It’s time for the second part of our coverage of Hayao Miyazaki’s career, as we examine Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo, and The Wind Rises.
Do you like demon possessed animal gods? Do you like children raised by wolves? Do you like unexpected moments of extreme violence in animations marketed ostensibly as children’s films? Then you have come to the right place!
1997’s Princess Mononoke is essentially an eco-awareness movie, albeit one with a great deal of ass-kicking and brutality. If you’re thinking “yeah, I remember that movie – it was Steven Seagal messing up Michael Caine’s oil rig while communing with eagle spirits or something” then let me assure you that Princess Mononoke is quite comfortably the better of the two, and in fact one of the better Miyazaki movies in general.
Young warrior Ashitaka is defending his village from an assault by demon-possessed boars when he sustains an injury that renders him partially possessed himself. Something is afoot among the animals of the forests, and Ashitaka sets out on a pilgrimage to seek the Forest God who has the power to cure him.
Quite apart from finding a cure, Ashitaka unwittingly ends up trapped between the two sides of a brutal war between man and nature. In the blue corner is Iron Town, lorded over by Lady Eboshi, whose exploitation of the natural resources has enraged, in the red corner, the animals of the forest. Somewhere in the middle is Jigo, a somewhat mercenary monk who seeks to bring the head of the forest god to the Emperor as it promises eternal life.
A popular theme with the director, Mononoke carries perhaps the most overtly environmental message of Miyazaki’s films, but far from being a lecture on the rape of the natural world it is, first and foremost, an action adventure movie, and a fairly committed one at that. Violence and the real consequences of such, as we discussed in the last episode, have been touched on from time to time by Miyazaki, however Mononoke is the most explicit. That’s not to say it’s dripping in blood and gore, but there are some very definite consequences to people being hit by arrows in particular that make this a movie for an older audience than, say, My Neighbor Totoro.
It’s by no means perfect, but Princess Mononoke remains a hugely entertaining and typically timeless effort from its director that makes a pretty exemplary job of balancing worthwhile themes with high entertainment in a mature and thoughtful way. It is also worth noting that despite being one of the earlier Disney dubs it also remains one of the best, with an English voice cast that includes Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton and Keith David amongst others, all of whom do a fairly bang-up job of their duties. Princess Mononoke remains a firm favourite of mine, though it’s going to be some time before I share it with the little’uns.
Spirited Away, one of the few children’s films whose Wikipedia article includes the phrase “emetic dumpling”.
In a similar fashion to My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away starts with a family relocating to a new town, although the ten year old Chihiro doesn’t seem quite so happy about it as Satsuki and Mei were. Soon, how much she will miss her old classmates will be the least of her worries, after her parents take a wrong turn and end up in front of what they think is an abandoned shrine, or possibly an abandoned shrine theme park. I don’t know if it was a theme park dedicated to abandoned or non-abandonded shrines in the first instance, it doesn’t go into that level of detail, a rare failing in world-building from Miyazaki.
It’s not abandoned entirely, it seems, as they stumble across a food stand and Chihiro’s parents start eating indiscriminately. Understandably a little weirded out by this whole set-up, and not wanting to eat randomly appearing food in defiance of everything videogames has taught us, Chihiro runs off to find a bath-house and an unusually large number of spirits, which is pretty much any non-zero number of spirits, really.
Warned by a young lad named Haku to leave before she’s trapped in the spirit world, she can’t depart without her parents. Which is unfortunate, as they’ve been turned into pigs by the bath-house’s boss, the witch Yubaba. It is left unanswered if she was also responsible for Porco Rosso’s curse.
Haku, in the fullness of time is revealed to be Yubaba’s semi-willing apprentice, although he’s kept under Yubaba’s control by the same magic Chihiro’s about to be subject to. Chihiro begs for a job in the bath-house as an alternative, apparently, to being eaten, and Yubaba eventually agrees, but magically takes Chihiro’s name, renaming her Sen, which we’re told affords Yubaba a degree of control over her. Although despite this plot point being brought up a couple of times I don’t think it’s a power that’s ever actually explicitly used, now that I come to think about it.
