Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

Princess Mononoke: The Best of Studio Ghibli and Maybe Even the World

Princess Mononoke is one of the best movies ever made, bar none. It’s easily in my top 3, and I’m not just talking about animated movies here. I do not say these things lightly.

 

I don’t care if you think “cartoons” is for kids. I don’t even care if East Asian culture seems confusing and impenetrable to you. If you have any respect or love for movies, artistry, or storytelling in general, you should see Princess Mononoke at some point. You can even say you didn’t like it. I won’t be mad.

Hell, go see it right now, if you never have before. Don’t even read this review of it, because there are some spoilers and it’s more organic to come across them on your own.

  

 

In a time where we only seemed to get preachy environmental films and shows about evil man ruining the innocent planet with his mere existence (and I time when my younger self was personally growing tired of Disney-esque black-and-white world views), there was one little-known film from Japan that actually took a balanced look at the issues. Here, nature is a mighty force to reckoned with, and humans can be ambitious while still being caring and sympathetic. Everyone is struggling and clawing to survive, and they will do so by any means necessary.

Though it may seem mystical and fantastic, there are numerous shades of reality to be found there too.

Prince Ashitaka lives in a quiet, hidden village in the far east, the last of the native Emishi people. One day, a giant boar god-turned-demon attacks his home, and while he manages to protect everyone else from its rage and destruction, Ashitaka is cursed when the beast touches his right arm. He is told that it will fester inside of him, cause him great pain, and then kill him, but it also occasionally has a will of its own, and even grants him some of the boar god’s considerable strength.

 

Then, leaving his people forever, Ashitaka journeys west to discover what cursed the boar god and if his own curse can be cured. What he finds is the small but prominent human settlement of Iron Town battling the remaining gods for control of their land, and a plot to kill the heart of the forest itself.

 

The leader of the humans is Eboshi, an ambitious, intelligent, highly-respected, and capable woman. She bought the contracts of numerous brothel girls and gave them a better life working the bellows in Iron Town, and she also took in lepers, who in turn help her by building new guns and weapons. Despite her plans, she is not completely irredeemable. Eboshi is an equal opposing force to the forest gods, who are trying to survive and thrive and protect their own kind just as she does. Other humans desire the rich land that she has painstakingly fought for, and so she faces attacks on both sides, from her own kind and the animals.

 

On the side of the forest is San, the eponymous Princess Mononoke. As a child, she was abandoned by her human parents and adopted by the wolf god Moro. Eboshi believes that San’s soul was stolen by the wolves and is thus no longer human, and once the gods are killed off, she will become one once more. The head of the great forest spirit is also rumored to cure any ailment, so she seeks to claim it to cure the lepers under her care. Meanwhile, San sees Eboshi as greedy and evil, with no love or reverence for the forest and its powers, and seeks to kill her to stop the other humans from destroying more land and the noble gods protecting it. Without the forest spirit, it is also said that the animal gods will become “dumb beasts once more,” leaving humans everywhere with little opposition.

In addition to all of that, the Emperor of Japan believes that the head of the forest spirit will grant him immortality, and promises great wealth to the one who can bring it to him. This draws even more people to the stage, like the amiable but calculating monk Jigo (Jiko-bo).

 

Ashitaka, in his own quest to save himself, also tries to save these two groups from each other. He sees history repeating itself, so he becomes a bridge; not entirely different from San, but more neutral, fighting for both sides to live in peace and compromise.

What I like about this, in addition to the culture and mythology, is how fair and balanced this seems. Nature has divine elements to it, and the movie clearly shows why it is important to revere it. But it is not some innocent thing simply being trampled by man, and unlike in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, it does not really care that there are some nice “men” trying to protect it. It is a force, plain and simple, and like a caged wild animal, it will fight to survive however it can.

 

Everyone in this movie is fighting to survive. Ashitaka is the last prince of his people, and for their sake as much as his own, he does not want to die. The forest gods are the last of their kind, and the forest is their home and a source of strength and vitality. Eboshi’s people were all scorned by society; she creates Iron Town as a safe space for them, and they thankfully, loyally help her achieve her own goals. I can understand and sympathize with them without always necessarily condoning their actions.

Let me put it to you this way: in The Lorax (the 1972 television adaptation), the Onceler asks several very important questions. “What do you want? I should shut down my factory? Fire a hundred thousand workers? Is that good economics? Is that sound for the country?” To which the Lorax replies, “I see your point, but I wouldn’t know the answer.” That is the only other environmental “movie” that seems to realize that there are two sides to every debate, and Princess Mononoke takes it even further by actual making the human “villain” a fully fleshed-out and sympathetic character.

A human being, so to speak.

 

The animation is gorgeous, as the rare bits of computer animation perfectly compliment the cel-shaded, traditionally hand-drawn and painted style. The amount of detail is astounding, especially in the background and scenery; every rock and blade of grass looks different from every other. The action scenes are fluid, making up for the fact that Ashitaka is a calm, relatively reserved character only occasionally prone to real anger.

