So we come, finally, to the last of our episodes focusing on the output of Japan’s most famous film studio and, for me at least, the greatest feature animation production company of all time: Studio Ghibli. Our first two Studio Ghibli episodes covered the directorial canon of the company’s human figurehead, co-founder and legendary storyteller Hayao Miyazaki, and in our third episode we brought our attention to bear on the work of his long-time collaborator and business partner Isao Takahata, Ghibli’s other co-founder.
In this episode we’re going to be talking about the work of “the other guys”, the less-celebrated directors who together have created the seven Studio Ghibli features not helmed by either Miyazaki or Takahata. These are films that are typically lesser known, and certainly have been directed by less star-studded names, but we hope to be able to enlighten you as to any qualities they may have, and to guide you to the titles that you should put on your watchlist.
Right, enough of that pre-amble. To the Crystal Dome!
Ocean Waves is, in fact, a TV movie, but, even short as it is, we’re including this in the podcast as it is feature length. First broadcast in 1993 on Nippon Television Network, it remained relatively obscure for a long time but recently received a blu-ray release as well as a limited theatrical run in the USA. It is, perhaps, most notable for being the first Studio Ghibli film not directed by either Takahata or Miyazaki.
Based on a novel by Saeko Himuro, Tomomi Mochizuki’s film began as a plan by the studio to allow junior staff to make a less expensive film (a plan that didn’t work out as Ocean Waves ended up both late and over-budget). While waiting at a train station, a young man called Taku sees a familiar woman on the opposite platform and he begins to recall, in flashback, the moment when he first saw her, and their subsequent time together in high school. The girl, Rikako, had recently moved to Taku’s provincial city from Tokyo, and she struggles to fit in, being seen as aloof and different by the other girls at the school (something which Rikako does little to help, acting as she does both different and aloof).
Both Taku and his best friend, Yutaka, are smitten by Rikako, and both attempt to cultivate a relationship with her (something that, inevitably, will lead to a falling out). It seems at first, though, that Rikako’s interest in the boys is simply mercenary and financial, though it transpires that she is deeply unhappy, and upset by her parents’ divorce. Rikako has been tapping the boys for money so that she can return to Tokyo and stay with her father, a trip that she makes with Taku and where she has revelations about the stories she has been telling herself. It is also the foundation of a relationship that will define Taku’s life.
While simpler, and certainly more innocent, Ocean Waves shares a tone with works like Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, though it’s nothing like as turgid as Trần Anh Hùng’s 2010 film adaptation of that novel was. In terms of other Studio Ghibli works, the most obvious comparison, thanks to its coming of age/slice of life combination, is Only Yesterday, a film to which it also bears a stylistic resemblance, while lacking that je ne sais quoi that elevates Takahata’s similarly “ordinary” story.
Beyond any hard to pinpoint qualities that may simply be due to a sufficiency of experience rather than a deficiency of talent, and though I am not nearly as enamoured of Only Yesterday as Scott is, that film is perhaps the best example to examine and explain why Ocean Waves doesn’t work. Only Yesterday also looks back to a formative period of youth and, while guilty of over-indulging nostalgia, it is forward-looking, and its two time periods are separated by a substantial distance in which life has passed; an emotionally-mature, if uncertain, adult remembering the time when she was a pre-teen still learning about the world. Ocean Waves, on the other hand, is rather navel-gazy, and undermines the perspective of the seemingly more worldly and sensible older Taku reflecting on his time as an emotionally-asinine, impulsive teenager by having the formative events occur only a year or two earlier.
It’s a slight piece, for sure, and Ocean Waves is, undoubtedly, Studio Ghibli’s most dispensable work but it merits viewing at least once, if only for the sake of completion, if nothing else.
Yoshifumi Kondō’s Whisper of the Heart continues the theme of rather more grounded stories, as for a while at least it seems like the main struggle in the film might be 14 year old Shizuku Tsukishima’s attempt to bend John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads to her adapted lyrical will. A studious child, she’s spent the bulk of her evenings checking out a procession of books from the library, and she notices that many of the library record cards (ask your parents) also bear the name Seiji Amasawa. She idly wonders who this could be, and hopes it’s not this dumb boy who keeps saying annoying smart-ass things to her. You may see where this is going.
