In this episode we are turning our eyes to the east, and specifically to the work of possibly the only Japanese filmmaker whose art and body of work can rival that of Akira Kurosawa in its influence and impact, particularly outside of Japan. I refer, of course, to Miyazaki Hayao, legendary animator, storyteller and co-founder of Studio Ghibli (and no matter how you may say it, I assure you that Jee-blee is how it is pronounced).
In order to give Miyazaki-san his due, we are going to be making two podcasts to cover his work. This episode will cover his career from his feature debut The Castle of Cagliostro up to the inter-war aerial hijinks of Porco Rosso, and this month’s Compare and Contrast episode will make way for the second part, in which we will cover the remainder, from Princess Mononoke to The Wind Rises.
Born in Tokyo during World War II, Miyazaki originally had aspirations to become a manga author, but began his career as an animator in 1963, working in television and film, and adding as many strings to his bow as he could, taking the roles of animator, storyboarder, concept artist, scene designer, scriptwriter and director, as well as being a union leader. And it was during this period that he began his half-century collaboration with Takahata Isao, with whom he would go on to found Studio Ghibli.
His work is distinguished by lush, colourful drawing, often European-inspired settings, and strong female characters: while he was partly burned by the poor reception to Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which had a male lead character, his decision to typically focus on women or girls has been a wise, and successful, move. Miyazaki has said that “If it’s a story like, ‘Everything will be fine once we defeat him,’ it’s better to have a male as a lead. But, if we try to make an adventure story with a male lead, we have no choice other than doing Indiana Jones. With a Nazi, or someone else who is a villain in anyone’s eyes.” He also believes that women are more believable as characters when it comes to straddling the real world and something more magical, and that they are deeper and less aggressive than men. Not that this means they are weak, as his heroines are typically resourceful, intelligent, independent and strong, and most certainly not your typical Disney-like princesses. But it is the still relative rarity of such female roles that makes this necessary to mention.
Miyazaki’s films are also often notable for their strong (if sometimes heavy-handed) environmental messages, and for their acknowledgement of children as miniature adults, with themes of puberty and the awakening of sexuality, all without perversity, treating their audience with intelligence. In like mind, his stories often have more in common with the tone of Brothers Grimm-like European fairytales, rather than the versions which the Victorians de-fanged and Disney utterly sanitised.
But is his work good? That’s the question, and what we are here today to discuss, so we should probably actually talk about the films now. To that end…
Being, as we are, a movie podcast, we’re only looking at Miyazaki’s feature length output. This is, however, far from the full story of his career, which could sustain a podcast series by itself. In his early career, he covered a range of roles ranging from fill-in animator to character designer to director of a number of television serials, and it’s perhaps this multi-disciplinary grounding that lead to his mastery of the art down the road. So, 1979’s Castle of Cagliostro is neither Miyazaki’s first time in the directors’ chair, nor the first time he’s dealt with the gentleman thief Lupin the 3rd. It’s not, however, his first film for Studio Ghibli, which wouldn’t be formed for another six years after this TMS Entertainment produced film, but, well, despite the nominal title of these podcasts it would seem churlish to skip over The Castle of Cagliostro ( and Nausicaä, for that matter), because this a wonderful debut feature.
We’re dropped straight into the action, with Arsène Lupin and his sidekick Abraham Lincoln making a dash with a huge cash haul from the casino, only to find out that the money is counterfeit. The infamous “Goat money” has resurfaced, a high quality forgery that’s appeared at various critical points in history, often tipping world events one way or the other. Rumoured to come out of the small country of Cagliostro, Lupin and Lincoln (alright, Daisuke Jigen) resolve to solve this mystery that has so far claimed the lives of all who poked their noses into it.
They’re not long over the border in their souped-up Fiat 500 before they blunder across a young girl driving at breakneck speed from a group of thugs, and Lupin can’t resist helping out, which doesn’t go entirely to plan, but she does manage to hand off a signet ring to Lupin, indicating she’s a member of the royal family. It turns out not only does Lupin and Clarisse have some history together, but also that she’s being held by the country’s regent, Count Cagliostro, in advance of a forced marriage.
So, that’s just another reason for Lupin to go up against Cagliostro and his guards, and his ninja assassins, but he’s going to have to call for some back up from his samurai friend Goemon Ishikawa XIII and even a temporary alliance with his arch rival Interpol Inspector Koichi Zenigata, as they try and infiltrate and uncover the secrets of the Castle of Cagliostro.
