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Through Older Lenses: Ghibli Night At The Egyptian

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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.

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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.)

POTENTIAL SPOILERS(?)

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.

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Bridging The Gap: Miyazaki Steps Down From Directing (Thank you..)

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I promise to be brief.

Personally speaking, the best one can wish for in regards to those who inspire and imbue us, is for them to seek (and hopefully find) truest happiness. Already several glances at today’s news, and here I am, hoping it is indeed true. Several hours into the morning, and the news of animation legend, Hayao Miyazaki announcing his retirement from feature direction has been bouncing across my screen like colored lights at a pachinko parlor. And while the animation fan community shares with the expected sad face emoticons and sentimental musings, the only thing that will come out from me as response is, “this had better be serious this time”. Much like another breakup announcement by The Cure, the retirement of this cartoon grandmaster has been one that has been long delayed, and is a relief to hear.

And it isn’t due to any direct disapproval, or wish for any manner of ill will, but rather that in the years post Mononoke Hime (1997), there simply hasn’t been the same manner of flare in Miyazaki’s works that have felt as strident, or as important. Often escalating in visual quality, and much less in narrative or spiritual immediacy, his films have become an almost thinly veiled lament over his inability to retire peacefully. There simply hasn’t been as much for him to say in a while outside of either screeds against contemporary Japan(Chihiro), or to merely dabble in less involved, less coherent tributes to the written works of others. And while there were truly some memorable images and scenes in the films post-1997, it often felt as if there was this lingering feeling that the last word had been said, and everything else was a perfunctory series of bitter and indifferent post-scripts.

But prior to all of this, his career with Studio Ghibli has remained and will remain an all-important benchmark in animation history. From his early television work, to his run with the now Disney-like icon of a wheelhouse, it will be hard to imagine another creative name who will have such a wide-reaching impact. His thematic and artistic imprint has grown to influence generations of visual story lovers, and likely will continue to for generations more. Even as word spreads that he may remain with Ghibli in some other supervisory capacity, it can be finally said without hint of irony, and in best supportive voice, “arigatou kantoku”. (Be free.)

ありがとう..

Review: The Secret World of Arietty

The Secret World of Arietty (Kari-gurashi no Arietty)
dir. Hiromasa Yonebayashi, written by Hayao Miyazaki
Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney, 94 min.
Release Dates: 7/17/10 (Japan), 2/17/12 (US)
Starring (US dub cast): Bridgit Mendler (Arietty), Will Arnett (Pod), Amy Poehler (Homily), David Henrie (Shawn), Carol Burnett (Hara)

Summary

Young Arietty, the daughter of loving parents Pod and Homily, is a Borrower—a race of miniature people who live in the baseboards of human houses and “borrow” cast off items for their needs: a single sugar cube, a sheet of tissue paper, pins. They spend their time avoiding menaces such as cats, crows, insects, and above all else, being seen by the giant “human beans.” However, one day, a sickly young boy named Shawn arrives in the house they share with his aunt Jessica and their housekeeper, Hara. Shawn catches a glimpse of Arietty when she is out on her first “borrowing” expedition with her father, and thus begins an unlikely friendship that will change her, and her family, and his own life.

The story is based on the 1952 children’s novel by Mary Norton, The Borrowers.

A fine example of the detail in this film.

Review

The Secret World of Arietty, or Arietty the Borrower, is not the first of its kind: a film penned by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by someone else. The last such film was the heartwarming coming-of-age tale Whisper of the Heart (1995), which, with its memorable take on “Take Me Home Country Road,” still remains one of the great anime stories about the birth of a young artist. Arietty is not quite the equal of that masterwork, but there is plenty here to savor nonetheless.

Miyazaki’s animation, at its best, has always been able to convey a sense of wonder and grandeur. That tradition continues in Arietty, though not through grand vistas, soaring flights, and surreal sights: this time, it is by magnifying the ordinary household and its environment to a place full of danger, adventure, and life. Leaves shimmering with dew and rainwater are canopies for the tiny Arietty. Nails hammered into the wall are steps, and the side of a cabinet a tall cliff. An intricate dollhouse is a luxurious mansion. Much work was clearly done examining the physics of smallness: cups and teapots are filled with single droplets, sounds like refrigerator hums and footsteps become ominous echoes. For the Borrowers, the world is both scary and (for Arietty, at least) full of exciting possibility. This sense of scale is perhaps the film’s greatest success, and rightly so: if this aspect did not work, nothing else would have. It helps the audience take Arietty and her family’s predicament seriously. The first twenty minutes—Arietty’s first “borrowing” expedition with her father—convey the necessary tension, secrecy, and urgency.

