When Marnie Was There (2014)

When Marnie Was There (2014) movie poster

director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
viewed: 12/17/2016

Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There came with a lot less fanfare than many of their films, so we somehow missed it in the cinema.  Maybe it’s a film with a harder selling point, no giant cats or spirits, no flying witches, robots, pigs.  But it does have a ghost…of sorts.

And it’s surprisingly emotional, evocative, and beautiful.

The story is about an orphaned 12 year old, Anna, who suffers from depression, asthma, and some social disorders is sent to live with her adoptive mother’s friends in the country.  Her alienation from people is not so specifically defined but profoundly relatable.  It is only when she meets the mysterious Marnie, a girl from an abandoned mansion nearby, who pays her the kindness and attention that awakens life and love and friendship in the girl.

There is a lot that one can read into the story, or maybe simply “read the story as”.  My kids, with whom I watched the film, thought that Anna was imagining everything, a state of schizophrenia or something, but more so, as the story develops that the relationship between Anna and Marnie is a romantic one, of emotional and physical love.  So when the final twist falls, it’s a little hard to reconcile the various readings.

That said, it’s a very affecting film.  The emotions of loss and loneliness and alienation, of love as well, are palpable.  The mysteries and vicissitudes of the story remain open and richly evocative.

Studio Ghibli has been an amazing institution and Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There is another remarkable film to add to their legacy.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013)

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) movie poster

director Isao Takahata
viewed: 06/05/2015

Studio Ghibli may be synonymous with Hayao Miyazaki, but it has also been home to Isao Takahata, director of Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and Pom Poko (1994) among others.   As noted in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), as Miyazaki worked on his final feature film as director, The Wind Rises (2013), Takahata also labored on what he would call his final feature film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

Adapted from a story of Japanese folklore, Kaguya tells the tale of a humble bamboo farmer and his wife who find a baby magical being in the bamboo one day.  She grows quickly like bamboo and loves her life in the small village.  The farmer, though, also winds up finding gold and rich kimonos and decides that the “princess” as he has always called her is meant for a richer life, so he moves them into the city and they take on the traditions then popular with the higher classes, seeking to find a wealthy husband to marry the girl off to.

The animation style is quirky, something stylized and I would describe as looking like illustrations, pen work, or watercolors, which gives it a unique look and flavor.  The story itself is rather sweet, though perhaps bittersweet might be more apt.  At 137 minutes long, it’s also takes its time to weave its story.

All that said, I liked it.  In fact, I liked it better than either The Wind Rises or From Up on Poppy Hill (2011).  Miyazaki’s later films moved slowly away from fantasy and the fantastic, which is actually quite literally where the magic has inhabited his work.

Isao Takahata has made some fine films.  I doubt he’ll ever be favorably compared with his studio mate, the great Miyazaki, but his final film has great beauty and charm to it, a note of departure with which I believe he can leave his career happily and proudly behind him.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) movie poster

directory Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 01/16/2015

Oh, Kiki, I love you.  It’s been a while, but you’re great.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the last of Hayao Miyazaki’s great feature films that I have come to write about here in the film diary.  Over the years since 2002 when I started writing about every feature film that I watched in full, I’ve seen and written about each and every one of his films now except for Kiki.

It’s not that I haven’t seen Kiki.  It’s not that I don’t really love Kiki.  It’s just that somehow, over these past 12 or 13 years, I didn’t sit and watch Kiki in total.

I’m sure that I saw it in parts over that time.  I regularly showed my kids Miyazaki’s films, wandering in and out, often sitting through them all.  And Kiki, even before I had kids or wrote in the film diary, was a film that I bought on VHS for nieces and nephews and watched many, many a time.

This viewing came from a request by Clara, who noted that she hadn’t seen it in a long time, and as Miyazaki’s films are her personal favorite, she wanted to see “one of his big films” (seriously, her words).

Made on the heels of My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki is another of Miyazaki’s most gentle and kid-friendly G-rated stories.  For so many filmmakers, that might easily become a pejorative but here it’s just a point of clarity.  TotoroKiki, and Ponyo (2009) are a wonderful, fantastical set of films that could be played for even the youngest of children.  Others of his films are more complex or frightening, but these three are pure loveliness at that level of parental rating.