 

The English voice cast is very well-chosen, and the English script, brought to us by Neil Gaiman, relays the story well without incorporating a lot of local references that would confuse an American audience. Sub enthusiasts might fight me on that point, but some changes have to be made when translating this to a different audience, and if you don’t like it, the original Japanese version is right there for your viewing pleasure.

The Japanese cast is stellar, of course, but I have to appreciate the effort it took to bring this movie stateside. However you feel about English dubbed anime and movies, you can’t deny that it serves as a fitting introduction to the genre for newcomers.

The music…what can I even say about it? It’s Joe Hisaishi. He scores most of Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, and they always seem to fit perfectly.

The plot is not eye-rollingly preachy and pretentious. It’s subtler than its friends and neighbors, especially those of the late 90’s; it doesn’t talk down to you or wag its finger disapprovingly, as it ironically kills God knows how many trees just to bring its message to life. It doesn’t give us a villain who is completely greedy and evil, sometimes just for the joy of being evil.

Jigo probably comes the closest to being a “typical” bad guy, but even then, he’s so likable. He is basically the Onceler if he had been a side character, rather than the main antagonist.

San is not the strongest or most commanding person, but she is young and trying to find her way in the world. Both she and Eboshi are fascinating, whether as female characters or characters in general, and they fight tooth and nail for what they believe in. Miyazaki sure came a long way as a feminist since Nausicaawho I would argue is more of an idealized Mary Sue and sacrificial lamb, rather than an actual character.

 

San and Eboshi are flawed, but extremely compelling and admirable.

This movie is just amazing to me, and it makes me sad that it is less known and less appreciated than something like Spirited Away. Granted, that is a great movie and definitely more family-oriented (Princess Mononoke, by contrast, features several men getting their heads shot clean off with arrows, and one unfortunate gentleman who loses both of his arms that way), but it’s not nearly as profound and compelling. It’s a pretty safe, tried-and-true story format with enough “weirdness” sprinkled over it to make it interesting.

Princess Mononoke‘s basic plot isn’t unknown to us either (man tries to save the forest…as well as the people trying to tear it down?), but it isn’t exactly here to make you feel comfortable. It doesn’t point fingers at you in the same way something like James Cameron’s Avatar or Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves would, but neither does it try to placate you and dumb down its message like the 2012 Illumination Entertainment abomination The Lorax. It simply presents an epic, interesting story with two equal and opposing sides, and more readily allows you to take away what you will from it. The conflict is on a smaller scale than some environmental stories, but it feels no less important to the greater world because of its potential consequences.

Nature should be preserved and tended, and not just because we benefit from its existence. Man should not be blind to the world around him. Hatred, rage, and arrogance don’t tend to solve all of your problems. Sometimes it is the simplest messages that need the most repetition, but they can be conveyed in ways that aren’t stale, boring, and completely predictable.

This movie is damn brilliant and beautiful and deep. To steal a quote from Pulp Fiction, “What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to f#$%ing acknowledge it!”

 

*9/10

Note: The images used in this article do not belong to me. Most belong to Disney and Studio Ghibli. Jeff Goldblum, uh, belongs to Jeff, uh, Goldblum. 

 

 

Life Lessons from Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service was one of my first movie memories, and it continues to be high on my favorites list to this day.  It struck a nice blend of the magical and mundane; the push for autonomy, stability, and maturity balanced with the need for comfort, good friends, and a good laugh. To me, this film is a perfect bridge between childhood and adulthood.

Kiki, the plucky young witch in training, discovered herself and her true passion, but not without uncertainty or hardship. Here are a few lessons that Kiki’s Delivery Service helped me carry into my own life:

1) You can’t be friends with everyone.

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Making friends isn’t easy for a lot of people. Even the nicest, most outgoing person in the world won’t like or be liked by everyone, and while it might be hard not to take it personally sometimes, it’s not something you can force either.  Seek out the people you like, and who will like you for who you are. Don’t spend a ton of time stressing or trying too hard.

Thankfully, unlike in Kiki’s Delivery Service, we have the Internet now. New friends can be just a few clicks away.  🙂

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2) On a similar note, not everyone will appreciate you.

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It sucks when you go through a ton of effort for someone who doesn’t appreciate it. Whether it’s for a customer, boss, friend, or family member, it’s going to happen eventually, assuming it hadn’t happened already.

Try not to let this sour you. A good deed can be its own reward, but my advice is to stop doing so much for people who consistently don’t acknowledge or reciprocate it. There is a line between being generous and being used.

 

3) Moving away from home is harder than it looks.

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Whether it’s going off to college, moving out of your parents’ house, or just moving to a new address, the first time is always the hardest. You might enjoy it or you might be nervous, but at some point or another, you’ll probably feel a little down or awkward.

 

This is normal. Just power through it. Big steps are called big steps for a reason.

4) Balancing a social life and “adult life” can be really, really hard.

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Having a job is great, unless you hate it. Having a social life is great. But try balancing the two on top personal time, school, and everything else, and things don’t always work out the way you want them to. The call of the bills is a powerful one, and I suggest that you enjoy not having to pay them as long as possible.

The key to balance is prioritizing, time-consciousness, and keeping your expectations realistic. It’s not always ideal, but you’re less likely to be bummed out when plans fall through.