Paper clips, staples, and fish hooks all become tools for adventure.

After that sequence, the plot slows down to a more leisurely pace, focusing on the growing relationship between Arietty and the sickly human boy who has been brought to live in the house, Shawn. Since this is a film that does not rely on the grand gesture or the surreal, their friendship is conveyed through relatively quiet and restrained means: a sugar cube with a tiny note. Conversations in the field and through screen windows. These moments, accompanied by the gorgeously haunting Celtic soundtrack by French singer/composer Cecile Corbel, are beautiful in their simplicity and directness, free of the increasingly surreal accoutrements of Miyazaki’s recent works. (The use of insert songs, however, are not quite so successful and tend to be a bit overbearing—one of the signs that this is not a Miyazaki-directed film. He never uses insert songs.) The plot only seems to hiccup in the final act, when the Borrower family is about to leave, but this is more than made up for in the film’s final scene before credits, which earns its warmth and tenderness. It is, in fact, a little more natural than the final scene of Whisper of the Heart, which contains one of Miyazaki’s all-time left field conclusions. (Those who have seen the film will know what I mean.)

Disney usually picks solid voice actors for the dub, and this is no exception. Arietty, played by 20-year-old Brigit Mendler, sounds like a real teenager and like most Ghibli heroines is risk-taking and spunky enough to keep the otherwise languid plot moving. Her interaction with her parents, Homily (Amy Poehler) and Pod (Will Arnett), is natural and believable, which adds great credibility. Arnett does not use his usual comic talent here, opting instead to intone his deep manly baritone. Poehler is put to great use as the frazzled and easily frightened Homily, reminding me of the freak out moments in her role as Leslie Knoppe in Parks and Recreation. Carol Burnett, as the suspicious housekeeper Hara, gives a great comic performance filled with different moods ranging from suspicion to frantic exasperation, though her motivation for ruining the lives of “the little people” seems underdeveloped. Shawn’s American voice actor, David Henrie, conveys a sense of melancholy and helplessness at his possible death that teeters on maudlin at times—the only somewhat uneven voice acting performance in an otherwise solid cast. He is also supposed to be 12 years old, but sounds much older. (Then again, if he had the sort of voice heard in shows like, for instance, Naruto, that would be far worse, so this is a minor complaint at most.)

Ultimately, Arietty is best understood as a small-scale coming-of-age story, both for Arietty and Shawn. Their encounters are relatively brief, and so don’t quite hit the deep longing that Whisper of the Heart tap into so well, save perhaps for the one scene where Shawn talks about his impending operation. Then again, not all films need to: as a depiction of the wonders of the ordinary world, as a light-hearted adventure, and a portrait of two young people becoming unlikely friends, Arietty is more than competent. This would be a triumph coming from any other studio, and it’s only with Ghibli that it is simply a solid entry alongside formidible masterpieces and classics: a testament to the studio’s greatness and consistency. They just know how to make ’em, is all.


The Secret World of Arietty is currently playing in US theaters nationwide.

Classic Anime Review: Porco Rosso

I would have missed the IFC Studio Ghibli retrospective in my New York visit if omo hadn’t invited me to join him and his friends to tonight’s showing of Porco Rosso, and for that I thank him—because it gives me a chance to talk about one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most unique films and why it still stands the test of time nearly 20 years since its release in 1992.

SUMMARY

“Porco Rosso”—”The Crimson Pig”—is a man-turned-pig flying ace who, after seeing combat in the Italian Air Force during WWI, leads the life of  a solitary bounty hunter going after various air pirates. A new American hotshot pilot, Curtis, challenges his supremacy in both the air and in love with the beautiful club owner Gina. When Porco’s plane goes down, a bright female mechanic named Fio and the rest of her family help rebuild it and become involved in the ultimate showdown between the two pilots.