The story of a 13 year old witch who travels to a new village with her talking cat, Jiji (Phil Hartman) is one of those things that you might have a harder time convincing an adult to watch than a small child.  Her skills yet undeveloped, she begins delivering things from a small bakery, meets a young boy enraptured by all things flight, and culminates with a dramatic rescue from a rogue dirigible.

It’s a very simple, very lovely piece of animation.  Perhaps not quite as iconic as Totoro, it’s wonderful, unique, purely Miyazaki kind of film.   Clara loved it.  But even Felix couldn’t remember it all that well from whenever he had last seen it.

I love Miyazaki’s films, and I’ve loved sharing them with my kids.  I think it’s great that they both like his movies so much.  Miyazaki is for the ages.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Princess Mononoke (1997) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/28/2013

Last week, Clara and I watched From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), which was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, Hayao Miyazaki’s son, from a screenplay co-written by the elder master who is soon heading into retirement, if he has not already.  It was in discussing the newer film and the coming retirement that recollected to me that I had never watched Miyazaki’s great Princess Mononoke with the kids.  

It’s his most “adult” film, most graphically violent with decapitations, dismemberments, and blood.  It’s still not all that gory, but I had held out when Clara was younger.  Felix in the meantime had seen it elsewhere.  But it had been ages for me and I thought it a good time to go for it.

It’s a funny thing but a few years back it played theatrically and I was going to go see it but it didn’t work out for whatever reason and a couple of my friends who had never seen it did go and thought it was stupid.  I was kind of surprised to hear that.  It’s pretty generally well-appreciated.  But in going back to watch it, I kept that dissonance in mind.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Princess Mononoke is critically emblematic of Miyazaki’s themes, particularly in looking with it along side My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Spirited Away (2001).  These are the films that focus significantly on traditional Japanese mythologies, relating to magical spirits that inhabit all natural elements, and quite specifically the threat to those powerful, ancient beings through the destruction of the natural environment and disdain and disregard that humans have for those entities.

In Princess Mononoke, it is ruthless industrialization, the destruction of a forest and habitats, for greed, war, and the desire for eternal life that stokes those that seek to conquer the gods and spirits.  But it is also the human, Ashitaka, who realizes the need for humans to live in balance with nature and the old gods, and the human princess San, adopted by a wolf god mother, who ultimately help restore that balance and hopefully change the mentality of those who would destroy all.

The film is violent for Miyazaki, and I think that is significant in the statement at the film’s core.  The battle to live in harmony with the natural world, to respect those traditional spirits and beliefs, is a brutal one.  It’s a rather stark image, the first one of San, the “spirit princess” as she sucks blood from her wolf mother’s wound and wipes a bloody hand across her face, smearing it.  She is fierce and strong and bloody.

I think as well, this film really ties together Miyazaki’s “environmental” themes to his spiritual traditional ones.  Ancient beliefs in the magical life of nature bind the protection of the natural world and the respect and observation of older belief systems and uniquely Japanese culture.  Ultimately, alongside his strong female protagonists, these are some of the most compelling ideas in his films.

It’s interesting that though Princess Mononoke is the film’s title and iconic image, the real protagonist is Ashitaka, the boy.  San is strong and powerful, but she is a smaller character in the film, albeit a pivotal one.  The film also features the character Eboshi, the lady industrialist who has built “Iron Town” as a town largely run by women, ex-prostitutes, who she has empowered in hard physical labor and independence.  The women of Iron Town are free, empowered, and strong.  Again, this echoes consistent themes throughout Miyazaki’s work, though here, in some ways, it’s made more explicit.

I’ve said before that I think Miyazaki’s female protagonists are so remarkable because they are characters, people first.  They aren’t “girls”.  They happen to be female and that is a big part of each character’s uniqueness and spirit and world view, but in a way is so matter of fact that the use of female protagonists is a tacit statement.  It’s also why his protagonists don’t feel contrived as so many animated feature films do.  It’s certainly a remarkable quality of Miyazaki’s world and work.

