Tag Archives: Hayao Miyazaki

222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

“It was just too bizarre.

“Honestly, when I watched Spirited Away for the first time back in 2008, I didn’t like it for the same reason as you. I just found it too weird.”

–IMDB message board dissenters on Spirited Away

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Rumi Hiiragi, Miyu Irino, Mari Natsuki; , Jason Marsden, (English dub)

PLOT: While moving to a new town, ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents take a detour to a seemingly abandoned amusement park in rural Japan. Once the sun sets, the park transforms into an otherworldly resort for spirits and gods overseen by the cruel witch Yubaba. Now separated from her parents, Chihiro must learn to survive among an array of weird creatures as she attempts to reunite her family and return home.

Still from Spirited Away (2001)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 1998, after completing Princess Mononoke. He came out of retirement in 2001 to make Spirited Away.
  • Disney Studios had distributed Studio Ghibli’s previous film, Princess Mononoke, in the United States, with disappointing results. They put little money into marketing the film, but strong reviews and word of mouth turned it into a hit, and Disney’s partnership with Ghibli was cemented from that point on.
  • Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (along with 52 wins granted by other organizations).
  • Spirited Away is the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan.
  • Hayao Miyazaki had announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in 2001, after completing Spirited Away. He came out of retirement in 2004 to make Howl’s Moving Castle.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Lured into the park by a delicious scent, Chihiro’s parents come upon a vacant restaurant filled with sumptuous, exotic dishes. The two immediately begin to fill their plates, ignoring their daughter’s worries that they’ll be punished for taking the food. After the park begins its transformation, Chihiro returns to find her parents bloated and hunched over piles of scraps. She tries to warn her father about what is happening, but when he looks at her she sees only the sweating, engorged face of a pig. The grunting pig ignores Chihiro and climbs over the restaurant’s counter, only to be swatted away by an unseen figure’s reptilian arm. The pig then crashes to the ground with a primal squeal, frightening Chihiro as she cries out for her parents and runs into a street filled with tall, anonymous ghosts.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Pig parents; “No Face” eats; three heads and a giant baby

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki plays on the normal fears of lost children as the basis for an outlandish, frightening fantasy about a young girl being thrust into the incomprehensible life of an adult. The imagination of the setting is so immense that it seems to dwarf the film itself, suggesting a fully realized universe of magic and monsters with borders that extend far beyond the frame of the story.


Disney Trailer for Spirited Away

COMMENTS: Spirited Away begins with the main character, Chihiro, Continue reading 222. SPIRITED AWAY (2001)

CAPSULE: PORCO ROSSO (1992)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of , Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Susan Egan (English dub)

PLOT: A bounty-hunting pig-man (a victim of an unexplained curse) flies his seaplane through the Adriatic between World Wars, battling air pirates and a hotshot American rival.

Still from Porco Rosso (1992)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it has its strange, and its sublime, moments, I would rate this as flying pig oddity as relatively minor Miyazaki—which, of course, means it’s still well worth seeking out.

COMMENTS: Porco Rosso is set in a precise, but unreal, historical place and time: the Italian Adriatic, in between the great wars. But its pig-man hero isn’t the only fantastic element here. In this alternate history, the Adriatic sea is its own far-flung multi-island kingdom with its own political intrigues, a realm where seaplane pilots are legendary demigods, like the mythologized gunfighters of Westerns. The local hot spot is a floating hotel only accessible by watercraft, with a valet to parks seaplanes. There are Italian fascists and references to WWI, but this universe evolves out of old movies rather than history: it’s a mixture of Casablanca and romantic aviation movies like Wings or Hell’s Angels, a world where you expect to see the Red Baron and Mata Hari sharing a drink in the corner of a flyboy saloon.

