The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) movie poster

director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
viewed: 02/18/2012 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s a sad fact that one day, we will live in a world without Hayao Miyazaki actively making movies.  We may already be living in a world where Miyazaki is no longer directing films.  There has been speculation, based on his own words, that Ponyo (2008) may prove to be the last feature film for which he will have a directorial credit.  We have been so lucky to live in world in which a master film-maker created at the top of his craft such films as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and so many others.

What we have in The Secret World of Arrietty is perhaps the next best thing to a film directed by Miyazaki.  It’s a film written by Miyazaki and to some extent “planned” by him.  I’m not sure if this includes storyboards or to what extent his hand remained in, but Arrietty does bear more of his mark than other films from Studio Ghibli.  It is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who worked as an animator on a number of Miyazaki’s films, and I’d be hard pressed (or merely speculating) to suppose where the word started and stopped.  The most important thing is that while Arrietty may not be entirely a Miyazaki film, it bears a great deal of the charm and beauty of his work.  It’s a fine film.

Based on the novel, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, the story is about a little family of little people who live in a house in the Japanese countryside.  They “borrow” what they need from the bigger humans, hiding their existence entirely from them.  But when Sean, a boy with a heart condition, is brought to the house to convalesce, he discovers the teenage borrower Arrietty and tries to make friends with her.  Ultimately, when the family realizes that they have been discovered, they have to leave and rebuild their home somewhere else, but the friendship between Sean and Arrietty brings about hopeful changes for both.

It’s a sweet film.  Like Ponyo, it’s rated G (a rare enough thing these days in children’s film), with a strict limit to drama, danger, and violence.  While there is no out-and-out magic at play here (a common Miyazaki theme), this family of little people are in  a sense the magic of the world, a hidden, endangered, beautiful element sadly threatened increasingly by change.  The family aren’t sure if they are or not the last of their species.

Arrietty is yet another of Miyazaki’s strong young female protagonists, spirited and innocent, breaking into the world in new ways.

Both Felix and Clara liked it a lot, though Felix, typically was less enthusiastic after a while.  I thought it was quite enjoyable myself.

We are lucky to live in a world in which Hayao Miyazaki is still creating cinema, and we can hope that he will continue to do so.


Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/16/10

Happenstances being what they are, I’d never gotten around to seeing Porco Rosso, the 1992 film by one of my favorite filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, the only of his feature films that I’d never seen before.  And credit is definitely due to Pixar and John Lasseter there who have helped get the Disney corporation to import and dub these films for feature releases and DVD distribution.  I recall at one point toying with renting this film from a Japantown video store to watch untranslated just to see it.

I pooled the kids for this one.  We’re all quite into Miyazaki films.  We all enjoyed his most recent (and hopefully not his last directorial feature) Ponyo (2008).  It’s funny, but within 15 years or so, maybe longer, Miyazaki has gone from an obscure figure in American culturual knowledge to a much more known and recognized filmmaker, appreciated by many many more people than I would have ever hoped for at any time.  Again, I think this has a lot to the broad distribution and quality voice-acting hired to dub these films for the American market.

Porco Rosso is set in a typically Miyazaki world, a place somewhere between WWI and WWII but one which is in stark contrast to purified reality.  Technologies are as magical and pseudo-technological, retro, but retro in a way that nothing ever really existed.  And the world is a largely European fantasy of the gorgeous Mediterranean yet not by any means utterly particular to reality, though this film does spend some time in Milan (how accurately depicted, I have no clue).

But it’s a quasi-fantasy, a mixture of retro-and-just-never-was.  Porco Rosso, “the crimson pig”, was a bi-plane fighter in (probably) WWI for Italy, but when after a crazy dogfight in which he lost his battalion, he survived, suffering a “curse” or some other twist of fate, turning from striking handsome man into a pig.  And he takes his pig presentation as an excuse of sorts for his other types of piggishness, his selfishness, his wanton lifestyle, his lack of integrity.  He’s a bounty hunter, rescuing treasures and children from a myriad of marauding pirates.  But for money, supposedly looking out only for himself.

The opening of the film is one of its best sequences.  A group of children are abducted from a ship along with the ship’s treasure.  The gaggle of little girls are more than the pirates can handle and run amok on their plane, giving them a hard time about not being able to get Porco Rosso.  Porco Rosso zooms in for a dramatic rescue.  The bi-plane-style dogfights are exciting and lovingly rendered.  Miyazaki has a particular love of flying machines and features a broad spectrum of strange aircraft in almost all of his films.  And this seems to be the focal point of the aesthetic and setting of Porco Rosso.