It’s interesting to note that working on the English translation of Princess Mononoke was no less the great Neil Gaiman, one of the best fantasy writers of this generation.  This film was the commercial breakthrough for Miyazaki in the United States.  It was after this film that Disney bought up all of his titles and began distributing and promoting the films in America, which I think is simply a great and wonderful thing.  The fact that more children, more people all over, have Miyazaki’s films as readily as all the dreck that American animation houses pump out is simply wonderful.  These films are so fantastic and quite accessible to American audiences, this is actually one of those rare times that commercial, corporate promotion and exposure really pays off for everyone.

Miyazaki is for everyone and it’s wonderful that it’s so widely available.

So, to my two friends who didn’t care for the film?  Whatevs.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Up on Poppy Hill (2011) movie poster

director Gorō Miyazaki
viewed: 09/21/2013

The era of Hayao Miyazaki is winding down and we are left with the last couple of films that he is saying that he will work on.  His final film as director (and perhaps at all) is The Wind Rises (2013), which opened in Japan this past summer and will come to the states eventually.  In the mean time, we’ve have From Up on Poppy Hill, which Miyazaki co-wrote, adapted from a Japanese comic, and directed by Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, who had previously directed Tales from Earthsea (2006).

The last Miyazaki film to hit the States was The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), which was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but was co-written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa.  Niwa also shared a co-screenwriting credit here.

Arrietty felt like a pretty good Miyazaki film, featuring elements of fantasy within the world of the small “borrowers” (It was adapted from the children’s book  The Borrowers by Mary Norton).  From Up on Poppy Hill diverges from most of Miyazki’s work in that it cleaves much closer, if not entirely, to naturalism, with no elements of fantasy at all.  Maybe it shares more with the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, which was written but not directed by Miyazaki (which I’ve only seen once on an untranslated DVD), which as I recall featured no magical beings or events either.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in 1963 in Yokohama, centering around a girl, Umi, who works and lives in her grandmother’s boarding house (on “Poppy Hill”) and gets caught up in the attempts to save an old building that has been used by high school boys as their “clubhouse”, a huge, derelict home to all school clubs.  Her romantic interest in one of the boys, Shun, draws her in and sets in motion the other main narrative component, a secret of their somewhat connected childhoods.

The world of the film is mostly but not entirely naturalistic (as I understand).  Yokohama isn’t recreated as it was but in a more fantastic way.  But the era of 1960’s Japan, prepping for the coming Olympics, concerned with its perception as a “modern” democracy challenges some of the older qualities of Japanese culture and identity.  It’s less WWII than the Korean War that looms over the lives of the characters here.  Both Umi and Shun have lost their fathers in the War.  It is a wistful, romantacised portrait of an innocent, peaceful time, of first loves, and coming of age.  It’s very gentle and not particularly dramatic.

Lacking the magic of Miyazaki’s other films, literally, effects the magic of the film itself.  It’s beautifully rendered as most Studio Ghibli films are, has its strong female protagonist, its  interest in more traditional Japanese culture.  And it’s enjoyable.

I watched it with Clara (Felix had something else going on), and we both enjoyed it.  But Clara was quick to say that My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is still her favorite.

We will look forward to The Wind Rises.  At the time, we had thought that Ponyo (2008) was to be Miyazaki’s last film.  A fine film with which to punctuate his amazing career.  So, we are lucky to have more.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) movie poster

directed by Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/08/2012 at the Bridge Theater, SF, CA

The opportunity to see Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful My Neighbor Totoro on the big screen, that was what this was all about.  The Bridge Theater in San Francisco was (and still is through this week) running a series of Studio Ghibli films, and schedules permitted only Saturday for us, and luckily Totoro was the film of the day.  It showed in both the English dub and alternately in original Japanese with subtitles.  Our timing had the dubbed version showing.

If you’ve never seen, My Neighbor Totoro, you should.  It’s a beautiful, low-key, wonder of a film, one of Miyazaki’s signature creations.  I would even posit that the image of Totoro, standing in the rain at the bus stop next to the young girl Satsuki, with the leaf on his head, accepting her umbrella, is as classic and iconic a moment as Gene Kelley, “Singin’ in the Rain” in Stanley Donen’s thus named film.  There is a magic to the film, plain and simple, a transcendent beauty as inspired and powerful as any in cinema.

It’s a film that I’ve seen many times, in whole and in parts, and Clara has seen it many times as well.  Though never on the big screen.  The crowd in the theater were largely families with young ones, obviously those “in the know” because as much as I read and follow up on what’s happening locally in the cinema, this event came a bit out of nowhere, with little promotion or notability.

