Kiki’s Delivery Service
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #3

Kikis Delivery Service

Next up, for those of you who are watching these films in order, is Kiki and her black magic delivery service. In some ways this is the most ‘Western’ of the Miyazaki films so far, in that it is a story about witches and talking cats instead of tree spirits and planetary energy.

We are first introduced to Kiki (Kirsten Dunst) who is a young witch living with her family in a rural house. It is nearing her 13th birthday and she is excited about spending the traditional year away from home that witches undertake as a rite-of-passage. She hasn’t found her special skill yet but is eager to learn so leaves with her talking cat (an amazing Phil Hartman) to find herself in the local city, as is tradition.

Kikis Delivery Service 1

When she gets arrives she finds it hard to fit in and ends up making friends only through delivering something as a favour. This leads to her living with the pregnant baker Osono who allows her to set up a delivery service, which allows her to perfect her special witchcraft skill: flying a broom. She meets a young boy who is obsessed with flying and therefore finds her fascinating and develops a crush on her. She also meets a free-spirit painter named Ursula (Janeane Garofalo) who teaches her about painting and allows her to stay.

One night Kiki is delivering something to a rich spoilt girl and has to fly through the rain, which makes her ill. She then begins to lose her witch powers – referred to as “artist’s block” by Ursula. The rest of the film is about how she gets her powers back. The narrative is a classic teenage-girl coming-of-age story with plenty of puberty / teen angst / menstruation metaphors thrown in. The film also has some nice feminist-y moments, mostly involving Janeane Garofalo.

Kikis Delivery Service 2

The animation is amazing throughout the film (as usual) and although there are no bizarre creatures to marvel, Jiji the talking cat fulfills the Miyazaki obligatory cute thing quota. What I really like about this film though is the insight it gives into Japanese relations between generations. All of the Ghibli films have a lovely elderly character in, but this film seems to show the naturalness that Japanese people have in speaking across generations. I know that this is only a cartoon – but try to imagine the same story happening in a British or American narrative and it simply wouldn’t work.

My Neighbour Totoro
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #2

My Neighbour Totoro

The second in the series of Miyazaki films is the strange and wonderful Totoro, which has incidentally just had a major cinema re-release. I have to admit upfront that this is one of my favourite of his films and one that I have seen before a few times – but it was good to revisit it with a more ‘critical’ eye. Although it has a slow start, it slowly captures you in and dazzles with its strange characters and ideas before ending with a poignant and warming ending. It is even in the top 250 of IMDB.

The plot begins with a family moving from the city into the countryside and exploring their new house and surrounding garden. The family is made up of the father Tatsuo, who is a professor, and the mother Yasuko, who is in hospital with tuberculosis – they have two girls named Satsuki and Mei. As the two girls explore the house they find that it is infested with dust creatures/spirits called susuwatari and later they find that the garden is host to King Totoro, a large fluffy cross between a rabbit and a sloth (I think anyway).

Totoro

The girls begin to get excited as they learn their mother is coming home, until one day they receive a phone call in which the hospital reveals that she has caught a cold and so must stay longer. The younger daughter Mei then decides to visit her in hospital and gets lost, which means that Satsuki must summon the help of Totoro in order to find her before she is lost in the dark. The final half hour of the film is actually quite tense, as any narrative is when a child goes missing, and even though it is obvious that there will be a happy ending it still mildly haunts me until it resolves.

The magic of this film (and the beginning of Ghibli’s worldwide success) is in the surrealism of the forest spirit characters. Totoro and his tiny cute friends are adorable (and usefully lend perfectly to fluffy merchandise) and the ‘cat bus’ is a genius invention. The film begins by aligning the audience with the curious imagination of the children as they explore the house, so that by the time we are introduced to the forest spirits they are just as exciting to the viewer as to the little girls. I utterly love this film and it has become my stress release film to cure a bad day. I challenge anyone to watch this film and not fall in love with Totoro and want to travel by the cat bus. Regardless of age or maturity level.

Catbus

Favourite scene? One word: umbrella. You’ll know what I mean when you get there…

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
Hayao Miyazaki Retrospective #1

Laputa Castle in the Sky

Studio Ghibli has managed to carve a solid niche within a certain demographic of the young UK film audience. The films are clearly aimed at children and young teenagers but due to the beautiful animation, the surreal storylines and the general Japanese Orientalism, the films also have a huge following with half-baked uni students and baby boomer hippies.

Castle in the Sky, the first feature film from the company, has aged remarkably well considering it was released in 1986. The story begins with a mysterious girl named Sheeta being transported on a blimp by an unknown military group. The blimp is attacked by pirates so she jumps to earth and is caught by Pazu, a young boy in a mining town. It turns out that everyone is after her for her mysterious necklace, which legend has it leads the way to an enigmatic castle in the sky called Laputa.

