Movies, Myself

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Princess Mononoke

This is easily the darkest of Miyazaki’s films, dark not only in the sense of the themes but also in that most of the film seems to happen in a twilight world, with little or no sunlight. Probably because most of the proceedings unfold inside forest canopies. The climax involves the morning sun, but the tension onscreen, with a decapitated being groping around for his head, negates its effect.

While Spirited Away had cute and quirky forest gods with the occasional gross-out creature thrown in, Mononoke’s menagerie of beings fall squarely on the malevolent side of the supernatural spectrum. The worm-infested Tatari-gami that attacks Ashitaka’s village in the opening sequence,  San’s guardian wolf-god (goddess?) Moro, the Ape gods that demand to eat human flesh – these are some scary, no-nonsense creatures. Even the benevolent deer god is a death-deity in his night-walker form.

And the kodamas? They are cute, I agree, but the clattering is fucking creepy, man. A lot of things in the film are fucking creepy. Like the part where Jiko’s men follow the wounded boar god as he stumbles blindly towards the Shishigami’s island, slithering alongside him wearing the skins of dead boars. Or the first time we see San, her face smeared in red, a feral creature of the woods. She spits out blood, and stares at the camera. Creepy.

Mononoke is also unique in the sense that it is an action movie from the Ghibli stable, and a period action movie at that. The violence is served without mercy – bullets and arrows whiz towards their targets with precision, blood flows freely, body parts fly sans concern for parental guidelines. The fight sequences are brutal and gravity-defying – San and Ashitaka’s rooftop confrontation, or the wolves leaping across jagged cliffs to strike at Eboshi’s procession. The final onslaught of the boars against the humans is a harrowing scene of destruction that makes you want to look away. Hisaishi’s score reflects the turmoil of the battlefields, one that booms to taiko drums and echoes through deep, rippling cello sweeps. There are brief moments of respite, like during the kodama sequences, but they are few and far between.

As always, it’s the details that get me. How the presence of Yakkul the elk (easily my favorite character in the movie) kind of nudges at the otherworldliness of the setting. The way we learn about Ashitaka’s outsider status (and that of his people) when he tries to buy food from a village market in course of his quest. Lady Eboshi is one fascinating non-villain, and you would be hard-pressed to really dislike her or not see things from her point of view. Mononoke, like most Ghibli films, has things to say about the relationship between mankind and nature, about co-existence and mutualism, and its lovely to see shades of grey abound in the story, instead of broad strokes of good vs evil.

The scene where Kaya, one of the girls in Ashitaka’s village gives him her Gyoku no Kogatana (and the subs say “obsidian knife”) made me smile, because I remembered suddenly the name of the gentleman who had written the dialogues for the English version. He was not as well-known then as he is now, but I remember reading his discussion about why he chose the word “obsidian” instead of something more generic, like “jade”. His name was Neil Gaiman. He wrote the dialogues to make the film, soaked in details and minutiae of Japanese folklore, more accessible to Western audiences. One such changed detail that came to mind was the voice of Moro. Japanese culture has male voices for wolves, regardless of gender – and it comes as a shock to a first-time non-Japanese viewer (umm, me, circa 2004) when you realize that San calls Moro “mother”. To remedy that, Gillian Anderson voiced her in the American dub.

While I really did not remember much of the film from my eight-year-old viewing, the memory of one particular scene lingered, and I looked forward to see how my perception of it would be altered when I saw it now. That scene – in which the deer god appears for the first time, and makes his way towards the wounded Ashitaka on the island, flowers blooming and withering in his wake – occurs in perfect silence. When it played on my PC, I was half-tempted to check if the sound system had conked off. If I remember right, the Weinsteins tried to introduce a musical score in this sequence for the US release just because audiences weren’t used to absolute silence – Miyazaki refused, obviously. I am not sure how Americans watching it in theaters in the early 2000s took it. But in the Egyptian that night, when the deer god made his appearance, I realized two things – one, I was holding my breath. And two, so was everyone else in the theater. The guy two seats away from me, who had been wheezing until then, had fallen silent. The gang of students giggling behind me, ditto. No popcorn being chewed, or shoes shuffling in the dark, or creaking seats. Have you ever been in a packed theater that has fallen silent at the right cinematic moment?

That was something to remember.

