Ever since Turner Classic Movies ran a Hayoa Miyazaki retrospective back in 2006 I’ve been a pretty big fan of his work. His hand drawn animations for the Ghibli studio have been among the most acclaimed animated films of all time around the world and have brought anime to a level of mainstream recognition and salability that most wouldn’t have anticipated. I don’t love all of his movies but the movies of his I like I like quite a bit. However, it has become increasingly clear to me that I’ve been kind of overlooking the work of his other compatriots at Studio Ghibli and in 2018 I’m hoping to rectify that. As such I’m going to do two little retrospectives, the first looking at the work of Ghibli’s second most famous auteur Isao Takahata (aside from his classic Grave of the Fireflies, which I’ve already seen) and the one film their other early master Yoshifumi Kondō made before his tragic and untimely death. I would also like to note upfront that these are not going to be the kind of “skeptical” reviews I did for Disney and Pixar and the like as I already have a great deal of respect for what Ghibli did with Miyazaki.
Only Yesterday (1991)
Though Grave of the Fireflies was actually not Isao Takahata’s debut film, it was the first film he made for Studio Ghibli and as such that’s usually where people start when discussing him. That it was also basically his magnum opus meant that he had to spend the rest of his career trying to top it, which was basically impossible given how much of an emotionally charged story it was. One can see the trouble this comparison has been in the differing fates of that film and his (sort of) sophomore effort Only Yesterday in the United States. While Grave of the Fireflies never had a theatrical release in America (Anime was far from mainstream in the American marketplace in the late 80s) it did get a video release in the early 90s and became quite the cult hit as anime became more of a force. Only Yesterday, by contrast, never even got an official American release until its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2016. As such it’s sort of been the lost Ghibli film to audiences on the East side of the Pacific despite having been quite popular in Japan.
The film is in its own way a logical follow-up to Grave of the Fireflies as it is also a look at the life of children but children of the next generation growing up in what was a significantly better time to be a kid in Japan. The film essentially looks at the life of a ten year old girl in 1960s Tokyo which is contextualized by a framing story about her as an adult visiting the countryside. Like a lot of coming of age films like The 400 Blows or Boyhood the film is largely about finding profundity in remembering the little things in childhood in a sort of wistful fashion. There’s basically nothing about the film that would, on the surface anyway, seem to require animation. Today that’s not very unusual and there are entire genres of anime like that but it’s my understanding that even in the more open minded world of anime that was a pretty unusual idea back in 1991. This is probably a big part of why the film took so long to cross the Pacific as the core anime audience in America, especially in the early days, were dudes looking for science fiction ultra-violence and this thing had a hard time finding a place in that marketplace. The film certainly feels like it’s a work of deep nostalgia, but the film’s protagonist obviously isn’t a stand-in for Takahata (who obviously isn’t a female and who would have been in his early thirties during the time the film is set). Ultimately I think what holds the movie back for me is simply that it feels like a bit more like a collection of moments than a coherent whole. The connections between the scenes in the 60s and the scenes of the protagonist as an adult never seemed to fully connect and the film never really crescendos in a satisfying way. Still, it’s a beautifully observed movie for the most part.
***1/2 out of five
Pom Poko (1994)
With Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday Isao Takahata had made two straight films that used animation to tell period stories that didn’t necessarily need to be made with animation. One could have imagined Takahata making that his modus operendai but instead he made a sharp left turn with his next film, Pom Poko, in which a group of talking raccoons band together to fight humans. Actually it’s a bit inaccurate to call the creatures in this film “raccoons” (even though the English translations go ahead and do that) when they are in-fact Japanese raccoon dogs or “tanuki” as they’re usually called. Tanuki are in fact real animals, they’re canines that have raccoon-like patterns on the faces and tails but are not actually related to real raccoons (who are indigenous to North America) at all. These tanuki play a large part in Japanese folklore, where they’re considered to be shapeshifting tricksters, which is in fact the same tradition that Super Mario is tapping into when he grows “raccoon” ears and tails after picking up a leaf. Pom Poko is an attempt to merge these old tanuki stories with the modern world in the form of an environmentalist fable.
