Spirited Away: a lavish film representing the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and the start of its decline

Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” (2001)

In many ways, “Spirited Away” represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and innovation, and the beginning of its decline as a creator of imaginative anime films aimed at children and families. Technically the film cannot be faulted and its production values are very high, colourful and lavish, even overdone. Its narrative is easy to follow and its theme of a young girl who learns responsibility and caring for others, and who matures a great deal during her Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, will be apparent to most people. There is a definite message about caring for the natural environment and a condemnation of capitalist society and the ways in which it corrupts people with easy wealth. At the same time, I feel that the film lacks zest and a carefree quality that was present in earlier Studio Ghibli films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, and that the plot’s resolution gives it a suffocating circular hermetic quality and condemns its young heroine Chihiro to living in a world that will deny her further spiritual and moral development.

Chihiro is delivered unexpectedly into the fantasy world by her parents when they lose their way to their new home in a new semi-rural community and stop at the wall of what they believe is a theme park. The three enter the place and the parents come across a sumptuous buffet which they tuck into without hesitation. The adults are turned into pigs and Chihiro is forced to appeal to strangers such as a young boy called Haku within the fortress for help. The fortress is actually a bath-house for spirits and to survive, Chihiro has to apply for a job there. Her employer is the witch Yubaba who steals the girl’s name on the contract and forces her to answer to the name of Sen. Sen is forced to undertake the toughest and dirtiest jobs such as helping a filthy river god to bath and divest itself of accumulated pollution and junk (with hilarious results) but almost comes a cropper when she allows a mysterious spirit called No Face to enter the bath-house and cause havoc and chaos when it tries to buy her affections with gold it conjures up and instead turns into a voracious monster gobbling up food and bath-house staff alike.

By chance and through the kindness of the other bath-house employees, Sen learns that Yubaba has Haku under an evil spell and she breaks the spell by returning a stolen gold seal to Yubaba’s kindly identical twin sister Zeniba. To do this, she has to travel all day and all night by train over a vast sea with No Face who has sobered up from his manic eating and vomiting spree. She helps Yubaba’s spoilt sumo-wrestler baby as well and the baby becomes an ally of hers. Through her ordeals and adventures, Sen learns love and discovers the true nature of Haku, and together they work to break her contract with Yubaba and force Yubaba to restore her true name and release her parents from their porcine forms before they are sent to the abattoir.

Some parts of the plot are a bit wonky – it’s never clear as to why Chihiro’s parents start munching away on food in an apparently abandoned restaurant, and Chihiro’s own transformation from spoilt brat to dependable young woman, and the admiration and respect she gains as a result from the other bath-house workers, is a bit too speedy for my liking – but the plot is clear enough and proceeds leisurely and gracefully from start to finish. Japanese cultural tradition is laid very thickly and the nostalgia that Miyazaki feels for a lost pre-1867 world is very real. Haku’s transformation from boy to dragon and back again hints at a shamanist past in Japan. Quirky Japanese humour is evident in such characters as the giant crybaby sumo-wrestler child and the guide that takes Chihiro and No Face to Zeniba’s cottage.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the film’s richly layered style, the didactic messages it delivers and its conservative view of the world, “Spirited Away” seems very overwrought for a story that probably needs a more minimalist style. The initial shock of seeing the huge bath-house and the unusual clients it attracts gives way to the mundane realisation that Yubaba’s workers are as much exploited and trapped as Chihiro and Haku are – yet in all the shenanigans the two youngsters are forced to undergo, there’s no indication that they want to or try to help the workers overthrow their tyrannical employer and institute a form of workers’ democracy. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 10-year-old girl and an equally young water spirit (not to mention all the other nature spirits who patronise the bath-house) to know anything much about socialism and lead a revolution that will throw out Yubaba and force her either to treat the workers fairly or to go into exile. This means that at the end of the film, Chihiro is reunited with two adults who learn nothing from their error and are completely oblivious to their daughter’s new ways, and it would seem that the bath-house will continue to labour under Yubaba’s capricious rule. Chihiro and Haku part in a way that suggests they will never see each other again, though Haku may continue to think about the girl and treasure his memories of her.