Although with its Humphrey Bogart-esque antihero Porco Rosso often seems more adult-oriented than Miyazaki’s usual fare, at other times the drawing style and caricatures are more indebted to Saturday morning cartoons than his later work. Observe the big-mouthed, howling anime schoolkids, and the cartoonish, kid-like antics of the pirate buffoons, who are drawn as goggles and pillars of teeth surrounded by bristles. Despite the flying duels and machine guns, the danger level here is minimal: no one dies onscreen, and the abducted schoolgirls treat their capture by pirates as a fantastic adventure, hanging out in the gun turret with their captors and screaming “whee!” as they dive off the stranded plane into a giant life preserver. The mixed tones are odd, but Miyazaki makes them harmonize well.

Clearly, the weirdest element of Porco Rosso is its hero’s porcine curse, which is never fully explained and is scarcely even wondered at by the movie’s denizens. Perhaps his piggish visage only reflects the way Porco sees himself. Perhaps the curse is the result of a mystical vision he saw after he was the only survivor of a massive dogfight, where he saw dozens of fighter pilots soaring upwards to heaven. Whatever the cause of his condition, symbolically, his bestiality sets Porco apart from ordinary citizens: “laws don’t mean anything to a pig,” he explains. Still, his snout and porky complexion can’t keep this charismatic pig from having two love interests, and there is an ambiguous suggestion at the ending that he may regain his humanity. I doubt Miyazaki was aware of the English-language idiom “when pigs fly,” meaning something so exceedingly rare as to be impossible, when he conceived Porco Rosso. Still, it’s probably safe to say you’ll enjoy this movie when pigs fly.

In 2015, Disney upgraded Porco Rosso to Blu-ray.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“That a pretty great adventure movie can rest comfortably alongside a strange tale of identity and morality that is itself set against the rise of Fascism is proof enough that we’re in the hands of a master storyteller…”–Tim Brayton, Antagony and Ecstasy (DVD)

LIST CANDIDATE: POM POKO (1994)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: (Disney dub) voices of Maurice LaMarche, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, , Tress MacNeille

PLOT: A community of shapeshifting “racoons” struggle to deal with suburban encroachment on their forest homes, inventing schemes that range from arranging hauntings to all-out war.

Still from Pom Poko (1994)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: To Westerners, much of the weirdness in Pom Poko comes from their unfamiliarity with Japanese folklore; however, there is a far deeper and more affecting strain of strangeness here than can be explained simply by culture clash. The hallucinatory “monster parade” sequence alone could be enough to put Pom Poko over the top.

COMMENTS: Written by and directed by Isao “Grave of the Fireflies” Takahata, Pom Poko was an all-star effort from Studio Ghibli. It’s also one of their most Japanese productions, made with no eye for how it might play for Western audiences, and it’s richer for indulging its indigenous roots. The epic story tracks the struggles of a band of tanuki (translated in the English dub as “racoons,” although the species is more closely related to dogs than to racoons) against the deforestation of their homes by the suburbs expanding outward from Tokyo. The tale embodies Miyazaki’s environmentalist concerns, although the mood is not so much one of activism as it is of melancholy. Since tanuki are spirit creatures, ancient tricksters who transform to play pranks on humans, their decimation symbolizes not only the degradation of the natural world, but also of the spiritual world, whose frontier continually recedes in modern times in the name of progress. The eventual fate of the tanuki is reminiscent of the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as they cede their turn as the dominant culture to Men with reluctant dignity.

The tanuki are famous shapeshifters, and Pom Poko‘s creatures come in at least three forms: the quadrupedal state that we humans are familiar with; the anthropomorphic bipedal form in which they spend most of their time for exposition purposes; and, when they’re in a partying mood, the animals spontaneously shift into happy-faced teddy bears. That’s not counting the infinite variety of shapes gifted tanuki can take with practice; the best of them can even pass among us as humans. Watching their transmogrification training regimen, as young male tanuki show an unflattering aptitude for shifting into female forms, provides much of the comedy in the first few reels. Tanuki, though noble creatures, are also the buffoons of the spirit animal world. The helpful narration explains that they are basically lazy and hedonistic, somewhat gullible (Japanese children are able to trick them into revealing themselves by singing songs), and that they find hamburgers irresistible. Obviously, not all of this is strictly folkloric, but the mixture of legend and anime tropes makes for a surprisingly rich milieu: comic, tragic, and alien all at the same time.