Some days, you might just be too tired to do anything.

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5) Even your favorite jobs will have slow days.

 

It’s just a fact of life: not every minute of every day can be exciting. I say don’t smile if you don’t feel like it, but try not to wallow in misery either. A worthy distraction can do the trick, so set your mind to a task or plan to do something fun when you have the chance.

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6) Inspiration comes and goes.

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Creativity is a strange thing. Sometimes, it comes naturally, and other times it doesn’t. There’s nothing seriously wrong with you when that happens, and it doesn’t make you bad at what you loving doing.

It’s easy to envy others when you’re not sure what you want to do, but even the most passionate, committed people have doubts and slumps. You are different, so how and what you discover may be entirely different from someone else’s path.

 

7) It’s okay to be alone.

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When I was traveling in Tokyo, I went with a small group of other college students. At first, we all stayed together, a bit lost and overwhelmed by such a different place, but in time, we branched out and explored more. The two other girls on the trip weren’t very nice to each other or to me, and I finally decided that in my free time, I would either do things with the guys or go off completely on my own. I would have rather taken a trip like this with my best friends or family, but I refer you to lesson #1 above.

Sometimes if you don’t go off and do things on your own, you won’t end up doing anything at all. It’s okay to want time to yourself. It’s okay to strike it out on your own. Friends are nice, but you can’t wait around all day for someone to be available. You definitely can’t expect friends to move with you.

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8th, last, and most importantly of all: Always sit on your skirt.

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Enough said.

 

 

 

Miyazaki Films, From My Favorite to Least Favorite

Hot off the heels of my Princess Kaguya review, here are my rankings of the works of Ghibli’s former main man: Miyazaki.

This, unlike my other lists and rankings, will be fairly short and quick. I may do reviews of each of these movies in the future, but there is so much to love about Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli in general. I would be loath to spoil these wondrous journeys for anyone (side note: if you haven’t already, don’t look at my villain list or my Kiki rant. There thar be spoilers).

And if you disagree, feel free to share in the comments.

(Also, please note: These are films that Miyazaki himself as directed, not his son Goro, Isao Takahata, or anyone else from the studio. Also, The Castle of Cagliostro and the short films are not included, because I haven’t yet seen them.)

 

Princess Mononoke

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One of lesser known films outside of Ghibli circles, but a classic must-see. I would argue that it is Miyazaki’s best in almost all aspects of film production and story telling.

Rated for an older audience (and for damn good reason), this film has all of Spirit Away‘s intrigue and exotic foreign flavor, but without relying on a well-known story like Alice in Wonderland as its base. It does, however, have a theme we who have lived through the 90’s can easily recite: Save the trees.

But Princess Mononoke does everything right that most environmental soapbox movies do wrong, and, compared to one of my least favorite films on this list, it is its fully matured sister story. The film has morally grey areas that keep many of the characters sympathetic and interesting, but flawed, and at no point is the audience talked down to or shamed, explicitly or implicitly, for “killing the earth” (see the likes of Disney’s Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Avatar, and Fern Gully, among others).

It’s full of action, suspense, culture, and mythological references. The villain is complex, and she and her enemy are among the strongest antagonist/anti-hero female characters I’ve ever come across. I recommend it especially to Ghibli and Miyazaki completionists, Japanese culture buffs, animation enthusiasts, and action lovers. If you are one or more of the above, it’s a match made in heaven.

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service

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This is a good film, to be sure, but it ranks so high for me mostly due to nostalgia. I’ll wager that girls will relate to it more than boys, but it’s a great example of what I would describe as Studio Ghibli’s “Slice of Life with a Magical Twist” genre.

The magical twist often varies, but what I mean are typically smaller, slower stories with a lot of heart and detail, that build great characters and feel closer to real life than the giant fantasy epics. Magic may be related directly to the plot, or it may just come in the form of daydreaming or other great visuals (see Whisper of the Heart, which I consider the sister story to Kiki).

Kiki is by no means an ordinary girl, but at the same time, she is. At every major change in my life, I’ve thought back to this film and hoped to have even a fraction of the courage and optimism that she had. And I love and hate this film for making leaving home, having to survive in the real world, and finding your ideal career path look so fun.

Spoilers: It’s not really. There are fun parts, but it’s the most stressful thing I’ve dealt with yet.

Still, I forgive you, Kiki. Thank you for the persistent slice of childish optimism.

I recommend this film especially to girls young and young at heart. A bit idyllic, maybe, and not without its slow moments, but Kiki is truly a joy to watch.

 

Spirited Away

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As I said above, this film is Alice in Wonderland if it had been written in Japan.

I prefer to watch this one in Japanese, mostly because the main character Chihiro’s English voice actress, while good in her own right, was apparently directed to shout every line with all of the emotion of a tape dispenser. But either way, it’s a good story.

Like Kiki’s Delivery Service, it involves a girl being forced to grow up and learn how to face life’s plentiful cornucopia of difficult decisions and challenges; only this time, it’s forced upon the girl, rather than willingly undertaken. And the world is bigger and far more magical and alien overall.