Shizuku has a romantic streak, and so can’t resist following home a strange cat who’d been riding the train, leading her to the antiques shop of kindly old Shiro Nishi, home to a statuette of a cat named “The Baron”. Nishi also turns out to be the grandfather of Seiji, and the two youngsters soon become friends, bonding over music. Seiji’s passion lies in making violins, which leads to a bump in their path to a relationship when he decides he must try apprenticing himself to a violin maker in Italy.
While he’s off testing his talents, Shizuku decides to test her passion for writing, making the Baron a protagonist looking for his lost love in a fantasy setting arguably more common to the rest of the studio’s output. Her dedication to this sees her grades suffer, but in an uncharacteristically reasonable and relatable scene her parents, while concerned, trust in her instincts and don’t ban her from writing or anything melodramatic like that.
Eventually she passes her self-inflicted trial, and Nishi’s approval of the first draft seems to back up her talents. She returns to devoting her attention to her schoolwork, and before long Seiji’s back to deliver a happy ending that, if I’m honest, seems a shade too rushed and represents just about the only niggle I have with the film.
Studio Ghibli has no shortage of likeable, determined female protagonists, and Shizuku Tsukishima is up there with the best of them. All the more remarkable given that she has no supernatural powers, nor is thrust into fantastical settings, apart from the one that she’s writing herself. A charming and very human character, and the self realisation of Shizuku, and to a lesser extent Seiji, makes for a really pleasant coming of age story.
Of course, on a technical level it’s got the polish you’d expect from the studio, passing the high bars of animation and score that are table stakes for Ghibli but leagues ahead of their competitors, then and now. There’s not all that much in the way of drama here, to be sure, but as a relationship and character study it’s very good indeed.
It’s a shame when anyone dies before their time, of course, but in particular it’s a shame when someone like Yoshifumi Kondō, who to my mind had just proven he was a true peer of Miyazaki and Takahata, dies at only 47. Small consolation, but as a legacy, Whisper of the Heart is a better film than most directors could dream of.
Unlike, for instance, the House of Mouse, Studio Ghibli don’t do sequels. Except, that is, one time only. Sort of. The film that earned a sequel (though, for reasons I’ll get to momentarily, spin-off is probably the more apt term) was, perhaps surprisingly, Whisper of the Heart, though it was both a critical and commercial success (becoming the most successful domestic film at the Japanese box office that year), so why not that one? What I imagine was definitely a surprise, however, was that the follow-up focused on the cats, particularly the little statue one in the top hat, Baron Humbert Von Gikkemgen. The short fantasy sections of Whisper that featured The Baron were amongst its most popular sequences but, still, it seems a pretty left-field choice.
Yoshifumi Kondō, the director of Whisper of the Heart, sadly died three years after the release of that film, at the age of only 47 (his premature death, caused by an aortic aneurysm allegedly due to exhaustion and excess work, has been cited as the principle reason for Hayao Miyazaki’s first retirement in 1998). In his place for the sequel was Hiroyuki Morita, an animator on Akira, Perfect Blue and Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, with The Cat Returns being his directorial debut. Originally a commission for a 20 minute short for a theme park, when the park cancelled the project Hayao Miyazaki gave what had already been created to Morita, and it eventually grew into a full-length feature.
Teenage schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from being run over by a truck one day which, in a variety of ways she could not even have begun to anticipate, has a profound impact on her life and immediate future. And why? Because the cat she saved was a prince among cats. Oh, that’s not a comment on his demeanour and general character (though he’s a pretty spiffing chap, all things considered). No, I mean an actual prince: you know, father is the king, that sort of thing. This Haru discovers when, the following day, she begins to receive numerous gifts of gratitude from the Cat King and his subjects though, cats not being much for abstract thought, are gifts that are considerably more feline than human-orientated. Mice. Mostly they’re mice.