The narrative contains elements and themes that foreshadow later films, such as the steam punk pirates (Howl’s Moving Castle) and the mysterious girl who needs saving by a local boy (Ponyo). The other important message of the film is the battle between nature and technology – this continues throughout the work of Miyazaki, and is evident in the fight between the great gardens of Laputa and the crystal technology used by the bad guy Muska.

Laputa

Japanimation has always confused me in a way as the drawings of people always look so western – they are always six-foot tall and blonde, yet produced and consumed in a country with a shorter population with dark hair. It is the surreal and inhuman characters that are the most memorable in Ghibli films. In Castle in the Sky it is the anthropomorphic robots that inhabit Laputa that are the most beautiful characters – I have to admit that I was really rooting for the mute, gigantic robots…

The final thing to say about the respect held for Ghibli films is the desperation by Hollywood stars to voice the US/UK dub versions. Laputa features Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek, Mark Hamill and Andy Dick – a ramshackle cast if ever there was one…

The Hangover Part III – Film Review

The Hangover Part III

Like Einstein, Copernicus and Marie Curie before me; I decided to conduct an experiment. Is it possible to enjoy The Hangover Part III without having seen the first two? Is the rich interplay and nuance between the characters and the intricate nature of the plot possible to understand without detailed study of the original two parts of the franchise – or can you drink a couple of ciders and just go with it?

For those that need to be told, the story picks up a couple of years after the Thailand trip and Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha) are staging an intervention for Alan (Zach Galifianakis) who has ditched his meds and is acting crazy. As they transport him to a clinic they are forced off of the road by mobsters and forced to find some gold stolen by the flamboyant gangster Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong). They then go on a wacky adventure that takes them back to Vegas (with the terrible line: “One way or another… it all ends here”) as they have to break in multiple places and try to find/follow Chow.

The Hangover Part III - Ken Jeong

All plot aside, and much to my expectation, it was entirely possible to enjoy the film having not bothered with the first two. I’m sure that lots of people will have different views of the film being part of a franchise, but as an objective outsider there was much to love in Part III.

The streets of Leicester Square were lined with curious passers-by and desperate twitterati who were trying to get pictures taken with Heather Graham and Bradley Cooper as well as signing something for eBay. Heather Graham has about 3 minutes of screen time and is only in the film as a token female speaking role – or maybe she was in the film simply to give the red carpet some much-needed glitz…

Obviously, most people who watch this film come primarily for Galifianakis and Jeong. All of the other characters are basically filler until these two get back on the screen. All of the biggest laughs during the screening were from the delivery of lines that would definitely fail from other characters. And of course, there is plenty of slapstick that translates well to foreign audiences. (A particularly funny misjudged leap got the biggest reaction in the cinema…)

The Hangover Part III - Zach Galifianakis

Watching as a Brit it is interesting to note that the successes of these films reflect America’s continuing comfort with discussing drugs. There are so many jokes in here about pills, cocaine, ‘roofies’ and bath salts that there is no denying that we are living through progressive times. On that note, it was amusing to note that none of the audience got the ‘bath salts’ reference, it was lost in translation I guess; so if you want to prepare yourself for that line then familiarize yourself with the Miami zombie story (beware – it’s grizzly).

On the way into the cinema the PR team were handing out hundreds and hundreds of bottles of Budweiser to reaffirm the films status as drinking-game/social event. It occurred to me afterwards that this plan seemed to backfire as everyone around me drank about 6-7 beers and loved every joke in the first half hour, only to slumber into a beer bubble for the rest of the film and not really engage with all of the big laughs. The one exception was the woman who sat next to me, who for some reason had brought her mum with her (who had also not seen the first films). They were laughing at Every. Single. Line. The elderly mum particularly enjoyed the cocaine references for some reason…

The reality is that this film will be huge and will be quoted for a few months, and then slowly discover its places in the lexicon of aging frat-boy comedies having not really offered anything drastically new. But who cares, the film had a shallow purpose and it served it well.

Hayao Miyazaki – Body of Work

Hayao Miyazaki

I must admit it; I’m a big fan of cartoons. As most people born in the ‘80s did, I went through many animated phases: Count Duckula / The Simpsons / Doug / Beavis & Butthead / Daria / Ren & Stimpy / Rocko’s Modern Life / Dexter’s Laboratory / Recess / South Park / Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends / Family Guy… We were all there. The only problem was that these never translated well onto the big screen. Only South Park Bigger, Longer & Uncut succeeded. The only good drawn-cartoon films were Disney classics from 70 odd years ago and watching them now is just a litany of racism, homophobia, and worryingly casual misogyny. So for interesting animations now we need to head abroad…

Hayao Miyazaki is the more internationally successful of the directors / writers / animators from Japan’s Studio Ghibli (fan site). The films he makes are undeniably ‘auteur’ films in the truest sense of the word as they all have recurring themes / recognisable aesthetics and are suitably bonkers. In order to enjoy them as a whole I am going to watch them chronologically and give some thoughts along the way. I may then go back and fill in the gaps from his associates, especially Isao Takahata.

I hope you enjoy the beauty and oddness of these films as much as I do…
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