tanukis, gatling guns and nostalgia:

   STUDIO GHIBLI AT
   THE JACOB BURNS FILM CENTER: PART 1.

christopher funderburg
8/23/12

When John B. Cribbs and I started up this website several years ago, one of my first and simplest ideas was to write about all repertory series John and I attended on regular basis. Since for a decade John and I had been haunting venues like Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, BAM, MoMA and the Anthology Film Archives and ingesting large chunks of their obscurity-and-completism focused programming, I assumed it would be fertile ground for us to work with. After all, what could simpler than going to see a dozen Anthony Mann films and writing a couple hundred words about them? Wasn't I going to go see a bunch of films in the Chabrol series anyway? It would also be a good opportunity to work in articles about filmmakers like Hollis Frampton whose films are hard to feature our usual circulation. The first example of us putting this idea into action can be found in my writing about the Nicolas Ray series at Film Forum. I went to 8 films in 2 weeks and those screenings formed the basis for my Second Chances piece on the beloved monocular auteur.  

But then we both got married and had kids within a year of forming the site. My wife didn't love me disappearing to the movies on my own every night and while she enjoyed Company Limited and The Music Room, she balked when I suggested going to a third Satyajit Ray film in three days. When my son Parker came along, forget it - I'm lucky to go out to the movies twice a month. The majority of the films I see now in the theater are through my work, either distributor previews in one of the tiny, comfy industry screening rooms in Manhattan or in the theater for which I'm the programmer: The Jacob Burns Film Center. There's a small nagging part of me that feels this intro is necessary because I really don't want this piece to come across as JBFC boosterism and self-congratulatory "look at the awesome work we do!" bragging. But I don't have any real opportunity to write the kind of expansive repertory survey pieces that I assumed would be a hallmark of the Pink Smoke. Truthfully, I'm excited to write about rarities and curios and there's not always a clear or interesting way to highlight those films on the site - I frequently don't have a whole article in me about, say, This Man Must Die, but it still would be nice to discuss it some. The same thing goes House of Bamboo, The Adventures of Goopy and Bagha and The Magellan Cycle; worth discussing, but damned have enough to say about them on their own. This "Ghibli at the JBFC" piece is all about resetting my steez, writing about a filmmaker/studio I love and not jamming that writing into any of our pre-existing frameworks.

So on to Miyzaki! Well, not actually Miyazaki, but the movie studio founded by legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyzakai and his equally talented but far less legendary co-founder Isao Takahata. As the distributors of the new 35mm prints of this dozen and a half or so films made abundantly clear: this is not a Miyazaki series. It should not be promoted as a Miyazaki series and Miyazaki should never be mentioned in promotional material without an equal emphasis on his partner Takahata. That's actually fair - in many ways Takahata is the more adventurous and experimental of the duo but his reputation is dwarfed in the U.S. by his more straight ahead colleague. In fact, one of the reasons Miyazaki made the break-through to the U.S. more quickly is that many of his films are extremely appealing to our domestic Anime-loving community. Films like Princess Mononoke and Lupin the 3rd embody the "too violent and unsettling for kids, but not really for adults" genre of Japanese animation to which that subculture tends to flock. Part of the reason, in fact, I'm excited to write about Studio Ghibli is that very little has been written about these films in the U.S. beyond the subculture's championing on the work. No offense intended to those folks, but any subculture has a tendency to work work in terms of the subculture with an analytical framework derived from a set of ideas and tastes likely not entirely shared/understood by a more general audience. Even the sharpest, least boobie-centric writing on Ghibli has a tendency to be written by connoisseurs for other connoisseurs. Fair or not fair to one of greatest artists the medium of le cinema has produced, very little general (cinephile) audience criticism has been written about his work. And Takahata is even more neglected.

I plan to use this opportunity to catch up on films I've never seen and revisit some of his all-time classics. The program we're presenting actually has an unbelievably wide variety of styles and stories: from an aggressively weird fable like Pom Poko to the scrawled minimalism of My Neighbors the Yamadas to stone-cold brilliant fantasias like Spirited Away. I'm going to place special emphasis on taking in Takahata's work as I'll freely admit I'm not nearly as familiar with his film as I am with Miyazaki, whose classics Howl's Moving Castle, Ponyo and My Neighbor Totoro I've seen dozens of times (I mentioned I have a two and a half year old son, right?) I hope to get to 9 or 10 of the films during the 3 week long series. I'm not sure I'll have so much searing insight to share about a little-loved cash-in sequel like The Cat Returns or a school-boy young love drama like Ocean Waves, but I'm happy to have the opportunity to put some thoughts down and share them you, my friends. In the spirit of the recently released Sight and Sound Top 10 list, In the back of my mind I'll be considering the exact magnitude of Miyazaki's greatness and trying to decide if he's merely one of the greatest animators in the history of le cinema or truly as good a filmmaker as has ever lived. Pixar, classic Disney or Ghibli? It's a time-honored question, an important evaluation, a crucible to which every giant dork must be subjected in order to become a man and forge a final identity. Or just a nice idle little thing to think about. Let's get down to!