There’s little benefit to any of us in providing much more of a recap to the events of the film, save saying that Haku and Chihiro must work together to outsmart Yubaba, her three bouncing heads and giant baby to reclaim their names, detransmogrify her parents and escape to the boring physical world, aided, abetted or opposed by various members of the bath-house staff and Yubaba’s twin Zeniba.
Now, if you’d asked me before re-visiting these Miyazaki’s body of work, I’d have said that Spirited Away was my favourite. On balance, it probably still is, but this might be the first time I’ve given it a properly critical viewing, and it’s not perfect. While on balance it’s the best looking film Miyazaki’s directed to this point, there’s a few early experiments with CG backgrounds that jar with the rest of the film’s look that may annoy the ultra-picky for all of the three seconds that’s evident for.
More critically, while this delivers a breathlessly paced narrative full of wildly inventive and wondrous set-pieces enabled by the supernatural setting, it can feel a lot like a torrent of events linked and driven by the flimsiest of framing devices. The overall drive of what needs to be done is clear, of course – we all know what the end goal is – but the steps required to get there are informed by something closer to Lynchian dream logic than any recognisable plan.
However, I’ll refer you back to our January 2016 episode for details on what we think of that Lynch guy, and none of these points have bothered me. The theme of greed corrupting people is perhaps dealt with a little too square on for me, but Miyazaki’s never been particularly subtle about his messaging, and I suppose that comes from aiming a film a ten year olds.
That means it’s aimed somewhere in between the bloodbaths of Mononoke and Nausicaa, and the lighter tone of the broadly similarly themed My Neighbor Totoro, and for me at least this gives Spirited Away a nigh-on ideal mix of wonder and danger.
It perhaps goes without saying by this point that Chihiro is a well-drawn and realised protagonist, but we should laud it anyway, a good-hearted mix of strength, vulnerability, and determination that certainly fulfils Miyazki’s goal of creating a character the target audience, and every other section of the audience for that matter, can look up to.
The supporting characters are also no less vividly created, most of whom I’ve not even mentioned because we’d be here all day, but at any point in this film there’s pretty much never less than three captivating characters on screen at the same time, which does rather make me wish that Spirited Away would get the Disney multiple spin-off treatment rather than some of the less deserving candidates it pumped out in the bad old days of their decline.
It will come, I’m sure, as no great surprise to hear that I love this film – after all, it’s not differing much from the critical reception at the time, and I don’t think that time has diminished it. There’s a few films jostling for top spot in my personal Miyazaki totem pole, but this is more often than not the one that ends up on top. Doubleplus recommended.
Young milliner Sophie lives a fairly quiet life in a turn of the 20th century European city. Harassed in an alley one evening by some soldiers, she is rescued by a dashing and mysterious young wizard named Howl (who is rumoured to eat the hearts of beautiful young maidens). In fact, it is Howl’s heart that is desired, and the minions of the evil Witch of the Waste observe his encounter with Sophie, leading to a jealous Witch cursing Sophie and turning her into a ninety year old woman, with the added kicker that she is unable to tell anyone of her curse.
Sophie leaves behind the city, and her mother and sister, and sets off into the wastes to search for Howl’s castle and, she hopes, a cure. After aiding a cursed scarecrow she dubs Turniphead, she encounters the castle, and quickly establishes herself as part of Howl’s retinue, with a thirst for cleaning that causes much consternation to Howl, his young servant Markl and the fire demon Calcifer.
Sophie begins to grow fond of the other members of this erstwhile family, particularly of the mercurial, vain and powerful Howl. She sees that he, too, hides from the world, and also that he is at heart a better person than he think he is, or perhaps wants to be. Having fallen in love with him, she agrees to go in his stead to the royal palace and plead with Madam Suliman to bring an end to the destructive war that this country and their neighbour are engaged in, and in which Howl is being forced to participate. This is not received well, and Sophie, Howl and a couple of unexpected additions soon find themselves on the run from Suliman’s armies.