The film perhaps would have worked better if Chihiro and Haku had been older, and a real love story allowed to develop between the two. The two by their example would have inspired the bath-house workers to rise up against Yubaba and send her packing. Chihiro’s parents would have been allowed to make amends for their greed and everyone would have learned something about the nature of the capitalist society that encourages selfishness, undermines loyalty and co-operation, and ultimately corrodes traditional Japanese values and customs. The ending could have been … well, open-ended, with Chihiro and her parents on the brink of choosing whether to return to their humdrum suburban lives working for The Man or remain in a vivid world that promises real values and a more authentic way of living and being.

The Wind Rises: a dishonest, cowardly film that supports current Japanese militarism

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises / Kaze tachinu” (2013)

Miyazaki’s swansong film is a fictional biography of  aeroplane designer and engineer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 and which was used in other aerial including kamikaze campaigns by Japan in World War II. The film is curiously devoid of the historical context from which it arises and I suspect the director is not fully aware of how much the central character of Horikoshi and his career are a banal reflection of his own. There’s also an underlying theme which has been present throughout Miyazaki’s work since “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and that is a spiritual one: the impermanence of life, the thin line between physical reality and the world of dreams, of transcendence beyond the physical, which also turns out to be the world of death.

Horikoshi might be an odd choice for a subject of a farewell piece. The film though manages to reference a number of other Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films in several scenes and motifs that are threaded throughout: one can find very subtle reminders of flicks like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Laputa: Island in the Sky” and even more nature-themed films like “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”. The Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni who inspires Horikoshi and is the object of the Japanese man’s hero-worship might have stepped straight out of the Studio Ghibli classic “Porcorosso”. There’s not much here that Miyazaki hasn’t done before in style of animation – if anything, his depiction of human beings is still as cartoonish as it was nearly 30 years ago in “Nausicaa …” – and in some ways he’s even gone backward in the way he has placed female characters in positions of passivity and subservience to men. The film also has some personal resonance for Miyazaki as his father once ran a factory that produced parts for Horikoshi’s planes.

The film starts with Horikoshi as a young boy dreaming of being a pilot; unfortunately he wears glasses, and his dream goes awry. In a second dream, he meets Caproni who is surprised that a young Japanese boy has intruded into his dream but then realises that they both share a love of aeroplanes. Caproni tells Horikoshi that designing and building planes are better than flying them and Horikoshi, waking up, resolves that he will become an aeronautical engineer. To that end, he applies himself zealously to his studies. In the meantime, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing conflagration that all but consumes Tokyo pass him by but not before he unexpectedly meets a very young girl and her mother whom he helps to safety.

Time flies and Horikoshi, after a rough start with a plane design company that crashes during the Great Depression, ends up working for a company that makes planes for the Japanese military. He designs a military plane for a naval competition but it fails to pass and his employer sends him away on holiday. During this rest, Horikoshi is reunited with Naoko, whom he helped years ago, and they fall in love and become engaged in spite of the fact that she is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. A German tourist warns Horikoshi of the perils of working for an authoritarian and militaristic government.

Horikoshi enjoys renown for designing a fighter plane that surpasses current German technology and is the pride and joy of Japan. However this renown is short-lived as is also his marriage to Naoko. Horikoshi lives to regret the destruction that his invention, with all the work and sacrifice that have gone into it, has brought to the world. That he continues to live is due to the hopes and trust Naoko has invested in him and to the message that Caproni brings to him in a dream: that though he (Horikoshi) has invested and exhausted his creativity in a being that was beautiful but which brought hell to humanity, nonetheless he lived to see his dreams come true.

