Follow along with my Studio Ghibli retrospective on my Letterboxd account. Here are four of my reviews from among the first ten films.
Castle in the Sky (1986) – Imaginative and fun, Miyazaki’s first official film under the Ghibli name is very much an expression of his favorite ideas while also being dotted with classic anime stuff like goofy villains, apocalyptic robots, even animals that look like Pokemon. It’s an incredibly vertiginous film, even before we reach the utopian fortress of the title. What’s interesting is how Miyazaki conceives of sky and sea as alternating strata: a starfield in a cave, an airship that becomes a whale under the clouds. Laputa itself appears to contain an entire underwater city beneath its Babel-like metropolis. The sight of this technological phenomenon overrun by nature is astonishing. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of standard stuff about the lust for power and riches, with two uncorrupted children leading the way. But the potential for greatness is clearly there.
(NOTE ON THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSION: Only one film into my Studio Ghibli retrospective, and I’m already leaning heavily for “subs” over “dubs.” I’ll admit that it’s difficult for me to judge the original Japanese voices because I have to concentrate on the images and the subtitles. But nothing in that version distracted me like James Van Der Beek’s pubescent whining or Cloris Leachman’s old hag routine. It all ends up being more strenuous than it has to. Mark Hamill’s pretty good, though.)
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) – Ecstatic cuteness. I’ve seen this movie several times, and I just don’t get anything more out of it than that. The film feints at traditional conflicts, from the sick mother to Mei getting lost and maybe attacked by a goat. But every crisis is blithely avoided, like the scary critters in the credit sequence that briefly escape their pens but never touch Mei on her perambulations. My Neighbor Totoro doesn’t even go in for the most traditional children’s-story conflict of all: adults can’t see the forest spirits, but they never challenge the girls’ imaginations, they only nurture them. This movie is serene, never insisting on anything. It could all be in their heads, like the tree-growing ritual that turned out to be a dream. But where’s the fun in that? This film presents us with an idyllic world that looks back on an even more idyllic past. I’d just rather be miserable, I guess.
(NOTE ON THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSION: It’s hard to beat the Fanning sisters. For the first time, I think the American actors were more restrained than their Japanese counterparts — altogether less shouty than Noriko Hidaka and Chika Sakamoto. With veteran voice actors like Tim Daly, Pat Carroll, Frank Welker, and Lea Salonga, this is A+ work all around.)
Pom Poko (1994) – Between this and Porco Rosso, it seems that the early 90s saw Miyazaki and Takahata feeling free to pursue their most idiosyncratic ideas. To mixed results, I’d say. On the one hand, this film is a wonder to behold, a collection of phantasmagoria to match the early Disney cartoons and the pioneering work of Émile Cohl. On the other hand, this movie makes no bones about its purpose: to declare war against the materialistic, godless modern world. Maybe that’s overstating it. Pom Poko has a dark, strange sense of humor to leaven its preaching. The target isn’t deforestation alone but the accompanying bugbears of television and junk food. Two schools of thought emerge in the film’s raccoon society. The first proposes what we might call the Beetlejuice strategy, while the other believes that only all-out war will bring urban development to a halt. These competing ideas keep the film from being simplistic. The somber conclusion is that neither will solve everything.
Isao Takahata is one of the most strident filmmakers I’ve encountered, which is a shame because he’s so wildly gifted, too. The first three (out of five) films he made for Studio Ghibli are very different in tone but are unified by a single plea: Don’t forget the past. Memory is the only thing keeping it alive. This is the source of life’s desperate beauty, because no matter what we do, we’re always quick to forget.
(NOTE ON THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSION: Maurice LaMarche has the perfect “droll narrator” voice. His work here is endlessly pleasurable. Watching this movie a second time, in English, had a couple ancillary benefits this time. First, not reading subtitles helped me concentrate better on the raccoon’s wild transformations. Second, hearing recognizable voices helped me distinguish the characters better. I could form a mental image of the specific individuals within each faction. There’s a lot you can miss on the first viewing.)
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) – So the guy who made Grave of the Fireflies also made a feature film sitcom? That’s some inspiring breadth, I must say.
“Sitcom” can sometimes be a pejorative, and this movie features all of the usual problems with the form: trite, inoffensive humor with a lot of hugging and learning. The “cuckoo” music cue that keeps popping up is almost as bad as a laugh track. The movie tells the story of a “quirky” family whose quirks mostly consist of being a little selfish and very forgetful. Seriously, it’s an hour and a half of people forgetting things, bookended by benedictory wedding speeches. Beyond that, there are scenes of family members fighting over the TV remote and what to have for dinner. Some moments work very well, but not many. Besides being a sitcom, stylistically this movie is a comic strip. I mentioned Émile Cohl with regards to Pom Poko, and he’s even more relevant here — drawings that call attention to themselves as drawings; smooth transformations in the opening sequence, with the Yamadas’ marriage envisioned as first a bobsled ride, then a sailboat, then a tractor. The imagination of those first scenes isn’t really sustained, though, except for the “superhero” scene.
(NOTE ON THE ENGLISH-LANGUAGE VERSION: Jim Belushi! The American cast was pretty good this time around, but there were instances when their speech patterns became very awkward in order to fit the characters’ mouth movements. Bringing along David Ogden Stiers to recite the haiku was a great idea.)