Miyazaki Spotlight Week 5: Howl’s Moving Castle

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This week I am concluding my spotlight on the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The last of his wonderful films I am spotlighting is Howl’s Moving Castle. It’s a very unique fantasy film. I think it’s actually one of the director’s most underappreciated works.

In the film,

A young girl named Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer) is cursed by the Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall), and turns into an old hag. Ashamed of how she looks, she flees into the hills where a moving castle roams. It is said to belong to the young and handsome wizard How (Christian Bale)l, who has a rather notorious reputation. Inside the castle, Sophie befriends the fire demon named Calcifer, who promises to help her become young again. There’s a catch,however.Sophie must help Calcifer to be free of Howl, and Calcifer cannot tell her how. Sophie agrees to stay and try to figure out about the contract through other ways. Still, Howl can see that Sophie is under a spell like Calcifer can, and he falls in love with her for who she is and not for what she looks like. Sophie manages to bring life to the moving castle, and she helps Howl to face his former tutor, Madam Suliman (Blythe Danner).–Internet Movie Database

 

The story has a lot of interesting plot twists. The English voice over work is excellent,especially from Lauren Bacall and Christian Bale. Howl’s Moving Castle is a quirky but thoroughly involving fantasy. It brings a unique view of wizards and magic to the screen. Oh,and there’s a war going on just off in the distance from where the castle roams. So there’s mysticism and war intrigue. It’s an interesting blend of plot points to be sure.

But lets talk about the real star of the film: the moving castle of the title. As with the bathhouse in Spirited Away,this is a completely original world that is a wonder to behold on the screen. It gave me the same sense of wonder as Oz and Hogwarts. Another film it made me think of was Labyrinth,the film that made David Bowie a star. But back to the castle. Not only does the castle have endless rooms,it can shape shift,doors can open where they need to…it has everything! The best description of the castle has to go to Roger Ebert. In his review he writes,

Almost the first sight we see in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is the castle itself, which looks as if it were hammered together in shop class by wizards inspired by the lumbering, elephantine war machines in “The Empire Strikes Back.” The castle is an amazing visual invention, a vast collection of turrets and annexes, protuberances and afterthoughts, which makes its way across the landscape like a turtle in search of a rumble.

Howl’s Moving Castle is visually striking,as are all of Miyazaki’s films. I really enjoyed getting lost in the world created on the screen. The film is based on a book of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones. It’s on my to-read list, as I always like to see how books and movies compare. This is a charming film that I want art prints of to hang in my office. It’s worth checking out.

That does it for Miyazaki month. Join me in May when my spotlight will be on journalism movies.

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Miyazaki Spotlight Week 4:Spirited Away

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Greetings,readers! This month I’ve been highlighting films from the wonderful director Hayao Miyazaki. This week my Miyazaki film is the one I saw first. And it’s pretty great. It’s Spirited Away from 2001.

The plot?

Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) and her parents are moving to a small Japanese town in the countryside, much to her dismay. On the way there, Chihiro’s father makes a wrong turn and drives down a lonely one-lane road, which dead-ends in front of a tunnel. Her parents decide to stop the car and explore the area. They go through the tunnel and find an abandoned amusement park on the other side, with its own little town. Her parents see a restaurant with great-smelling food but no staff and decide to eat now and pay later. Chihiro refuses to eat. She explores the theme park a more instead. She meets a boy named Haku (Miyu Irino)who tells her that Chihiro and her parents are in danger, and they must leave immediately. Chihiro runs to the restaurant and finds that her parents,to her horror,have turned into pigs. To make matters worse, the theme park turns out to be a town inhabited by demons, spirits, and evil gods. At the center of the town is a bathhouse where these creatures go to relax. The owner of the bathhouse is the evil witch Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), who is intent on keeping all trespassers as captive workers, including Chihiro. Chihiro must rely on Haku to save her parents in hopes of returning to their world.–Internet Movie Database

There is much to love in Spirited Away. One of my favorite things is how the film hides supernatural things in ordinary places: an amusement park,a restaurant,etc. It really makes you think about the world around you. And,with what happens to Chihiro’s parents,it makes you be extra cautious about just taking things that look like they’re free. Sadly there was no sign on the restaurant door saying,”trespassers will be turned into pigs and be slaves for all eternity.” That might drive away business.

Spirited Away doesn’t have quite the overt ecological message as some of Miyazaki’s other films,particularly Princess Mononoke. But there is one environmentalist moment in the film. While exploring the bathhouse, Chihiro meets Okutaresama,the spirit of the river. His body has absorbed tons of waste over the years. At one point he even has a discarded bicycle. It’s a subtle,insightful moment.