Unsettled enough by this (not to mention the fact that she has had a non-zero number of conversations with talking cats by this point), her world gets flipped turned upside-down when the Cat King himself informs her that he has decreed that she should marry his son the prince, 2002 marking the moment when Studio Ghibli unexpectedly began to explore bestiality…
In a state of despair, a magical voice in the sky (because why not?) advises her to seek out a fat white cat (Muta, also returning from Whisper of the Heart), who will lead her to the Cat Business Office. This she does, and at the office she meets The Baron, who pledges that he (and a considerably more reluctant Muta) will aid her. Before they have much of a chance to begin, though, a horde of cats abducts Haru and carries her off to the Cat Kingdom to prepare her for her wedding. Haru cuts a pretty forlorn figure, but Morita and writer Reiko Yoshida at least neatly sidestep the thorny issue of cat-on-human relations by having Haru transform into a cat soon after her arrival in the cats’ domain. Alas for Haru that if she is not returned to human form by sunrise she’ll be a cat forever. Fortunately The Baron appears to swash some buckles, and he and Muta fight the King’s forces as they attempt to rescue Haru.
In terms of story The Cat Returns is very much one of Studio Ghibli’s lesser works, and certainly it lacks the scale or ambition of Spirited Away (which it followed into cinemas a year later), but it is one of their quirkier films, and is, by quite some margin, their funniest. For that reason it is one of my favourites, and one I’d put quite high up any list of recommendations – it’s so damn fun.
The fantasy realm of Earthsea is in the middle of interesting times, in the Chinese proverbial sense. Thought long-vanished, dragons have returned to the skies. Crops are failing in the kingdom of Elad, and while the King seems wise and dedicated, he’s also a heartbeat away from being assassinated by, it turns out, his own son, Prince Arren, who takes his father’s sword and flees to the country.
It seems his tale will come to an end on the wrong end of a pack of wolves’ combined teeth, but a chance encounter with the Archmage Ged, or Sparrowhawk, saves his life, and together they travel to Hort Town. Arren saves a young girl, Therru, from slavers, but no good deed goes unpunished, and the slaver gang return to capture Arren later.
Sparrowhawk again saves the day, but this brings him to the attention of the slaver’s master, Lord Cob, another powerful wizard who has tangled with Ged before, setting them on a collision course that will also drag in Ged’s friend Tenar, Therru’s guardian. It seems fate has chosen them to attempt to restore balance to the world, although that’s no easy task, and seems to lie in uncovering just what Lord Cob is up to, along with uncovering the secrets and problems of Therru and Arren both.
I’d read at least one of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books in the dim and distant past, but I’d be lying if I remembered more than vague concepts from them. Still, there were enough threads nagging away at me while watching Gorō Miyazaki’s take on the world of Earthsea to do a little digging afterwards, and it’s a pretty loose amalgamation of, well, all of them, picking and choosing a bunch of themes and events and wrapping them up in a neat bow, but a bow that turns out just to look neat rather than have any capacity to hold things together, and then everything just flops out all over the shop.
I presume Gorō knew the point of Le Guin’s books, as it’s mentioned enough times in the dialogue, just not in the actions. It’s instructive to look at the conclusion of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged is followed by a dark presence that’s revealed to be his darker natures, and only by facing this and accepting this as part of himself can he find peace. That’s adapted into Arren’s B-plot, but rather than accept that this neat Taoist principle could work as a finale, we instead get a rather more straightforward endgame of “use magic sword on evil wizard”. Now, I’m no expert of Taoism, but I don’t think that’s a central tenet of it.
The same feeling runs all through the adaptation, a sense that this doesn’t quite understand what its source material is about on anything more than a superficial level, and has tried to cram as much as possible into two hours rather than take any time at all to explain, in all but the broadest of strokes, why anything that’s going on is in any way important, or who these characters are, or what motivates them, again, on all but the most superficial levels. For a studio that’s normally so good at world building, it’s what makes this stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s also particularly critical in the case of Arren, who, remember, we are introduced to as he kills his father, an action that’s only barely touched on again, and his whole “struggle with darkness” arc is really quite poorly elucidated and needed a lot more focus.
