Imagine the saucers I had for eyes upon the discovery that Hollywood’s fabled Egyptian Theatre was hosting a multi-week tribute to the films of Studio Ghibli, and that two longtime favorites were sharing a bill this weekend. Upon hearing the news early Saturday, I told a partner of this and held steadfast that this could be our nocturnal activity. And considering that this new quantity has had little to no knowledge of the works of legendary animators, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, this felt like a brilliant entry point. As both films represent Miyazaki at something of a career turning point (firmly planted between humanist blockbuster maven, and quasi-individualist auteur), the commonalities and breaks seemed just right to allow new eyes to survey what it is that has captured the hearts of animation fans the world over. And while personal feelings have shifted some on these films over the years, it was truly magnificent witnessing these films in their full 35mm glory, complete with scratches, pops, and prolonged silences.
At roughly 7:00pm, we filed on in, and found seats surrounded by fellow attendees. As ideal as the seats were, I was quite impressed by the serious dearth of “anime folk” in the audience. In fact, a great deal of those in the auditorium with us were either fellow cinephiles, the occasional family, and possibly more local animation and effects artist types. The overall feeling was that of a more well-rounded viewership than I have ever been privy to for a screening like this, and that was certainly telling of Ghibli’s impact in the years since Disney/PIxar brought Ghibli’s catalog to the US masses. In a very real way, it felt as if Miyazaki’s works have finally become part of the general fabric of family film in a way that eluded many of us admirers in previous decades. It truly has been a long time since that fateful Cagliostro Castle screening at the Disneyland Hotel, with not only nerds, but parents and kids with eyes aglow at the sheer kinetic artistry gracing that audience.
Truly a long time.
So also imagine my surprise when upon giving Kiki’s Delivery Service(1989) the nth viewing, I found a great deal more to derive personally from it than I had expected. Even in the many years since first watching it, there is a confidence and effective simplicity that still evokes a potent response regarding the inherent potential in all. While many have continued to write the film off as a crowd-pleasing adaptation of Eiko Kadono’s work, it is also very much a touching call to the young, and for them to follow beyond familial piety. As young witch, Kiki seeks to create a name for herself in bayside, Koriko City, there is much to figure out as many a witch have within them a special ability that they hone into their main focus of practice. And in this single year of being away from her family (including a potions-specialist mother who muses about wishing her daughter had taken up potions as her focus), Kiki and her chatty feline familiar, Jiji must find the central meaning to independent life. Through many meetings, trials, errors, and adventures, Kiki is throughout the film faced with her own self-doubts as a girl in the world, let alone a witch. It’s a story where magic is no more than the things we grant to the world as ourselves. Told in a patient, wistful manner, the film never veers far from the focal point that Kiki is that moment between being our family’s child, and our own giving, working individual. (Which is best encapsulated by the film’s opening scene, as Kiki makes the sudden choice to leave for her one-year trip at the behest of unprepared parents. It is both a charming, and heartrending stuff that evokes feelings of that moment so many of us go through, as we move out into the world.)
So when Kiki’s journey inevitably leads to a crisis of ability come the latter third, it is vital to consider the preceding hour as lead in for this. With all the pressures that she must carry with her as both girl and witch, as other girls her age in town are living up to many of the atypical fun and relationship building, she must maintain something of an icon of tradition. We even meet another young witch early on that informs us early how this rite of passage can very easily lead us astray, without much room for others. And rather than becoming this, Kiki’s arc largely involves her natural capacity for more hand-based services. While her mother is closer to a doctor/pharmacist-type, she is closer to a public service specialist. And while that may look less than flattering to some, there is something very sneaky and hopeful happening with this in mind. When she suddenly finds herself unable to use her magic abilities, it is no wonder that the broom she came flying into Kokori breaks..is her mother’s.
It is here, and with local artist, Ursula’s advice that even our greatest gifts will experience something of a block at times, that the road to maturity drifts into cruising speed. Kiki finds herself at her best and happiest when she is living up to her own instinctive ideals, rather than any fears she might have about the thoughts of others.
As with the breaking of the mother’s broom, the broom used to rescue airship fanboy/witch fanboy, Tombo from a nasty fate..belongs to an elder street sweeper. A “public servant”. Personal redemption comes from Kiki’s own passion for helping the people of Kokori. It’s a pretty solid tale in the telling that still finds ways to keep me active and enamored throughout.