After watching her parents be transformed into pigs and ending up getting trapped in a world with spirits and demons, Chihiro must find work in a local witch’s bathhouse in order to survive. While there – on top of learning more about the spirit world and overcoming her own fear and confusion – she has to find a way to escape with her parents before they all get served to the surreal and frightening guests as dinner.

The visuals alone are worth the price of admission. While the creatures aren’t as “creative” as Westerners might think (most, if not all, are based on common Japanese folklore), part of the draw is undeniably how “out there” the settings and the characters seem. And I really like the growth of the main character over the course of the story; she started off weak and annoying and then became truly admirable.

 

Castle in the Sky

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A mythical lost city a la Atlantis: The Lost Empire meets kids on an epic adventure to find treasure and save the world. How could you not love it?

Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa: Castle in the Sky, is pretty basic in execution, but it comes together nicely. The main protagonists and antagonists might be a bit too familiar in their respective generic “good and evilness,” but James Van Der Beek and Mark Hamill have some fun chewing the scenery, and I certainly had fun watching them.

The rest of the voice acting (at least in the Disney dub) ranges from good to barely passable; the latter unfortunately applying to the lead girl Sheeta, played by Anna Paquin, who is bland as toast. But the pirate gang, led by Cloris Leachman as Captain Dola, really shine through the fluid animation and the solid acting behind their mics. I would watch the film for them alone.

Also, because I’m not a fan of the minimalist music and audio of the original dub, I would definitely recommend watching this one in English. Purists may hate it, but look at it this way: without dubs, there wouldn’t be enough draw to bring so much anime state-side, would there? It’s the equivalent of what Marvel movies do for comics overall.

It is a basic story with basic morals, elevated only because of its gorgeous visuals (including Miyazaki’s aircraft designs and the near post-apocalyptic settings), character bonding and interactions, and the lovely score by composer Joe Hisaishi.

 

The Wind Rises

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A slice-of-life style love letter to all things that fly, The Wind Rises is a “based-on-a-true-story” drama about the life of Jiro Horikoshi, an aircraft designer working around the time of WWII. It is the last film Miyazaki made before he retired (again).

This movie is very slow, but you can feel the passion oozing from every pore. Jiro reminds me a lot of both film versions of Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing; quiet, thoughtful, full of love and devotion to his work, though not as noticeably different from his colleagues as those two seemed. The animation and music are standard (read: gorgeous) for Miyazaki films, and the love story is very cute, if a little bland.

 

Howl’s Moving Castle

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Based loosely on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, Howl’s Moving Castle is a magical coming-of-age adventure for normal girl Sofie and the handsome, but childish wizard Howl. Sofie is cursed by a jealous witch after a chance meeting with Howl, and she sets out to either find him or the witch, hoping one of them can break the spell.

It’s very hard to describe more without spoiling things or hinting at other things. And while I do like it, the story feels a bit clunky, cluttered, and unfocused; it’s only a half-adaptation of its book, I guess because Miyazaki was on a big “war is bad” bender.

Certain elements of the story are given more focus than they need, while other, more interesting or crucial aspects are minimized or left to the wayside. JesuOtaku noticed this trend first, and I’ve since seen it ring true with my male friends: boys’ feeling towards the film are usually somewhere between dislike to “meh.” It tends to be more popular with girls, particularly those who relate to Sofie’s inner struggles.

It’s not a movie I seek out often, and its patchwork plot is kind of a mess, but the voice cast do a very good job with what they were given. Definitely one of Miyazaki’s weaker films, if not the weakest. Personally, I’d recommend the book more.

 

And now we come to the part where I prepare to dodge the rotten tomatoes:

 

Ponyo

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This film is what would happen if you crossed The Little Mermaid with My Neighbor Totoro, then added a pointlessly tacked-on, extremely hollow “world-ending consequence” that goes nowhere. Seriously, the bit at the end was unnecessary for such a small story.

I have a cuteness threshold, and this film more than crosses it. It’s okay; not my taste at best, and pretty annoying at worst. It’s movies like this where Miyazaki’s trend of having people and children underreact to magical phenomena becomes really distracting; only one old woman has a normal person’s reaction to anything (fear and suspicion), and she’s shown to be wrong. That seems like an odd thing to tell kids: “Stranger Danger is total BS! Everything is maaaaaaaaaaggggggggiiiiiccccaaaaaaaaallllll!”

The best part is, as always, the animation and music, but I also love the mother’s crazy driving. It’s just so real, and yet totally hyperbolic. Otherwise, I skip this one whenever possible.

 

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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This movie, I will watch more often than the two films above it. And yet, it is definitely my second least favorite Miyazaki movie.

I give it props for essentially jump-starting Studio Ghibli, and hey, maybe the manga version is much better and worthy of being toted as one of the greatest manga of all time. I wouldn’t know, having never read it. I do know it took quite a few years to complete.

But Nausicaa the film is too black and white, bordering on Disney-eqsue, and Nausicaa the titular character is, at least in the English dub, a whiny, preachy, bland saint of a girl who virtually all of the other characters admire and side with. Or they don’t, and either become “villains” or misguided, stupid people to be corrected or forgiven by Her Highness of the Bleeding Heart Treehuggery and Whiny Sobs.

