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 | Princess Mononoke (1997)

Synopsis : In the late Muramachi period, the harmony that humans, animals and gods have enjoyed begins to crumble. The protagonist, young Ashitaka – infected by an animal attack, seeks a cure from the Forest Spirit. In his travels, he sees humans ravaging the earth, bringing down the wrath of wolf god Moro and her daughter Princess Mononoke. His attempts to broker peace between her and the humans brings only conflict.

Princess Mononoke is a return to the grander scope of Miyazaki’s earliest films. Mononoke has a lot of similarities to Nausicaä , not just thematically, but structurally and in terms of character and setting. The movie treads familiar ground, yet is more sophisticated. The excesses of Nausicaä have been trimmed to create a stronger story, the characters are more complex, and the mood is quieter and solemn, imbuing itself with the mysticism of gods and magic.

Princess Mononoke is not, in fact, about Princess Mononoke. Mononoke is one of many elements in a multi-faceted story that revolves around Ashitaka, the cursed prince. Ashitaka is a unique protagonist within Miyazaki’s oeuvre. Whereas his previous heroes were energetic, with large personalities, Ashitaka is stoic, withdrawn from other characters and the audience. This runs the risk of his character feeling a little distant and too perfect in his unwavering resolve. But his character works well in tandem with the others (Mononoke included), whose viewpoints he observes and debates throughout the film.

The standout here is Lady Eboshi, the movie’s other icon. She’s a real lady-of-war, making no attempt to hide her ambition or pragmatism even as she sacrifices members of her clan for her greater goal. Miyazaki never decides how the audience should see her. I personally admired her fairness and good intentions, but her stubbornness and pride also made her frustrating. There are no truly good characters in the film. All of them are wise and foolish, evoke sympathy and frustration. None of them make things easy for Ashitaka. That’s why I have mixed feelings on his characterisation. Amongst such a morally complex cast, his relative simplicity felt misplaced. But that’s the point. Ashitaka has to be misplaced in order to see the world ‘unclouded by hate’. He had to be truly good and pure in a world full of cynics.

Miyazaki steeps the world of Mononoke in a great sense of mysticism. He sets the story in medieval Japan, old enough to feel prehistoric and near savage. Very little about the world is explicitly explained – it speaks for itself in the details, displaying Miyazaki’s insane ability to organically construct a setting. The spirits feel truly alien, rooted in an internal logic that is both simplistic and convoluted. They feel truly mystical, with some of the strangest and most captivating designs I’ve ever seen in art.

Miyazaki likes chaos. He likes it when animation brings the grandest, most impossible actions to life in the most expressive way possible. Princess Mononoke is the most restrained I’ve ever seen him. And through it, he delivers a mesmerising story that refines his favourite themes and visual quirks to an excellent finish.


Ghibli Month | Pom Poko (1994)

Synopsis : Isao Takahata’s film uses the tanuki, creatures of myth, as his heroes. Beloved folk-tale characters, they are viewed as bringers of fortune with shape-changing abilities. In this film, their forest home is threatened by urban development and, to save it, they must use all their supernatural talents.

Pom Poko is a difficult film for me to talk about. It has all the ingredients of a strong Ghibli film – it is a good Ghibli film – but it’s also a strange film. I enjoyed watching it, but I was also trying to figure out what to make of it. Pom Poko expands on the themes of nature and old Japan that were buried in Only Yesterday’s subtext. The conflict between the tanuki and the inhabitants of Tokyo parallels the greater conflict of nature vs technology and tradition vs modernity. On that account, Takahata creates a funny, moving narrative, that’s nevertheless a little heavy-handed.

On one hand, Pom Poko is a very likeable film. The tanuki characters are all delightful to watch, with their strong personalities and simple pleasures. Shinji Otsuka’s caricatural designs do an excellent job conveying the tanuki in their human forms. I was also impressed with the nuance brought to the inner conflict between the tanuki themselves, with there being no clear answer or right approach to the human question. This furthers the foregone conclusion that the tanuki will fail – all their fantastical schemes are met by the impenetrable wall of human logic and bureaucracy, that the audience are all too familiar with. There’s a lack of sentimentality within the movie- human death and tanuki death are treated with a casual emotional distance…except towards the film’s conclusion when the desperation of the tanuki builds to a climax, evoking some powerful imagery. And, good grief, this film is full of imagery. As the tanuki are presented as a last bastion of the past, Takahata indulges his love for Japanese tradition through various, extensive references to Japanese folklore and legends. This peaks in the ‘Spectre Parade’, in which the tanuki stage an elaborate haunting of the Tokyo apartments. I’m only vaguely familiar with the imagery of Japanese folklore, but even I could recognise the sheer breadth of references made. It’s an insanely creative scene, directed with the perfect mixture of creepy and tongue-in-cheek.