The historical setting and Horikoshi’s career provide opportunities to question Japan’s militaristic ambitions then (1920s – 1940s) and now but Miyazaki adopts a very peculiarly ahistorical stance in the way he deals with episodes in Horikoshi’s early life and career. The depiction of the Great Kanto earthquake and the fire that destroyed Tokyo in the quake’s immediate aftermath are bloodless and matter-of-fact; there is no sense of the panic that must have swept through the fleeing crowds – in fact everyone treats the catastrophe with calm and leaves the devastation in an orderly fashion! Perhaps this treatment is deliberate to illustrate the all-consuming nature of Horikoshi’s obsession; episodes in the film dealing with his friendships with fellow work colleague Honjo and his superiors suggest that Horikoshi is indeed oblivious to insidious changes in society around him. However there can be no such excuse for the film’s jump from the time of Naoko’s death (which must have been some time during the late 1930s) to the period just after 1945, when Horikoshi walks through a field of destroyed Japanese military planes and gazes down on Tokyo once again destroyed, this time by Allied war planes visiting total destruction as revenge for the Pearl Harbour attacks. An entire war spanning half the world in which tens of millions died in battle, suffered poverty and starvation, and were subjected to torture, rape, mutilation and hideous medical experimentation at the hands of the Japanese, and still undergo anguish because of Japan’s reluctance to apologise for war crimes, has been overlooked.

The character of Jiro is poorly developed and not likely to appeal to a wide audience. This could have been the film’s strength: Jiro’s colourless personality may be taken to represent the everyday worker bee in Japanese society who does as s/he is told, keeps his/her head down and rarely complains or speaks out. His/her life is spent in work and diligent obedience and is curiously detached from society even though his/her concerns revolve around the group and maintaining the correct relations with others. Apathy and lack of involvement in political, social and economic concerns are hallmarks of such worker bees. If anything, such people tend to be political / social / economic conservatives. The relationship with Naoko is a stereotyped one that might have sprung out of a 19th century Italian opera. Even so, when Jiro is forced to see the consequences that his work and creations have brought to Japan, and to know that there is not much he can do to atone for the damage done, his reaction is bloodless; he is unable to bring himself to express contrition. His god Caproni can no longer help or inspire him and the spirit of Naoko, superficially comforting, drifts away to leave Jiro in an existential hole.

“The Wind Rises” could have been a great film that treats seriously the responsibility of all individuals to question their roles in society, how the work they do may or may not be advancing human society, and how they might be blinded by personal ambition and egotism and be subject to manipulation by others or government into pathways that lead to destruction. Instead Miyazaki has avoided asking hard questions of himself and others in depicting his characters as robots and the way they proceed through their lives as cut off from the currents flowing through Japanese politics, society and economy.

I feel quite bad at having been taken in by the film’s beauty and the pathos of Naoko’s suffering and death; I now believe that this is a dishonest and cowardly film that insults the millions of victims of Japan’s rise to power and crushing defeat in the 1930s and World War II. What makes it worse is that as I write, Japan under Shinzo Abe’s government and with the approval and push of an incompetent US government, itself not content with paying and funding fascists in Ukraine to oust President Yanukovych or arming jihadi fighters in Syria against President Assad, has adopted a more militaristic and aggressive approach and is quietly pursuing more nuclear energy production, with a view perhaps to manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear power, even after the meltdown disaster at Fukushima in 2011. “The Wind Rises” could have served as a warning to Japan not to pursue such militarism ever again.

 

Laputa, Castle in the Sky: a joyful adventure film with an earnest social responsibility message

Hayao Miyazaki, “Laputa, Castle in the Sky / Tenko no shiro Ryaputa” (1986)

One of Studio Ghibli’s great joys, this film has everything you could possibly want: a poor orphan boy’s dream of flying and of seeing a magical island paradise in the sky fulfilled; a girl lost and found who is the heir to a long-vanished civilisation; sky pirates with hearts of gold; and a sinister government agent ready to betray anyone and everyone in his monomaniacal desire to harness a secret power to rule the earth. Throw in a message about the use and misuse of powerful technology and a lesson on how to handle great knowledge and energy weapons responsibly, and you have yourself a wondrous family movie that stands the test of time nearly 30 years after it was made. That’s “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” in a nutshell.

