by, 08-31-2009 at 12:18 PM (15242 Views)
I love Studio Ghibli movies. For those not familiar with them, Studio Ghibli is a Japanese movie production company specialising in anime (animation, or cartoons if you prefer). But there’s something more to these anime movies than your standard Disney movie brings. For a start, they’re not always suitable for children, though children are often central to the story. These movies often deal with complex questions of morality, social issues, our interaction with each other, other species and the planet. There’s a depth to them, both in terms of the animation, which is increasingly lush and complex, and the emotional content of the storyline. So I thought, as it’s fresh in my mind, that I’d share with you my top 5 Studio Ghibli movies. If you’ve never seen one, I’d strongly recommend it. Weirdly the movies are somehow better if you watch them in Japanese with subtitles, rather than the English dubbed equivalent (possibly it’s more correct to say they’re just better in Japanese, but I don’t speak it!). Working in reverse order, here’s my favourite 5….
5 – Grave of the Fireflies
Today we watched this movie for the first time, and I’m still feeling a little emotional. Not sure if it was the movie itself or the reaction of my 9 year old son, who cried for a good 10 minutes after the movie ended. Not like him at all. Perhaps it was a little close to home. Perhaps I do this movie an injustice not placing it higher. Of all the Studio Ghibli movies I’ve seen this is the one that moved me the most. The story of two children: Seita, a teenage boy and Setsuko, his sister being, possibly, no more than 4 years old.
Set in the closing days of WWII the two children find themselves alone after their mother is killed in a bombing raid, their father missing in action. To begin with the children move in with an aunt, but it quickly becomes apparent that the aunt resents their being there. Seita decides to move away with Setsuko into an abandoned air raid shelter, adjacent to a pond heavily populated by fireflies.
Outside of the system the children soon find themselves without food and Seita is forced to resort to stealing and raiding in order to care for his sister. His efforts are in vain, however, as Setsuko quickly succumbs to malnutrition, eventually dying in the shelter. Seita leaves the shelter and later he too dies. The siblings are reunited in death.
It’s a poignant, unsettling movie, perhaps because it is one of the few movies which shows the human side to the Japanese involvement in WWII. The relationship between Seita and Setsuko is one of loving care; Seita tries hard to protect and care for his sister but despite this, in the end, he can save neither her nor himself. The indifference of those around them is disturbing – the children’s aunt is more concerned with feeding herself and her family, and even the doctor turns them away. Despite this there are heart-warming moments; Seita protecting his sister from the knowledge of their mother’s death; an afternoon out by the sea; Seita capturing the fireflies and bringing them into the shelter so Setsuko won’t be afraid of the dark. And the moment where Setsuko sums up the emotion of the movie when she buries dead fireflies by their shelter, and says: ”why do they have to die so soon?” If you’re going to watch it, don’t forget the tissues.
4 – Howl’s Moving Castle
Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, this is the story of Sophie, a young hat maker, who is turned into an old woman by the Witch of the Waste for attracting the attention of Howl. Howl is a wizard with a magical castle, as so:
Sophie finds takes refuge in the castle, taking a job as the cleaning lady as the castle travels across the country on its mechanical legs. As it turns out, Howl too is cursed and Sophie and Howl, together with an odd cast of characters (including a fire demon named Calcifer who is hilarious!) work together to try and break their respective curses, and to prevent a war which is threatening to swallow up the country.
There’s time travel and shape shifting. A curious door which, by operating a lever, can open in one of a number of different places; and, of course, there is magic. As always, director Hayao Miyazaki creates complex, flawed characters seeking courage and solace in each other. Beautifully animated and a magical story, definitely worth a watch.
3- Princess Mononoke
Princess Mononoke is one of many Studio Ghibli movies which deals with the question of man’s interaction with other creatures and the environment, and tries to draw out the inherent link between mans treatment of the environment and his own survival. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is an earlier example, but in my opinion Mononoke does it better.
The story is set in medieval Japan and follows a young warrior, Ash1taka (forgive the oddball spelling, if I use an 'i' the auto-censor edits the name!). After killing a boar-like monster (with lots of customary Ghibli-eque oozing) he discovers that the beast is an infectious ‘demon-god’ transformed by human anger. By killing the beast Ash1taka too becomes cursed, and he must set out on a journey to find the source of the anger in order to save himself from being consumed by it.
His journey soon takes him into the industrialised territory of Lady Eboshi, a Japanese war-lady intent on destroying the forest which she believes is damaging to their technological progression. The ‘spirits’ of the forest fight back against mans encroachment and the damaging environmental impact of the industrialised town.
