Ghibli Month | Ponyo (2008)

Synopsis: During a forbidden excursion to see the surface world, a goldfish princess encounters a human boy named Sōsuke, who gives her the name Ponyo. Ponyo longs to become human, and as her friendship with Sōsuke grows, she becomes more humanlike. Ponyo’s father brings her back to their ocean kingdom, but so strong is Ponyo’s wish to live on the surface that she breaks free, and in the process, spills a collection of magical elixirs that endanger Sōsuke’s village.

In this (very, very loose) adaptation of The Little Mermaid, Miyazaki returns to basics. When I saw the title cards at the start of the film, I thought of his oldest films, like Castle in the Sky and Totoro. Ponyo has a lot in common with the latter film especially. But whilst Totoro was about children finding solace through fantasy from the complex world around them, Ponyo rejects complexity and the adult world, running on child-like logic throughout.

This is clear right from the film’s art direction – colour pencil backgrounds and bright flat colours that are further emphasised by the lack of shadows. The film’s chaos – and Ponyo is chaotic, even for Miyazaki- is lighthearted and exuberant. At some point, I accepted that Lisa, Sōsuke’s mum, would always drive like crazy – once I did, I could sit back and enjoy her race waves with her five-year-old son in the passenger seat. In fact, this film gave me major anxiety sometimes. There was no car safety, no child safety, no boat safety. But Miyazaki doesn’t care. If his heroes are gonna go seafaring on a toy boat, so be it! Leave your grown-up logic at the door, the film seemed to say. This is, first and foremost, about the kids.

Sōsuke and Ponyo lead a fun cast of characters whose personalities elevate the movie’s magic. As in Totoro, Miyazaki demonstrates excellent understanding of children’s psyche. There’s no attempt to make Sōsuke and Ponyo unrealistically self-aware – they sound like kids, they talk like kids, they act like kids. Both are emotionally simple, and display a lot of curiosity about the world around them. Sōsuke was especially delightful to watch. He’s smart in the five-year-old way – showing off all his trivia – but he’s animated with a certain self-consciousness and clumsiness that brings him to life. The earnestness with which he declares his love for Ponyo is a perfect depiction of the simple, pure love children often have for those around them.

Everyone else, from Lisa to the nursing home ladies to the townspeople, were all familiar Miyazaki archetypes. But these archetypes never stop being charming. I love how everyone randomly accepts goldfishes with faces, waves that look like fish, a sea goddess. My personal favourite has to be Fujimoto, Ponyo’s dad. He was the stressed, over-worked adult who did care about all the things other characters took with smiles. Something about his gangly, quasi-scholarly appearance reminded of Diana Wynne Jones. He seemed like the sort of character she would write. And as Jones herself created some of the most magical worlds in literature, I guess that’s the highest compliment I can give the film. It’s pure magic.

There’s not much else to say about this movie; what you see is what you get. Miyazaki channels all his charm and charisma into a perfectly breezy flick. It’s definitely simpler than his other films, but honestly, this is the type of Miyazaki film I like best.


Ghibli Month | Tales from Earthsea (2006)

Synopsis : In the land of Earthsea, a mysterious force threatens to plunge humanity into destruction and chaos. A powerful wizard named Sparrowhawk seeks the source of his world’s imbalance, and along the way rescues a runaway prince named Arren. When Sparrowhawk’s powers begin to weaken, he and Arren must join forces with a former priestess and her daughter to defeat an evil foe whose quest for immortality will destroy Earthsea.

So this is it. This is the terrible, dreaded Tales from Earthsea. This is the bad Ghibli film. The black sheep. The weak link. This is…this is…fine. It’s fine. Tales from Earthsea is so okay that I’m a little baffled that it gets so much flak. Is it as good as other Ghibli films? No. Definitely not. But let’s look at the context.

The consistency of Studio Ghibli’s output is not something that happened by chance, built on the magical genius of Miyazaki and sometimes Takahata. Ghibli was founded after both men already had 10+ years of experience in the industry. They had already been honing their skills, discovering their strengths and weaknesses, exploring theirs tastes and preferences. Of course Studio Ghibli would be so consistent – the two pillars of the studio had already made the mistakes and done the learning. And every other director before Gorō Miyazaki – Tomomi Mochizuki and Hiroyuki Morita – already had ample experience in the industry before debuting with the studio. Gorō had none. He had deliberately chosen landscaping, avoiding animation so he wouldn’t be burdened by his father’s legacy. He directed the film on the request of Toshio Suzuki (Ghibli producer) and was given no help from his own father, who (understandably) thought he had no business directing a film. Why anyone thought it was a good idea to give the reins of an epic fantasy film to a complete newcomer is beyond me. And almost every other film not directed by Miyazaki is slice-of-life. The whole situation reeks of misplaced expectations.

