Is Porco Rosso the best introduction to Studio Ghibli?

In an ongoing quest to indoctrinate my child with good cinema and expose her subconscious brain to variety of languages, we sat down and watched a Ghibli feature film for the first time. Well, okay, she didn’t watch it. She was only six-and-half weeks old at the time. I’m hoping the audio filtered through her ears and into her dreams as it played out with her asleep in my arms. At least her bath time music was definitely familiar,

As I watched it, I thought to myself how surprising it is that Porco Rosso isn’t better known and better appreciated. It’s one of only eleven feature-length animated films that Hiyao Miyazaki has directed, and sits directly in the middle of the timeline of releases. It is also, surely, one of his greatest works of art.

The plot revolves around a World War I Italian ex-fighter pilot, who now makes his money as a bounty hunter chasing air pirates. This allows Miyazaki to show off two of his greatest loves. The first is the beautifully-realistic European setting.  His version of early 1900s Italy is so authentic you can almost taste the pomodoro. It’s set firmly in the real-world events of the aftermath of the war, with the references to the Great Depression putting it in the 1930s.

Secondly, the over-arching aeronautical theme is again on display. Hayao Miyazaki’s father Katsuji Miyazaki was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company responsible for manufacturing aircraft parts during World War II. As you explore his work, time and time again the skies are visited and form a central part of the stories. Never is this more the case than in Porco Rosso.

Indeed, as an entry-level Ghibli film, it’s one of the best places to start. It has a focused, robust plot with a clear start, middle and end. It has elements of fantasy included. It has a wonderful Joe Hisaishi score. Everything you’d expect of a Studio Ghibli feature.

It’s interesting that it still feels very much like a film aimed at children. But what are the themes here? The war? Depression? Lost love? Fascism? The early years of aviation? Somehow these are tied together with such grace and love and packaged in a way that feels perfectly fitting for any child.

Basically, if you’re at all interested in Japanese animation, you need to work out a way to watch this film.

As for my daughter… She didn’t wake up but I’ll be making sure she revisits this one when she’s old enough to understand it a bit more. She’ll certainly recognise the score.

Note: If you want to read more about the fantasy portrayal of Europe by Miyazaki in Porco Rosso, Chris Wood’s article ‘The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction in Porco Rosso‘ is a brilliant read.

Note: I wrote this article in December but never got around to publishing it. My daughter is now nine months old and still listens to the same music in the bath. She’s yet to watch any television, but she does love her plush Totoro.

The story behind Studio Ghibli’s The Cat Returns

The Cat Returns was released in 2002, hot on the heels of the globally-acclaimed Spirited Away. Hiroyuki Morita’s feature debut was destined to be one of Studio Ghibli’s less-acclaimed releases, but still holds a place in the heart of its many fans. So how did it come about and how does it hold up 16 years after its original release?

The journey to ‘The Cat Returns’ began some fourteen years earlier, when Aoi Hiiragi released her manga ‘Mimi o Sumaseba’. Serialised in the magazine Ribon between August and November 1989, this short release was a huge hit and caught the imagination of a young Yoshifumi Kondô, who at the time had just finished as supervising animator on Studio Ghibli’s ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’.

Soon the studio had acquired the rights to produce a feature film based on the manga, and Kondô was being lined up to make his directorial debut.

In 1995, the film was released. Known in English-speaking countries as ‘Whisper of the Heart’, it hit the big screens in Japan to unanimous acclaim. It was also the highest-grossing film in its native country in 1995. [1]

Equally beautiful and mesmerising, the film focuses on Shizuku, a 14-year-old girl living in Tokyo with a head full of ideas.

Early in the film, Shizuku becomes intrigued by a chance meeting with a stray cat on a train. This cat, Muta, leads her to a mysterious antiques shop. Inside the shop is a curious statue of a cat called The Baron. Inspired, Shizuku spends a significant time in the film attempting to write a novel inspired by these elements.

Four years later, Studio Ghibli received a request from a theme park to create a 20-minute animated short. Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, two of the founders of the company, explored a concept based around these key elements of the girl’s story, enlisting Aoi Hiiragi to write the plot to a spiritual successor to her smash hit.

Her starting point was to assume that her lead character Shizuka was writing the story herself, a period after the end of ‘Whisper of the Heart’. Though the theme park project was cancelled, this story later materialised in the form of a manga. That manga was the basis of a feature length film called ‘The Cat Returns’.

Miyazaki and Suzuki may have been showing faith in other directors, but it was with restrictions. ‘The Cat Returns’ was ostensibly intended as a testing ground for new director Hiroyuki Morita, who had been an animator on several Ghibli features, and was slated for a direct-to-video release. The strength of Morita’s storyboards led to a change of direction and the film was instead destined to be released in cinemas.

Morita was at the top of the team, leading everyone working on the production. In an interview at the time, Miyazaki was excited about the new generation of animators. “If they see Ghibli as a brand, the production team won’t be able to bear the pressure,” he said. “But at the same time, if they don’t try to overcome the pressure they won’t succeed.”

Whilst this film is seen as a success, his position as a successor to the founding members of Ghibli eventually did not come to fruition. He worked as a key animator on later film ‘Tales From Earthsea’, which was directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, but that is where the buck stops. Indeed, he has not been involved with any animation projects since 2011.

This lack of output is a real shame, because ‘The Cat Returns’ is a real triumph. It never feels like a lacklustre release that you’d typically expect of a direct-to-video film and it’s clear that the choice to take it to theatres was the correct one.