Of course, it’s difficult for Westerners to discuss Takahata‘s tanuki without addressing their oft-prominent testicles, depictions of which have infamously given rise to the movie being described by immature sorts as “that raccoon ball movie.” Even worse than seeing the cartoon testicles is the fact that male tanuki occasionally stretch their scrotums to enormous proportions, large enough to serve as a parachute or a welcome mat for dozens of their fellows. That’s the perfect example of the film’s culture shock value. Other sequences from the film show cross-cultural weirdness, however, like the tanuki’s Nintendo presentation on their shrinking habitat, or the time they lured corporate functionaries into their Escher-esque flying cat shrine to steal a million dollars worth of yen. And the five-minute phantasmagorical “monster parade” of skeletal horses, fire-breathing tigers, and various misshapen yokai must be seen to be believed. Overall, Pom Poko is a remarkable adventure in Japanese mythology that is all the more involving because it makes no concessions to Western audiences.

Disney upgraded Pom Poko to Blu-ray in 2015. The film can be watched in the English dubbed version or in the original Japanese with subtitles.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Quite frankly, if you’re over the age of 12, you’ll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.”–Norm Schrager, AMC (DVD)

CAPSULE: MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING, (Disney dubbed version)

PLOT: Two young girls befriend a forest spirit who lives in a tree near their new country house.

Still from My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: My Neighbor Totoro is somewhat strange, like being dropped into the unfiltered imagination of a six-year old girl. Its kidlike oddness is not sustained enough to thrill adult weirdophiles, however.

COMMENTS: In My Neighbor Totoro, Hayao Miyazaki takes yōkai, Japanese traditional folk monsters, and literalizes them in the only way possible: by making them into real spiritual phenomenon that are only visible to children. None of the adults in the movie, even Satsuki and Mei’s university professor father, doubt the real existence of the yōkai; a grandmotherly character confesses that she could see them when she was young, but lost the ability with age. This strategy creates a pleasant truce between kids and adults as to the reality of these fairy creatures. Grownups can’t see or interact with Totoro or his friends, but they don’t denigrate or patronize kids for believing in them. The girls’ first encounter with the mythical creatures is in the form of “soot sprites” who huddle in the dark corners of the long-vacant country home. Later, Mei, the younger of the girls, will encounter a couple of miniature troll-creatures (these mini-Totoro’s are never explained); following them leads her inside a hollow camphor tree, where she finds the massive plush Totoro slumbering, and immediately befriends him. Later, at a rainy bus stop, Satsuki meets Totoro, too. Impressed by her offer of an umbrella, he introduces her to the film’s strangest invention, the Catbus: literally, a fuzzy bus with a tail and a Cheshire cat grin. Catbus is a fusion of the organic and the mechanical, a newfangled yōkai for the 20th century. Although there are magical nights when the girls soar above the treetops with Totoro and friends, not a lot of the movie’s running time is actually devoted to fantastical encounters with yōkai. Most of the time, we are engaged in the girls’ domestic life with their doting dad, and in observing the bucolic vistas of a Japanese country village. There is a distant stressor in the girls’ sick mom, but for the most part their days are spent happily, exploring the countryside and doing cartwheels among the flowers. Although some adults may find the lack of expected tension and conflict in the story perplexing and unfamiliar, Miyazaki’s technique strikes a chord with young children across cultures. What four- to eight-year-old girl wouldn’t want to have a huge, friendly, protective teddy bear like Totoro as a friend to recline and rely on? Totoro doesn’t have bad guys or moments of serious jeopardy because its ultimate message to kids is that they don’t have to be scared by life’s challenges and changes; the unknown isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.

