in “God, Robot”, where she was also assistant editor.

As regular readers may have noticed, my brother and regular writer Anthony Marchetta has begun writing a series of reviews as he works his way through the Miyazaki canon. After convincing me to join him and successfully turning me into a Miyazaki fan, he has graciously taken a step back and let me take the floor to pen my thoughts on the next movie on our list, Princess Mononoke.

Having watched Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky before this, the movie in some ways feels very much in line with what I have come to expect from a Miyazaki movie; stunning animation (the best I have seen so far, in fact), an understated but effective romantic arc, an imaginative plot, and of course a message about living in harmony with nature.

The differences are much more striking. Castle in the Sky was an adventure flick, almost Indiana Jones for kids, with goofy pirates and an almost cartoonishly evil villain. Spirited Away was a Japanese Alice in Wonderland.

Princess Mononoke has the titular character drinking the blood of wolves and has more than a few instances of dismemberment in some pretty violent fight scenes. But the scenes don’t feel gratuitous, one of the biggest grievances I have against a lot of adult oriented cartoons in the west. In fact, these scenes rank among the best in the film.

There’s also a certain level of moral ambiguity in Princess Mononoke I haven’t seen so far. Miyazaki is famous for his extreme environmentalism, but there’s much more nuance in the film than it’s given credit for. The most obvious antagonist in the film seems to be Lady Eboshi, the leader of Irontown. When we are introduced to Eboshi, she is a ruthless and cunning leader who dreams of manufacturing enough guns and weapons to take the forest for herself. She has no regard for the lives of the animals she is killing or the gods of the forest, and in fact was responsible for the demon that cursed Ashitaka in the first place. What makes her compelling is that what she lacks in compassion for the forest, she has in spades for the people of Irontown.

Eboshi buys women from brothels and gives them work to save them from prostitution. She helps lepers who were otherwise shunned from the community. The people of Irontown all follow her, not out of fear, but because they genuinely love and respect her. There was one particularly effective moment when San, after breaking into Irontown to kill Eboshi, comes face to face with both her and two women armed with guns. Eboshi calmly tells her that she can try and kill her–but she’ll have to face two women whose husbands were killed by the wolves that raised San. The idea is clear: Eboshi has a point. The forest spirits are no saints. And, in what was one of my favorite parts of the movie, Eboshi actually sees the error of her ways and promises at the end to ‘build a better town.’ The message of the movie doesn’t demonize the humans or the spirits, but rather tries to find a middle ground that has the optimistic message that humans and spirits can learn to coexist–and that even power hungry Eboshi can learn to do better. Despite all of the violence, it seems that Miyazaki just can’t help that streak of superversiveness that seems to be present in all his films.

I mentioned the imaginative plot before, but it bears repeating. I didn’t think Miyazaki could get more creative than he did with Spirited Away. But between talking forest spirits, a protagonist cursed with a demon mark that imbues him with powers, and a girl raised by wolves that fight to protect the forest spirit from the humans, this has to be one of the most ambitious concepts I has ever seen in an animated film, if not the most ambitious.

However, its high concept also makes it that much harder to execute, and while Miyazaki is definitely successful for the most part, Princess Mononoke had some noticeable flaws, mostly centered among the townspeople. The characters of the town are used often as comic relief, but poorly; between the dim witted henpecked husband and the group of feisty flirtatious women, it all felt a little too goofy. This might have been somewhat intentional on Miyazaki’s part, to show the differences between them and Ashitaka’s people–a serious people who lived in harmony with nature, as compared to the bumbling, loud people of Irontown–but if it was it fell flat. This is all a pretty minor gripe once the main conflict really picks up though, and certainly didn’t hamper my enjoyment of the movie all that much.

So would I rank this as the best I’ve seen so far? Compared to Castle in the Sky or Spirited Away, two films that I honestly think were flawless, this would actually probably rank as the worst. But that’s a difference of one or two small flaws compared to none, so that’s definitely not an insult by any means. And if Princess Mononoke lags behind the other two in execution, that’s only because the incredibly ambitious concept would have completely fallen apart in all but the most capable director’s hands. In that sense, it may not have been my favorite to watch, but it’s definitely the one I’m most impressed by. So if you’re looking for a movie with incredible visuals, and an epic, compelling story (not to mention giant wolves and boar demons), you should definitely pick this one up.

Anthony’s Notes:

While I do agree with the gist of my sister’s review, I do disagree that it is the worst of the films so far. “Castle in the Sky” was an excellent movie that executed what it was trying to do just about flawlessly, but ultimately it was a very straightforward adventure movie, not too far off of “Indiana Jones”. “Princess Mononoke”, in contrast, was a vast and sweeping epic; as my sister pointed out, there were flaws (and I agree with them), but the successes outweighed them by so much they’re barely worth mentioning.

My sister hasn’t yet seen “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “My Neighbor Totoro”. In some ways it’s not fair to compare, as those movies are trying to do vastly different things. At the same time, it seems only right to take ambition into account, and “Princess Mononoke” is incredibly ambitious. I would – as I generally do – go farther than my sister here and say that “Princess Mononoke” is one of the great epics ever made. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.