I’m always looking to expand my knowledge of film, whether that may be through watching, or re-watching some of the classics – I still think The Godfather is a bit overrated – or by catching up on popular franchises. One particular area where my knowledge has been lacking, is in all things Studio Ghibli, whose films have never really appealed to me over the years. More recently, after experiencing their work for the first time with The Wind Rises and The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, I’ve found myself hooked, and in need for more. With a bit of luck from the film gods, two weeks ago Film4 announced a Ghibli season, where every day, for fourteen days, they would be showing some of the Studio’s films. This was an opportunity to see what all the fuss was about.
The plan: to watch at least one of their films every day. Were the film’s really THAT good though? Here’s what I thought…
Spirited Away (2001)
It all kicked off with Spirited Away, a Ghibli that I had actually seen previously, but hadn’t got along with. I knew it was considered one of the studio’s finest films – it’s actually sitting at the impressive 34th spot in IMDB’s list of the 250 best films of all time, just behind, coincidentally, Raiders of the Lost Ark – and I can totally understand why. The weird and wonderful world which Hayao Miyazaki beautifully brings to life, is unique and vivid; the visuals are lovely, and the characters come from a place of deep creativity.
The production is great, but I just can’t connect with the story. Perhaps it’s the hype that surrounds it which somewhat taints my viewing experience, but having watched it twice now, I really like it, but don’t love it. That said, as an introduction to the world of Studio Ghibli, Spirited Away is a perfect summation of everything they’re about, or so I think at the moment.
Unlike Spirited Away, I’d never heard of Arrietty. Described as Ghibli’s take on Mary Norton’s classic novel, The Borrowers, I knew it had the potential to be something really magical, and hopefully, something special. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my initial expectations, and whilst there were some lovely moments dotted throughout, it ultimately felt very conventional.
Where Arrietty really shines, is in the animation. The sheer amount of detail that went into the creation of the world in which our characters live, is evident in every frame. The scenes in which Arrietty and her father sneak out into the human world are imaginative and exciting, but once again, I found the film really hard to connect with on the emotional level, I think it tries to achieve. Arrietty isn’t awful, but it isn’t memorable either. So far, I can’t say I’m particularly impressed with Ghibli’s back catalouge, and this could be a very long two weeks.
Nausiccä of The Valley of The Wind (1984)
Okay, now I’m finally starting to get it. After the disappointment of Spirited Away and Arrietty, I needed Nausiccä of The Valley of The Wind to blow me away – pun intended – and it certainly did just that. Opening to the WWF logo – the one for the World Wide Fund for Nature, not the wrestling – I was immediately intrigued.
Opening on a post-apocalyptic, barren landscape, it didn’t take me long to guess the connection between the film and the foundation. Whilst the fantastical elements of a Ghibli film seemed all there, with giant insects, a glider riding princess, and spaceships, all appearing within the first fifteen minutes; it was quite clear that there was an economic and political subtext driving the film along.
This was Studio Ghibli like I’d never seen before, and I was loving it. Made in the 80’s, I was shocked by how ahead of its time it actually was. The now retro stylings in themself were enough to make fall in love with it, but the action, the fantasy and the stark world that we’re introduced too, just elevate it to a whole new level.
Thematically rich, the film preaches pacifism, and the importance of nature. Nausiccä herself is strong willed, powerful, and kind, unlike any princess Id ever seen in a Disney film. Everything about the film was thrilling; not only is Nausiccä of The Valley of The Wind my favourite Ghibli to date, but it could very well be up there as one of the best animated features, I’ve ever seen.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Howl’s Moving Castle was, again, one of Ghibli’s films that I had heard about previously. Again, I wasn’t all that impressed. For the most part, I think the film really works, especially in the opening hour or so, where we are introduced to such wonderful characters like Turnip Head and Calcifer. Towards the end of the film, I think it all becomes a bit messy, with a story that is confused as I was.
There are some really nice moments, but I wouldn’t say Howl’s Moving Castle is particularly memorable. Recurring themes in Studio Ghibli’s work begin to emerge in my mind though, as the story once again revolves around war and peace. It’s also become evident that Hayao Miyazaki has a fascination in the mechanical nature of trains, planes, and in this instance, the moving castle.
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Opening with a Japanese version of John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, I immediately had some trepidation when it came to Whisper of The Heart. I shouldn’t have worried though, as the film is absolutely wonderful, and amongst the best of Ghibli’s work I’ve seen to date.
A story about first love, and being of an age where your future depends on what path you choose to take, Denver’s initially cringey song, is used to surprisingly poignant effect. There’s some magic present, with a focus on fairy tales, and the appearance of a cat statue named The Baron, but the film is grounded in reality for the most part.
Whisper of The Heart is extremely human, which makes it a refreshing change of pace. It’s romantic, charming, relatable and simply lovely. I really liked this one.
The Cat Returns (2002)
Film4 have clearly put some thought into the order in which they play these films, as The Cat Returns is an indirect sequel to Whisper of The Heart. Whilst I loved the latter for its human story, this film is its polar opposite – a fantastical journey to the Kingdom of cats.
Choosing to bring back only minor characters from Whisper of The Heart, and expanding on their world, is an irresistible concept. The Baron, who is like the cat version of Sherlock Holmes – he’s both charming and debonair – proves to be one of Ghibli’s best, and most ridiculous lead heroes.
The story itself is one that’s without complexity, and the same could be said about its animation. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, but lacks the amount of detail that I’ve seen in other examples of their work. The Cat Returns is incredibly enjoyable though, and remarkably funny in the way it derives laughs from its own absurdity.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
Kiki’s Delivery Service was the final film of the week, acting as an appropriate bookend to the last seven days. Magic and reality collide, with a concept that involves a witch coming of age, and going it alone in the big bad world. She finds a town to live in and sets up a delivery service, where she can use her broomstick to make super-quick deliveries.
It isn’t without its charms, but I was quite disappointed with Kiki’s Delivery Service. It feels extremely episodic, as Kiki gets herself into various adventures on her different deliveries, some of which are entertaining, and some of which are less so. I liked the characters, especially Kiki, whose insecurities surrounding her appearance, when compared to that of other girls her age, proves endearing and heartfelt.
There’s a love interest at the centre of the film that I didn’t buy into though, and I found it more irritating than anything else. This really lets the film down, as well as the off-balanced blend of the magic and reality.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is visually stunning, with a beautiful seaside town setting providing plenty of artistic opportunity. Whilst it looks good and has some nice moments, it’s ultimately likeable, but not wholly loveable.
So far, Studiio Ghibli has been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I’ve discovered some truly brilliant pieces of animation, and have started to understand some of the hype surrounding their films. I haven’t disliked any of the films I have seen so far, but have enjoyed more than others. It’s interesting that the ones I thought I would like, are the ones that usually end up disappointing me, and vice versa.
I’ve started to see the recurring visual and thematic traits, that seem to run through Studio Ghibli’s features. Pacifism, war, nature, machinery, love, magic, and cats. It’s clear that there’s always been more to Ghibli than I’d ever imagined, but what else will I discover over the course of my next week? Be sure to check back next week when I look at Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and My Neighbour Totoro, amongst others.
Image credits to http://www.experiencefilm.com, http://www.imagearcade.com, http://www.thedissolve.com, http://www.youtube.com, http://www.galleryhip.com, http://www.ladygeekgirl.wordpress.com, http://www.ghiblicon.blogspot.com and http://www.smashculture.com