Although Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli has long been intimately associated with its current distributor, Walt Disney, in the English speaking world, the fact is that Totoro‘s first American distributor was none other than the low-budget exploitationeers . The scant negative reviews for the film that can be found almost all relate to the Troma theatrical release. It’s not clear whether this is because Troma’s dub job detracted from Miyazaki’s magic, or whether Disney’s seal of approval predisposed critics to approve of the effort. Disney acquired the rights to this early feature in 2006 and re-dubbed the film with a better-known vocal cast. Meanwhile, Totoro himself became so popular that he was incorporated into Studio Ghibli’s logo, becoming Japan’s equivalent of Mickey Mouse.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film evinces a disorienting combination of cultures that produces a nowhere land more confused than fascinating.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (Troma theatrical version)

146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

“I love the animation, ’cause it’s very magical and very… fantapsychological?”—12-year old Josh Hutcherson (who played Markl) on Howl’s Moving Castle

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Emily Mortimer, Jean Simmons, , Billy Crystal, (US dubbed version)

PLOT: Sophie is an 18-year old girl who works in her mother’s hat shop in a kingdom where wizards exist alongside flying airships. One day a witch strides into the shop and curses the girl, turning her into an old woman. Sophie runs away from home and finds work as a housekeeper for the wizard Howl, who lives in a magical wandering castle powered by a captive fire demon.

Still from Howl's Moving Castle (2004)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was loosely based on the children’s novel of the same name by English writer Diana Wynne Jones.
  • Miyazaki had announced his retirement from directing feature films after 2001’s Spirited Away, but stepped up to complete this project after the original director quit over creative differences.
  • One of the major changes from the novel is that the action is now set during a senseless war. Pacifist Miyazaki added the war subplot to express his anger at the United States-led invasion of Iraq.
  • In the Japanese version the same actress (Chieko Baishô) voices both young and old Sophie; in the English dub the duties were split between Emily Mortimer (young) and Jean Simmons (old).
  • Howl was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (losing to the Wallace and Gromit feature Curse of the Were-Rabbit).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, it’s Howl’s moving castle, as clinking, clanking, collection of caliginous cartoon junk as ever animated. The castle is a random assortment of turrets, gangways, girders, smokestacks, and bat wing fins, with cottages attached at various points, lurching along precariously on mechanized chicken legs like some replica of Baba Yaga’s hut commissioned by a mad steampunk billionaire.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Take witches and wizards and place them inside a world with low-tech Victorian technology, and you have a steampunk fantasy. Now, filter that peculiarly Western brew through Japanese sensibilities, and add in Hayao Miyazaki’s flair for spectacle and childlike surrealism, and you end up with a story containing so many strata of magic that it approaches the casual incoherence of classic folk tales.


Disney American dub trailer for Howl’s Moving Castle

COMMENTS: Although set in a mythical European milieu—the picturesque cobblestone streets and red-trousered dragoons with handlebar Continue reading 146. HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE (2004)

CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

Tenku no shiro Laputa; AKA Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING (U.S. Dubbed Version): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman

PLOT: A girl who falls from the sky and an orphaned boy search together for a legendary floating

Still from Castle in the Sky (1986)

city while being chased by flying pirates and a secret airborne government agency.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s an enthralling and magical children’s adventure, Castle in the Sky is also one of the more conventional fantasies in the catalog of a director whose work only flirts with weirdness.