That was a whole lot of background required to simply set this thing up for a western viewer and I haven’t even gotten into the fact that all the male tanuki have visible ball-sacks present on their bodies throughout the film. The English dub (that Ghibli somehow got Disney to produce) tries to call these appendages pouches but the subtitled version just straight up calls them testicles. Tanuki nuts apparently are very much a part of the folklore behind these creatures, but to western audiences that seems pretty weird. Generally speaking most of the complaints I might have about this movie are things like that which are less the movie’s fault and more the result of something getting a bit lost in translation. If you’re willing to do the research though and go along with some of this stuff this actually is a pretty solid Ghibli movie. The movie manages to explain the ecological situation facing these tanukis in some fairly interesting ways and also comes to provide some fairly interesting visuals along the way like the “parade” scene midway through the film or some of the sight gags along the way. The movie could stand to have been cut down a bit for pacing and it’s not a movie for the closed minded, but certainly a worthwhile watch for people with a slightly deeper interest in anime and Japanese culture.
***1/2 out of Five
Whisper of the Heart (1995)
Though this installment is largely looking at the work of Isao Takahata I’m also going to be looking at this movie, which was the first Ghibli film to be directed by someone other than Takahata or Miyazaki. Instead this was directed by a man named Yoshifumi Kondō, who was a little younger than Takahata and Miyazaki but still basically of the same generation and who had worked as an animator on a number of Ghibli’s other movies. Miyazaki had intended for Kondō to be a become one of the studio’s top talents and a successor of sorts for its founders, but Kondō wouldn’t live long enough to take that role. In early 1998 while working behind the scenes on Princess Mononoke Kondō suffered an aneurysm believed to have been caused by overwork and died at the age of 47. His death by all accounts affected Miyazaki deeply and was a big part of why he has continually been announcing his retirement ever since. We’ll never know what Kondō would have one day become, but we do have his directorial debut to look back on.
Given that this movie represents the legacy of a filmmaker who died prematurely I’d love to be able to say that this is a hidden gem but as Studio Ghibli movies go I actually think it’s a bit weak. That’s not to say that it’s a bad movie, it isn’t, but it lacks a certain something. The film mostly takes the Takahata approach of making a movie that is basically set in the real world and focuses on a kid but the animation is a bit more Miyazaki-like. The weakness here is that the film’s protagonist feels like she would be an adequately developed character in an adventure movie but who seems to be just a little too thin to hold her own in a character drama like this. The film tries to capture the confusion of youth but doesn’t quite nail it and as a result the protagonist just kind of feels like a bit of a spaz at times. I’m also not crazy about her boyfriend of sorts Seiji, who kind of seems like a gender flipped manic pixie dream boy. That’s not so say there isn’t some charming stuff here, it’s just kind of minor as these things go.
*** out of Five
My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999)
I haven’t spent a lot of time talking about actual animation style while discussing Takahata but it is clear that a big thing that differentiates him from Miyazaki is that he experimented a lot more with the basic look of his films than his more famous colleague did. I don’t want to diminish Miyazaki’s artistry in any way but the basic look of his films didn’t really differ much from the traditional anime style outside of the fact that they had a lot more money and they found more creative things to animate. That was also more or less true about Takahata’s first three movies, which were a bit more grounded and had slightly different color palates than Miyazaki’s, but with his fourth film My Neighbors the Yamadas he really started to go wild and break from what most people would expect a Studio Ghibli films. The film was not based on a typical manga but on a comic strip of the Sunday paper variety and the film takes on that “cartoon” style in a way that will be readily apparent at the very first glance. The characters here are drawn in an intentionally sloppy manner, almost like doodles, and the backgrounds in the film are minimal to the point of being plain white at times, but that isn’t to say it’s a super low budget production and it does do larger set pieces at times.
