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 – 殯の森 / The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase, 2007)

 

Naomi Kawase’s fourth full-length feature film came ten years after her debut ‘Suzaku’ won the Camera d’Or, the prize awarded to the best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. ‘The Mourning Forest’ was also the recipient of a prize at Cannes, winning the 2007 Grand Prix.

The contemplative film was inspired by director and writer Kawase’s childhood growing up with her grandmother, who suffered from senility. It follows the nurse Machiko (Machiko Ono), who starts a job at a home for elderly people suffering from dementia. The home is deep in a forest and allows a certain amount of freedom and tranquility away from distractions. The youthful Machiko forms a strong bond with and elderly man named Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), who has a tendency to run away as soon as he’s given the opportunity. Shigeki is a widower whose wife has been dead for 33 years, a significant milestone in the Buddha mourning period as the end of the liminal period, traditionally celebrated with a ceremony. The job is perfect for Machiko, also in mourning for the death of her child.

On Shigeki’s birthday, Machiko takes him on a car ride into the countryside. But when their car breaks down Machiko goes in search of help, only to find when she returns to the car Shigeki has disappeared into the nearby forest. She ventures in to find him and eventually the pair go on a cathartic journey of mourning and bonding as they journey deeper into the depths of the forest.

“I wanted to show as well that you could have a relationship across generations, that was very important. I didn’t want there to be any taboos between generations,” said Kawase in her statement at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. “It was important to me to show that despite their differences that you can have this relationship and you can have some sort of support in life.”

That is exactly what this film shows. It is an exploration of the relationship between two people at very different stages of their lives, sharing the same experience but at different stages of mourning, providing support for one another. Of course, Machiko is much more aware of what she is providing than Shigeki, but the results are very much the same.

Shigeki Uda was 60-years-old when the film was made, but he played a man of 70 years. To prepare for the role as someone who has dementia, he went to extreme measures to ensure he had an accurate portrayal. “I spent three months in a home for the elderly, a home that was used as a model for the film,” he said at the Cannes Film Festival press conference. “I spent three months with people who were senile. I ate with them, I bathed with them, I lived with them, and I felt with them.” The achievement is astounding, giving a real sense of the condition. There are moments where he has a blank look on his face, when asked a direct question, that will feel familiar to anyone who knows someone with dementia. He can still feel that he must provide an answer but he is unsure exactly what is being asked of him, so he pretends he understands and offers a response anyway. That can’t just be guessed at and Uda is showing a real understanding of his character when he does this.

The film is a contemplative, spacious film. The scant use of dialogue allows the viewer to take in the beautiful scenery captured by cinematographer Hideyo Nakano. This is heightened by a subtle score from Masamichi Shigeno, which never feels overbearing, mixing well with the organic sounds of the forest. The mix creatures something that feels extremely naturalistic.

Kawase created a sincerely wonderful film with ‘The Mourning Forest‘, which shines a light on dementia. It underlines the importance for those interacting with anyone with the condition to know that they are still human, with emotions, feelings and a personality. It exhibits the sort of understanding that can only be achieved by someone who has lived with someone with the condition. With two first-class performances from the lead actors, the results are magnificent.

 

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.

Film review – 縄張はもらった / Retaliation (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1968)

Arrow’s release of Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1968 yakuza film ‘Retaliation’ is well with picking up alongside another release from the same director, ‘Massacre Gun‘ (which I have previously written about). I will admit that these are films in a genre for which my interest far outweighs my actual experience in, but as usual the Arrow discs serve not only as an excellent way to view the films but also to immerse yourself in the history of the company and background to the films themselves. But more on that later.

The film is a tale of gang warfare. Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi) returns to the streets after eight years in prison to find that much of his former life has moved on – his gang is all but completely disbanded and the city he knows and loves is now in the midst of a land dispute over farmland, with two gangs using heavy-handed methods to acquire land off farmers to sell on at a profit to a company that wants to build a new factory there. Jiro approaches the leader of the Hasama family to offer his assistance in settling the dispute and is given two promises: he can complete the task his own way and he will get control over the area once the task is complete. Jo Shishido also stars as Hino, a former gang rival waiting to kill Jiro after his escape from prison, and there is an early performance by Meiko Kaji (as Masako Ota) as the love interest of Jiro, years before her starring roles in Lady Snowblood and the Stray Cat Rock series.