All right, a bit more detail is needed: the orphaned miner’s son Pazu finds a young girl, Sheeta, apparently fallen from the sky and saved by a mysterious blue crystal on a necklace she wears around her neck. No sooner have they become acquainted than they are on the run from sky pirates led by elderly matriarch Dola and government forces led by Muska the spy. The two children literally go on a rollercoaster ride down a train track into a mine, then into a garrison that’s torn apart by a giant robot, thence into a flying pirate ship and a tiny glider plane, to land on a floating island high in the atmosphere powered by an ancient technology utilising a strange mineral element. Pazu discovers that the legend of Laputa his long-dead parents told him is true and Sheeta learns about her family heritage and the nature of her crystal and its source of power.

Pitched at a general family audience, the film is relatively uncomplicated compared to some of Studio Ghibli’s other films like “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” and “Princess Mononoke” and there is not such an epic feel to it. Characters tend to be one-dimensional and quite conservative in their portrayal, and the princess Sheeta is less independent and coherent than most of Miyazaki’s famous pre-teen / teenage heroines. There’s just enough ambiguity in the film to satisfy adult watchers who can fill in patches in the narrative with their own imaginations and to intrigue children wondering at the immense knowledge and command of technology the Laputans had, why they decided to abandon this technology and their powers, and why the Laputan craft is destroyed, leaving behind a giant floating tree that presumably will have to rely on storm clouds for the rest of its life for water. The film deteriorates into a series of clichés in its last half hour in order to resolve the plot and drive home its earnest anti-war message about how humans must use the resources of Earth wisely and with love and compassion for their fellow beings.

As is usual for Studio Ghibli films, the visual details and backgrounds are stunning in their beauty and the alt-world steampunk technology is at once original, inventive and faithful to the style of 19th-century steam-age Victorian technology before it leapt onto air travel decades before the Orville brothers took off in their little plane. The most inventive and memorable scenes in the film are those in which Pazu and Sheeta in their tiny glider are forced to separate from the pirate mother-ship and dive into the storm circling Laputa: the blackness illuminated by lightning and the terror and wonder on Pazu’s face close up are very impressive. On the other hand, the drawing and portrayal of the characters varies from good to mediocre: Pazu is called upon to perform endless feats of strength and endurance without taking so much as a sip of water, let alone a swag of performance-enhancing energy pills, and the pirates might have come straight out of old 1960s TV adventures of “Astroboy”.

The major letdown with the film is the schmaltzy movie soundtrack music which is par for the course for Japanese family movies.

As it’s pitched to young children, “Laputa …” delivers less complexity than other Studio Ghibli creations and does not immerse viewers as fully but it is one of the studio’s most joyful pictures.

 

 

 

Arrietty: disheartening social conservatism and narrow prospects for a plucky heroine mar a charming film

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, “Arrietty / Karu-gurashi no Arrietti” (2010)

A charming offering from Studio Ghibli, based loosely on Mary Norton’s novel “The Borrowers”, this film is beautiful yet melancholy with themes of children on the verge of adolescence and a promise of love dashed, and a reconciliation between humans and nature, with all that that might promise, thwarted by ties of family and tradition. Sho is a young boy sent to live in the countryside with his grandmother to rest before major heart surgery, his parents having divorced long ago and with very little time for their son for reasons particular to them. During his stay he learns of a family secret: that the mansion his grandmother inherited from her parents has been host to a family or families of little people no bigger than the proverbial grasshopper’s knee. As it turns out, a tiny family does live below the house: Arrietty and her parents have made a comfortable home and eke out a living taking bits and pieces from the family mansion at night when everyone is asleep. However during her first night foray with her dad Pod, Arrietty is accidentally seen by Sho. Over the next several days, Arrietty and Sho form a friendship but inquisitive housekeeper Haru, spying on Sho, discovers the little people’s home and devises her own scheme to flush them out. Fearful of the human “beans” and their possible intentions towards them, Pod and Arrietty’s mother Homily make arrangements to leave their home and migrate to a new territory where they hope to meet others of their kind.