Here enters Princess Mononoke, or San, who, working with the forest spirits, attacks the Lady Eboshi. In the attack Ash1taka is injured, and San takes him to the benevolent Forest Spirit who heals his wounds, but does not lift the curse. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ash1taka falls in love with San and she with him.
Meanwhile the boar spirits mount an attack on the humans. In reprisal Lady Eboshi sets out to kill the Forest Spirit, believing this will guarantee human victory. Whilst she succeeds in killing the Forest Spirit, the plan backfires and only the return of the Spirits head returns the environment to equilibrium again.
My re-telling of the story here is simplistic, missing some of the depth and complexity of the original. Whilst, for example, the Lady Eboshi appears to be somewhat villainous in her treatment of the environment, she is no villain – having given jobs to lepers and prostitutes to save them from a worse fate. If anything this story shows that taking an extreme position is, ultimately, damaging and by the end both sides have to learn to live with each other in order to survive.
It’s a long movie, but well worth the watch though you may want to watch it a couple of times to truly get the gist of what’s going on.
2 – My Neighbour Totoro
Ah, this is a lovely movie. So heart-warming and sweet. My Neighbour Totoro is a story of two girls: Satsuki and Mei, who move to the countryside with their father to be closer to their mother who is recuperating from an illness in hospital. As soon as the children arrive they are greeted by the ‘soot sprites’ and so enter a world of spirits, magic and otherworldliness.
One day, whilst the younger girl Mei is playing outside, she follows some ears in the grass, which lead her to the lair of Totoro. Totoro has to be one of the cutest spirits around, a big fat furry bunny-like creature with a wide smile and innocent outlook.
Mei and Satsuki befriend Totoro and his other spirit friends, which comes in handy Mei goes missing and Totoro calls out the cat-bus to help in the search.
The thing about My Neighbour Totoro is that not a great deal happens in it! But it is beautifully animated, and the storyline is packed with the emotions of childhood and innocence, family and friendship, simplicity and respect. I challenge you not to be charmed by it!!!
1 – Spirited Away
Spirited Away has got just about everything Studio Ghibli can offer wrapped up in one weird package. Many common elements of Studio Ghibli appear here: spirits, magic, evil witches and lost children, but it’s just got that oomph which makes it the top choice for me.
Our story starts with Chihiro and her parents taking a wrong turn when looking for their new house. They happen across a disused funfair and, in the spirit of adventure, stop to take a look around. Chihiro finds the area unsettling and asks to go back, but her parents ignore her, especially when the restaurants open. With no one around, her parents tuck in. Whilst her parents are eating Chihiro meets a boy, Haku, who appears to know her. When she goes back to her parents she finds that the food was enchanted and they had turned into pigs! Chihiro is alone. She tries to go back to the car but finds the way barred by a river. Spirits begin to roam around her.
Haku comes to her rescue, telling her she must go and visit the witch Yubaba and ask her for a job. Chihiro does this, meeting in the process the boiler-room master Kumaji and a servant named Lin, who become her friends. And of course, there are soot sprites!!
Chihiro manages to convince Yubaba to give her a job, but must give up her name in return tying her to Yubaba for all eternity. She becomes Sen, and is sent to work in the bathhouse. In the course of working in the bathhouse Sen gains the affection of a dangerous spirit called ‘No Face’ who attempts to consume everything in his path, and a ‘stink spirit’ which turns out to be a heavily polluted river spirit. She also discovers that Haku’s true form is that of a dragon and that he too is in Yubaba’s service.
When Haku is badly injured and apparently under a curse, Sen travels across the country to visit Yubaba’s sister, Zeniba who she believes is responsible for Haku’s condition. She takes with her Yubaba’s infant son (a giant baby which has been turned into a mouse) and the spirit No Face. She finds, however, that Zeniba is not responsible for Haku’s condition, Yubaba is, and that Sen has broken the curse with her love. Haku returns to take Sen back to the bathhouse, and during the journey back Sen remembers where she had seen him before, and in recalling his true form (as a river spirit) releases him from his spell.
With Haku’s help Sen is able to save her parents and escape, becoming Chihiro again.
Spirited Away is an entrancing story, beautifully animated with wonderful characters. At times you may feel that you’ve entered a bizarre world, but the story is so compelling, the characters so real, that you’re happy to be there, carried along for the ride.
If you decide to watch, enjoy