This film is as old as I am, but has aged considerably better. Certainly, it’s much better looking. While admittedly both Miyazaki’s talents and animation technology has improved over time, this does not look like a pushing forty year old film, with well-realised, exciting action sequences rendered over beautiful backdrops. It’s all very well paced, rattling through at a breakneck pace that, if anything, is too quick for the amount of stuff crammed in there.
While it’s far from necessary to enjoy it, it does seem as though it’s taking some prior knowledge of the characters for granted. Which is odd, as having no experience of Lupin beforehand, Miyazaki has taken a far lighter interpretation of the character than the manga it stemmed from did. This may annoy purists, but should present no problem to the uninitiated.
Now, if there’s one thing I’ve said about every film, it’s that it would be better if it has samurai in it. Hidden Figures was a well made film about racism and sexism, but it would be better if it had samurai in it. The one thing missing from Lawrence of Arabia? Samurai. Blackfish? Documentary about killer whales? Needed samurai. One thing left unspoken in this constant demand is, of course, that samurai actually do something once they’re in the film, which is why the minimisation of anything at all useful for Goemon to do is kinda infuriating, and feels rather like a demand from the production company than a character essential to the story Miyazaki wants to tell.
But this, and anything else I could level at it, are nitpicks. Many directors will see out their career without making a film as enjoyable as Castle of Cagliostro, and that it’s arguably the least of Miyazaki’s works is more of a testament to the rest of them than a criticism of this.
Before he was working in animation, Miyazaki-san began to write a manga that he deliberately tried to make difficult, if not impossible, to turn into a film. Surely, then, he must have spent a good time kicking himself when, in 1984, he had to turn that very same manga into a film (and 10 years before he completed the actual book).
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, 1,000 years after a great (self-inflicted) calamity has befallen the earth, almost annihilated humanity, and created a great Sea of Decay, a toxic jungle which covers most of the planet. A few pockets of humanity remain on the edges of this wasteland, but they are always at risk of being infected by toxic spores, or antagonising the gigantic insects which live in the jungle. One such settlement is the relatively serene Valley of the Wind, where lives a young princess called Nausicaä. When we first encounter her, she is soaring through the air on her glider, harvesting supplies from the jungle for her village to use. Spying a human fleeing from an enraged giant Ohm, the largest and most dangerous of the insects, she saves the human (a returning traveller and swordsman named Lord Yupa) by calming the beast down with empathy, understanding and knowledge, crucially doing no harm to the creature.
Soon after returning home, the Valley’s peace is shattered when a vast Torumekian aircraft crashes into it, bringing death, destruction, infectious spores and the promise of war. The cargo of the aircraft was a God Warrior, a doomsday weapon from before the apocalypse that the Torumekians and their adversaries both want to use to destroy the toxic jungle and reclaim the earth. Such thoughts terrify Nausicaä and her people, who understand that to do so would be to enrage the Ohm and doom them all. Naturally, humans being idiots and all, the weapon is deployed anyway, and Nausicaä must attempt to defuse the situation. Sacrificing herself to confront the enraged insects, she is gravely injured and then reborn, and is seen to be the fulfilment of an ancient prophecy, and, pretty much, saves the world.
So, let’s get the bad out of the way first: Kaze no Tani no Naushika suffers from being both an early outing for the director, and from being adapted from a much larger story that, as the writer, he had deliberately made difficult to adapt. As a result, there are moments where the pace sags, and there are large portions of exposition that feel somewhat clunky. Its environmental message, while relevant, even more so today, is pretty overbearing. Certainly it’s a product of its time, during the nuclear threat of the cold war, but it’s also influenced by the director and Japan’s own history, in this case the Minamata Bay mercury poisoning. And while the points may be inarguable, they are rather loud.
Then there’s the music. The first of many collaborations between composer Joe Hisaishi and Miyazaki, it does feel quite incredibly eighties (though your mileage may vary on how good or bad a thing that is), and more than once makes me think forcibly of The Terminator.
But almost all of what remains is, for me, upside. Beautiful animation and settings, with thrilling action sequences (this is the first film in which we see Miyazaki’s fascination with planes and flight, and his inventiveness makes for exciting and visually compelling scenes). And most importantly, the characters. The central character may be a princess, but really she’s not like any princess you’ve seen before. Scientist, leader, explorer. Intelligent, tender and noble, caring and humble. Nausicaä is still flawed, though. She has fears, and can lash out against the better angels of her nature when she is hurt, for example the killing of several soldiers after her father’s death.