Let’s get the best and the worst bits out first: The film’s main joys are to be found in the detailed visual backgrounds of lush green nature and an ambient soundtrack of chirping crickets suggesting a late summer atmosphere in which days are hot, humid and often rainy. On the other hand, the musical soundtrack by Breton singer / harpist Cecile Corbel, whose style initially seems appropriate to the film’s whimsical subject and lightly serious scope, is instead loud, intrusive and saccharine. The animation hasn’t significantly advanced since the early days of “Nausicaa and the Valley of Winds” – Arrietty’s dress even flips up a bit to show off her pants – and a brief appearance is made by sinister rats, drawn to evoke the malevolence of the black monsters encountered in the likes of “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”, which turn out to be the film’s red(-eyed) herring. Apart from these self-references, Studio Ghibli thankfully makes no other attempts to butcher motifs from previous works to insert into “Arrietty”.

That said, we can go on with the plot and narrative which skilfully combine beneficent and sinister aspects of both human and Borrower nature: both Sho and the housekeeper Haru are curious about the Borrowers and wish them no harm but whereas Sho desires to help them in their precarious existence on the margins of human activity, Haru wants to keep them as pets and curiosities, perhaps to show off to friends or to treat as a little circus. Sho’s grandmother exemplifies a different attitude: she has long had a doll’s house ready for the Borrowers to accept and we must accept her generosity at face value; but it is possible that she also views the Borrowers as a secret family curiosity, something to pass down to younger people as a weird heirloom. The Borrowers for their part shun contact with humans to the extent that when an opportunity for reconciliation and a better, more mutual understanding is offered to them, they reject it and force Arrietty to bow to family ties and the need to be with others of their kind.

Character development is weak and one-dimensional and the friendship between Arrietty and Sho appears not so deep that Arrietty will necessarily remember the boy. He may well remember her as giving him hope and courage for the future. Arrietty is a typical plucky Miyazaki heroine but the film doesn’t give her much to play on her strengths and parents Pod and Homily play family man and woman stereotypes: the patriarch as physically strong, stoic and whose decision is final, the mother as kitchen-bound, fearful and hysterical. Sho is a quiet, sensitive boy who meekly accepts what Fate dishes out to him and Arrietty, and the elderly, child-like Haru is played for slapstick laughs.

I can’t see much really to recommend “Arrietty” to a family audience: the social conservatism is disheartening and it seems Studio Ghibli has all but given up on hope for young people to question and change their society, be it human or Borrower, in a way that accepts other cultures and points of view as equal and valid as their own. The message seems to be that the Borrowers as a metaphor for First Nations are doomed to die out anyway due to the sheer size of human populations compared to the number of Borrowers left: what a despairing message to leave with young viewers. The future for Arrietty herself looks dismal: settlement in an unknown territory might sound good in the short term but there’s the possibility that her family will find it necessary to uproot itself again and any new friends the girl makes will have to be abandoned and forgotten like Sho. Rootlessness will always be this family’s lot. Marriage to Spiller, a Borrower befriended by Pod, beckons and Arrietty will be expected to settle down to Homily’s level. The treatment of adult women like Homily, Haru, the grandmother and Sho’s unseen mother, however much played for laughs, is cruel to them and to Arrietty’s prospects.

Howl’s Moving Castle: cut-and-paste job of previous Studio Ghibli films masks a conservative message for women and girls

Hayao Miyazaki, “Howl’s Moving Castle” (2005)

Up to and including “Spirited Away”, the animated films by Studio Ghibli are of a high standard both technically and in spirit. With “Howl’s Moving Castle”, the soulful quality of the earlier films that peaked with “Princess Mononoke” disappears and what we get is an empty shell of a story that exploits typical Studio Ghibli motifs and themes and the studio’s technical virtuosity. All the familiar devices of earlier films – a young female protagonist on the verge of adulthood, elderly women, a flawed hero with shamanic characteristics, heroes and villains manipulated by more powerful characters of uncertain quality, sophisticated flying technology in an alternative 19th-century steampunk world – are worked over in a fantasy aimed (cynically it seems to me) at a mainstream Western audience and the result looks very cheesy and manipulative with an ulterior message that superficially celebrates female bravery but channels it into socially restrictive roles.