On the other hand, the film can be heavy-handed about its conflict. The effects of this is mitigated by the handling of the characters and the film’s relaxed mood. But there were moments in the dialogue where I found myself thinking, ‘Ehh, wasn’t that a little too on-the-nose?’. There’s even a moment in the film when one of the tanuki directly addresses the audience which…I mean, that was clearly Takahata speaking, not the character. I don’t mind artists being overt about their intent in creating a piece of art, but I would like a little camouflage, at least. More than anything, I was surprised to see preachy moments because it clashed with my expectation of Takahata as the sophisticated, subtle director. That was my problem, not the film’s problem – and some on the preachiest scenes in the movie are easily its most moving and inspiring. It’s a testament to Takahata’s skill as a storyteller.

Takahata is more upfront in his approach to environmentalism than Miyazaki, who likes to couch his themes in digestible fantasy settings. And whilst this runs the risk of preachiness, Pom Poko still reaches beautiful, bittersweet heights in its exploration of nature versus man.


Ghibli Month | Ocean Waves (1993)

Synopsis: Ocean Waves is set in the city of Kōchi, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. It concerns a love triangle that develops between two good friends and a new girl who transfers to their high school from Tokyo.

From a stylistic point of view, Ocean Waves is lovely. The backgrounds are softly detailed and Katsuya Kondo’s character designs have so much appeal- in a more self-conscious, fashionable way. The soundtrack – way too good for this movie, in my opinion – is a mellow, light mixture of synth and piano tracks. The film’s aesthetic – the colours, the fashion – captures a specific ideal of the 90s that falls nicely into my generation’s perception (and idealisation) of that era. In that sense, it was a fascinating watch.

Ocean Waves is a nothing film. I understand that it wasn’t aiming to be deep in its presentation of youth and nostalgia, but the story is so fraught with conflict between our protagonists that I was expecting a more insightful resolution than what was given. It’s a film with no real narrative or thematic pay-off; it meanders to its ending. Even simple movies like Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service understood the importance of an ending that fulfilled the themes and motifs of their stories. And, fine, I understand that real-life often doesn’t work that way – that conflicts often fizzle out with no grand resolution. And I’ll give the film some credit- it does have some insight into the mentality of teenagers and I appreciate its total commitment to a realistic, slice-of-life experience. But, this is undermined by the movie’s cast, who aren’t compelling enough in their own right to drive a narrative that’s rooted in character drama. Rikako, the love interest, has an engaging, frustrating personality- but Taku, whose perspective frames the narrative, is more interesting in hindsight that in execution. When re-watching the film, I found I still wasn’t that interested in anything he had to say, for all his slick looks and hot temper.

Honestly, teenagers being mopey and dramatic is not my thing. At all. I’m leaving adolescence and have never experienced feelings of heart-break or endangered a friendship over a crush. I was never going to truly relate to a film that’s aiming to evoke nostalgia about adolescence. My view of this film was always going to be skewed.

I think this review is unfair. It was inevitable- the film’s narrative flaws and clumsy execution are more obvious when you’ve watched it after masterpieces like Porco Rosso and Only Yesterday. And fair enough, it was a TV movie meant to showcase the young creators at the studio. And I’m not the target audience. But knowing that only allows me to understand and maybe even sympathise with the film’s flaws. It’s still a dull film.


Ghibli Month | Porco Rosso (1992)

Synopsis: In Italy in the 1920s, sky pirates in biplanes terrorise wealthy cruise ships as they sail the Adriatic Sea. The only pilot brave enough to stop the scourge is the mysterious Porco Rosso, a former World War I flying ace who was somehow turned into a pig during the war. As he prepares to battle the pirate crew’s American ace, Porco Rosso enlists the help of spunky girl mechanic Fio Piccolo and his longtime friend Madame Gina.

Porco Rosso is the film where Miyazaki fully indulges his love for aeroplanes, making a film where flying is not just a subject, but the subject. Miyazaki delves into the personalities involved in flying, from the mechanics to the aviators, and the community that emerges from a shared love of flying. I couldn’t appreciate the period-specific aviation details in the film, but I definitely understood its appeal on a deeper level. It’s like what Mia says in La La Land: “People love what other people are passionate about.”