This is the only Ghibli film that, for what very little it’s worth, holds a rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes’ woefully simplistic rating scale. There are positives to take away from Tales from Earthsea, although admittedly it’s the usual Ghibli strong points. It looks and sounds great, and while it swings and misses on most points there’s an intriguing world behind Earthsea that makes the setting interesting almost by default. Indeed, for all its faults I enjoyed this more than The Wind Rises, and certainly more than Ocean Waves.
Now, third worst of the studio’s output is nothing to shout from the rooftops about, but this is Studio Ghibli we’re talking about. A minor work, but I’d say one that’s just barely good enough to recommend watching at some point rather than avoiding like the plague.
The novels of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers series have been children’s favourites for more than half a century, with their tales of tiny people living in and around the gigantic-by-comparison humans, struggling to survive in a hostile world full of dangers. Among those captivated by her stories were Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who had been considering creating an animated adaptation of her book for 40 years. This they eventually did, with Miyazaki himself adapting the screenplay and doing the production planning, but passing off directorial duties to first-timer Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Arrietty (called The Secret World of Arrietty in North America) is the story of Arrietty, a “Borrower”, who lives with her mother, Homily, and father, Pod, in the spaces beneath the floorboards of an old house in rural Japan. As the film begins, Arrietty is getting ready to go with her father on her first “borrowing”, a rite of passage for a young Borrower. Things are complicated, though, by the concurrent arrival to the house of an ill young boy, Shō, who has come to this, his mother’s childhood home, to rest in preparation for a heart operation (one that he is not expected to survive).
During the borrowing expedition Arrietty is seen by Shō, and his understandable curiosity leads to his kind, well-intentioned but ultimately damaging attempts to befriend and help Arrietty, which results in danger from Haru, the vindictive housekeeper, who sees the Borrowers as pests, and the ending of the family’s way of life in that place.
Unlike other tiny people-focused works, for example Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, which not only had the diminutive people “borrowing” supplies from humans but had them live in a world where they had created a philosophy and, indeed, a religion based on the human world they lived in but didn’t understand, the main thrust of The Borrowers always seemed to me to be “are small” and not a lot else, which isn’t the most compelling narrative you’ll come across. However, as a concept it is undeniably something that not only translates well to film but is improved by it: showing the human world from a perspective entirely different to our own, or showing things largely invisible to us, allows a filmmaker to be inventive and create an appealing and visually rich world, at once both familiar and alien.
Little surprise, I think, that Studio Ghibli’s take on The Borrowers should be the most visually resplendent and interesting. From the spaces behind walls with the footholds and other Borrower-adaptations made by Pod and those who came before him; to the cavernous human spaces where table legs seem like sheer cliff faces and the tick-tock of a clock booms like the footfalls of doom; and the jungle-like garden, with its enormous flowers and water that acts like a much more viscous substance at Borrower scale. It is absolutely gorgeous, at points perhaps Ghibli’s best-looking film, which goes a long way to making up for what is a rather slight story experience.
Narratively it really doesn’t go all that far beyond “look at the small people, aren’t they small?”, but thematically it’s considerably richer, calling back to many of the environmental messages that were contained in Nausicaä, and adding in a healthy dose of warning about the dangers of humans trying to “improve” things without fully thinking things through, or appreciating things from the perspective of the creatures they are trying to help. There is also more than a suggestion of both an emotional and a sexual awakening in Arrietty and Shō; not in any explicit way, but in its knowledge and recognition of children as adults in waiting, and bringing a degree of subtletly, understanding and maturity to its adolescent characters that few, if any, Western animations, or films of any type, manage. Arrietty also contains a strong note of loneliness and isolation, and a lament for the ending of a way of life that echoes in much of Studio Ghibli’s work, especially that in which Miyazaki has had a hand.