COMMENTS: Castle in the Sky plays so much like an adaptation of a classic Western children’s book that it’s a surprise to learn that Japanese Hayao Miyazaki wrote the story basically from scratch. (The base concept of the floating city of Laputa is borrowed from Johnathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels, so a European literary connection does exist). Castle is epic in scope, featuring lost cities, magical artifacts, hidden destinies, and deadly giant robots; and yet, it’s all told from a child’s-eye view. After a lengthy earthbound prologue, most of the important action happens in an airy imaginary realm: not just in the floating city itself, but also in a stratosphere full of massive floating battleships, eternally aloft propeller-driven pirate vessels, and dragonfly-shaped personal aircraft. Its the kind of imaginary universe that doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief for kids, who simply assume that adventures like these take place over their heads and above the clouds every day. Although pint-sized, the boy hero, Pazu, is emancipated and on equal footing with grown-ups: he has a full-time job working in the mines and, as an orphan, he’s self-sufficient and lives on his own. Similarly, female lead Sheeta is also free of parents, and is perfectly capable of taking out those taller than she is with a well-placed wine bottle to the back of the head. The fact that there’s a hero for kids of either gender to identify with rates as a plus, though feminists who are keeping count may note that Pazu comes to Sheeta’s rescue a bit more than the other way around. Little girls will doubtlessly see Castle as the story of Sheeta Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

CAPSULE: PONYO [Gake no ue no Ponyo] (2008)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING (AMERICAN DUBBED VERSION): Noah Cyrus, Frankie Jonas, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Betty White

PLOT:  In this Japanese variation on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” a

Still from Ponyo (Gake no ue no Ponyo) (2008)

goldfish with a human face escapes from the undersea lair built by her wizard father and decides she wants to become human when she washes ashore and is adopted as a pet by a little boy.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTPonyo is an imaginative and beautifully drawn fairy tale for children that frequently sacrifices mature logic for emotional effect or visual spectacle, but it’s a bit too safe and cutesy, and more fantastic and childlike than bizarre.  Because it is told from a child’s-eye view and not simplified for adults, some grown-ups may find it weird.

COMMENTSPonyo begins with a descent into an ocean teeming with fish, squid and crustaceans; the picture’s frame becomes an impossibly dense and multi-layered aquarium of submarine life.  When the headstrong goldfish Ponyo wanders away from this underwater Eden, her journey on the back of a jellyfish runs aground when she encounters an equally thick stratum of human detritus and garbage, stirred into a whirlpool by the propellers of passing ships, and ends up washed ashore lodged in a bottle for 5 year-old Sōsuke to find.  There’s a not so subtle ecological message at play here, but Miyazaki never gets preachy, and the main focus of the film is in drawing wondrous moving images that delight a child’s imagination (and look pretty good to adults, too, even if they can’t resonate in quite the same way).  The most mesmerizing of these is newly half-human Ponyo’s gallop atop tsunami waves which turn into fish and melt back into surf as she chases after Sōsuke.  Visions of a luminescent sea goddess and a city of ships drawn to the horizon by an encroaching moon also ensnare the fancy. The animation is deliberately primitive, almost childlike, in style, appropriately looking like a children’s book come to life.  Unfortunately, the story and tone are childlike as well, resulting in a film that entrances kids but lacks a crossover magic for adults.  Grown-ups in the film accept the magic matter-of-factly, as if they were just big kids with driver’s licenses, showing no amazement when a pet turns into a little girl, or when they discover two pre-schoolers piloting their own boat unattended after a flood.  Precociously cute, infatuated with her discovery of the human world, and squealing “I love ham!,” the one-note goldfish herself is a character only a mother or fellow toddler could love.  With Ponyo, Miyazaki has crafted a film that will hypnotize girls aged four to seven.  There’s not much of a story to engage their parents, but they can amuse themselves watching the parade of pretty pastel-colored pictures for ninety minutes, and in trying to recall what it was like when the line between reality and make-believe was as thin as the skin of a bubble.

I confess that I haven’t seen any Miyazaki films previously (everyone has some gaps in their film education).  The revered animator’s most celebrated works like Spirited Away (2001) are supposed to be so fantastic as to be virtually surreal.  With the visual imagination evident in Ponyo, it’s easy to see how, working with material oriented less towards the kindergarten set, another work of his might merit a spot on the list of the 366 best weird movies ever made.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The story sounds weird, and it is weird: Like many of Miyazaki’s previous films,Ponyo is written from a child’s perspective and with a child’s sense of logic… pure fairy-tale surrealism.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald (contemporaneous)