It’s like taking someone who has never seen a pool and throwing them into the deep end – then acting surprised when they nearly drown. And to Gorō’s credit, he doesn’t drown. He floats. Barely. For someone with no experience, his film is surprisingly competent in places. Visually, the film can be really striking. The architecture in it is huge, towering over the characters and giving it an epic feel. There’s a compelling sense of wonder and horror at the magic of this world. I liked a lot of the characters – the villain is brought to life by a fascinating design and a really eerie voice performance by Yūko Tanaka. And the themes were really interesting. The score is gorgeous. The film does have serious issues, and Gorō’s inexperience is clear throughout, but sometimes, the film touches on a compelling idea or compelling image that nearly makes the experience worth it.

Still, I can’t let my sympathy for Gorō cloud my judgement. The first half of the film is a struggle to watch. It’s so aimless and padded out that I found my mind wandering or thinking, ‘okay, so what’s the point of this then?’. For every cool shot, there’s at least 3 others that feel pointless. When a clear picture finally started to emerge, I didn’t care how bad that picture was – I was just happy that the story was finally going somewhere.

And, yikes, the script is weak. It just about pulls itself together at the end, but not before copious use of deus-ex-machina and contrivance. I felt like the characters, for all their potential, were let down by the writing in the end. There were several moments when I thought, ‘ah, this probably made sense in the books’. That’s no good. An adaptation should stand on its own two feet. It actually reminded me a lot of Howl’s Moving Castle in that sense. Both films play with the source material to a near-fatal degree. Like Howl, Tales from Earthsea is a film that initially intrigues through striking visual storytelling and themes, before stifling both through bad writing. This leads to a viewing experience that feels kinda meh. But Howl’s Moving Castle had years of experience behind it. Tales from Earthsea was an epic, large-scale project given to a total newbie. In a sense, the movie’s failures were almost inevitable.

I have to admit I don’t feel comfortable giving a film a pass on its flaws because I feel sorry for its director. As a Ghibli film, it’s poor, one of their weakest. But, I’d rather see it as a strong directorial debut, demonstrating Gorō Miyazaki’s potential as a storyteller.


Ghibli Month | Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Synopsis :  The film tells the story of a young, content milliner named Sophie who is turned into an old woman by a witch who enters her shop and curses her. She encounters a wizard named Howl and gets caught up in his resistance to fighting for the king.

Howl’s Moving Castle is an adaptation of a book by the late, great Diana Wynne Jones. I went through both at roughly the same time and was unimpressed. Over the years, I’ve revisited both film and book. Howl’s Moving Castle is now one of my favourite books ever. And Howl’s Moving Castle is…well…still not a great film. This will be a longer review, beware of spoilers.

Now, I’m not biased because of my love for the source material. I’m not a purist. I actually hate it when adaptations prioritise being faithful to the source material without thinking of how it works in a different medium (looking at you, Lion King 2019). And Howl’s Moving Castle is an excellent adaptation in some places. It brings Jones’ world alive with typical Miyazaki breadth and imagination. It’s so visually iconic that I can’t detach myself from his imagery when reading the book. And the quasi-Victorian, military setting fits nicely into my personal tastes. Whenever I attempt to write fantasy, I find myself subconsciously trying to replicate that ideal.

When the film is faithful, it’s beautiful. Sophie’s growth as a character is conveyed by the visual cues of her fluctuating age – a nice visualisation of her self-esteem and the self-inflicted nature of her curse. When the film makes changes, it can also be very beautiful. Changing Michael to Markl alters the dynamic in a good way. Michael, whose character fit the romantic-comedy caper of the book, would be out of place in a story that is more focused on family. And Markl is delightful in his own way. The scarecrow (Turnip-head) gets more time as well, and becomes a really sweet addition to the cast. In fact, this film reaches a peak for me in at the halfway point where it’s just Sophie, Markl, Turnip-head and Calcifer (who I love) all interacting, being a family. It’s just perfect.

Howl, I think, best conveys this – when he’s Miyazaki’s Howl (mysterious and suave), he’s mesmerising to watch. When he’s Diana’s Howl (vain and childish), he’s entertaining. The question becomes how to mesh the two consistently. And the film succeeds initially. But as the story develops past the halfway point, it unravels as plot elements are picked up and dropped almost arbitrarily. There becomes a quiet struggle within the film to figure out how to mesh the book with Miyazaki’s own ideas. Most plot elements on Sophie’s end don’t fare too badly. Everything on Howl’s end flops spectacularly. In the book, Howl is a total coward, avoiding responsibility for his bad relationship with the Witch of the Waste. The film keeps that element – but then drops the Witch as the main villain. But Howl is still a coward, and decides that he’s not going to be one by fighting in the war…which would be fine if he hadn’t already been fighting in the war! That’s why you were gone half the film! You were never a coward in that respect!