But interestingly, it’s also a bit of a tip of the hat to films like Casablanca (1942), with its restaurant/bar and its singing hostess, the beautiful Jina, who has a pseudo-love relationship with Porco, the thrice widowed would-be bride of many a aeronaut shot down.  And there is the semi-villainous American (eventual movie star) as well.

But despite the guns and bullets, nobody really gets killed.  Nobody really gets shot.  And though Porco and the American end up in a battle and a fairly brutal fist fight, this film has less aligned with Miyazaki’s more serious and more socially critical works like Princess Mononoke (1997) or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984).  It’s adventure but quite light-hearted, quite fun.  And also, most notably, less exemplary of his fanatsy elements and whimsical character designs of strange elements.  Rather it’s a relatively human world in which Porco is the only real fantasy figure.

The kids liked it.  Perhaps my kids liked it the most.  The girls from upstairs were down for it and seemed to like parts of it.  Felix had a friend over from school for a sleep-over and while he eventually seemed to get into it, it was clearly not his first kind of choice for a movie night thing.  Hey, Miyazaki is not going to be for everybody, but for those who are open to or just plain into his wonderful storytelling, imagination, design, and artistry, well, there is no comparison.  There is no one like him that I’ve seen.  We can only hope he keeps making films as long as he wants to.


Ponyo (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 08/16/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

Ponyo is the latest film from the great, wonderful, amazing Hayao Miyazaki.  It’s the softest and gentlest of his films since My Neighbor Totoro (1988), the most G-rated and little kid-friendly.  His range in his audience is not necessarily huge, but this film is on the extreme end of accessibilty and identification with small children, and at the same time, open and wonderful to all as is true with all of his wonderful films.  And Ponyo, while it’s not quite Totoro, or Spirited Away (2001), is a wonderful film itself, featuring many characteristics about Miyazaki’s world that amaze and enchant.

Ponyo is a revision of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson, but in this case, the heroine is not a mermaid, but a goldfish with a human face and magical powers.  And her father is some alchemist technician who struggles to keep the sea in balance, her mother is the ocean itself, embodied by the image of a human godess.  Ponyo falls in love with a five year old boy, Sosuke, for whom she wants to transform herself into a human.  The story is less about a purely romanticized love, but a love that seems to transcend everything, ultimately symbolizing a binding of humanity and nature, a nature simply alive with anthropomorphication, living waves, living bubbles, fish of all kinds.  It ties in with other themes of Miyazaki, the spirit world of traditional Japanese beliefs in which spirits inhabit everything, and thusly, everything is more or less alive, especially if not specifically, the natural world.

Miyazaki creates images that no one else could.  Ponyo is constantly metamorphizing via her magic, growing chicken-like arms and legs, occasionally like some blob thing more than fish, but ultimately, one of the film’s most stunning images is her running across the giant waves, racing after Sosuke and his mother in their car.  She has a joie de vivre, a spark of love and life and energy that is vibrant and magical, a really lovely, fun character.  The strangeness of the sea and of some of the images that Miyazaki dreams up, he spawn-like little sisters, her father’s watering can system, the weird ships and strange simple technologies he loves to dream up.

And the film has a sweetness for the elderly, something that occurs frequently in his films, mostly notably in his last film, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), with the young girl becoming old and the ability to hang onto or lose one’s youth.  In Ponyo, it is the children and the senior’s center, more a vague Greek chorus than important figure.

Ponyo is lovely.  We are very lucky to have Hayao Miyazaki’s films, that he continues to make such amazing, creative, unique work.  There is charm, joy, love, and a deep appreciation for the magic and metamorphosis in animation, the ability to instill the anthropomorphism that is in essence his sensibility of nature and traditional Japanese values that agree with that belief.  And to create characters and instances, images, and actions that are simple, yet true, true cinema.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 03/24/06

I’ve been really busy with this 19th Century Mystery class that I am taking, in which I am reading about 500 or more pages a week and I just haven’t had much time to see movies lately. Oddly enough, for the first film that I have watched in two weeks, I ended up seeing one that I have already seen. Well, that’s the way it goes!