For me, at least, Arrietty is a film that improves with rewatching, as I find it considerably more rewarding now than when I first saw it on cinema release when I, and Scott, as I recall, were both more than a little underwhelmed by its “small people are small” shtick. Even then, though, I thought it was beautiful, and it’s worth watching simply as a vibrant, verdant and lush world in which to get lost for an hour and a half.
Yokohama, 1963. Japan continues rebuilding after World War Two, in the middle of its economic miracle. Sixteen year old Umi Matsuzaki splits her attention between school and running the boarding house she lives in, caring also for her younger siblings and grandmother, while her mother is studying in the U.S.A. As part of this, she raises nautical flags to the wish the ships in the harbour below the hilltop house a safe voyage.
Meanwhile at school, Shun Kazama, student newspaper big wheel, is trying to organise a campaign to save their clubhouse, the Quartier Latin, from demolition. While Umi is initially repelled by Shun’s brash attention-grabbing methods, she soon volunteers to help with the newspaper and the campaign to clean up and save the clubhouse.
This leads to them growing closer, however wrinkles in this plan appear when it seems that the two may be related. The investigation, albeit a rather passive investigation, about their heritage forms a major part of the closing reels, and where a great amount of the emotion of the film resides.
Now, narratively, that’s pretty much your lot in From Up on Poppy Hill, which might seem troublesome for a ninety minute film. Truly, it’s not a hotbed of twisting, turning drama, but it’s no less enjoyable for its gentler nature. Umi and Shun are, in true Ghibli style, hugely likeable lead characters, and engender enough sympathy to want to see them succeed and be happy.
That, it turns out, is more than enough to carry the film, and I’m pleased to see that I enjoyed this just as much, perhaps more, this time around. I don’t think I’ve made a great case for this here, but the combination of looking and sounding as good as (almost) any other Ghibli film – impressive given the less fantastical nature – and lovable characters makes this an easy, enjoyable and rewarding watch. In a cinematic landscape where the Earth is imperilled on a daily basis, the lower stakes here seem all the more believable, and the relationship that this film centres on is just… nice, I guess.
As I say, I don’t think I’ve been the best proponent for it, but of the films we’re talking about today this is probably the one I enjoyed the most, and a sign that there’s a chance Gorō Miyazaki can if not entirely step out of his father’s shadow, at least shine a strong light out from it.
Recommended out of ten.
I associate three things with Norfolk: Adam Buxton, Alan Partridge and Colman’s Mustard, and certainly not Studio Ghibli, or ghost stories, so it’s perhaps just as well that writers Masashi Andō, Keiko Niwa and Hiromasa Yonebayashi transposed the action of Joan G. Robinson’s children’s book When Marnie Was There from East Anglia to Hokkaido.
First, though, we visit Sapporo, where we are introduced to Anna, a lonely, isolated 12 year old who feels apart from the world and who has no friends to speak of. Introverted and depressive, Anna considers herself a burden to her foster parents, who she thinks only look after her because they are paid to do so by the government. Informing much of her life is a tragedy: the loss of her parents, and then her grandmother, while she was an infant, leaving her feeling alone and abandoned.
When she suffers a severe asthma attack, it is suggested by her physician that moving out of the city to somewhere with cleaner air would be good for her condition, so she is sent to spend the summer with Setsu and Kiyomasa, relatives of her foster mother Yoriko. Taciturn, reserved and, frankly, miserable at first, Anna begins to open up after she discovers an old house on the other side of the salt marsh, and meets the mysterious blue-eyed, blonde-haired girl that lives there, Marnie.
It’s not only Marnie’s foreign features that are strange, it’s her dress and that of her parents, as well as the fact that she won’t, or can’t, go far from the house and the fact that when she’s not near the house herself, Anna seems to forget that Marnie exists. It’s almost like Marnie is a ghost. (Spoiler: Marnie is a ghost). Ghost or not, the girls begin to spend a lot of time together, doing all of the things pre-teen girls are wont to do: talking, laughing, parties, midnight rowing boat expeditions, drinking wine, attacking elderly women and locking them in bedrooms… (this last is perfectly OK, as the old woman in question is a right rotter).