Porco Rosso(1992), while still a truly personal work for Miyazaki containing some of his most sumptuous imagery and elegaic moments, seems to have lost some luster for me over the years. Hard to say why this is so, but upon this viewing it became evident that the tale of WWI fighter pilot ace, Marco Pagot, while as complex and politically dense as it is, suffers from a lack of a stable central thesis. It really is something of a kitchen sink affair, as Miyazaki struggled to make Porco into a loving tribute to the era, and a tale of personal redemption in a time fraught with change. With Porco, now living the cursed life of a pig after long deserting his life as an air force pilot, and now making a living on the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, the film shakily dances between sweet natured comedy, adventure, and romantic homage. And while much of it works magically (as most Ghibli films of the era did), there is a lack of focus that dogs a majority of the running time.
And yet at the same time, one of the film’s meatier themes is that of a life independent. Not unlike the shame Porco feels for having abstained from serving any nation, as well as the loss of his closest colleagues, it all feels like Kiki’s darker, more battle-worn sibling. Even as the previous film lauded the individual as part of a collective, Porco represents a search for life beyond the state. Miyazaki both praises the talents and honor of those who dedicated their lives to flight, but admonishes governments who would exploit it in the name of foggy politics and control. As Italy seems on the brink of another governmental shift, and the world economy is en route to great depression, taxes and allegiances are on the lips of all. All the while, pilots find themselves in this situation either scraping out a meager living as sky pirates, or as bounty hunters living on the fringes of this now rapidly changing society. Rivalries aside, hunters like Porco and pirates like the Mamma Aiuto gang seem culled from similar cloth. All well represented by all parties cooling their engines in peace at the Andriano bar, a place run by Porco’s lifelong friend and long-suffering love interest, Gina. With these air bound skirmishes growing ever more and more desperate, things exacerbate once the pirates opt to hiring American hot-shot, Curtis, in hopes of taking down the “red pig” once and for all. (Or at the very least, humiliate him..)
Upon losing what even wouldn’t constitute an actual air duel with the eager american, Porco is forced to make a run into fascist led Milan in hopes of repairing his beloved seaplane. So when he is surprised to learn that his long trusted plane engineering and construction genius, Piccolo is bereft of his usual help, it is in the shared labor of the feminine and the talents of his youthful american granddaughter, Fio, that Porco finds within him an unexpected spark. And while much of this is classic storytelling, a great deal of the film feels more interested in the details of the world than in any real character based storytelling. The main throughline, while relatively solid, is equally as happy to examine the the world around them, occasionally to mixed results. So when it comes time for the big rematch between Porco, and the american Rattlesnake, our attentions are recalibrated toward the fate of Fio, who in the event that our hero loses, must go to Curtis, who’s buffoonish aims seem to be mostly intent on getting hitched..even if to an underaged plane engineer.
But the worries Miyazaki has about his own talents and the way in which it is utilized post-success are evident during an important exchange between him and a former colleague-turned fascist ace, Ferrarin inside a movie theatre. As Ferrarin secretly informs Porco that the new government is actively buying off sky pirates, and actively rendering them obsolete, Porco remarks how the standard “Dog Vs. Pig” animation they are watching is lousy. Staying on message seems to be the program. This is only bolstered by Ferrarin’s respone that the animation is great. It’s well considered that Porco, is indeed the spirit of Miyazaki, ever dogged by powers that only see him as a company tool. Ever longing for the freedom to tell the stories he wishes, his way. Now if only, the film could pick a theme before being merely one of several disparate ones. One could even argue that PR is something of a rail against the changing fates of animators throughout the 1980s. At any rate, there’s simply so much going on that it becomes a little tricky to suss out.
All this said, Porco Rosso remains one of Miyazaki’s most poetic and playful films. There’s no denying the power to entertain here. And as a work that lies in between the thoughtful, straightforward Kiki, and the oft-considered overbearing Princess Mononoke(1997), it’s still a gorgeous movie with a lot on its mind.
So in all, a memorable evening of some of the very best that commercial Japan has to offer, with an audience that was more than adequately receptive. So happy to see that the American Cinemateque is continuing to host these films over the next few weeks, with Takahata’s incredible Grave Of The Fireflies(1988) and Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves(1993) tonight, ending with Miyazaki’s Oscar winning, Spirited Away(2001) on Thursday, March 20th. So if you’re in LA over the next few weeks, do give it a consider. The Egyptian remains one of my favorite cinemas, and this is a most exciting way to introduce these works to a whole new world of eyes.
As for the person I shared last night’s event with..I’d say we have a new convert.