REVIEW

Porco Rosso is perhaps one of the more overlooked titles in Hayao Miyazaki’s catalogue. Its release fell between Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) and the international breakout hit Princess Mononoke (1997). Mononoke represented a shift in Miyazaki’s direction toward a somewhat darker and surreal approach, making the comparatively carefree Porco Rosso the last of its kind until the child-like Ponyo came out a few years ago.

It also marked a number of firsts for a Miyazaki film. It is one of his only films with a male, rather than female protagonist. (The females present are plenty strong and capable, however.) Despite the title character’s porcine nature, it is also his least “fantastic” film—it is grounded in a real historical time period and place and aside from Porco has no spirits, creatures, Totoros, and invented nations. The amount of care and detail given to the airplanes and the dogfights testifies to Miyazaki’s lifelong love of flight; this is perhaps his purest love letter to flying in his career, capturing its freedom, adventure, and excitement like no other. There is plenty of flying of various kinds in all his movies, but only Porco Rosso is about flying itself. That focus, and the film’s sun-dappled Mediterranean/Adriatic Sea setting, are what make the film feel so joyous.

This is true even though there are many understated, but finely depicted, elements of adult emotion throughout: grief over the war dead, regret, and the grizzled weariness borne from life experience. Porco and Gina are adults, not teenagers like most modern anime protagonists, and they’ve lived through a lot. The adolescent in the cast, Fio, seems almost ridiculously naive as if compensating for it; she is pure Ghibli girlhood distilled: optimistic, competent, and confident and brave in front of men who otherwise look down on her, including slightly sexist Porco himself. (He is a pig, after all!) With the comical air pirates in tow, reminiscent of the pirates in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the cast is well-balanced and with relatively little exposition drawn vividly.

An old war buddy tries to recruit Porco into the Fascist Air Force.

One thing that is interesting is that for a film set in 1930s Fascist Italy, Porco Rosso seems to keep much of the darkness of the outside world confined to the edges of the narrative. There’s evidence of it, to be sure: we see the Fascists march down the street, and later, there is a chase and a shootout with the secret police. The arrival of the Italian Air Force signals the end of the party, and there is more than one mention of the ongoing Depression. But the characters seem to live in a bubble where few of those things impinge on the jaunty, carefree mood of the loose plot. Kidnapping seems fun for the kids. No one really gets hurt. There is enough personal regret to go around to help make up for it, though: again, it is refreshing to see real adult emotion in anime today. The scene with the queue of fallen pilots and their planes was particularly moving and free of melodrama, something most anime drama can only dream about achieving.

Still, no one in the named cast, not the pirates, or Curtis, has malevolent motives; they’re all basically good people. A deeper examination reveals nostalgia for the age of freelance flying aces and even air pirates, an age that the impending wars would end for good. In a totalitarian world, there is no room for people like Porco in the long run, and in one clever line Porco declares “I’d rather be a pig than a Fascist.” Perhaps since everyone knows just how dark the world would become in the years forward, there was a need to lighten the tone and make the world of aces and pirates a bit more romantic by comparison.

But this isn’t really a problem. In a way it helps make the film feel more timeless, and it’s hard to see how darkening the mood would have really added depth to the story. The likability of the characters, Joe Hisaishi’s bouncy score, and the sheer delight evident in the flying scenes leaves the viewer feeling refreshed and satisfied by the end. There is some sadness in realizing that not even Miyazaki makes ’em like he used to anymore, but that makes this film all the more special.

 

AVAILABILITY

Porco Rosso has been available on home video through Disney for a while now in the US. This review was based on a renewed 35mm print shown at the IFC Ghibli Retrospective, which continues until January 12. I highly recommend anyone in the New York area to see it and the other Ghibli masterpieces in these clean, nearly pristine prints: the hand-drawn quality of the film stands out so well and more than holds up in our cel-less age.

Review: Ponyo (Dub) – 88%

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Scores
Animation: 90%
Music: 95%
Voice Acting (dub): 85%
Story: 89%
Overall: 88%

See explanation of scores below.

Ponyo is Hayao Miyazaki’s most joyous film since Porco Rosso, and the purest evocation of childhood he’s done since My Neighbor Totoro. After flirting with darker and more surreal themes in the past several films since Princess Mononoke, he has returned to deliver a delightful film that entertained the young adult audience at the premiere and should please even the youngest children.

Continue reading Review: Ponyo (Dub) – 88%