I think this movie expects its audience to have some foreknowledge of the comic strip it was based on because it really throws you right in the middle of this family’s antics without giving you much of an introduction to the characters. There isn’t a traditional story here so much as a series of light vignettes about family life. Given the film’s episodic nature it is perhaps a bit curious that they believed a feature film would be the best format for the content. With its sitcom nature one could imagine it being made into a 30 minute TV show that could almost be like a Japanese version of “The Simpsons” or given its funky animation style one could almost imagine it as a (very high budget) Youtube series if this were being made in a different era. As it is, the film did not really keep me overly engaged on a narrative or character level and I certainly didn’t find it overly laugh out loud funny, so there really just wasn’t a whole lot for me in this thing. Granted, cultural differences likely played some role in my disconnection from the film and I was interested in it enough from an animation perspective in relation to the studio’s other films (it was, oddly enough, Ghibli’s first digitally animated movie) that I was at least interested by it but it is an oddity that is probably best left for completists.
** out of Five
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014)
After My Neighbors the Yamadas Isao Takahata took a long break from directing feature animation. During the over ten year span between his last two movies he focused his efforts on producing Studio Ghibli’s other films as they achieved greater and greater mainstream success and had a couple of other side projects. Eventually it was announced that he would direct one final movie for the studio around the same time that his colleague Hayao Miyazaki was also planning to retire after making The Wind Rises. Takahata’s retirement plans were met with less press than Miyazaki’s, in no small part because of the long break he took, but when his swan song finally came out it was met with a great deal of critical respect and a nomination in the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars. That film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, was an adaptation of an ancient Japanese folk tale about a bamboo cutter who finds a child in the woods and raises her as his own to eventually learn that she was sent by the moon people and that she would eventually have to return to them. It’s a story with odd parallels to, of all things, the Superman origin story and has actually been viewed as something of a proto-science fiction story even if it doesn’t really feel like one.
To bring this 10th century folk tale to life Takahata decided to once again eschew the typical anime style and employ a unique form of animation, this one based on more traditional Japanese art. The film is meant to look like a charcoal drawing brought to life with pastel watercolor added on top to make it look like an old Japanese scroll come to life. It’s a much more successful aesthetic experiment than My Neighbors the Yamadas and really makes the film look unique and interesting and the film’s status as a Studio Ghibli production gives it more money to work with than an experimental idea like this would normally get. The story seems to be very true to the original legend but with a bit more of an emphasis on what could be viewed as a sort of proto-feminism at the story’s heart as the titular princess rejects some of the more rigid gender roles required by the royal court and rebels against the life she eventually finds people trying to force her into. If the movie has a weakness it’s that it is perhaps a bit long for how much of a simple fable the story is meant to be. Takahata’s films generally tend to be a little bit longer than they need to be and have a touch of bagginess to them, but every time this one feels like it’s getting it bit dull it tends to bounce back with some kind of little twist of visual idea to liven things up a bit.
**** out of Five
And that is where this installment of my exploration into the wider world of Ghibli will have to come to an end. There are still some Ghibli movies I’d like to check out and at a later date I do hope to do another installment of this where I check out the works of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Gorō Miyazaki, and Hiroyuki Morita, who are basically the second generation of Ghibli talents who made a number of films in the last decade or two while the older masters were going into and out of retirement. Of course a bit of a shadow hangs over the current retrospective in that, between the time I started it and now Isao Takahata passed away, leaving The Tale of Princess Kaguya definitively his final film. Having seen all of his films now I can pretty clearly say he leaves behind a pretty strong legacy. No, I don’t know that any of the movies I looked at here was quite a grand slam but all of them were interesting on some level and there’s a maturity and a fearlessness to his overall filmography that is very much appreciated. Add to that the fact that Grave of the Fireflies is an undisputed classic and his status as a master of animation is certainly earned.