Totoro is a simple story, about two young girls who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother convalesces at a nearby hospital from an unnamed illness. What they find in the country is nature itself, the people who work the land, and the spirits of traditional Japanese belief still living within the world in all corners.  They first encounter dust mite spirits, and then eventually are led down (or up) a rabbit hole of sorts to the King Totoro, the spirit of a massive camphor tree at the top of a tall hill nearby.  These spirits befriend the girls, giving literal flight to their dreams, encouraging them to plant more trees, and helping Satsuki find Mei when she gets lost.  It’s a spiritual encounter with nature and tradition, a grounding to culture and the natural world that embodies ethics and kindness as well.

It’s such a quiet and simple film that when I first saw it, I certainly considered that it might be slow or quiet for some.  Watching it again this time, the themes of spiritual embodiment, along with ecology, magic and traditional Japanese culture, things all deeply embedded in his later film Spirited Away (2001) are all deeply imparted here as well.  There is a great beauty beyond the charm here.  It could be critiqued for its yearning to a simpler, more pastoral time (the story is set in an indeterminate past, sometime in the 20th century), which is perhaps more wistful.  But there is magic to it.  There is a transcendence within this little story, these brief moments of fantasy and the beyond.  Most lovely.

Pom Poko (1994)

Pom Poko (1994) movie poster

director Isao Takahata
viewed: 08/03/2012

I think it was after watching Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988) that I started really looking at the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Studio Ghibli.  The kids and I had watched a bit of a documentary about the studio that was attached to that DVD and they seemed to respond to the clips from Pom Poko, which I also had never seen.  Though I’d heard of it, I really knew little about it other than it was also directed by Isao Takahata.

Outside of a bitter melancholy, the two films could hardly be more different.  Grave of the Fireflies was largely naturalistic, following a story based in reality.  Pom Poko, conversely, follows a wholly fantastic story of a world of tanuki, Japanese raccoon dogs (not to be confused with actual raccoons), an animal strongly associated with magical abilities in traditional culture, capable of metamorphosis and magic, slovenly tricksters.  And magically metamorphose they do, turning from naturalistic-looking raccoons to goofier, more cartoony bipeds who speak, to even more simplified figures when partying or having fun.  Not only do they change according to mood and necessity, but they manage to turn themselves into objects or other creatures, even humans.

Set in the 1960’s, in one of Tokyo’s last bastions of green space, a village of tanuki is getting run out of their space by urban development.  The story follows them as they wage war, first physically, then spiritually (or spiritedly?) via magic tricks and enormous effort.

Like much of Miyazaki’s work, the film is about endangered Nature, and beyond purely ecological or biological concerns, the world of traditional country Japan is imbued with the spirits of Yōkai, traditional beliefs in which spirits pervade every natural thing, especially living creatures.  The metaphor extends that in destroying the natural landscape and the homes for the creatures of this world, Japan’s heritage is destroyed by means of eradicating its own history, culture, spirits, spirituality.  And though the film is replete with quite broad humor, it’s ultimately a story of loss and failure, sublimation.

The story is complex, spanning a long stretch of time, has certain levels of darkness, in the tanuki actually killing people and many of the tanuki being killed as well.  The folklore is deeply ingrained in the story, meaning that without some prior research, a lot of things might seem bizarre or not make a great deal of sense to someone unfamiliar with them.  For instance, all of the male tanuki have rather large testicles (apparently based on their true physiognomy), but that comes into play with other uses for their scrotums (referred to as “sacs”) in the American/English translation, leaving a lot of questionable thoughts on something not overtly explained.  That said, it’s anatomically correct, not rude or crude.

The kids quite enjoyed it, though Felix noted that it was “sad” or “sort of sad”.  I was struck by some parallel (though vastly different as well) to Watership Down (1978), another film about encroaching humanity on the natural animal world.  It’s a strange mixture of broad humor, epic conflict, magic, joy and sadness.  The magical “parade” that the tanuki evoke to frighten the humans is both a celebration and a failure, a disconnect for modern Japanese from the images of traditional folklore.  The wild, weird creatures charm the children rather than cow them.  It’s an odd tonality that is created.

