I used to be a bit put out by anime, I tended to find the animation style unappealing, particularly in its facial animation. It often seemed odd to me that I didn’t really go for it, considering my love of Japanese video games. Years ago, Spirited Away from the infamous Studio Ghibli studio seemed to be one that really broke to the mainstream, in 2001 but after seeing it, I still remained unconvinced and it still seemed to do things that I found off-putting, although thinking back now, I’m not exactly sure now what my logic was and may have just been some irrational prejudice.
A few months ago though, I gave ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ also from Studio Ghibli a chance and it changed my attitude completely. It struck an emotional chord with me in a way I can’t really remember feeling before. Studio Ghibli are often seen as “The Japanese Disney” but that doesn’t do them justice. They do animated films, usually but not always aimed at children. It difficult to judge sometimes as their ideas of what’s suitable for children can differ from western ideas.
Their range of work is more diverse, more idiosyncratic than Disney and even more so than Pixar. They deal with themes of greater maturity and in doing so the lighter moments by contrast can feel warmer. At the same time in their more epic works, the battles between good and evil are a little greyer. It’s rare that you’ll find an entirely evil antagonist.
The main creative forces behind Ghibli are Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata though with a few being taken on by other directors, and more recently, Miyazaki’s son Goro has taken up directing some of their films. Takahata hasn’t had as much to do with them for a while, but he’s tended to experimental one, to Miyazaki who prolifically delivers most of the studio’s works, though they have always been about collaboration.
My Neighbour Totoro.
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki. 1988
I’ve talked a bit about it already, but it’s main beauty lies in how it captures childhood and what it doesn’t do. In American animation the children could very easily be bratty and annoying, but here they feel charming and adorable. It’s also intriguing for the way it handles the magical elements. The father indulges the children’s belief they’ve found the magical Totoro creatures. It’s ambiguous whether they really believe the children have seen these magical creatures. But the father ultimately lets them believe and doesn’t doubt them. This is a more realistic depiction than getting angry with them and telling them these creatures don’t exist - which you can imagine happening in animation from other cultures.
There are more serious themes as well, as the families mother is suffering from an illness in hospital. She’s expected to recover, but it dangles the possibility that she could die. The concept of illness serves as pretty much the only antagonist in the movie. It’s a world free of evil characters.
But it trusts children to be mature enough to handle its darker themes and understand them. This lack of condescension means it can appeal to all audiences without a need to sneak in pop-cultural references that only adults get.
Kiki’s Delivery Service
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki 1989.
One of the other differences in Ghibli’s films over western films is an ability to utilize young female characters. And no not in a way that’s at all sexualized. Kiki is a witch who on her 14th birthday as part of her training must leave her parents and move elsewhere to try and make it on her own to develop her skills. As quite typical of Ghibli young female characters, she’s a determined, resourceful with good intentions that are maybe a little set back by her naivety. It’s refreshing to have characters like this be such a focus of their films and be depicted in this way. Delivery Service is probably one of the more slight Ghibli works, but also a very warm and charming one. In the English dub, Phil Hartman plays her cat; only witches are able to understand cats, in a nice expansion on the mythology of witches with cats. Although I have to say it feels a bit jarring tonally. He seems a little too wisecracking for this world.
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki. 2008.
One concept in quite a few Ghibli films is to subvert traditional stories and fairy tales. Ponyo is a twisted take on The Little Mermaid. It does the Ghibli thing of living in a realtively innocent and peaceful world. There isn’t an evil queen or anyone in the undersea world, just someone who has to take a very harsh but fair attitude towards keeping the sea in balance. And in this case the love story occurs between two rather adorable young children. And the human/fish hybrid isn’t exactly a mermaid, but something a bit different. Iit’s the boy that lives underwater that wants to become human. It’s not their most original or daring work, but it’s a very warm and uplifting world. It feels quite similar to Totoro in a lot of ways, albeit a slightly safer, faster version.
The Secret World of Arrietty
Dir: Hiromasa Yonebayashi. 2010
For me, this is the best non Miyazaki or Takahata work. There’s some utterly beautiful animation of the intricacies of gardens leaves and grass blowing in the wind, animation of insects and The interiors walls of the house. Like Ponyo, it subverts a traditional story, in this case the borrowers and it tells the story more from the perspective of the little people rather than the humans. But it tackles other more serious films of debilitating illnesses there’s again some parallels with Totoro that I won’t get into for fear of spoiling too much. The score is beautiful as well, and it gets away from the traditional Japanese scoring and utilizes a more Celtic sound from French singer and harpist Cécile Corbel, who uses English Language vocals on some tracks even in the Japanese dub. It’s one of their more small scale works, set in one house and in its garden for the most part. But it’s one their more emotionally resonant work. One of my favourites.
I'll continue to add to these reviews over the weeks.