This movie is a proto Princess Mononoke; It is every environmental movie shaming you for killing the earth and misunderstanding nature, but it’s hard to get too mad at it because it’s pretty and because Mononoke exists.

But while yes, environmental themes are prevalent throughout Miyazaki’s work, this film’s themes are the oppressive, if not the most pointed as well.

Nausicaa is a bit of a bigger story than Mononoke, but the former’s characters suffer in too confined roles with too heavy-handed morals. I’d have liked this story much more if even one character besides Lord Yupa or Asbel had ever challenged Nausicaa, and the film had sided with them. Even just once.

Or if Kurotawa had more screen time. I want to see him twirl his moustache some more, literally and figuratively.

 

My Neighbor Totoro

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This film gives me diabetes and indigestion worse than Ponyo ever could. I don’t like it.

To be fair, I began by binge watching all of Miyazaki’s movies at fifteen, so when I got to this one, my expectations were beyond high. And I went into it totally blind; I was expecting an adorable but still epic adventure, because I hadn’t yet experienced some of the “slice of life” stories outside of Kiki yet.

So not only did this film annoy me, it was thoroughly underwhelming. It gave me nothing I wanted and less.

I’d like to try to watch it again sometime and give it a fairer shake, now that I am older and have more of a taste for the slower stories with no huge plot, but the little girls constantly running around and screaming and spazing (which is, admittedly, what real kids do) got on my nerves quickly. In real life, little kids do that with no greater point than just having fun, but in a movie, I had hoped it was going to, you know, lead to something. This is a Miyazaki movie, not Barney the Dinosaur with half of its structure and “substance” removed.

It’s great that they’re good kids and they’re having fun, but they’re loud and wild and Mei’s English crying voice sounds as though someone took a cheese grater to my ears. And even worse, it’s just boring. I feel like I’d rather sit staring at a wall and just imagining a random story in my head.

I can understand liking this film if you saw it as a kid, but unlike with Kiki’s Delivery Service, I have no idea how grown adults can watch this and enjoy it as adults, especially those who didn’t grow up with it. And I speak as someone who is very in-tune with her inner child (for reference, I was the kind of kid who could like Barbie, Batman, Disney, and Majora’s Mask all at the same time).

Totoro and his buddies are cute and iconic, sure, but the rest of the film feels like a slightly upscale Peppa Pig, with less educational value.

If somebody could explain it to me, I’d love to discuss it. As it stands, the thing I like most is the totally bs but still more interesting fan theory that Totoro is a god of death. No kidding here.

 

Porco Rosso

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While Howl’s Moving Castle was kind of bad, it was interesting and had elements that would have made a much better movie. Porco Rosso has plenty of the latter; an animal transformation, air pirates, a wise cracking pilot, etc. What the film lacks is pacing and interest. I don’t remember pretty much anything from this movie, and I definitely don’t feel like breaking it out again any time soon to find out.

I don’t think it’s bad, and I don’t have any particular animosity towards it. But I think most critics agree that bad isn’t always a problem. Being dull is a major problem, and that’s what this film was for me; boring and barely memorable.

If The Wind Rises made me care more about aircrafts and gave me a slow-paced, slice of life story, and Castle in the Sky gave me lovable, goofy air pirates, then this movie should have been able to and then some. How does one manage to make those elements, plus one pig-man bounty hunter seeking redemption, boring?

Maybe I’ll watch it again sometime and my opinion will change, but for now, this film is the “meh-est of the meh.” At least I can debate with Totoro fans; it’s not just the mascot of Studio Ghibli as a whole, it’s the flagrant attention whore of Ghibli as well. I haven’t even met any self-proclaimed Porco Rosso fans or defenders, and I don’t know where to look beyond blindly searching Google for forums.

Thankfully, for myself and them, I don’t really care enough to.

 

*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Review

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Having grown up with Disney all my childhood, can I just say that I am both happy and depressed to see a fairytale that keeps its sad ending in tact, whether or not it bums out the kiddies? I love Disney, as always, but it’s still pretty refreshing.

Yes, spoilers (kind of): the story is very sad. It’s beautiful, and beautifully animated, but if you plan to watch it, it might be best to keep that in mind going in. Fairytales used to go plenty dark in the name of teaching lessons, but this one isn’t so much dark as tragic.

I’ve loved Studio Ghibli before I even knew what it was. Kiki’s Delivery Service was the first film of theirs that I watched and I was spellbound. Pun intended.

Ghibli Parade! by Tenaga
Ghibli Parade! by Tenaga

 

When I was about 15 or 16, I began watching the rest of the studio’s fare, mostly paying attention to the work of Hayao Miyazaki. Isao Takahata (Studio Ghibli’s cofounder, Miyazaki’s fellow director and frequent collaborator) has done some interesting work, but I think it would be fair to say that his has been mostly eclipsed by Miyazaki’s in the mind’s of the western audiences. I don’t remember any movie of his opening with an introduction by John Lasseter; although, to be fair, even those have diminished in general in the later years of the studio’s stateside releases.