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Yubaba: the boss from hell

The animation in Spirited Away is stunning to say the least. Once again the magic of hand drawn animation is on full display. My favorite visuals are Yubaba and the little dust creatures that scurry along following Chihiro as she wanders through the bathhouse. And the bathhouse itself s wonderfully detailed. There’s a sense of wonder in the whole world of Spirited Away. The comparisons made between this film and Alice in Wonderland are not unwarranted. But this is a little less trippy than the Disney cartoon (which I love,but that’s a blog post for another day).

Any Hayao Miyazaki film is a good place to start to appreciate his skill as an animator and a storyteller. But I’m glad my introduction to his talents was Spirited Away. It’s dark and enchanting,like all of his films. Films like Spirited Away show that animation can be used to tell adult stories. Whatever your age,you’ll find something to like. Sit back and watch the artwork pour over you. It’s a wonderful film experience.

Miyazaki Spotlight Week 3: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

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This month’s blog topic is the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I started with Princess Mononoke and last week covered My Neighbor Totoro. This week my Miyazaki film in the spotlight is Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It works for many of the same reasons as my favorite Miyazaki film,Princess Mononoke. It has a good ecological message and it deals with war in a very believable way.

For the uninitiated,here’s the plot of Nausicaa:

In the far future, man has destroyed the Earth in the “Seven Days of Fire”. The Valley of the Wind, a small kingdom ruled by King Jihl (Mahito Tsujimura) struggles for survival as the community tries to defend the Valley from gigantic Ohm creatures and toxic plants that live beyond the Valley in the Sea of Decay, whilst Jihl’s daughter and heiress to the throne, Princess Nausicaä  (Sumi Shimamoto) tries to understand and feels it is wrong to destroy the toxic jungle. The Valley is attacked by the Tolmekian people who plan to destroy the Sea of Decay by using the greatest warriors that started the holocaust. After Nausicaä is taken prisoner, Nausicaä escapes and goes beneath the Sea of Decay where she discovers the toxic plants are not poisoning the air and are purifying the world by draining the air of radiation and toxins. With everything at stake, Nausicaä unites with the Ohms and sets out to the Valley and foil the Tolmekians plan of unleashing the Great Warrior which will start another holocaust.–Internet Movie Database

There’s the common Miyazaki theme of environmentalism and characters that develop a deeper connection with nature. And once again the director pulls this all off in his screenplay without being preachy. It’s really interesting how the toxic plants turn out to be actually helping. They’re like spiders: you don’t like them, but they keep away things that are worse.

Nausicaa also deals with the consequences of nuclear fallout,something the Japanese people got to know first-hand during World War II. Fear of the atomic bomb inspired another Japanese film that was a cautionary tale: Gojira (know to American audiences as Godzilla). What’s fascinating about this film is that it doesn’t just deal with nuclear war as a plot device at the beginning. There’s a potential for another nuclear holocaust later in the film. It’s an interesting commentary on the military industrial complex.

There isn’t quite as much spirituality in Nausicaa as there is in Princess Mononoke. Nausicaa is much more of a science fiction film. And as a science fiction it’s a complete triumph. It creates a post-apocalyptic world in visually stunning fashion.

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Look at all the detail in the buildings and the smoke! It’s an absolutely incredible piece of animation. This makes the destruction of Tokyo in the Godzilla films seem like kid’s stuff. The skyscrapers are worthy of Blade Runner.

Nausicaa is a very early film in Hayao Miyazaki’s career (1984). You can already see the potential for greatness in the visual style and the wonderful storytelling. If you like Princess Mononoke,Spirited Away,or any of Miyazaki’s other films,you’ll want to check out Nausicaa.

Miyazaki Spotlight Week 2: My Neighbor Totoro

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All this month I’m featuring films directed by Hayao Miyazaki. This week I’m featuring one of his most charming films. From 1988,it’s My Neighbor Totoro. The late Roger Ebert’s Great Movies essay gives the best description of the film,

Here is a children’s film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy. A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.

In the film,Satsuke (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto), two young girls who have recently moved to a new country home,find out is located in a mystical forest inhabited by mystical creatures called Totoros. They befriend O Totoro, the biggest and eldest Totoro, who is also the king of the forest. As their girls’ mother lies sick in the hospital, O Totoro brings the sisters on a magical adventure but also helps them to understand the realities of life.

Last week I wrote about Princess Mononoke. One common thread between the films is an ecological message. In fact,it’s a common theme in many of Miyazaki’s films. Satsuke and Mei befriending the Totoro creatures is another way of showing through film how many can develop a deep bond with nature. The adventures the girls have with the forest creatures are a great deal of fun,but the whole film isn’t fun and games. My Neighbor Totoro deals very openly with the illness of a parent. The whole reason Satsuke and Mei move to the new house is because their mother has been moved to a hospital in the area. The film handles that whole subplot with great delicacy. Another great thing about the story is that the girls’ father isn’t the stereotypical deadbeat or absent father. On the contrary,he loves his two girls very much. When they tell him about the Totoro creatures,he doesn’t write them off. That’s what many a lesser animated film would do. Instead,he actually believes them. The family dynamic is one of the best constructed in a live-action or animated film.