 

    CASTLE IN THE SKY

Now this is a great one to start with. Not only was Castle in the Sky the first film produced by Studio Ghibli, it highlights almost all of Miyazaki's recurring obsessions and is commonly considered to rank among his very best (if it is not rated as his very best.)  This is a film that will kick your ass up and down the street, the block, the ave' whatever. With their independent debut, director Miyazaki and producer Takahata had to the opportunity forge a distinct identity for Studio Ghibli so they laid out the platonic ideal of a Miyazaki film: fantastical, action-packed, visually stunning, filled with memorable details, emotionally engaging, fanciful mechanical creations, wondrous creature design and abiding environmental concerns. The twisty story concerns a mysterious treasure-filled stronghold, a princess kidnapped alternately by raucous pirates and shady government operatives and a boy who wants to vindicate his father's legacy. It opens with a rip-roaring raid on a luxury airship by the shotgun and smoke-bomb wielding pirates during which gunfights occur in narrow corridors, the gatling guns get whipped out and the princess seemingly falls to her death.* Castle in the Sky presaged Miyazaki's future as the greatest animator in the history of Japan and gave definition to Ghibli as a brand. One of Miyazaki's biggest obsessions, whimsical vehicles given detailed attention to their design and function, is in full force here. Miyazaki has intense affection for aeronautics and cthe  airships, blimps, hang-gilders and "flaptors" features in Castle are so totally thought-out in terms of their mechanics that you have no reason to believe that if they existed in real life, they wouldn't float and curve and swoop exactly as depicted in the film. The name "Ghibli" even comes from an Arabic word for the Mediterranean wind that the Italian airforce named one of their swiftest planes after. Castle in the Sky's plot concerns air-pirates, airborne explorers, the air force and the titular seemingly-mythical paradise, so Miyazaki has ample opportunity to show off his talent for gunships and proto-helicopters. The pirates' rooster-headed, ruddered blimp represents a perfect combination of Miyazaki's ability to blend the fanciful (a rooster head) with the plausible (a blimp guided by twirling propellers and a large rudder.) The sheer imagination and ingenuity on display in these designs would alone be reason enough to make Castle worth checking out - the heart-stopping action sequences and compelling mythology of the world are just bonus. Miyazaki's over-riding philosophical concern also finds its most straightforward expression in Castle: the evil of man set against the purity and awe-fulness of nature. The film climaxes in a decaying paradise, an unimaginably technology-advanced wonderland inexplicably gone to seed. No humans remain, the throne rooms and expansive plazas overgrown in a massive tangle of roots and flowers and furry critters that scurry away at the first sound. A lonely automaton tends to the gravesite in the center of the castle, leaving fresh flowers every day. But he has also been befriended by the animals; he cares for them as well, moving our heros' downed glider away from a bird's nest and allowing adorable fox-like creatures to nestle on his shoulder. He's covered with a thin coating of moss and seemingly the last of his kind. It's a beautifully strange depiction of the harmonious intersection of technology and nature; a collapsed utopia devoid of humanity, a gentle utopia because it is devoid of humanity.