The inability to reconcile the original writing and the changes creates inconsistencies within the story. The end result is muddied. I can’t imagine this being a forgiving watch for someone who hasn’t read the book. The finale, especially, is a mess. The resolution to Howl and Calcifer’s dilemma only makes sense when you know that Sophie is a witch – but that end of the story is adapted out whilst the resolution is kept. And don’t even get me started on what they did with the Witch of the Waste. And Turnip-head. At that point, my feelings for the film crossed from confusion to frustration.

I’m not angry at the film though. Howl’s Moving Castle is a book of simple prose, with a tricky, complex plot. It’s a difficult story to convey in film. But the film genuinely was on the right track. Everything before the final act is solid. And frankly, the added stuff was just as compelling, if not more so, than the original. Howl, like in the book, is a victim of his own magic – but in a way that manifests as a literal monster. I thought that the monster element was a representation of Howl’s self-loathing. His beauty and glamour, I thought, was his way of hiding those insecurities. Which would have been a nice juxtaposition to Sophie, who comes into her own at her least attractive. But that element, like many other, is resolved with a hand-wave of contrivance, with little consequence. It comes to nothing.

There are other flaws in the film that I’d like to talk about, specifically the clumsy integration of a war message into the story. But for now, I’m happy. I’ve said everything I’ve ever wanted to say about Howl’s Moving Castle. With each rewatch, I appreciate its strengths more and more. And with each rewatch, I understand its weaknesses better and better.


Ghibli Month | The Cat Returns (2002)

Synopsis : High school student Haru rescues a cat that was about to be run over by a truck and discovers the cat is actually a prince named Lune. Out of gratitude, Lune’s father, the Cat King, asks her to marry Lune. Haru is brought to the Cat Kingdom, where she starts to develop feline features. When she is prevented from leaving, the Baron and Toto, two statues that have magically been given life, provide assistance in gaining her freedom,

Watching The Cat Returns felt like reading shoujo manga. Haru is your typical shoujo klutz depressed over the cool dark-haired guy at school. The Baron is dapper with his tea (a cat of culture), European affectations and dashing persona. The film’s script was even written by Reiko Yoshda, the writer of Tokyo Mew Mew – although the shoujo-isms probably have more to do with the fact that its source material was created by an artist who wrote primarily for shoujo magazines like Ribon.

I fixate so much on this because it serves to emphasise the artificiality of the story. The Cat Returns can eschew any attempt at realism because, technically, it’s only a story. The Cat Returns is a sequel to Whisper of the Heart, and was intended to be ‘written’ by Shizuku, the heroine of the latter film. On that note, the film suddenly takes on a new dimension, as Shizuku’s character shine through it. I could imagine her at her writing desk, fantasising about what Moon (or Muta) got up to in his strange world, then creating this wonderful fairy tale story (she did love fairy tales) about Moon’s secret world of cats. Then putting the Baron in it because he’s a cat and why not. The references to Whisper of the Heart made this film a pleasant, nostalgic watch – it felt like meeting an old friend. And it’s just nice to think of Shizuku flourishing, telling stories beyond the confines of a 2-hour movie and a silver screen. It made her character feel genuine.

So The Cat Returns is an addendum to a richer film. Besides that, it’s a slight, but cute little film. It is shallow: Haru’s character growth isn’t that compelling and the plot’s last third is clumsy. But that’s fine. It’s got oodles of charm and a great sense of humour. The film really mines the inherent ridiculousness of the scenario, using the whimsy as a jumping off point for some really funny jokes. Unlike Ocean Waves, which tried to convince me that its banal melodrama was an introspective reflection on adolescence, The Cat Returns embraces its self-indulgence and has a good time with it. Haru, the Baron, Muta and Toto have great chemistry with each other, and the character designs are easily my favourite in a Ghibli film yet – I love how cat-like Haru is even before her troubles begin.

There’s something the Baron says when he meets Haru that really touched me. “Sometimes, when people create something and they put their heart into it, their creation comes alive with its own soul.” I saw this as a reference to Yoshifumi Kondo, the director of Whisper of the Heart, who passed away after his work on the film. It’s a declaration of the sincerity of that film and its message to artists, who have resonated deeply with it since – an affirmation of Kondo’s legacy. The Cat Returns is a sweet watch, and a beautiful tribute to the film that came before it.