The story’s heroine is a plain-jane working-class hat-maker called Sophie who accidentally meets a young wizard Howl and so arouses the jealousy of the Witch of the Waste who turns her into an old woman. Sophie runs away and meets a scarecrow called Turnip who takes her to Howl’s over-sized trailer-park home. Here she meets a fire demon called Calcifer and Howl’s child assistant Markl. Sophie insinuates herself into Calcifer, Markl and Howl’s lives by claiming to be a cleaning-woman and through her association with the unlikely trio, is drawn into a war between Howl’s country and an enemy realm missing its Crown Prince; during the film’s course the war also moves into Sophie’s country. Howl is forced to participate in this war at the cost of eventually losing his humanity through repeated transformations into a bird creature. Sophie comes to realise that Howl and the Witch of the Waste are pawns of more powerful forces, represented in part by Madame Suliman, the former mentor of Howl, and Sophie’s work for the rest of the film is cut out trying to locate Howl’s missing heart, the mysterious connection between Howl and Calcifer, ending the war and locating the missing Crown Prince.

Working out all the different strands of the film and connecting them together might take viewers 2 – 3 viewings which would expose them to an excess of saccharine musical schmaltz and a deadly “love conquers all” radiation cloud in the tradition of Beauty-and-the-Beast stories. I think if I had to sit through this film again, my hair and teeth will start falling out, my skin will break out into ulcers and bruises will mysteriously appear and spread. Characters are poorly developed and the love Sophie feels for the feckless Howl is so unbelievable as to be laughable; she would have been better off taking her chances with Turnip who performs a noble act of voluntary self-sacrifice in comparison with Howl who fights because he is compelled to, not out of free will.

The war merely forms a backdrop to the events and all the various characters can do is try to stop it without understanding anything about the lead-up to it and why Suliman forces Howl to do her dirty work; or participate in it. Even the animation of the war and its participants looks like a cut-and-paste job of previous Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films like “Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds”, “Porcorosso”, “Laputa: Castle in the Sky” and “Princess Mononoke”: several flying machines look like those giant bug monsters of “Nausicaa …” with wing-flaps added as an afterthought. Backgrounds are visually gorgeous at first but turn out to be generic according to the role they have to play so, for example, town scenes have a dreamy alternative-universe quality similar to scenes in “Kiki’s Delivery Service” which takes place in a similar alternative 1950s universe that might well follow on in the future from “Howl’s Moving Castle”.

The film is too long and its story is too intricate to work as a family film, the characters are shallow and implausible, the animation is cynically overwhelming and unoriginal. Worst of all is the film’s message about what happens to girls eventually: they get to play brave heroines for a brief while and once they are adults, they can be either beautiful scheming bitches like Suliman or domestic-goddess workaholics like the geriatric Sophie slaving away for love. Issues like the nature of war – Miyazaki made the movie partly in protest at the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 – are sidelined so much that all the eye-blinking in the world couldn’t make them more missed. No way in the world would I recommend this film for families with young daughters. I feel so cheated having seen it.

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service: charming film about maturity, finding oneself and never giving up hope

Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

A charming coming-of-age film about a young witch who undergoes a series of challenges, not the least of which is learning to trust in her inner self, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” likely had a lot of personal significance for its creator Miyazaki: previous films were mostly aimed at a very young audience and the films that came after “Kiki …” were more epic and featured very complex story-telling. “Kiki …” might be considered transitional between early Miyazaki and later Miyazaki with some of the features of both: on the one hand it focusses on personal issues and features mostly ordinary characters, albeit ones with dreams or an unusual talent and on the other hand there are elements of a wider fantasy world that would be expanded on in future Miyazaki projects.

On turning thirteen, the young witch Kiki must fly out into the world as part of her training as a witch and adopt a community as her own where she has to develop a special talent. Arriving at a seaside town somewhere in Europe – the look and feel of the town suggests the 1950’s or 1960’s as might be portrayed in a Jacques Tati movie – Kiki is befriended by a couple who run a bakery and who offer her lodgings. With the help  of her familiar, a black cat called Jiji, Kiki sets up a courier service for her hosts to deliver bread and cakes to their customers. She meets helpful folks like the teenage boy Tombo who dreams of flying, an artist Ursula who wants to paint a picture of Kiki and two elderly ladies who bake at home. With the main characters established, the slim plot presents a series of tests for Kiki to learn how to live with strangers, where she fits into the town that accepts her and ultimately find herself.