The possibility of technology and nature functioning in harmony - this seems like the most stereotypical "Japanese" quality to Miyazaki's work. Japanese culture's enthusiasm for technological development is well documented, but frequently over-looked is its tradition of harmony with nature - those two cultural traits frequently come together in surprising ways. Because of its large population on a relatively small island, nature in Japan has always been mediated and sculpted by humanity, not just in their famous bonsai trees, but in their traditional architecture and love of manufactured natural beauty like golf courses. In comparison to the over-whelming wild of the United States, its acres of woodland and snarls of impenetrable growth, nature in Japan more frequently manifests in controlled circumstances like koi ponds - it's a country of gardeners, not outdoorsmen. This is all stereotypical, of course, and I don't intend to romanticize either quality, even though Miyazaki does - again this yearning to reconcile the majesty of the natural world with the excitement and promise new technology finds him at his most "Japanese." I mention this because, in general, Miyazaki exhibits a great connection to Western culture - Castle in the Sky immediately recalls not only a preceding film in Lupin the 3rd, but his later works Porco Rosso and Howl's Moving Castle. Both Lupin and Howl's are based on deeply Western literary sources: Lupin on an enduring French thief anti-hero and Howl's on a British children's book. Porco concerns dog-fighters and air pirates designed with a WWI-era aesthetic. The overall design of these films resembles a steam-punk early (20th) century British style - the villains in both Castle and Lupin even both sport the same burgundy jacket with yellow ascot "fashionable aristocrat so you know he's bad" look. Even a less apparently related film in Kiki's Delivery Service has its locations based on Stockholm and Visby. The bad guys in  these films are all bowler hats and sharp suits, the working class characters in suspenders, corduroy pants and floppy hats. There's also more than a few bushy mustaches to found as well as chubby red-haired matrons and blonde-haired, blue-eyed musclemen alike throwing their weight around. These films take place in some time-indistinct Western European fantasy land where magic, dirigibles, princesses and gatling guns coexist comfortably. Even though Lupin opens with a casino heist, its story mainly concerns a princess, an evil archduke and a forbidding castle. The magic, military and technology of Western mythology captures Miyazaki's imagination they way myths of samurai, ninjas and dragons capture our imagination. Even the floating castle's official name "Laputa" comes from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, a fundamentally British-down-to-the-bone allegory from one of Western Europe's most legendary fantasists.

Howl's Castle, Porco and Lupin are mythic visions of a foreign culture informed by reality but pointedly divorced from history. When the villain in Castle in the Sky mention Sodom and Gomorrah it's jarring - you mean this is supposed to be taking place in our world? But to a Japanese man, I suspect the bible plays like one more fantastic tale from an alien culture, the way Japanese stories of demons and damnation play to American audiences as pure fantasy. The similarities to Howl's Moving Castle don't end there. As I mentioned, both films take place in an imaginary pseudo-England, Howl's naturally because of its British source material. Strangely, Miyazaki must have been thinking of the Diane Wynne Jones novels when he made Castle in the Sky as the sequel to Howl's Moving Castle is called Castle in the Air (although Miyazaki's similarly titled film borrows none of the plot of that book.) And obviously, both films revolve around a bizarre mobile fortress. There are many small touches that reflect off of each other: both films feature a corpulent, domineering granny who skirts the line between ally and villain. Both films follow an isolated princess/prince who simply doesn't want to get caught up in the conflict swirling around her. Even the design of Castle's "flaptors" - essentially a flying chariot body with buzzing insect-like wings - makes a return in a somewhat sleeker form in Howl's. Although it is a common trope for fantasy films, both film feature an innocent working class nobody who gets drawn into a web of magic and mystery - that both innocents are teenagers on the verge of adulthood could almost go without saying. I don't point out the similarities between the films to make the case that either one is unoriginal (the opposite is true) just to further my case that Castle really represents the essence of Ghibli in a lot of ways. Miyazaki undoubtedly has made films very different from Castle - the idyllic, beloved My Neighbor Totoro being the prime counter-example - but Castle and Howl's shared disgust with militarism, love of natural beauty, comparable plots and similar vehicle/location designs illustrate the consistency of Miyazaki's vision as a director. Ghibli built its reputation on Miyazaki's personality and that personality is revealed in sharp definition in Castle in the Sky. Thrilling action sequences, fantasy, environmentalism, awesome vehicles: they you go, there's your Miyazaki.

