Posts Tagged ‘Hiromasa Yonebayashi’

Never mind your Schrodinger’s Cat, if you really want to talk about indeterminacy, we need to get onto the topic of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s retirement. As previously noted on this blog, the announcement, after the production of The Wind Rises, that Miyazaki was knocking film direction on the head due to his advanced years was met with a howl of anguish from world-cinema-friendly theatres which was matched only by that marking the release of – allegedly – the final Ghibli film of any kind, When Marnie Was There, in 2016.

And yet what gives? Not only did a Ghibli co-production sneak out last year (the bold human-chelonian romance The Red Turtle), but now Miyazaki has decided he hasn’t actually retired after all and is hoping to get a new movie, How Do You Live?, finished in time for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Perhaps most confuzzling of all is the appearance on the scene of the new Japanese animation house Studio Ponoc, which appears to be largely staffed by former employees of Studio Ghibli.

Studio Ponoc’s first movie is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of When Marnie Was There and key contributor to a couple of other recent films), and I don’t think it’s overstating the case that the new movie is coat-tailing Ghibli in order to secure the kind of major international release not normally received by the debut movies of non-Anglophone animation houses. The Ghibli influence begins with the choice of source material: in this case, a 1971 novel by the noted English writer Mary Stewart, although the title has been changed from The Little Broomstick, possibly to make it just a little bit more reminiscent of another series of films and books (we will come to this).

We are in fairly classic territory here, anyway – one of the characters wears a hoodie, another is rocking a baseball cap, but there is virtually nothing in the story that would be out of place if the film was actually set fifty years ago. The Mary of the title is a lonely and restless young girl (voiced in the English dub by Ruby Barnhill) who has just been sent to the country to live with her great-aunt (a perhaps unexpected but by no means unwelcome appearance by Lynda Baron of Open All Hours fame). Left to her own devices, one day she wanders off into the woods and makes a couple of surprising discoveries: a mysterious glowing plant, and an old broomstick.

Yup, we are off into a child-friendly tale of rather traditionally-conceived magic and mysticism, for Mary finds that the plant charges her with supernatural power, and the broom whisks her off into another world and deposits her at the Endor School for witches and warlocks. Here she is greeted by the head teacher, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), and her deputy Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who hail her as a prodigy amongst young witches, a shoo-in as a new student, a potential head girl, and so on. But do the duo have an ulterior motive for delivering such fulsome praise? And does Mary’s own family have a connection to the history of the witch school…?

I remember first seeing the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower and the feeling of bafflement it immediately provoked: the look of the thing is, at first glance, so utterly indistinguishable from an actual Studio Ghibli movie that you wonder what the point of the rebranding is. Never mind Studio Ponoc, they might as well have called it Studio Jubbly or Studio Giblet. Of course, the upside of this is that Ghibli make the most beautiful traditionally-animated movies in the world, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is also an exceptionally good-looking film. Perhaps it isn’t quite as exquisite as some of Ghibli’s films, and there are a couple of moments where I thought a little more fine detail wouldn’t have gone amiss, but this is still very much business as usual, in a good way.

The question is to what extent this is also true in the story department, for once again you could be forgiven for finding a fair bit of the story to be, well, not exactly burningly innovative. A school for witches and warlocks? With a menagerie of magical beasts? And a lovably Scottish-sounding member of the support staff? To which a lonely child finds themselves transported? Fair enough, they’ve covered themselves by basing the movie on a book which was published when JK Rowling was still quite tiny herself, but it still seems very much like they’re gunning for that lucrative audience hungry for all things which are just a little bit Potter.

I’m not familiar with the Mary Stewart novel, but the script of this movie at least is not really in the same league as those in the other franchise to which I have been alluding. This feels like a movie specifically aimed at quite a young audience, with thin characterisation and a very straightforward story, and in the early stages in particular it ambles along at an amiable pace without a great deal of incident. I found myself in genuine danger of actually falling asleep during the film at one point in the middle; I did go to see an afternoon showing towards the end of a fairly long week, but even so, I don’t think this is a good sign.