The plot does, at times, feel overly complex. This is perhaps due to the need to introduce characters of interest in each of the gangs, plus a lead character, plus a backstory between two of the Nikkatsu Diamond leading men and a love interest. There’s also an unexpected homosexuality twist near the end, which was undoubtedly controversial at the time. At its heart, however, is a simple turf war story that is the bread and butter of any mafia or yakuza film.

Nikkatsu may have later become known for their sexploitation films, with Yasuharu Hasebe even turning his hand to several “pink” films, but at the time they specialised in yakuza action films. Hasebe’s directorial technique is quite distinctive. The content is, invariably extremely violent (for the time, at least). He was a specialist in violence, and threw in elements of S&M briefly and a sexual assault that should have warned Nikkatsu of what to expect when they eventually gave him complete freedom to direct a number of sexploitation films in the late 1970s.

Another technique is to use foreground blocking to affect the composition of the shots. This is particularly used in fight scenes and in quiet meetings between gang members to give a sense of the action being the kind of thing you usually find behind closed doors, almost as if the cameraman has hidden away and is filming the characters, but if they realised then he’d be in danger. It’s a clever way to raise the intensity of the film.

As previously touched on, there are some essential bonus features on both this disc and that of ‘Massacre Gun’ that are well worth discovering. The half-hour interviews with film historian Tony Rayns are fantastic insights into the company and serve as a video essay to establish the background to the company at the time the films were released and also a means to discover more about the director Hasebe and one of the stars Jo Shishido. Additionally, Jo Shishido is also interviewed on each disc, providing an unfiltered take on the filmmaking process and his memories and experiences about the studio. In the booklets, Japanese film expert Jasper Sharp provides a long essay on the film and the studio that is also well worth reading.

As someone who has never had any kind of film or media training and with no formal qualifications behind me, items like these serve time and time again as very effective mini film study courses. I’m able to watch a film in its best possible picture and sound quality, learn more about it from experts, immerse myself into the history of the company behind it and then check out more films from the era if I wish to. It’s easy to take this kind of situation for granted, but 20 years ago it simply wasn’t possible without finding a rare VHS copy and doing significant research at libraries or enrolling on a course. Indeed, I would probably never have even heard of the film let alone giving it a chance by watching it.

A must have for budding Japanese film fans and one that you need to act fast on since only 3000 copies were released.

 

Film review – Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)

When the live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell was announced, the online rhetoric centred around the fact that the remake was in itself completely unnecessary, whilst also questioning why lead Japanese character Major Kusanagi was being portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. The studios’ responses at the time were that they wanted a bankable star and that was the main reason she was cast, but that word was out there. Whitewashing. Once it’s there, it’s hard to shake.

A similar issue befell the 2011 film Under The Skin, also starring Scarlett Johansson. True, there was no need accusations of racism, but Johansson was cast for similar reasons. It later emerged in an interview with Gemma Arterton that the British actress had been first choice by the director Jonathan Glazer. However, Johansson was eventually cast in order to secure the funding to complete the film to the director’s vision.

In both cases, it is a sad reflection on the current state of cinema and its attitudes towards so-called non-bankable stars. Clearly the studios involved were nervous about a film being able to sell based on a high quality script, good direction and a solid marketing campaign. Instead they brought in Johansson, and presumably part of their reasoning was that they didn’t have faith in the audience to see past the lead character. Perhaps this is correct.

However, in neither case was the film damaged as a result of the casting. Both plots lend themselves to having an otherworldly-essence to the lead female. 

Crucially, Johansson isn’t just a bankable star. She’s a truly phenomenal actress at the top of her game.

In Under The Skin, the fact that Scarlett Johansson was driving around the streets of Glasgow and getting real reactions from the general public whilst speaking in an emotionless English accent played into her role. She was, ambiguously, an alien preying on men, so her not being British gave a mysterious element to her performance that justified her casting.

Equally in Ghost in the Shell, the fact she isn’t of Asian origin doesn’t necessarily play against the script. She is a cybernetic being, with the brain of a human inside a robotic body. This is a future where cybernetic modifications are a part of normal life. The brain inside her body is that of a Japanese girl, but her body is Scarlett Johansson. 

I don’t agree with the feeling that her casting is whitewashing of the original story. The studio saw a way to make the plot more appealing to American audiences in a way that didn’t compromise the story – the wider lead cast covers a wide variety of races, primarily either American or Asian. They would have been foolish not to go down that route.

Clearly, the Japanese market doesn’t seem overly bothered by her casting. Nor do the South Korean and Chinese markets. In China, for example, they currently have a total box office taking of $23.39m (as of 09/04/2017), approximately a quarter of the global takings. This is a total which pushed a disappointing US box office performance into a profitable outcome.