While Miyazaki is a genius, there's something we've got to talk about, me and you. There's no getting around it and not mentioning it would be a little disingenuous. These films are Japanese. Japanese. Do you see where I'm going with this? In my review of Ghibli's recent From Up on Poppy Hill (directed by Hayao's son Goro) I mentioned that it was hard to fully embrace the nostalgic, warm-hearted realism of the film because the plot hinged on the the threat of incest. I paraphrased Errol Morris to say that if you put a little of that flavor in your gazpacho and it suddenly becomes cold incest soup. The possibility of incest looms over an otherwise sweet, funny reminiscence of growing up in Japan - it's not even really necessary to the plot in a lot of ways - and the choice of a plot device so disturbing throws the movie off balance. What I'm getting at in a more general sense right now is that these films are Japanese and have a tendency to live up to some of the worse stereotypes of Japanese culture. They can be a little perv-y is what I'm saying. A little creepy with their treatment of sexuality and puerile in their leering enthusiasm for low-brow body function humor. This really unfortunately tendency rears its head in Castle in the Sky as well. Watching the film I assumed the main working class lad and the lost princess with whom he teams up were 11 or 12 years old. Their character designs depict them as tiny; they're roughly half the size of the strapping miners, rifle-wielding soldiers and muscular air pirates surrounding them. They have high-pitched childish voices. The princess is drawn as a child with no womanly curves (which, again, this is Japan so you wouldn't expect them to pass up drawing that stuff up.) Halfway through the film, the bumbling, goofball air pirates are told that the princess is similar to their mother, the head pirate - a tubby, witch-faced, quick-to-temper granny. Almost instantly, the pirates begin obsessing over how the princess will grow up to be like their mom and start attempting to romance and seduce her in various ways. Remember, until that point, I had been assuming she was 12. And then a gaggle of full-grown criminals begin leering and drooling all over her, attempting to earn her womanly (girly) affections. It's creepy on that obvious level of pedophilic desire, but also in the shadow of their shared hysterical Oedipal complex that makes them instantly fall all over themselves to romance the young girl because she's like mommy.  I guess you could be generous and say the girl is supposed to be 15 and accuse them of ephebophilia, but the whole unnecessary subplot (it goes nowhere) wafts over the film like a stale, yucky cloud. It is, of course, played for laughs (and not a source of dramatic tension as the sexual creepiness was in Poppy Hill) but it's distracting enough that you couldn't reasonably call Castle a flawless film.  It might actually be the worst example of this sort of thing in all of Miyazaki's films, but that sort of off-putting secondary material definitely runs throughout Ghibli's output.**  

I don't want to end my discussion of Castle in the Sky on a discussion of some of its lesser, nearly insignificant elements. I would like to attempt to describe a little bit of what makes Miyazaki so special and singular, even compared to his extremely talented fellow directors at Studio Ghibli. I think more than any animator of whom I'm aware (apart from Jan Svankmajer or Pixar), Miyazaki's attention to tiny details is unmatched. It's not just the elegancy of the animation itself (which surpasses all but the finest films in the medium) but the small, meaningless moments that give his worlds a depth and texture beyond what's revealed simply through his plots. For example, early in the film, our boy hero play a wake-up revely for his mountain town. He stands atop his roof and belts out a tune on his trumpet. Not only is the wake-up song a nice throw-away moment in and of itself, but Miyazaki has the boy begin the song, play one note and then reset himself. He licks his lips, adjusts his instrument and starts over. It's an evocative moment with no narrative or character value. Just one of life's little things that's true and somehow powerful without having any concrete meaning. His films are full of such rich details that give his mythical worlds an expansive feel. In Castle alone, I can think of a half dozen small touches that add nothing, but are crucial. When the boy returns to his mining town after a prolonged absence, his boss's daughter (toddler with a shock of red hair) chases a piglet out of their house with a broom. That's our reintroduction to the town: a piglet chase away by a toddler with a broom. It's cute and funny and true in a way that's somehow imprecise, its value linked to its imprecision. That's not to say all of Miyazaki's details function in that way - frequently he offers small, pointed touches that reinforce and expand what we are know or are feeling. The aforementioned Oedipal complex gets a nod in the form of a background portrait of the pirate granny as a young girl. Her wild braids resemble the princess' and her profile in the portrait pointedly evokes the girl's - we get a winking confirmation of "yes, these women are that similar." Similarly, moss grows on the shoulders of the ancient robot tending to the animals and gardens of Laputa*** - that vegetal growth quickly conveying both the ancientness and tranquility of the airborne palace, but also the robot's deep connection to the natural world surrounding it. I could go on all day - the film is packed with gestures and it's a testament to Miyazaki's artistry how much depth there is to his worlds, depth both massive and awe-inspiring as well as minor and irrelevant. Words like "excitement" and "wonder" are de rigeur in any discussion of the man and his films, but for once those descriptions seem inadequate, falling short of just how awesomely Miyazaki cultivates his cinematic gardens. If Castle in the Sky isn't his masterpiece, it's because he only makes masterpieces.  

* This is what I mean by the "too violent for kids, but not really for adults" aesthetic that runs through of a portion of Miyazaki's work. When the princess fell from the side of the ship and disappeared through the clouds, the 8 year-old girl behind me asked her mom in a  tremulous tone "did she die?" And mom, who hadn't seen the film replied, "I don't know. I just don't know." The opening features large caliber revolvers, an explosive firefight and a little girl plummeting off the side of the ship, presumably to her death. That's just the first five minutes.

** Again, this stuff is another reason one might hesitate to expose small children to Ghibli's work. And why Anime fans love it. Sorry for the negative characterization Anime aficionados, but you did it to yourselves.

*** "Laputa" means "the whore" in Spanish. My wife had trouble getting over this. She couldn't believe it wasn't intentional.

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