Movies, Myself

The Ghibli Theater Watch: Spirited Away

True story.
Around 2001 or so, I heard rumblings about a Japanese film called Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi. It was not quite the pre-Internet era, just the time when you would pay through your nose to browse. But the illustrations I saw in those few stray magazines were good enough for me to go look for more information online (text-only, of course, for faster browsing). So I read all I could about Sen To Chihiro. This was years before Japan really got into my skin, but I was enthused. Happy that something non-Disney was getting recognition around the world.

Then someone mentioned a new animated movie that was coming out. Something so good that it had even been nominated for the Oscars. I was a little miffed at this. How can something as good as Sen To Chihiro be overlooked in favor of something with a name as bland as Spirited Away? Never mind that I had not seen either film, I was just taken aback at the injustice of it all. This may sound ridiculous now. (Sure does to me) It was some time before I realized that the two movies were the same. Oh well, so it goes.

I passed on the dubbed screening of Spirited Away a few days ago, opting instead to go for the Japanese version two nights ago, at the Egyptian. And I have arrived at the conclusion that Spirited Away is a flawless film.

I had a conversation with a friend a few hours before watching it. She found the film too dark – I disagreed. No denying that there are moments of darkness in the film, but nothing more than most children’s literature, where the oft-used plot pivot (as I had talked about in my review of Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet) is the loss of family, probably the only primal fear that a child has. The scene where Chihiro’s parents undergo their transformation, therefore,  is visceral.  Their squeals are like fingernails clawing on a blackboard, and her shriek of horror is terrifying. Another scene that creeps me out is when we hear Yubaba’s raspy voice for the first time along with a closeup of her lips, calling Chihiro into her inner chambers. Brrr.

But every serious moment in the film has its counterpoint, every note of menace balanced by an undercurrent of humor that unknots your stomach. The malevolent sorceress becoming a whimpering bundle of maternal concern in the middle of a conversation about skinning this impudent little human girl defuses the tension in an instant. Once you realize that the villains are not as omnipotent as they seem, that rules govern this magical world, you relax a bit. Chihiro’s parents aren’t going to turn into bacon, and the little girl will find a way.

Is Chihiro the perfect Miyazaki heroine? I find the character refreshing, sans pretension or the mores and genre responsibilities thrust upon other Ghibli heroines. Chihiro is grumpy, scared, out of her depth. And yet, despite moments of weakness, she copes. She demonstrates remarkable levels of ingenuity and spunk, be it when facing down the sorceress Yubaba or dealing with stinky river gods. She finds untapped veins of courage in herself when wanting to make amends for Haku’s transgression. Now that’s a heroine for you. The way she is animated is unreal – observe the way she petulantly hops from one foot to the other, whining at her parents to hurry up. Or the careful manner her feet make their way down the tall stairs down to the steam room.

It goes without saying that all the Ghibli films boast of exquisite visual palettes. Spirited Away takes this design opulence and cranks it all the way up to one hundred and eleven. The bath-house of eight million gods is inhabited by the most curious characters, the human-looking ones characterized by extra-large heads and a distinctive look, the non humans… The first time we see the non-human guests of this otherworldly resting place, they are blurry blobs. Then they materialize out of nothingness, charcoal-grey misty forms coalescing into a procession of monsters, spirits and kami of various shapes, sizes and emotional dispositions. Every single one of them feels made of a million stories.

And that, to me, enhances the experience of a Miyazaki story. There are no helpful sign-posts telling us what to expect out of these characters or what archetypes they represent. We do not know who No-Face is, or what attracts him to Chihiro when he (she? It?) feels her human presence on the bridge. There is absolutely nothing we know about the three bouncy heads in Yubaba’s boudoir – other than that they bounce, and that they like to eat, when they get a chance. It is a wonderful universe, this Other Realm, and it’s gratifying to know that we will perhaps never know all these stories. We won’t, but that does not mean they never happened. Wouldn’t a lesser film-maker have succumbed to the temptation of leaving a stray wink at the audience, maybe a fleeting glimpse of a beloved forest-god with a leafy umbrella, or a deer that walks on water? Hell, I would pay money to see a whole movie starring the soot creatures and Kamaji in the boiler room. Or the adventures of miniature Bo and bird-Baba, squeaking their way through this wonderland.