Miyzaki (left), Takahata (right)
Miyzaki (left), Takahata (right)

 

Takahata’s stories tend to be “smaller”; they are more likely to be slice of life tales or small-scale dramas, and their settings, set pieces, and morals speak heavily to their Japanese audience. While stories like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away have Japanese settings, much of Miyazaki’s work draws influence from European themes; clothing, architecture, and mannerisms. Miyazaki’s characters also frequently end up saving the world, and while some exhibit distinctly Japanese mindsets or ideals, it’s a lot less transparent or potentially distracting. More universal, you might say.

And I’m not saying that westerners can’t handle anything Japanese. I’m saying that we tend to be firmly wedged into our comfort zones, if not outright lazy at times. Spirited Away is in part so critically acclaimed over here in the U.S. because it’s “out there,” but also just familiar enough. Alice in Wonderland with some different twists and a unique, cultural flavor to it.

Or let me put it another way. Think of watching the Oscars: you see several interesting entries in the Foreign Language Film, Documentary, or Short Film sections, but in the end, you never bother to actually watch them. Even the ones that win.

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Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps Takahata’s best known and certainly soberest film, is about a brother and sister struggling to survive at the tail end of World War II, when incendiary bombs destroy their home and fatally burn their mother. A lot of the story deals with themes of isolation, misunderstandings and distrust between the old and the young, and the fleeting nature of both life and even prosperity. While westerners can appreciate those in their own way, the setting of the film and the time it was released in theaters speak to a particular social disconnect that was happening in Japan; when the new generations were growing up in a bubble economy and couldn’t possibly relate to the struggles of their elders.

Interesting?

Definitely.

Relevant outside of Japan?

…Well, yes and no.

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On the one hand, it’s a unique situation to a specific group of people, and is part of a specific cultural heritage, but at the same time you can argue that it is something an untold number of people have experienced across the world. But to the young and unworldly, particularly in my country, it might seem too far removed for many of them to truly understand and empathize with. And because it’s based in a sad, negative period of history (like Schindler’s List), people may shy away from a casual viewing, if only because they don’t want to be made that sad.

And is it presumptuous to think we can even remotely relate to a situation like this?

Perhaps we can answer this in a future review, but on to the review at hand…

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is based on one of the oldest Japanese fairytales, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. A child appears in a bamboo stalk , and through a series of events that are interpreted and acted upon by the characters, she is taken from the country to the capital to be raised as a princess.

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For all you folks with qualms with how hollow, powerless, or meaningless Disney princess-hood might be, show your kids this. It is glamorous to the outside-looking-in only.

But unlike Grave of the Fireflies, it’s not a sad, somber story throughout.

I won’t spoil too much more here, but Princess Kaguya herself is from somewhere out of this world, and the connection she grows to a home that is not truly her own is beautiful to watch, and equally sad when all of her joy and humanity is suppressed by life in nobility.  While it is very much a Japanese story, just by the virtue of it being a fairytale, The Tale of Princess Kaguya has morals and situations that are moral readily understandable and relatable.

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Have you ever felt out-of-place? Longing for the past, when things were simpler? Did you ever feel restricted, forced into a role you never wanted for yourself, but perhaps still wanted to live up to it, if only to please someone else? Do you feel that it is better to have loved, lost, and remembered those experiences than to have never had them at all?

Can being famous and beautiful be just as much of a curse as a blessing?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, you’ll probably connect to this story, even if you are simultaneously laughing at the funny hats or cringing at the heat-stroke-inducing number of robes the characters wear. And that’s not even scratching the surface of everything that the movie wants to convey.

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As with many Ghibli films, there is a loud emphasis on the importance of nature and celebrating, if not returning to, your roots. The story comes full circle, so to speak, several times, constantly reminding us that that is what the earth does every year, rotating from spring all the way to winter and back again.

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The art has a very sketch-like, yet still flowing look to it, as though pages of a children’s book come to life on the screen. The music was composed by Joe Hisaishi, and is gorgeous as ever. He frequently scores Miyazaki’s films, but this was the first time Takahata and Hisaishi worked together. My favorite piece is “Cicada Night,” but I love just about anything played on the koto.

Lady Sagami on the right
Lady Sagami on the right
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Sutemaru on the right

 

The voice acting in the English dub (vocal translation) is passable. The biggest names are probably Darren Criss (of Glee and Starkid Potter fame) as Sutemaru, Lucy Liu as Lady Sagami, and Oliver Platt as Lord Abe, and they are all pretty perfectly suited to their characters. The bamboo cutter has a fun timbre that really accentuates what we would hear of a simple country man, without being too overt or stereotypical (like when characters from Osaka are given heavy Southern or Brooklyn accents in their English dubs).

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The bamboo cutter’s wife is nice enough; she has a soft and calm voice at all times, giving her an air of wisdom and motherhood. The voice that sticks out the most is probably Great Councilor Otomo’s, played by Daniel Dae Kim, which is funny to say because he is one of the few Asian voice actors in the dub. But it really does, because he sounds like he’s laying it on thick to convey age and dignity.

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Otomo on the second from the right, Lord Abe in the middle.