The glories of “Kiki …” lie chiefly in its realisation of the world in which Kiki settles: Miyazaki and his creative team have brought a beautiful and picturesque town with its own distinctive atmosphere into being. The pace of life might be more frenetic than it should be and there’s no Latin flair about the seaside town – the background music suggests the resorts of Mediterranean France and Italy were the inspiration for the town though according to Wikipedia the town of Visby in Sweden was the actual inspiration – but there’s a definite summer-holiday feel about the place. Colours are vibrant and the landscapes, historic houses and urban scenes with the clock-tower and the traffic in the narrow streets are very detailed and look realistic. Yet there’s a dreamy quality to the town where in spite of the traffic there’s not much air pollution and the skies look very clean. At the very least one can believe a small witch can fly in and introduce herself to the people without having to show her papers or spend several years in an asylum for illegal migrants who jump the queues, just as one can also believe later on that sticking giant propellers on the handlebars of a bike will enable it to fly or that dirigibles are floating and buzzing overhead without eliciting noise pollution complaints or concerns about a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

The rather cartoony-looking characters are not very well developed in personality and Kiki can be maddeningly Pollyanna-ish, at least until she becomes self-conscious about her dowdy appearance compared to the wealthy teenagers she sees, resulting in her witchy powers deserting her and causing her depression. Why Tombo should develop a romantic interest in Kiki and Kiki reject him at first is never explained; the romantic sub-plot seems very half-hearted and superficial, based on Tombo’s love of flying and Kiki being suspicious of his friends. Other characters are well-meaning and helpful clones of one another and the couple running the bakery are little more than parent substitutes. Only Ursula the artist and Tombo the dreamer (and later, damsel-dude in distress) offer opportunities for Kiki to grow and mature and trust in herself.

Parts of the plot can seem like afterthoughts, particularly towards the end where Kiki sees the dirigible in trouble on TV and Tombo hanging onto the dirigible’s rope as it floats out of control and crashes into buildings (without causing any fires, one notices). Then it’s Kiki to the rescue! – but can she regain her power of flight in time to rescue Tombo? An interesting sub-plot that might involve a cat and dog becoming friends develops but is ditched in favour of Kiki meeting and working for Ursula.

In all this is a heartwarmer suitable for a young teenage audience who will readily identify with Kiki’s initial chirpiness and pride and learn along with her about dealing with difficult situations and getting along with people. It’s a film about hope and believing in one’s talent and resourcefulness and finding one’s niche and inspiration in life. It may not be as powerful and involved as other Miyazaki films like “Laputa: Island in the Sky”, “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away” but in its downscaled way it’s a thoughtful and intelligent film.

 

Princess Mononoke: flawed epic with ambition and good intentions

Hayao Miyazaki, “Princess Mononoke” (1997)

When I first saw this movie about a decade ago, like everyone else I was bowled over by the stunning animated backgrounds and the techniques used to create very life-like or 3D effects (even though nearly everything was hand-drawn), and the attention Studio Ghibli paid to details so much so that every character had his or her own individual look and hair-style, and even the cooking pots and bowls used had their own distinctive features. On second viewing, this time with the jarring English language soundtrack, “Princess Mononoke” still looks impressive but its defects are easier to pick out: significant characters remain one-dimensional or come into the movie at odd times, almost as an afterthought, and partly as a result the plot is over-stretched and ends up bogged down in its themes and story details. Most viewers shouldn’t have a problem with major battle scenes and plot developments occurring off-screen and being reported after they occur but younger viewers or those with no experience of movies, TV shows and PC games where several actions can occur simultaneously with players focussed on one action or being able to flick between parallel actions, might struggle to keep up with “Princess Mononoke” as it unfolds.