The main piano theme that opens the film is probably my favorite Hisaishi composition for Studio Ghibli. Though I find the first few minutes of the film undeserving of the background score that plays, the music a little too overbearing for the proceedings. Probably because I dislike Chihiro’s parents as much as humanly possible. The orchestral violins in the soundtrack rise slow, sweeping into a crescendo as Chihiro gets more and more agitated and as the world changes, . There are the playful chirps and twangs that Hisaishi employs, motifs for different characters. A dream-team, the director and his composer!

A few last memories – the scenes in the evening, where we see lights and lanterns being lit slowly. The unending stretches of water, and the sound of the train moving through it. And the sound of crickets.

If there’s an afterlife, I want it to be like a Miyazaki film.

Once upon a time, when I felt like it, I would paint. And I painted this for a dear friend. I was especially happy with the Totoro cameo.

Chihiro and Haku


The Ghibli Theater Watch: Whisper of the Heart

Damn you, world, for taking away Yoshifumi Kondo too early.

Kondo was the man who would have taken Miyazaki and Takahata’s place as their successor, had he not passed away in 1998. Whisper of the Heart remains the only full-length work he directed, though he worked on some other Ghibli films. It is also one of the few non-fantasy Ghibli films, and a great gateway film for people who are not fans of outré stories.

I am a little sceptical of the script, however. The library card subplot segues too easily into the curious case of the subway-hopping cat. Shizuku meeting Seiji-kun the way she does makes the cynic in me want to poke my finger at those points of the script and laugh in derision. I also have a mild reaction towards the last few lines of the film, during the sunrise – while I get the spirit in which they appear, it’s not as serious as it should have been. Meh, I am being obtuse, I know. I’m sorry. (I learnt just now that the American release did not have the words that bother me in them. That means I am not the only one thinking that way.)

The remarkable use of ‘Country Roads’ – or ‘Concrete Roads’, if you prefer that version. Those fuzzy-warm little moments involving the song. Like the scene where Shizuku shows Yuki the first draft of the lyrics and both of them hum the somewhat-clunky rhymes together. The apology scene by the three friends, where the offended poet throws her nose up in the air until they beg Shizuku-sama’s forgiveness. And of course, the jam sequence always has me grinning madly and bobbing my  head along to Seiji’s violin-playing. Yuji Nomi composed just two Ghibli soundtracks, and the one for Whisper of the Heart is magnificent!

My favorite character in the film is not who you would expect – it’s Shizuku’s dad. He works as a librarian, and apparently keeps an eye on his daughter’s reading habits. “Strange to see Shizuku reading non-fiction”, he remarks, when she pores through reference books when writing her story. Quick to take control when his daughters argue, and does so without raising his voice. The hasty puff of the cigarette when his wife complains at him lighting up at the table. And of course, his consensual support of her two-month trial. Most Miyazaki dads are awesome – and Mr Tsukishima is one of the best.

Muta the cat (or Moon, if you prefer) is the epitome of feline airiness, and is probably my second-favorite character.

I like the way there are multiple love stories going on in the film – most of them unrequited. Yuki and the guy who wrote her the letter, Yuki and Sugimura, Sugimura and Shizuku, the Dwarf King and the Goat who turns into a princess, Shizuku and Seiji, the Baron and Louise, Nishi and Eloisa. There’s also Shiho and the mysterious person she writes letters to.

All in all, Whisper of the Heart brings a lump to my throat every time I see it. There’s a very strong feeling of nostalgia it evokes in me. The scenes at the library. The winding and hilly roads the characters cycle through. The school scenes. Rain. Studying for exams. The sound of crickets on a warm summer day. And most of all, the thought that sometimes, some stories begin in the most unexpected ways, in ways you could never imagine.


The Ghibli Theater Watch: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

My biggest problem with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is that I find the eponymous lead character too one-dimensional. What we know about her is spelt out in the first 30 minutes of the film – a kind-hearted princess, explorer of the Sea of Decay, someone who knows the ways of the strange creatures that inhabit it. After that, other than one throwaway line about anger management, we get nothing. But that I guess is the burden of the Miyazaki heroine – an adolescent that is forever asexual, virtuous to the point of saccharine-sweetness, and dripping with innocence.

The only thing that has dated about this 28-year old film is the score. Don’t get me wrong, Joe Hisaishi’s work is still miles ahead of any animated film soundtrack of that vintage, especially the main piano theme and the vocal leitmotif for the Fields of Gold sequence. The seams show up with the rather ham-fisted Ohmu tracks, where sitar and santoor strains meant to evoke mysticism and awe come off as as pidgin New Age. And the cheesy drums in the action sequences scream of eighties disco.