And how about the look of the film? Par the course for Miyazaki,the visual style is absolutely enchanting! Miyazaki draws everything by hand,and you can feel his distinctive touch. Aside from the main Totoro creatures,there are also sorts of artistic wonders. One of my favorites is the cat bus.

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I will never tire of that image. It’s a little odd but also beautiful. If I saw one of those at a bus stop I would get on in a nanosecond. The whole film has great moments of visual magic like that. There’s also the iconic scene of Totoro hanging out at a bus stop in the rain with one of the girls. As with Princess Mononoke,I could sit here and discuss the incredibly animation all-day. It’s that good.

My Neighbor Totoro is a triumph on so many levels. The animation is striking,the story has things for kids and adults,there’s a great ecological message,the adventures with the creatures are delightful,and,for once in an animated film,the kids and adults have a positive relationship. Far too many films today dramatize dysfunctional families. Yes,they do exist and those stories should be told. But not all the time. This film proves you can have a story where kids are dealing with a difficult real-life situation (in this case the illness of a parent),but it doesn’t have to give the whole film a tone of gloom and doom. Such situations can be dealt with as a part of life. My Neighbor Totoro never condescends to its audience. It assumes people watching it are intelligent. More films should give that a try.

Blogathon From Another World Entry: Contact

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This week I am doing a special blog post. It’s my entry for the Blogathon From Another contest over at Blog of the Darned. The only rule for the blogathon was that it had to be about a science fiction film. My choice is a film that I think is still underappreciated: Contact. Released in 1997,directed by Robert Zemeckis,and based on a book by Carl Sagan,it’s one of the most intelligent science fiction films ever made.

In the film, Astronomer Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) has long been interested in making contact with life in outer space. During her childhood,she was spurred on by her father, Ted Arroway (David Morse). Her father passes away when she is nine years old leaving her orphaned. She pays an homage to her father by making a career of seeking out contact with extraterrestrial life. She hits several roadblocks. Her funding from the National Science Foundation is pulled. Some,including her NSF superior David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt),see it more as more science fiction than science. But Ellie is undeterred. She teams up wit a few other rogue scientists. The look for funding from where ever they can get it to continue their work. When Ellie and her colleagues hear chatter originating from the vicinity of the star Vega, Ellie feels vindicated. But it is short lived when others, including politicians, the military, religious leaders and other scientists such as Drumlin, try to take over her work. When the messages received from space are decoded, the project takes on a whole new dimension, which strengthens for Ellie the quest for the truth. On top of everything else, there is an unknown person who has up until now funded most of Ellie’s work. His motivations are unknown. Then there’s Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey), a renowned author and theologian. Despite his fundamental differences with Ellie in outlook, he is mutually attracted to her. The attraction is based in part on intellect and their common goal of wanting to know the truth.

What makes Contact such a special film,is that it isn’t just a mindless action movie with aliens in it. It delicately handles the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe.The film does a great job of presenting science to the layperson. That’s not surprising,given that it’s based on a novel by Carl Sagan. If you’ve read any of his books or seen the original Cosmos TV series,you know he’s the poet of science communicators. Now,don’t expect to walk away from Contact expecting to teach a course in astrophysics. But,and I know this will come across as a bad pun;it will open up new universes to you. You’ll never look at the stars quite the same again.

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Another reason this film really stands out is the way it handles science and religion. It doesn’t treat them as complete adversaries. Palmer Joss is a religious man to be sure. But he also wants to pursue the truth of what might be out there in the universe. A key quote from Ellie that sets up their opposing views goes like this:

So what’s more likely? That an all-powerful, mysterious God created the Universe, and decided not to give any proof of his existence? Or, that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him, so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and alone?

It gives a good insight into Ellie’s struggles both personally and professionally. Not many films are willing to ask such thought-provoking questions. Ellie and Palmer’s debates about the mysteries of the universe are a joy to watch. It’s refreshing to see two intelligent people having civil debates despite opposing views.

You’re probably wondering what the signals Ellie received turned out to mean. I’m not giving much away by telling you that they did indeed come from outer space. It turns out to be a code. When deciphered,the code turns out to be schematics for a spaceship. It’s built,with the help of the government. Ellie isn’t initially chosen to fly it. I won’t reveal how,but eventually she does get to. Her experience in the craft leads to questions about the existence of extraterrestrial life and God that I did not expect. There’s a hearing at the end that really leaves you questioning your own beliefs about science and spirituality. I don’t want to reveal what Ellie’s experiences in space entail. I’ll just say this: it blew my mind.