The story takes place from the perspective of a young teenage warrior, Ashitaka, who defends his isolated village clan in a remote part of Japan from a giant boar which wounds him as he brings it down with arrows. The boar is a demon made so by hatred and anger of humans and Ashitaka must find out how the boar was transformed into raging hate and fury if he is to find a cure for his poisoned wound which the village wise woman warns will spread through his body and kill him. He travels to the forests west of his home territory and soon is embroiled in a bitter, ongoing conflict between an industrial and mining settlement called Irontown, led by the aristocratic Lady Eboshi, and the animal guardians of the forests, led by the feral teenage girl San aka Princess Mononoke and her adoptive wolf family. The Irontown inhabitants are clearing the forests on a mountain so they can mine and use the iron ore there but their actions are destroying the animals’ habitat and enraging the boars of whom one became the demon that attacked Ashitaka’s people and wounded him.

Ashitaka gets the answers he needs quickly but getting the actual cure for his infection is a much more complicated problem than he realises, and requires his being able to see the conflict between the humans and the forest creatures from both Lady Eboshi and San’s points of view. He discovers that both sides are under pressure from and are being manipulated by unseen others. He falls in love with San, he has to tolerate others’ decisions and actions even when they bring disaster instead of success, he discovers that even when all seems lost there is always the possibility of renewal and regrowth, and with that possibility, there is hope. As a rite-of-passage / coming-of-age movie, “Princess Mononoke” doesn’t quite succeed as both Ashitaka and San undergo no very significant character development even as those near and dear to them suffer and die. Their romance is lop-sided and San’s rejection of Ashitaka and of humans generally cuts out all but a very slim chance of future reconciliation. Ashitaka accepts change but San is uncomfortable with it and the possibility of their ever meeting again, in spite of promises from them both, is uncertain.

The plot itself runs out of steam coming towards the halfway point of the film and wallows in earnestness over its theme of human transformation of the natural environment through technology, industrialisation and sheer material greed, and the consequences of such a transformation and the forces it may unleash. To the film’s credit, the characters representing the opposing sides of the conflict the theme generates are complex and ambivalent: Lady Eboshi, the “villain”, is a humanitarian who takes the poor and disadvantaged under her wing and puts them to work in her iron forges (though that could be said generally of rapacious corporations that continually move operations from one Third World country to another to take advantage of naive local workers, low wages and political and social conditions that suppress human rights) and the animal guardians of the forests, the “good guys”, think of their own self-interest, refuse to listen to good advice when it comes from a human and fail to co-operate for the benefit of the forests and the Forest Spirit. The Forest Spirit itself is a passive and gentle giant that offers no resistance to the various indignities which include decapitation and death that the humans hurl at it. In addition there are other forces that attempt to pull Lady Eboshi’s strings, notably Jigo and his hunters who plan to make Lady Eboshi do all the work of killing the Forest Spirit and suffer the wrath of the animals while they themselves make off with the deity’s head; and the never-seen Lord Asano whose army attacks and nearly destroys Irontown while Lady Eboshi and Jigo lead her forces into the forest.

It turns out that the Forest Spirit’s death is necessary to effect a cure for Ashitaka’s wound and this suggests also that death as well as life is necessary to sustain Nature. Ashitaka and Lady Eboshi come to their own conclusions about humans and nature living in harmony and significantly Ashitaka elects to remain with Lady Eboshi and the Irontown survivors rather than return to his home village.

With so many characters populating the movie yet having no impact on the workings of the plot – the human-eating apes in particular providing no more than a sinister potential rival to the equally malevolent boars – and the twists of fate that deny Ashitaka’s efforts to find a cure for his infection, there’s enough potential in “Princess Mononoke” for a two-part or even three-part animated mini-series. An origin story for San and some way of reuniting Ashitaka with his clan could be included; and there would be room for both Ashitaka and San to grow and mature psychologically and become true leaders. As it is, “Princess Mononoke”, with all its imperfections and loose ends, is still a complex and ambitious epic with good intentions, and viewers should watch it a few times at least to absorb the visual details and beauty.