The main antagonist, too, is a woman: Princess Kushana, a capable and feared warleader. But she’s not a cookie-cutter bad guy – she’s intelligent, understanding and ruthless, if undoubtedly cold, and her far from simplistic characterisation sows the seeds for the complex Lady Eboshi in Princess Mononoke.
And I’ll return to the animation once more. Like all of Miyazaki’s work, the film is redolent with detail and nuance. So much of the nature of the characters is conveyed by facial expression and body language (Kushana’s droll second-in-command Kurotowa is a stand-out here), and there are subtleties that most other animators wouldn’t bother with, or wouldn’t be able to, such as the trembling of hands as they close the clothing of a wounded person. It conveys everything, without words.
It’s not perfect, but it is one hell of a second feature, and still very much worth watching. Also: fox-squirrels! Want!
A film very close to my heart, as it was my chance first encounter with Miyazaki and remains my favourite of his works to this day. A proto steam punk Jules Verne-inspired action adventure tale aimed, as is so often the case with Ghibli output, ostensibly at kids, Laputa: Castle In The Sky is the tale of a chance encounter between a young boy from a mining town and a mysterious girl who quite literally falls from the sky into his arms. Pazu is a humble assistant to the miners, working the elevator and boiler equipment for his Boss. Sheeta, the young girl who falls gently from the sky, is a descendant of the royal line who hail from a mythical floating island in the sky. Her amulet made from Levistone is what saved her during her fall, having narrowly escaped abduction at the hands of both sinister government agents and a band of unruly sky pirates who are all intent on finding the island, named Laputa.
Both Sheeta and Pazu are orphans, and with little to lose the pair flee town in order to evade the pursuing pirates, comprised of matriarch Dola and her bungling sons, and government agent Muska who is in possession of Laputan technology that can only be unlocked by the young girl and her stone amulet. The ensuing action takes place above ground, under ground and in the sky as Sheeta falls foul of Muska once again, and Pazu joins forces with Dola’s gang to mount a rescue bid that culminates on Laputa itself.
Laputa is a beautifully paced movie that plays with all of the action and adventure of Indiana Jones, the heart of Disney at its best, and a romantic-realism in its design that beautifully encapsulates late 19th century fiction and the Welsh mining communities that inspired the landscapes. It may not be Miyazaki’s most accomplished work (we’ll be talking about that movie in our next episode on this topic), but it is undoubtedly his most inspired classical adventure story and a pure flight of fantasy of the highest order that still entertains me as much today as it did somewhere in the ball park of a quarter century ago when I first encountered it.
Tatsuo Kusakabe and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei move into a rural area of late 1950’s Japan in order to be closer to their hospital-bound mother. In straightening out their mildly dilapidated home, the energetic Satsuki and Mei discover strange creatures hiding just out of sight. Soot sprites, who dwell in empty houses. Displaced, they soon float off, but this is just the beginning of the supernatural adventures that Satsuki and Mei will undertake.
One day, with the elder sister Satsuki off at school, Mei’s playtime in the garden is disturbed when she catches sight of two bunny-esque creatures parading around and gives chase, eventually leading through a briar patch and into an undiscovered hollow near the large camphor tree where she meets a rather larger version of the same forest guardian creature, Totoro.
Befriending Tororo, Mei would dearly love to show him off to her sister and father, although the same route no longer seems to exist. Tatsuo consoles Mei by saying that Totoro will reveal himself when he wishes to, and the family go about settling in to their new life in a new town, with Satsuki making new friends and drawing the awkward attention of a local boy, who’s struggling through that phase between finding girls icky and attractive.
Totoro reveals himself to Satsuki in due course when both Satsuki and Mei worry that their father hasn’t returned late one night, and head off to the bus stop to meet him. Turns out that the Catbus, a bus that is a cat, uses the same bus stop networks as human buses. Here we discover that Totoro loves umbrellas.
And so it goes, with a number of charming character moments leading up to the film’s conclusion where, spoiler warning, Mei goes missing, but Totoro and the Catbus help find her. Not that this is much of a spoiler, really.
I think it’s fair to say that Totoro, like most of Miyazaki’s more character focused work going forward, is not exactly overburdened with narrative. Indeed, there’s pretty much no confict to be mined for drama in the film at all, instead relying on the strength of the characterisation to drive our engagement with the film.
With characters like these, it’s an easy win. The energy, charm, humour and vivaciousness of Satsuki and Mei shines through, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be charmed by them from the off. Miyazaki’s often said to capture the magic of childhood better than anyone, and dollars to doughnuts this is the film people are thinking of when they say it.