After the relaxed tempo of My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso is a return to the bombast of his older films like Castle in the Sky and Nausicaa. There’s a large ensemble cast full of diverse, larger-than-life personalities. There are horrible things on the horizon, yet Miyazaki (as expected) rarely dwells on it, more interested in the cheerful determinism of his characters. It’s a very ‘old-school’ film, not just in its similarities to Miyazaki’s older films, but its similarities to the glorious days of old cinema, with its dashing protagonists and glamorous women. Our hero, Porco Rosso, is a period-appropriate Lothario type, womaniser, brave, cynical war-hero, but with a strong moral compass- none of which is diminished by his piggish appearance. And other characters – Fio, the plucky ingenue, Curtis, the dumb romantic, Gina, the glamorous femme- feel like good-natured riffing on tropes associated with old cinema. In one scene, Porco and his friend watch an animated film – rubber-hose style – depicting a tale of a dashing princely character defending his lover from a villainous pig. At the end of the day, it’s a Miyazaki film; he uses these tropes to create interesting, ambivalent relationships. Whilst those Hollywood personas are simple and monochromatic, the characters of Porco Rosso are more complex, feeling real within the tropes they represent.

Porco Rosso isn’t really a fantastical film. It grounds itself in a clear 1920s historical period, complete with references to fascism and the First World War. It’s more appropriate to call it magical-realist, where the fantastic shows up with no tangible explanation, except maybe as a manifestation of the characters’ internal turmoil. This is best encapsulated in the scene where Porco reminisces about a near-death experience he had as a pilot during WWI. It’s a rare insight into his character, subverting his swashbuckling persona. I don’t even know how to describe what I felt, or if I even want to try. It’s a moment where magic becomes melancholic, where wonder is beautifully commingled with tragedy.

Porco Rosso is Miyazaki doubling down on the things he loves: flying, strong women, boisterous personalities depicted by equally boisterous animation. It’s his love letter to a bygone era of aviation, and is only slightly self-aware of its romanticism of this period of European history. I had only one issue with the film – it was too short.


Ghibli Month | Only Yesterday (1991)

Synopsis: Unmarried career woman Taeko Okajima takes her first extended trip outside her native Tokyo when she travels to rural Yamagata to visit her sister’s family during the annual safflower harvest. On the train, Taeko daydreams about her pre-adolescent self. As her vacation progresses, she has extended flashbacks about the frustrations and small pleasures of her childhood, and wonders if her stress-filled adult life is what the young Taeko would have wanted for herself.

Finally, I get to talk about Isao Takahata!

Isao Takahata was the other prominent director of Ghibli. His films seem to lean even more heavily into the mundane than Miyazaki, but I was under the impression (from that film) that he was the gloomier of the two. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Only Yesterday is cheerful, optimistic and wilfully idealistic. It’s also an interesting mirror of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Both films focus on female characters navigating an alien environment, redefining their identities at new phases of their lives. But Taeko, unlike Kiki, leaves the comforts of city life to rediscover herself in a rural setting- a symbolic re-connection to both nature and old Japan.

Like Miyazaki, Takahata has a firm understanding of children and how they banter. 10 is an age of stasis, right before change or maturity. It’s a bubble that, as Taeko states, consists entirely of home and school. She and her classmates all lack the perspective and self awareness that comes with age, and the present day Taeko often makes observations that reflect the silliness of her younger self. The film finds a lot of humour in how these kids take relatively trivial things so seriously, with the animation doing much of the heavy lifting in conveying their expressiveness. And it’s so fun to watch them scurry around, arguing, getting embarrassed, being smug and precocious in a very specific 10-year old way. The scenes with Taeko and her classmates are easily the best scenes in the movie, coming alive through the dynamism and detail of the character designs and animation.

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Takahata translates this energy into the slower present day scenes. Whilst the figures in the past express more through familiar, exaggerated emoticons, the characters in the present emote realistically. This means smile lines and nose wrinkles when they laugh. I was definitely surprised to see it, because it’s an unusual style in animation, maybe because the characters are less attractive for it. It shows Takahata’s commitment to realism, and I appreciated it a lot. These details broke the ‘perfection’ of the character art and made their expressions feel more genuine. Combine that with a beautiful, eclectic soundtrack that enhanced the animation, and I found myself getting lost in the honesty of their interactions.

There are moments in Only Yesterday where Takahata explores those uncomfortable moments in life where there is no clear answer, no obvious happy or sad ending. Despite the film’s energy, it’s nevertheless a thoughtful, mature expression of a young woman’s growth that sympathises with, more explicitly than its predecessor, the anxieties of other young women. It’s a quiet film within Ghibli’s repertoire, and it’s a film that I look forward to revisiting in the future.