Spirited Away (2001)

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

director Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/27/2012

After watching Coraline (2009) with Clara a couple of weeks ago, I realized that yet another of my favorite films, Spirited Away, was something that the kids didn’t seem to have recalled watching.  I was strangely struck by this because it is indeed one of my favorite films and the thought of how I could have missed watching this with them was strange to absorb.  But I guess that when it came out it was probably too scary for them for a while and as time rolled on, I had kind of forgotten that they hadn’t actually seen it.

What was an oversight on my part became a grand opportunity to share with them this fantastic film from Hayao Miyazaki.  I think from its very initial release that many of us recognized it as a true masterpiece.   Time is usually the true judge of quality, and I can honestly say that this amazing, remarkable fantasy film is as strange and vivid as ever, deeper and more interesting, and thoroughly and utterly enjoyable.

Spirited Away is the adventure of Chihiro, a ten year old girl, moving to a new city with her family, winds up in another world, a spirit world, where her parents are turned into pigs and she winds up working for a witch at a bathhouse for spirits.  The spirits are of traditional Japanese beliefs, beings embodied in all things: rivers, rocks, trees, animals.  They come to the bathhouse to wash away the filth of pollution and abuse, but they also deal with having fallen out of memory and knowledge of people.  Haku, a boy that Chihiro meets at the bathhouse, is really a river dragon whose name has been forgotten.  The spirits and traditions are not only physically destroyed by human expansion but are becoming spiritually disconnected (as are humans).

Chihiro’s journey is a classic type of fantastic adventure, growing to appreciate this hidden world, to become respectful, kind, and heroic.  The plethora of strange beings in the spirit world are endlessly visual treats.

Miyazaki may have several films that could be considered masterpieces.  My Neighbor Totoro (1988) has a simplicity yet such sublime magic to it, playing with similar themes of nature inhabited by spiritual creatures, a less complex and quieter narrative, no less moving and fantastic in contrast.  But Spirited Away is something much grander, much more strange, and so utterly original, it’s a tremendous and still utterly fun adventure.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Rather unsurprisingly, I suppose.  Neither of them recalled seeing it at all before and were able to enjoy it completely fresh and without expectations or foreknowledge.  I am curious to query them on it a little further down the way to see how sustained their feelings are for the film.  For me, a decade on since my first viewing of it, I am even more enamored of it than before.   It is indeed among my favorite films.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

director Isao Takahata
viewed: 03/16/2012

I’d long known that Grave of the Fireflies was considered one of the great Japanese animated films, and I’d long had plans to see it or have had it lodged in my queue.  I’d even considered watching it with the kids before, but wasn’t sure how dark or depressing or inappropriate it might be.  Craving variety, I finally pushed it to the top for us.

Adapted from a semi-autobiographical account of the hard times in Japan at the end of WWII, Grave of the Fireflies follows a teenage boy and his young sister as they struggle for survival in a war-ravaged country.  The animation style is very beautiful, featuring a very “illustrated” style, telling a mostly very naturalistic story.  When their town in firebombed the boy and girl lose their mother (their father is away in the Japanese navy) and they are forced to move in with a very ungrateful, not terribly close aunt and her family.  The beauty of the countryside, the fireflies, the rice paddies, the ocean, are all somewhat blighted by death already.  When living with the aunt becomes untenable, they move to an abandoned bomb shelter and live on their own terms but with virtually no food.

It doesn’t turn out well.  But you kind of know that from the beginning, an opening sequence in which the brother dies of malnutrition in a busy train station, approaching his sister in a spiritual plane, all before the main narrative begins.  The kids said that they liked the movie pretty well but it was “too sad”, which is not entirely off target.  It’s a tragic reality of the world, not a crazy madcap adventure.

It struck me that this film, coming from 1988, emanated from a period in which feature-length Japanese animation, anime or not, showed a broader content base, from this mostly naturalistic historical film to the soft fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988) to the highly influential Akira (1988).  Still all traditional cel animation, but a remarkable trio of varying narrative styles and content, seemed to hearken of a renaissance of Japanese animated feature films.  Outside of Miyazaki, I wonder if this promise was truly ever met.

It’s quite a beautiful film, though slow and ultimately tragic.

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.