Anyone that knows me knows that I revere Hayao Miyazaki and his films. I honestly think that he is the greatest thing to ever happen to feature-length animation. Spirited Away (2001) is probably his masterpiece, and that is saying a lot because he has several excellent films that are unique and amazing taken on their own. I think, however, that Howl’s Moving Castle is getting a little of a short-shrift from many viewers because it comes in the wake of his best film. To say that it’s not as good as it’s most recent predecessor is not really a great insult. Unfortunately, it’s not taking the film on its own merits.

Easily, the first 90+ minutes of the film is as rich and beautiful and imaginative of any of his work. The castle, the fire demon, the Witch of the Waste, the scarecrow, the landscapes, are all greatly inventive and gorgeously rendered. I think it’s an interesting twist to have his typical female protagonist, Sophie, be turned into an old woman, a site of play with the narrative.

My only criticism would be that the story does kind of wind itself up rather quickly at the end, with stuff like the scarecrow being so fast that it doesn’t really have much impact. With that one exception, I think it’s a great film. If you feel like it, click here to see my initial reaction to the film.

I don’t buy DVD’s really. I have gathered some mainly to give my kids something to watch that I approve of and which doesn’t have commercials constantly barraging them. I would easily acquire Miyazaki’s entire catalog for this purpose, without a doubt.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 01/21/06

Interestingly, I saw this film when it was initially released in the United States as Warriors of the Wind back in 1985. Japanese animation was much less pervassive back then, even virtually obscure. And though I had actually had some prior experience with Hayao Miyazaki, I had never heard of him nor knew any significance of his work. It wasn’t until My Neighbor Totoro (1988) was released in the 1990’s that I finally caught up and realized my familiarity with the best feature length animation director of all times and one of the best overall filmmakers ever.

It’s taken me still all these years to get around to seeing Nausicaä again, and of course, I had only seen the highly edited version that had been released in the U.S. previously. I personally think that it’s great that Disney has picked up the rights to these films and distributed them more widely in this country. Miyazaki is amazing and his work would be wonderful to spread more broadly in place of the junk that is produced as animation and narrative overall.

Nausicaä reckons heavily of Princess Mononoke (1997), another science fiction/fantasy world where environmental issues threaten humanity. The films have a spirituality to them and are not simply annoyingly over-the-top in their political leanings. Nausicaä, the title character is a princess of a village whose connection to the monster insects that terrorize humanity, lead her to understand that the insects are responding to the destruction of the environment. She comes to realize that the part of nature that is poisoning humans is actually at work to detoxify the planet.

The war-like states seek to resurrect some apocalyptic power of a giant robot to attack the creatures and one another. Miyazaki’s films often also lean toward anti-war themes as well.

The narrative and adventure are excellent. The animation and design are beautifully executed. It’s an excellent film. That said, I think that his work has matured since this period. This is the first of his feature-length films to really feel like a Miyazaki film, adapted, I believe from a manga of his own creation.

I think that every time I see one of Miyzaki’s films, I am energized to drink to his health and hope that he will continue to make great films. And I vow to raise my kids watching his work.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving Castle (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 06/17/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the best things to happen to cinema. Not just animation, not just cel animation, but to cinema as a whole. He is a visionary auteur whose richly designed and developed fantasy worlds are utterly awesome and engrossing. His films are as good as feature animation gets and are so beautifully imagined and developed that it’s little wonder that Pixar trumpets his greatness. There is no working animator who comes close to his work.

The San Francisco Chronicle reveiwer said that this film feels like it comes from another age, but really, it attests to the timelessness of his fantasy world, the mixture of old Eurpoean landscapes and weirdly period setting. Howl’s Moving Castleis a fun adventure of a film, just fantastic.

It is not as good as Spirited Away(2001), but that film was likely his masterpiece. This film is excellent.

There are many classic creations at play, Calcifer the fire demon, Turnip Head the scarecrow, and the castle itself. The film is about a world of witches and wizards, of magic and transformation, the latter of which I believe is the core of animation. Though adapted from an English novel, Miyazaki takes the story and design and renders it as something wholly his own.

I honestly wish that everyone would see his films. I wish that I could take my son to see this, but I think it’s a bit scary for him.