An interview with Morita from the time of release shows what he was trying to achieve with the lead character Haru. His reading of her is that she is natural, spontaneous and uncalculating. He was clearly passionate about the character and the project, and it was an honour for him to be the third director other than Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to direct a feature for Ghibli.

Coming immediately after Spirited Away and therefore garnering much more focus than the studio would have expected when the project started, it does enough to hold its own against what has become regarded as Miyazaki’s magnum opus. The magical elements are muted – a talking cat is a surprise to Haru initially but she comes around to the idea very quickly. It deals with the character’s concerns whimsically rather than with a suggestion of any danger, making it a more child-friendly entry point to the gamut. Perhaps more so than the more recognised Ghibli releases, it feels rooted in the real world – no easy achievement for a film about a girl kidnapped and turned into a cat by The Cat King.

If you’re reading this then chances are you’re from an English-speaking country. If that’s the case then it’s likely you watched the English dub of the film. I usually prefer the original audio, but opted for English on this occasion. I admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Anne Hathaway portrays the lead role of Haru, yelping and screaming her way through the film in the same way original actress Chizuru Ikewaki had. It feels fun and fitting. Cary Elwes provides a traditional aristocratic British voice for The Baron. He has stated it was a combination of David Niven and Alec Guinness, which gives him real dignity and poise. Both are spot on in their leading roles, with both relied heavily on their original Japanese counterparts to give a real sense of energy.

Clearly, as with most animated films translated to a second language, there is an issue with matching the beats to the original acting. It doesn’t always work. It’s similar to ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and replaces emotional delivery with technical accuracy. Peter Boyle’s Mutu is arguably the biggest culprit of this, with a mismatch to the character that feels significantly out of place. Conversely, Andy Richter is wonderful as the king’s assistant Natoru, despite this role originally being portrayed by female voice actor Mari Hamada. Most bizarrely, The Cat King actually looks like Tim Curry, despite his involvement coming long after the animation had finished.

‘The Cat Returns’ will never be considered as one of the greats of the Studio Ghibli features. But it’s in great company and certainly holds its own as a fitting side-story to a better original. It offers more of an appeal to children and could be a good entry point for parents wanting a safe start to their child’s anime interest. To see it restored in wonderful high-definition means there’s never been a better way to enjoy it.

[1] http://www.eiren.org/toukei/1995.html

Film review – 夜明け告げるルーのうた / Lu Over The Wall (Masaaki Yuasa, 2017)

Japanese anime? Quirky soundtrack? Human forms an unlikely bond with a fish person? Yes, it may look on the surface to be just like Hayao Miyazaki’s 2010 film ‘Ponyo’, but Masaaki Yuasa’s ‘Lu Over The Wall’, which received its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival this weekend, is far from a simple rip-off.

The second release from the Science Saru Animation studio, after Yuasa’s earlier ‘The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl’, centres around Kai (voiced by Suma Saitō), a gloomy and distant music-creating teenager living in a small fishing town in Japan with his father and grandfather. Kai is pestered into joining a band by two of his schoolmates. Their first rehearsal, on the abandoned Mermaid Island, awakens the interest of Lu (voiced by Kanon Tani), a mermaid who is vulnerable to sunlight but loves to listen to music and dance. Following a confrontation with bullies the band catch illegally poaching fish, Lu comes to the rescue and forms an unlikely bond with Kai and his bandmates as she joins the group and they are handed the opportunity to perform at a local festival.

This is a bizarre film that provides some genuine laughs throughout. The music is quirky, leading to some pretty imaginative reactions from the villagers when they first hear Lu singing. One suspects that this scene was exactly what the director Yuasa had in mind when he started, building the rest of the general idea towards making sure he got the best laughs out of these scenes. It’s daftly entertaining and really hits the spot.

There are more laughs when Lu breaks into a centre for stray dogs and releases them to create a wave of mer-puppies. It’s easy to imagine how much fun the animators and story writers were having when they conceptualised that.

‘Lu Over The Wall’ won the top prize at this year’s Annecy Animation Film Festival, and there is good reason. Park the inevitable comparison to ‘Ponyo’ and seek out this fun and fancy free animation.

Then spend the rest of the day trying to get that music out of your head.

Life after Ghibli?

Two new trailers have been released for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the debut film from Japanese animation company Studio Ponoc.

Watch them first, then read on to find out more.

Trailer #1

Trailer #2

Studio Ponoc is a new Japanese animation house based in Tokyo. The head of the company is Yoshiaki Nishimura, who was lead producer for two Studio Ghibli films: When Marnie Was There and The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

It is clear to see the similarities with the best of Ghibli in the above clips, and it’s not just Nishimura who connects the two studios.

Hiromasa “Maro” Yonebayashi is directing the feature, having also directed Ghibli films The Secret World of Arriety and When Marnie Was There. He also worked as an animator on the likes of Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Essentially, he was a key player at Ghibli. 

Maro pens the script alongside Riko Sakaguchi, the screenwriter of The Tale of Princess Kaguya, another excellent Ghibli film released in 2013 to critical acclaim.

Takatsugu Muramatsu returns as film composer, having provided the score for When Marnie Was There.

There is currently no official U.K. release date for Mary and the Witch’s Flower, but it is scheduled to hit cinemas sometime in 2017. Traditionally Ghibli films took around a year to make the transition to English and finally get a release in the U.K., but who knows if the same rules will apply here.

Whatever happens, there will be a huge amount of interest in the film when it surfaces.