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