There’s certain arguments for some of Miyazaki’s later work being “better” films, on some vaguely objective grading – certainly he’s made films that balance character and narrative more keenly in the years after Totoro. For my money, though, he’s not made a film as straight-up joyous as Totoro. A stone cold classic.
Kiki is a witch. Fortunately for her, she lives in a world where, while this is rare, it is not sinister or feared. Witches find a place in a community, and provide services to them. And at the age of thirteen, which Kiki has just reached, a young witch sets out on her own for a year to explore the world and find her place. And so we see Kiki preparing to leave and say goodbye to her parents, taking with her only her mother’s broomstick and her faithful, cautious (or sardonic, if you watch the US dubbed version) black cat Jiji.
After a rocky start flying-wise, Kiki heads along the coast, taking an overnight rest on a train, and eventually finds herself in a large, bustling city, which, while not necessarily unfriendly, is certainly indifferent to this new arrival. Feeling a little desperate and forlorn, she offers to return a forgotten item to a customer of a bakery, and as a result Kiki is offered room and board by the kindly, and heavily pregnant, bakery owner, in return for helping out in the business. After some soul-searching and frustration, Kiki realises that she can put one of her special talents, flying, to use, and begins a delivery business out of the bakery.
Plot-wise, Kiki is actually pretty slight, and it could be argued that not a lot happens. Yet, that is part of both the point and the appeal. One unusual thing about Kiki’s Delivery Service is that (one’s own body perhaps withstanding) there is no antagonist. As others have observed, only wind is the enemy. There is no conflict, no menace. It is a charming journey alongside a young woman trying to make her way in the world, struggling with her insecurities and lack of experience, and the curveballs thrown at her by the effects of her burgeoning womanhood, though it’s not for girls alone: the coming of age themes, the insecurity, loneliness, responsibility, the struggle to find one’s place in the world, the putting away of childish things, are universal. And it’s those themes that belie the true depth of the story, but the director just doesn’t beat you about the head with it. Nothing Miyazaki does is throwaway, and he doesn’t make films that are just for children.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is warm, funny, touching, gentle, human, believable and thoroughly engaging, and after repeated viewings remains one of my favourite Miyazaki films, second probably only to Totoro. I love this film, and I simply don’t have a criticism of it. As you would expect, it’s a visual delight, from the glorious cityscapes (in this case based on Stockholm and Visby), to the simple moments that lesser artists simply wouldn’t take the time to animate, such as Kiki having to adjust herself on her broom, or Jiji crawling back under the sheets when Kiki uncovers him. Maybe it adds nothing to the story, but it adds such texture to the world. Every scene, every moment, matters, and is full of the sweat of the animators’ brows. Kiki also displays that ever welcome trait that so many, mainstream at least, Western animations seem incapable of: quietness and inaction. Taking a moment just to show someone eating makes such a difference.
It’s just thoroughly lovely.
Arguably Miyazaki’s most disposable work under the Ghibli banner, Porco Rosso is nonetheless a hugely entertaining yarn set in 30s Italy that focuses on a former World War 1 pilot, Marco Pagot, who is now somehow cursed to have the appearance of a pig. Known as Porco Rosso (Crimson Pig) to the locals, Marco is now a mercenary flying contract jobs out of a romantically realised island community in a world seemingly dominated by over-designed airplanes.
When he’s not rescuing schoolkids from cash-strapped sky pirates, Marco is tussling in the skies with lantern-jawed American flyboy, aspiring actor and screenwriter Curtis, who is Marco’s greatest rival both in flight and in love, vying as both men do for the affections of bar owner Gina, one of the few people to have known Marco in human form before his curse.
Losing his plane to Curtis in a dogfight, Marco enlists the help of master craftsman Piccolo and his granddaughter Fio, who becomes Marco’s companion and mechanic for the remainder of the movie. As the Fio toils to build Marco a new plane, the pair attempt to evade the attention of a conglomeration of pirate gangs who have banded together to put an end to Porco once and for all, contracting Curtis as the man to finish the job.
While it sometimes loses focus and can’t quite fully commit to the romantic subplot between Marco and Gina, Porco Rosso is nonetheless a rip-roaring and frequently hilarious adventure that is never less than entertaining. Closer in weight to Cagliostro than many of Miyazaki’s later output, Rosso is often overlooked as a lesser title, but “lesser” in Miyazaki terms probably amounts to a 4 out of 5 star movie in layman speak.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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