At first thinking that she has conjured Marnie from her imagination, Anna begins to discover clues that point to Marnie being, or having been, a real person. Not that Marnie’s lack of substance prevents her and Anna becoming great friends (this isn’t the spooky kind of ghost story), and as she discovers more about Marnie, Anna begins to discover more about herself, and to realise that she is in many ways fortunate and, most importantly, loved.
When Marnie Was There is a slow burn and will doubtless test the patience of younger viewers, but it’s very much worth sticking with as it is deeply rewarding. The initial hump to get over (and one I didn’t actually remember from when I first saw this a couple of years ago, when it was one of my films of the year) is that Anna is kind of a brat to begin with, and she’s pretty hard to warm to. No doubt this is intentional, with the character pushing the audience away just as she does her peers and the world in general. Like Anna, the film refuses to be forced, but in its own time both it and Anna open up and flourish, and it ends, for me at least, in floods of tears, but tears that are like rain can be – wet and miserable in the moment, yes, but afterwards things feel refreshed and renewed.
Like Yonebayashi’s previous Studio Ghibli film, Arrietty, When Marnie Was There is rich, lush and beautiful (though this is hardly unusual for this company, of course) and if this does turn out to be Studio Ghibli’s final film (as it was expected to be at the time, and with Miyazaki’s How Do You Live? still not a certain thing it could well be so), then it’s a fitting title on which to go out, certainly much more so than Miyazaki’s own, rather disappointing, possibly/maybe/are we sure/make up your mind, man! “final” film The Wind Rises.
Less fantastical than Spirited Away, but more mature and with characters displaying much more vulnerability, When Marnie Was There may not the absolute best of Studio Ghibli, but it is beautiful, unhurried, subtle, atmospheric, contemplative, personal and touching. A must-see for fans of Ghibli.
We’re a film podcast, so we’ve stuck to that realm, but before we leave you there are a handful of Studio Ghibli (or Ghibli-adjacent) works that are worth giving passing mention to, quite aside from the surprisingly large amount of contract work that the studio has done for other production companies (as well as keeping the company financially viable, I suppose the animators and other production staff needed something to do while Miyazaki decided whether or not he was retiring for the umpteenth time).
Firstly I’ll mention two of Takahata’s pre-Ghibli TV series; Heidi, Girl of the Alps, based on Johanna Spyri’s famous novel and, particularly, his adaptation of LM Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, both of which Miyazaki also worked on. Keeping with the small screen, the recent Gorō Miyazaki-directed Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (it’s on Amazon Video for those of you in the UK and US) is probably worth a look but, being honest, may not be all that great as I lost interest after about the third episode due to notable lack of anything happening. I’m sure I’ll return at some point to finish it.
A video game next: Ni No Kuni, the tale of a young boy travelling to a magical world to rescue his mother. Frustrating in that the game never stops holding your hand for 70 hours, but an absolute joy to look at. The cutscenes were animated by Studio Ghibli, and the game’s designers and animators worked with Ghibli, and immersed themselves in the studio’s works, to make the world and story look and feel like a Studio Ghibli film. Lovely stuff. It’s available on the Nintendo DS and the PS3, though the PlayStation version is to be preferred for the greater fidelity; it’s a great way to really soak yourself in a Studio Ghibli world. If you do check it out, as I recommend you do, just make sure to play with the English dub, as Mr. Drippy is one of the greatest (and most Welsh) animated characters of all time. Tidy, mun!
And the last two items in this ludicrously long-winded extroduction: check out Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo (there’s a link to it on Vimeo on our Twitter feed), not just because it’s called Giant God Warrior Appears in Tokyo, but because it’s Studio Ghibli’s first live-action short and is a prequel (ish) to Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, partly demonstrating how the world came to be the wasteland that it is in that film. And, finally, yet another exhortation from me to check out Michaël Dudok de Wit’s beautiful The Red Turtle if you haven’t done so already, co-produced by Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata.
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.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with some more animated discussions, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.