Ironically, one of the primary reasons offered by the studio for its domestic failure was that Scarlett Johansson doesn’t have an online presence. 

The humour of this entire situation shouldn’t be lost and I can’t help but feel that the backlash against this is looking for an argument where there isn’t one. At the very worst, the filmmakers can be accused of bringing in a superstar to sell the film and this deviates it from the original vision from 1996. The faithfulness to the original story is so strong though that this change shouldn’t be held against it. Certainly no complaints can be levelled at Johansson, who puts in a stellar performance in her starring role.


The environment the characters inhabit is rich and believable, with a mix of CGI and real shots used to create a new universe. It is visually stunning, a full 3D remodelling of the vision created in 2D by Mamoru Oshii and the original animation team from 1995. 

The city is modelled on Hong Kong, but it feels like it lives in the same universe as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, with spawling cityscapes and futuristic advertisement boards threatening to submerge the life within it.

Indeed, the musical cues that Clint Mansell and Lorne Balfe provide are clearly influenced by Vangelis. This I see as an indication of how much of an influence Vangelis has had on futuristic science fiction cinema, rather than a lazy bit of theft from the musical pairing. Mansell is very much carrying the Vangelis baton as evidenced by his excellent scores for the likes of High-Rise, Black Swan and Stoker.

If the action sequences seem a little dated, it is because Sanders has been put in a near-impossible situation by the Wachowskis. There are rumours that the only reason The Matrix was made was because they wanted to make a live-action Ghost in the Shell but couldn’t get the rights. Whilst there are similar themes in both films, it is the action sequences that were so iconic that The Matrix is remembered for. These were lifted straight from Oshii’s masterpiece. So, heaping this remake with too much of them would make casual audiences feel like they were utilising a technique that debuted two decades ago and has been parodied ever since. If anything, Sanders has probably underused it, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle.

Taking on a film that is seen as a defining point of the genre is always going to be tough. The original really wasn’t a box office success in its original release, making just $2.28m globally. It did eventually become a cult classic. This 2017 remake has already made its money back ($130m and counting), but will doubtless also be considered a box office flop by its detractors. 

This is not a masterpiece of a film, but it is extremely impressive and engrossing. Arguably, the plot is much clearer than the original too. It’s a shame that it looks unlikely to be given a chance by most a large portion of the potential market.

Note: the version watched was 3D IMAX.

Film review – Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

‘Journey to the Shore’ won director Kiyoshi Kurosawa the Un Certain Regard prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is also the Masters of Cinema label’s latest foray into the new release market; the label is more frequently associated with the restoration of forgotten classic cinematic releases but has enjoyed success with the likes of ‘Listen Up Philip‘ and ‘Life of Riley‘ in recent years.
The film tells the story of Mizuki, a young female piano teacher mourning the death of her husband Yusuke, who we learn has drowned at see three years prior to the start of the film. However, when his ghost appears mysteriously at home one day, she is less surprised at his presence and more annoyed as he has forgotten to take his shoes off.

The reunited couple set off on a journey together as he takes her to visit the people who have helped him journey home from his point of death, with Mizuki’s resulting spiritually cathartic journey being the focal point of the story.


It’s a story that is rooted in Japanese culture, with the human grieving process following the death of a loved one a typical starting point for its fair share of Japanese films in recent years. Where this sets itself apart is in the very blatant separation from reality afforded by the seamless interaction between the living and the dead. There doesn’t seem to be any hard and fast rule about who can talk to whom, nor does there seem to be any surprise or shock experienced by the living seeing a close departed friend or family member. Indeed, Yusuke is portrayed as a living, breathing being with he ability to fully interact with his surroundings. It’s a unique spin on the matter (pun intended).

There are some really effective cinematographic techniques employed to reflect the mood of the scenes, most notably in the dimming of the lights when a darker story is being retold. The credit here lies with director Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa. It was subtle enough to have an impact before I realised what had happened, as key characters revealed their darkest of memories, and it added considerably to the picture.


Whether it really works as a whole is something I’m still not totally sure about. Certainly it is delivered with conviction, though the overall effect is something entirely morose. There seemed to be a relentlessness to the depression involved that, whilst perhaps reflective of the mood of the characters involved, seemed to offer nothing in the way of a positive escape for anyone watching looking to be guided by the grieving process.

The film achieves its aims and carries everything off to perfection. It’s just not a very pleasant experience to sit through.