 

I’m not trying to be mean, but for the short time that he’s on-screen, it’s a bit odd. In a similar and yet opposite way that reminds me of another film. Because while yes, most of the accents in the film Amadeus are British (probably an audible shorthand to convey nobility) and not Austrian, despite the story not taking place anywhere in England, that is not nearly as distracting as the one woman playing Mozart’s wife with the whiny American accent. No one in the film has an overly Asian accent except one guy, and everyone else sounds pretty generic American.

Princess Kaguya herself is a bit of a mixed bag. Her adult voice, provided by Chloe Grace Mortez, has come good emotional moments, but also some kind of wooden ones too. She may just have difficulty when transitioning to voice work; I haven’t seen any of her onscreen work, but I think her most recent film was If I Stay, which got a mixed reception. Believe it or not, not everyone can transition from actor to voice actor or vice versa and be just as good.

But as I said, it’s passable at worst.

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The Tale of Princess Kagura, like most all Ghibli films, possesses a lot of charm and heart; it’s clear how much effort went into the production, and just how personal the story is to its tellers. It’s a movie celebrating emotions, the simple pleasures of life over formality and opulence, and a cautionary tale about not following what is in your heart.

Ghibli enthusiasts will definitely love it. Of all of Takahata’s works, this is probably the most welcoming and penetrable of his stories, so I encourage newcomers to take a look as well. There is plenty of universal wonder and magic to be found, and yet so much interesting culture at the same time.

8/10

*All pictures, video clips, and other media belong to their respective owners. None of the images or sounds belong to me.

 

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service Changes, and the “Dub vs. Sub” Debate

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my favorite childhood movies. I didn’t see My Neighbor Totoro (or indeed many of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s other works) until later in my life, so Kiki is to me what Totoro is to most other fans. The story of a young witch who leaves home to train for a year and finds her purpose in a new city is a treasured memory, and a film I like to go back to when I find myself lost or lacking inspiration. Beyond the coming of age narrative, it’s a story about not giving up when life throws difficulties at you, as it inevitably will. Things may change, but you will never truly lose that which make you special.

 

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Recently I purchased a DVD copy of the movie, since my old VHS has long since vanished to some garage sale, Goodwill, or ignored corner of the house. I popped in the film and was quite unpleasantly surprised by what I found there. Half of the music was rearranged and redone, and scraps of dialogue and goofy ad-libbing were completely missing! ‘What the hell?’ I thought. ‘This isn’t Kiki!’

Yes, it was. I was just late to the punch.

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It turns out that the new 2010 DVD had been redone to resemble the original Japanese version, which was very minimalist, especially compared to the English dub put together by Disney. For those who are new and unfamiliar with the terms, a dub refers to the voice overs in a language (usually one different from the original recording), while a sub refers to subtitles. To say that a version is “English subbed” implies that the audio is still in the original recorded language (for example, Japanese), but that English subtitles have been included. “English dubbed” implies that the film or show has undergone English localization, with English-speaking voice actors and sometimes fixed or edited music.

The original Japanese film had music and very little dialogue, especially when the characters were offscreen. I don’t know entirely if it was Miyazaki, the fans, or some portion of both who demanded this change, but I do know that it was not advertised (explained) very well, and I would not have bought this specific copy, had I known.

(note: there is another English version from Streamline Pictures, but I never saw it and it’s harder to find)

The dub/sub debate is a large one in the anime community. I discovered this first in high school, just looking at the divide in my Japanese language class. I would say that half of the students in that class were there because they watched Japanese animation (anime for short) and liked it, and the other half because they were strictly interested in Japanese language and culture. Both groups seemed to thumb their noses at the other, and I could never understand it because I was there for both reasons. I liked anime, and that inspired me to learn more about culture, history, language, etc. I found both equally interesting.

The divide was even greater for the anime fans. Some are interested in culture, history, language, etc., and some of those argue that the Japanese dub (or English sub) is the only version anyone should watch. It’s the original after all; the closest to the creator’s true intent. Bringing it to America or other places just pollutes it, taking out all the jokes and references foreigners wouldn’t get and replacing them with ones they do understand.

I understand this mindset, but at the same time I appreciate what English dubs can do. They’ve grown a lot over the years, getting better at pronunciation and keeping closer to the original material, while bringing the content to a wide audience. Anime has grown in popularity in America in the last two decades alone. Sure, older generations still blink and gap in bemusement at fast talking, choppy animated Speed Racer and the like, but we have beloved films and shows that still have large followings today, even the ones heavily edited by folks like the infamous 4Kids Entertainment. Look at 90’s darling Sailor Moon. It’s getting a revamping with Sailor Moon Crystal.

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So what if some people call her Serena and the rest call her Usagi? That only matters in online forums and chatting with your Japanese friends, and I personally think it’s interesting comparing and contrasting the versions. As for which one I go with, usually it’s whichever one I like better (not necessarily which version I see first, though it is certainly that in the Kiki case). I watch Black Butler, Spirited Away, Madoka Magica, and Hetalia in Japanese, but I watch Wolf’s Rain, .hack//SIGN, Princess Mononoke, and Ouran High School Host Club in English. I can watch the other versions too, but it’s just personal preference, mostly pertaining to beloved voice actors and no other rhyme or reason.