Long live, Hayao Miyazaki, and may he make films until he is 200 years old.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1989) movie poster

(1989) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/07/03

I’ve been a fan of director Hayao Miyazaki for at least 10 years, since I originally saw My Neighbor Totoro (1988), though I had realized that I had seen others of his earlier films previously without knowing who he was. Despite a brief phase of trying to see some of his other films, I hadn’t caught up on all of his work. When Disney finally got around to releasing his back catalog on DVD (something they have only started), I snapped up Laputa: Castle in the Sky sight-unseen, which is notably unusual for me since I buy very few DVD’s and hardly ever (ever) ones that I have not actually seen before. Of course, I snapped this up a couple months ago and only just now got a chance to see it.

What is constantly amazing about Miyazaki’s work is his ability to create such amazing sense of location in his animation. The worlds of his films are typically fantastical, but are also amazingly realized. They are also quite typically beautifully rendered.

Many of Miyazaki’s themes are prevalent in this film. Like most of his films, Laputa features a young female protagonist, a subtle but appealing aspect of his narratives. His films tend away from having true “villains,” though often if there is any “evil,” it is embodied in unnatural pollution and those who act against the “environment.”

The most appealing fantasy aspects of this film are the decrepit giant robots and the sky pirates’ dragonfly-like air scooters. Most of his films feature some (or many) transformative fantasy elements.

One thing I can definitely tell you: I will raise my children to watch Hayao Miyazaki films. They are wonderful.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 10/25/02 at Kabuki Theater, SF

Having barely seen a theatrical film a month this year (while trying to stay on top of things for my few Film Diary readers), it may seem quite surprising that I chose to see Spirited Away for a second time on the big screen, while forsaking so many films and dooming them to DVD viewing, several months behind the times.

Though that’s hardly the sole issue, it’s a strong testament to how fantastic I think that Miyazaki’s film really is. A second viewing, six months later, only reinforces my awe of this movie.

The world of Spirited Away is one of both folk/fairy tale and childhood fantasy, a deluxe nightmare/daydream that is lush in detail and classical in its themes. The young protagonist, Chihiro, loses her family and almost her identity (literally her name) to an evil witch who operates a bathhouse for “the gods.” It has the effect, like the best children’s stories, of evoking that very recognizable ambiguity of real sensate fears and emotions placed within the utterly palpable believability of the other-worldly, the dream.

The fantasy world is painted so vividly that it can be accepted at its face value, a real place, an alternate reality that is still utterly real. At the same time, the world is also highly metaphorical, representative of concepts that live outside of childhood fancy.

While the narrative intentionally steeped in Japanese folkloric traditions (yet echoes, as perhaps much folklore does, of other cultures traditions as well), the design is focused very much on Japanese landscape and architecture. In Kiki’s Delivery Service (1998), the landscapes and characters were much more Western, a mixed period pan-European vision. The only character in Spirited Away that has a particularly Western look is the evil witch Yubaba (and her good witch twin, Zeniba). However, her character doesn’t necessarily seem to be a representation of Western culture.

This film has so much in it from an analytical standpoint that I don’t really know where to start…so I won’t really. What I will do is say that this is a totally fantastic film, one that should be seen by any and everyone. It’s better than almost 100% of everything else out there. And I mean it.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/21/02 at Castro Theater, SF

Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, is both his newest and very possibly his most-brilliant.

Miyazaki, for those that do not know it, is a Japanese feature filmanimator who could finally perhaps be the filmmaker that rescues feature-length animated films from the gigantic rut that Disney has dug for them.

Miyazaki creates wonderful fantastic images, that are truly unlike those of any other filmmaker. And Spirited Away is replete with such wonderful invention.

The story is about a girl, Chihiro, who relocating with her family to a different part of Japan, moving away from her friends to a new place. The family takes a wrong turn and ends up exploring and falling into a spirit realm that is ruled by an evil witch, who turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Chihiro has to work for the witch at her business, a bathhouse for the many native gods of the country.

It is a story, while original, echoes of traditional Japanese culture, like a classic fairy tale. Miyazaki was said to have been inspired by the “lethargy” of a young girl that he met, by her lack of understanding and interest in traditional Japanese culture, and it seems a significant aspect of the source and style of the narrative.

The landscape in this film is also very Japanese, supposedly based on an older region of Japan, one not far from his Studio Ghibli. Environment is always a significant theme for Miyazaki, and settings are always rendered in loving detail.

The spirit world of Spirited Away is populated by an utter menagerie of fantastic characters. There are too many to begin to enumerate.

This is a brilliant film, fantastic, surprising, beautifully rendered, sweet, scary, tremendous.