While fleeing, Sophie discovers the past of Howl and Calcifer, how and why they are bound, and ultimately saves them all and ends the war, albeit inadvertently. Not bad for a ninety year old, huh?
Fuelled by his anger over the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Howl’s Moving Castle carries a strong anti-war message (in fact, he has stated that he intentionally set out to make a film that US audiences would not like, or at least find uncomfortable.) Many have criticised Miyazaki’s simplistic anti-war stance in Howl’s Moving Castle as being ‘war is bad, war is idiocy, and it robs of us of our humanity’. Now, while this film may lack the nuance that, for example, Princess Mononoke has in its approach to war, and its acknowledgment of the competing pressures and motivations of those involved, I have precisely zero issue with Howl’s message, because war is bad, war is idiocy and it robs us of our humanity, and even the most gifted and intelligent (here, Madame Suliman) sometimes are incapable of seeing it.
One of the main themes (and quite an uncommon one, in animation or elsewhere, really, and particularly at Studio Ghibli, with its preponderance of youthful protagonists) is that of the acceptance of old age and the freedom it can potentially offer. To Sophie, and others, youth can be a burden: not knowing your place in the world, what you should, or could, do with your life. Having never considered herself attractive, becoming an old woman seems to have removed that stress from her, and she also seems in some ways to have relaxed and found a more comfortable place in the world.
A more common Miyazaki theme is here, despite his anti-war anger, and that is that humans are essentially good, or are certainly capable of being so, and that devotion, selflessness and compassion save ourselves while helping others. Sophie certainly has every reason to treat the Witch of the Waste poorly, but chooses not to do so. It’s the sort of thing we all hope ourselves capable of, the sort of response that augments one’s soul, rather than impoverishes or decays it, and it’s one of the reasons that Miyazaki’s films are so uplifting.
It has been said that Howl’s Moving Castle is ‘Miyazaki by numbers’, and displays less of his personality than his other works. Some of that may be due to this being an adaptation of a Western novel (by British novelist Diana Wynne Jones), but I’m not entirely sure that I’m onboard with that. That said, even Miyazaki by numbers is orders of magnitude better than almost anything else that you could name. And it certainly has most of what you would expect from Miyazaki: a strong female protagonist, magic, flight, villains who aren’t really villains, or at least don’t remain that way, strange creatures, and an unwillingness to explain the world in which it is set. And the animation. Always the animation.
The centrepiece is, as it ought to be, the titular castle, a fantastical construction of turrets and windows and pipes and domes, like some sort of steampunk Baba Yaga’s hut, complete with mechanical chicken legs. Then there are the settings: Sophie’s home town, modelled on the northwestern French town of Colmar; the palaces and buildings of the capital, that bring to mind Versailles, and maybe London and Paris. The flying machines. Howl’s monstrous transformations. The subtle (and not so subtle) changes in how Sophie is drawn, as her inner age is reflected on her exterior. The sheer fluidity of transformation in both shape and place. All beautiful, all wonderful.
Yes, it’s not Miyazaki’s strongest work, but it’s still thoroughly bloody lovely, and definitely stands up to repeat viewing (I actually watched this in Spanish three nights ago, and found it the most enjoyable time yet. Make of that what you will.) There is only one Miyazaki film I simply did not enjoy. This is not that. So watch this.
One fateful morning 5 year-old Sosuke, who lives with his mother in a small fishing town while his father works at sea, finds a strange goldfish trapped in a bottle by the rocks. Naming the goldfish Ponyo, Sosuke attempts to care for her, but soon learns that she is in fact one of the many offspring of a powerful wizard and the goddess of the sea. Ponyo longs to be human but, in forming a relationship and falling in love with Sosuke, disrupts the balance of nature, threatening environmental devastation. Ponyo’s father desperately seeks to recapture his wayward daughter for the sake of both the human and the natural realms, but at what cost to the young friends?