Whatever you change, heart, effort, and charm should shine through, no matter what. Changes have to be made in adaptation.

So why am I mad about Kiki again? Mostly because of the advertising of this new feature (rather than, say, having the original Disney dub and the new 2010 Disney dub available in the same package, like a theatrical and director’s cut) and the choice of doing such a thing over a decade later, at the expense of someone’s memory.

What do I mean by that last bit?

This article takes an in-depth look at the story and changes made, but let me point out a few things here for the uninitiated:

“The 2010 DVD drops a considerable amount of character dubbing. Most affected is Jiji (Kiki’s cat), for whom (Phil Hartman) had provided a number of witty ad-libs. Here, unless a character is explicitly shown to be speaking, they’re silent. The silence goes even further in few scenes that had score apparently added for the English dub; these now appear without music. Other noticeable losses include Kiki and Jiji’s in-flight and in-rain banter (particularly the latter, upon arriving in their new town), some of Tombo’s lines, and a radio report. Furthermore, some minor changes occur in the credited titles of certain filmmakers.

Film revisionism is generally something I never like, especially when an original version is no longer offered. In this case, however, we’re not talking about an original version but a dubbing. Still, the English version is definitely untrue to Disney’s original dubbing, which has existed for 12 years. While the changes bring the English version closer to the original Japanese, which sounds fair enough, anyone wanting the original Japanese probably would have simply already chosen to watch that version. Something about removing a whole bunch of Phil Hartman’s lines from one of his final movies, a project dedicated to him, also doesn’t feel right. I’m not sure how worked up anyone will get over this surprisingly thorough re-editing. I would guess that those accustomed to the dub are more likely to mind the revisions than to appreciate them. And it seems to me that if Miyazaki had objections, he should have voiced them back in the ’90s.”

~ Luke Bonanno

 

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The character who “suffers” the worst cuts is Jiji, whose voice actor was murdered. The original Disney dub was dedicated to him, so cutting half his dialogue, even if it was ad-libbing, after the project was released to the public for years feels like an insult to his memory.

Also, MAJOR SPOILER HERE:

 

Kiki seems to lose her magical ability during the second act, and regains it by the end (all but speaking with Jiji). This is the big growing up moment, as far as Miyazaki and the purist fans are concerned.

“In the original Japanese script, Kiki loses her ability to communicate with Jiji permanently, but in the American version a line is added which implies she is once again able to understand him. Miyazaki has said that Jiji is the immature side of Kiki, and this implies that Kiki, by the end of the original Japanese version, has matured beyond talking to her cat.”

~Kiki’s Wikipedia page

I can see why fans might have a beef with that line added into the ending, but I never saw the cat as Kiki’s childish side. I saw him as her companion, and her ability to speak with him as just another benefit of having magical powers. The fact that her parents don’t have any other pets, and are never shown speaking to Jiji (or any other animals) never led me to believe that they couldn’t understand him, and that only Kiki could. In fact, Kiki not being able to speak to Jiji was the first sign that she was losing her powers. Would it really make sense for her to lose one power, but not the rest?

But that could have just been poor writing/elaboration.

Maybe she should have turned from animal to human friends (as a part of growing up), but she had plenty of human friends, both before and after skipping town.

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So I have never had a problem with the line revealing that Kiki can understand her cat again; I found the Japanese ending bittersweet and sad for what felt like a no real reason. Princess Mononoke”s ending was bittersweet, but it felt earned. So did the ending for Spirited Away and even Castle in the Sky a little bit. Although, Jiji is portrayed differently there, more “cautious and conscientious” than his “wise cracking” Americanized counterpart. I can accept it if people say “it’s just you.”

Some people found Phil Hartman unfitting or obnoxious as Jiji, hating his general hamminess. I did not. But while I can’t fault those people, I would have preferred (as I mentioned above) something along the lines of a theatrical/director’s cut pairing of DVDs, not just quietly and effectively replacing the old version from the general market. Miyazaki approved the changes made to his work at the time, even if he didn’t agree with them. Now he, or someone else on his team, has pulled a George Lucas.

Miyazaki, I love you man. I respect you so much. I’ve visited your museum in Mitaka

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and it was magical.

But please don’t do stuff like that.

I can’t say which version is better, because all versions have their own values and merits. I just miss the ad-libbing, the mickey-mousing, the wonderfully fitting Sydney Forest songs I sang along with every time.

 

 

I’ll keep the new DVDs and the new and interesting features available on the second disc, but I’m determined to get a copy of pre-2010 Kiki. I advise all fans of the original Disney dub to be wary, lest you get the shocking, depressing surprise I got. For everyone else who may or may not care in this instance, look into the production of some of your favorite shows and movies. They take a lot of work to make the finished product, and you might learn some interesting things about what is and what could have been.

Like David Bowie could have played Elrond in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations.

True story.

And fans…go there ^. Or here:

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As usual, pics and other media don’t belong to me (although I personally took the photos of the Studio Ghibli Museum and the shopfront. They belong to Studio Ghbili, Hayao Miyazaki, and Disney, etc.