Contact is a film that I appreciate more with every viewing. The performances are great,especially Jodie Foster’s. She’s made a career out of playing strong,intelligent female characters. This and her performance in Silence of the Lambs are my favorites. Ellie is fascinating not just because she’s smart,but because she’s so determined. We need more Ellie’s in real-life,especially in the fields of science. Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances as Palmer Joss. And Tom Skerritt is brilliant as the sleazy Drumlin.

Robert Zemeckis also directed the Back to the Future trilogy. The man excels at telling intelligent science fiction stories on the big screen,be they be dramas or comedies. Zemeckis also does a marvelous job of showcasing special effects without having them overshadow the story. Contact,Back to the Future,and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? are great examples.

Are we alone in the universe? Is God real? Those are some of the questions the movie raises. The answers to them aren’t spelled out,but we’re left with a lot of food for thought. It’s a film that stays with you. That’s one of the many reasons it’s great. Far too many science fiction films today simply blow things up in space. What Contact and films like it do is far riskier. They dare to blow the audience’s mind. In a day and age where we are making unprecedented scientific discoveries and have far too many science deniers,we need films like Contact more than ever.

Miyazaki Spotlight Week 1: Princess Mononoke

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Greetings,readers! This month on my blog I will be spotlighting Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. When I saw my first Miyazaki film (Spirited Away),I walked in skeptical. I wasn’t that big of an anime fan. But the amazing visuals and the story sucked me in. I had never experienced another film like it. Since then I’ve seen all of his films,and discovered this is reputation of a master director/animator is well deserved. Each week I’ll discuss a different one of his films. First up is the one that happens to be my favorite: Princess Mononoke.

I’ll get to the stellar animation of this film later in this post. But let me start out with another reason I love Miyazaki’s work: the stories are proof that animated films can be made for adults.Here’s a good summary of the film:

While protecting his village from rampaging boar-god/demon, a confident young warrior, Ashitaka (Billy Crudup), is stricken by a deadly curse. To save his life, he must journey to the forests of the west. Once there, he’s embroiled in a fierce campaign that humans were waging on the forest. The ambitious Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver) and her loyal clan use their guns against the gods of the forest and a brave young woman, Princess Mononoke, who was raised by a wolf-god. Ashitaka sees the good in both sides and tries to stem the flood of blood. This is met be animosity by both sides as they each see him as supporting the enemy.–Internet Movie Database

Princess Mononoke manages to deal with very adult issues in the animation medium: spirituality,war,environmentalism,etc. And,just as impressive,is the fact that these issues are dealt with in such a mature,intelligent way. Every character’s side is presented with equal conviction. Not one second of the film feels preachy. The journey of Ashitaka,the hero,amidst all of the turmoil,is compelling from beginning to end. Miyazaki does a fantastic job of presenting us with archetypal characters and telling a story that could have been told a campfire using modern animation technology.

Now,let’s talk about the animation in this film. Calling it striking and beautiful doesn’t begin to do it justice. Studio Ghibli has been raising the animation bar for quite some time now. There is such detail in the look of their films. What’s remarkable about their particular anime style is that,while it is animation,it feels more realistic. The people and animals are as close to the real thing as you’re likely to get in an animated feature. There are so many great examples. One of my favorites is the boar monster.

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Look at all the detail in that one shot! You can see all those worms coming together to form one terrifying creature. And the glowing red eyes are a great touch. And,notice anything special about the environment around the boar monster? The grass,stone wall,and everything else is drawn so intricately that it feels not that far from what those things would look like in the real world. I can’t think of too many films that have made anything so convincing,outside of Studio Ghibli or PIXAR.

My other favorite example has to be the spirit creatures.

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While Princess Mononoke is a fairly dark story (not for really young kids),it has beautiful moments of enchantment and whimsy like this. I love the way the film creates its own world and really shows a reverence for the forest as well as the spiritual elements that many attribute to it.

I could sit here and write all-day about the great look of this film. The artists truly outdid themselves. Princess Mononoke manages to deliver a visual as well as intellectual feast. It makes you feel the plight of all the major players involved in the story. It’s done in an evenhanded way rarely seen in films today. Then there’s all the wonderful work done by the animators. The world of Princess Mononoke is truly something to behold. Everything from a wolf,to the spirit creatures,a boar monster,to the forest itself,is drawn with such care that it feels not too far removed from the real world. It’s enchanting as well as haunting. Princess Mononoke is one of many examples is one of many examples of why Hayao Miyazaki is a master storyteller from a plot as well as a visual standpoint. I think the reason this one is my favorite is because it presented the world I wanted to live in the most and it presented issues I really cared about. I didn’t know such adult stories could be told through animation or that anime could look this impressive. That’s one reason I love Miyazaki and am giving him my blog spotlight this month.