Ghibli Month | Spirited Away (2001)

Synopsis : 10-year-old Chihiro and her parents stumble upon a seemingly abandoned amusement park. After her mother and father are turned into giant pigs, Chihiro meets the mysterious Haku, who explains that the park is a resort for supernatural beings who need a break from their time spent in the earthly realm, and that she must work there to free herself and her parents.

What’s there to say about this movie that hasn’t already been said?

Spirited Away is fantastic, you think it’s fantastic, everybody and their mothers thinks it’s fantastic. It is the highest grossing film in Japan and the only international film to win Best Animated Picture for a reason. It’s easily Miyazaki’s most complete film – excellently paced, structured without feeling inorganic, great characters, an excellent score and a whimsicality that doesn’t shy away from the darkness of its world.

And the animation…what to even say about the animation! Miyazaki and his team seem to explore every visual concept possible under the sun. The film is overloaded with visual detail, sometimes overwhelming and grotesque in the best way possible. I could go on about the way Chihiro’s design conveys the lankiness and petulance of an awkward 10 year old. I could go on about her meeting with Yubaba. I could go on about the act with the stink spirit. I could go on about the inventiveness of the magic. Every setting in the story – from the exterior world of the spirits, to the interiors of the bathhouse, to Yubaba’s fifth floor, to the spirit train across an endless sea – brims with imagination. It’s like Miyazaki, the animators, the art director, the character designer, the storyboard artists, everyone on the film’s production wanted to see how far they could stretch the limits of human imagination in a 2-hour film. It’s insane. It’s wonderful.

And that’s all I have to say.


Ghibli Month | My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Synopsis : Five-year-old Nonoko and the rest of the quirky Yamada family navigate the imaginative adventures and everyday struggles of life in contemporary Japan.

My Neighbours the Yamadas was Ghibli’s least successful film, earning 1.56 billion yen on a budget of 2 million yen. The film was the only Ghibli financial flop. In a way, I understand that. Its style is drastically different from the rest of Ghibli’s work. It’s a film with no overarching story, embracing its 4-koma origin. But I think the film’s lack of commercial success is a shame, because My Neighbours the Yamadas is so true in its depictions of family life that it has a universal appeal – especially in comparison to Takahata’s other films.

The film’s visual style is the first thing you notice about it. Takahata used the Yamadas as an experiment to see how emergent digital techniques could enhance 2D animation. It’s a fully digital film, recreating a watercolour and pencil aesthetic using computer techniques. In some cuts, you can clearly see the use of 3D, which has aged fantastically well. Takahata recreated the loose linework and cartoony designs of the manga. The simple character designs hide the facility of the character acting, which can be both exaggerated and nuanced. The designs even help the acting, due to the versatility their simplicity provides. And the linework enhances that. There’s a dynamism in the lines here- they vanish sometimes, they become sketchier sometimes, they move with energy. It’s expressionistic, and Takahata, lover of metaphor, takes advantage of this – at one point, in a rare dramatic moment, the style becomes more ‘adult’, with realistic proportions and denser lines. The clear pencilling gives the film a tactile feeling, enhancing its domestic nature. It’s a timeless aesthetic – modern even by today’s standards.

The actual narratives within the movie act as a base off of which the animation and art direction shines. Takahata combines the insightful humanism of Only Yesterday with the irreverent comedy of Pom Poko – although the Yamadas is sillier than the former and its comedy is more situational that the latter. The Yamadas are an entertaining, messy of a family, with amusing, lovable personalities : the downtrodden father, the mother who won’t cook, the snarky grandma, the lazy son and the youngest daughter who’s just there. Through their interactions, a portrait of a really delightful family emerges, whose bickering, banter and mishaps reveal how much they love each other. It’s a film with real insight into how people navigate their ‘roles’ in a family, and relate to those they love.

The relaxed atmosphere is a double-edged sword. I fell easily into the story, enjoying the characters…and fell out of it just as easily. With no overarching narrative hook, there was little incentive to watch the film in one sitting, except for the love of the characters. It’s an issue I have with the 4-koma format in general. It’s a format I’d rather read that watch. I ended up watching the movie in roughly four sittings, like a show. Which isn’t bad, per se, but it does make me wonder if a movie was the best medium for this kind of story.

My Neighbours the Yamadas is still a severely underrated, which is a pity because it’s a film with a lot to offer. It’s hilarious, heartwarming and lovable, with the best depiction of family I’ve seen in a long while.