The film is also surprisingly humorless. Unintended moments of mirth trickle out in some of the voice acting, but the only comic relief is provided by the occasional sardonic quip made by Kurotawa, the general of Tolmekia. There is a out-of-place sequence that reeks of forced humor, where Asbel of Pejite makes faces when chewing some nuts in the fossilized under-world that the two of them find.

But all complaints aside, what a film! From the first frame onwards, the post-apocalypic world is revealed bit by bit to us, in brilliant, miniscule detail. Fantastic creature designs – you can almost feel the pollen-like effervescence that covers the decaying parts. The gentle pastel and watercolor cel-shades are way more faithful to Miyazaki’s painting style than his later works. Long sequences bereft of words or music, overlaid with the sound of the wind, are bold sound design choices for the time. There was a dubbed recut version released in the 80s, called Warriors of the Wind, and I am sure they added lots and lots of discerning soundtrack choices throughout the film. Human flight is of course a recurring Miyazaki theme. The flying sequences are awe-inspiring even today, especially the parts where the airships fight in the clouds. All the other Miyazaki themes are also in place – environmentalism, anti-war and a mellow good/evil conflict.

What was going on in the US the year Nausicaa released in Japan? Movies released that year include The Terminator, Ghostbusters, The Karate Kid, One Upon a Time in America and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Among animated releases, Walt Disney released a home video reissue of its 1973 film Robin Hood. The Transformers came out on TV for the first time. Did the people watching these even know about this Japanese release? Doubt it.

And I saw the trailer to The Secret World of Arrietty for the first time. It’s going to be screened at the Egyptian on the 13th, 4 days before the official US release. I may give that a miss if it’s the dubbed version, though.


The Ghibli Theater Watch: Porco Rosso

A Pig's gotta fly.

Today was the first day of the 2-week Ghibli retrospective that’s begun at the Egyptian and Aero theaters. Porco Rosso was the first film being screened. Fresh transfer, and this is the twentieth anniversary of its release. I am happy to say that it blew my mind just as thoroughly as it did the first time I saw it, many years ago. Some things are timeless indeed.

Is Porco Rosso the most adult-oriented of the Ghibli movies? Not just adult in the sense that the primary characters are middle-aged, but also because the protagonists Marco and Gina are obviously world-wary, both a little jaded, with a trace of wistfulness in their demeanor. Fio, the young aircraft designer who accompanies Marco in the second half of the film is the obvious Miyazaki teenage heroine, the archetype that features in all his films. But the story is about Marco and Gina and their past and all the stories that they carry. And for once, we do not see Miyazaki’s world filtered through adolescent eyes. There is a clear political tone to the film too, with Miyazaki’s distaste for fascism coming through loud and clear. And then there is death and the hint of the afterlife for people of the  sky, beautifully portrayed in a sequence inspired by a Roald Dahl short story.

Call me crazy, but I think it would be an interesting experience to watch the film in Italian. The only dubbed anime I have watched and enjoyed so far is the TV series Hellsing. It is set in England, and it only seemed right to watch English characters speak in their language. Newspapers, fliers and movie posters in the world of Porco Rosso are in Italian, as is the song Gina sings in the hotel. I remember reading somewhere that Miyazaki apparently liked the French version better than the Japanese. But then, the former had Jean Reno voicing Porco – you cannot get better voice-acting than that.

What got me this time around was how expertly – and effortlessly – this film takes you through a range of emotions, from the opening hilarity of the Mamma Auito pirates kidnapping all the school children and the chase sequence that follows, to the sobering nature of Marco and Gina’s unspoken relationship. From the heady aerial battles to the quiet scenes involving sky, water, sand and clouds. and the most bravura segue of them all – the way the cartoonish showdown between Curtiss and Marco ends the main storyline, only to dissolve into Fio’s voice-over gently nudging the curtain down. Leaving behind bittersweet emptiness, with just an edge of … I dunno, hope? Promises? The idea that the real world does not really have an ending?

Yes, this is the Ghibli film with the most perfect closing sequence. I am willing to defend this opinion to the death.

Saturday has My Neighbor Totoro and Whisper of the Heart playing back to back at the Aero, in Santa Monica. There’s Spirited Away tomorrow too, but I will catch the re-screening next week instead. Original Japanese with subtitles wins over an English dub.