An age old story, boy meets magic fish, magic fish drinks human blood, magic fish is recaptured by father’s magic submarine, magic fish becomes human, fish human hybrid escapes magic submarine and is reunited with boy amid a backdrop of a falling moon and the reappearance of long extinct giant sea creatures. Classic tale.
If the notion of a love story between a five year-old boy and a fish strikes you as a somewhat bizarre plot device you’d be half right, but this is Miyazaki, and somehow the director manages to make this potentially unsettling setup sweet, innocent and oddly relatable in a way it’s hard to imagine many others could manage. The relationship between Sosuke and Ponyo is a wonderful thing to behold, and at no point does it feel exploitative or, in fact, all that odd, as the film is carried along on a metaphorical and literal wave of fantastical character and subtle emotion. It’s one of those instances of something looking absolutely mental on paper, but on screen it just works in a way that somehow elicits unquestioning audience acceptance, unless of course you’re some sort of heartless monster.
The majority of Miyazaki’s films have been targeted at audiences much younger than I ever was at the time of watching them, but Ponyo seems to be the one that I can connect the least with.
Sure, as ever, it looks exceptionally pretty, but I don’t find any of the characters particularly relatable, especially the adults, and it’s a bit hard to treat this as much other than as a procession of gorgeous looking aquatic tomfoolery that’s uncomfortably quickly paced, at least in this context if not when compared against Western animation output.
Still, it has more than enough charm to easily recommend it.
Lads, I’ve notice something going back over Miyazaki’s films. Prepare to have your minds blown – he’s super into aviation. I’ll let that unexpected truth sink in for a moment.
Perhaps the greatest tip off to this attitude is The Wind Rises, which appears to be a film made purely so Miyazaki could draw aeroplanes for a while. In a wildly condensed nutshell, it tells the story of Japan’s aeronautics industry as it matures from being well behind the curve at the end of World War One to creating, arguably, the most advanced warplanes by the middle of World War Two.
This is played out in front of the eyes of Jiro Horikoshi, initially a youngster dreaming of becoming a pilot, before turning his attention to the design of them instead. We follow him through his University stint, then his career at Mitsubishi where his talent and dedication eventually sees him rising to become director of the program that eventually produced the feared Zero fighter plane.
Mixed amongst this broadly accurate biography are a number of wildly fictional scenes, in particular his dream conversations with Italian aeroplane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni, and rather more surprisingly, his relationship and eventual marriage to Naoko Satomi, a relationship unfortunately doomed by Naoko’s tuberculosis.
Now, allow me to say this up front, because I’m finding it difficult to analyse much of this film without sliding into snark – this was my first viewing of the film, and I enjoyed it well enough. It’s one of Miyazaki’s best looking films, and it held my attention well enough to recommend that anyone who liked Miyazaki’s other works should at some point see this.
I certainly did not like it enough to recommend that everyone put it to the top of their watch list, nor was my attention held well enough for my mind not to continually wander back to the central point of “who is the audience for this film?”, and on reflection I think that answer to that is “Hayao Miyazaki”, and if anyone else comes along for the ride that’s a bonus.
There’s certainly undercurrents on display here that’s more of a reflection of Miyazaki’s now reneged stated intent to retire after this film’s release, with some, again, quite on-the-nose reflections of the protagonist about dreams not quite realised, but there’s a melancholy to it all that comes across as a bit self-indulgent – particularly given the very real achievements of both Horikoshi and Miyazaki.
Also, having no particular knowledge of Horikoshi’s life beforehand I was perplexed indeed to find out that the relationship angle was a complete fiction, and I’ve yet to work out what the greater point of mashing this particular lie in with the broadly factual accounts was, unless it’s just as a route-one way to introduce a bit of emotional heart to the piece, which seems like an uncharacteristically easy out give Miyazaki’s track record.
The Wind Rises, for me, is the least enjoyable of Miyazaki’s films, and while I’m slightly perturbed by my inability to even grasp what he was aiming for here, I don’t think that even were that door of perception opened for me I’d think a great deal more of the film. There is, it turns out, more to film-making than being really really really ridiculously good looking. Catch it at some point, but not as a priority.
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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