I am glad to be able to report that the story does pick up a bit as the film builds towards its climax, with some very engaging sequences: visually it gets very interesting, with a definite steampunk feel to some of fantastical alchemical equipment on display, and also a lot of the… do you know, I very nearly wrote ‘trademark Ghibli surreal grotesqueness on display’. Well, it’s true, this movie does make use of the Ghibli house style – it’s just not a Ghibli movie, officially at least. But the thing is that I don’t believe the change of marque is really going to fool anyone. This is a nice, well-made, inoffensive kid’s animation – I’m not sure it really holds as much for the discerning adult filmgoer as the average Miyazaki movie. What makes it distinctive are its attempts to not be distinctive at all: to emulate pretty much every detail of the Studio Ghibli style of film-making, along with a fair few elements of JK Rowling’s famous stories too. Not a bad film at all, but essentially the cinematic equivalent of high-class karaoke.

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Alarm and consternation has gripped the organisers of populist-yet-slightly-art-housey film retrospectives across the land – can it really be true? Say it isn’t so! How can a benevolent supreme being countenance such a thing? Yes, if the rumours are true, Japan’s Studio Ghibli is ceasing operations. Considering that Ghibli’s top wasabi Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement, this shouldn’t necessarily come as a huge shock, but on the other hand there’s (presumably) only so many times you can mount revivals of My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and all the other crowd-pleasers without having the convenient hook of a new Ghibli movie to hang them on.

But here it is, the (possibly) final film under the Studio Ghibli marque, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There (J-title: Omoide no Mani, or Memories of Marnie). This is not the story of someone thinking back to the days when their local cinema was showing a problematic Hitchcock psycho-melodrama with Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery, but a rather more nuanced story. Quite who it’s going to play to other than die-hard Ghibli fanatics I’m not entirely sure, but anyway.


This is the story of Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki), a troubled young girl living in Sapporo, Japan. Suffering badly from asthma, amongst other things, her adoptive parents decide to send her to live with their relatives in the remote countryside, in a (fairly) idyllic lakeside village.

However, on her arrival Anna finds herself inexplicably drawn to the Marsh House, a luxurious mansion now falling somewhat into disrepair. Despite this, she sees there is a young fair-haired girl of around her own age living there, and the two become friends. The other girl is Marnie (Kasumi Arimura). Anna comes to realise that Marnie has troubles in her own life, and that perhaps the strange connection they feel may end up helping both of them…

Now, you’re a smart and intelligent individual, questionable taste in online film criticism excepted, and you may well be wondering exactly why a Japanese animation would choose to name its two main characters Anna and Marnie: common names in the land at the root of the sun these are not. Well, the answer, which you may have already surmised, is that once again Studio Ghibli has looked beyond Japan for its source material. As with Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales of Earthsea, and Arrietty, When Marnie Was There is based on an English-language novel – an actual English one in this case, written by Joan G Robinson and apparently much acclaimed (not that I’ve ever actually heard of it, of course). Transferring the story from the UK to Japan has been done fairly seamlessly, the odd thing with the names aside – the wilds of Norfolk become the remote countryside of Hokkaido with the greatest of ease.

Actually, realising that this was based on an English novel set in Norfolk almost helped me figure out why When Marnie Was There seemed a little familiar: there’s the troubled visitor from the city, a delapidated and often inaccessible house out in the marshlands, a definite undercurrent of loneliness and desperation, a strong flavour of the supernatural… That said, while I suppose you could show When Marnie Was There in a double bill with The Woman In Black and the two would synergise quite nicely with each other, this is an altogether gentler and less disturbing piece with considerably fewer untimely deaths in it.

Which is not to say this is one to dump the tinies in front of while you slide off to grab a breather somewhere: from the very start, it is clear that this is a film concerned with serious, quite dark themes. Alienation, loneliness, depression, loss – all of these are central to the story and subtly woven into the narrative with the Ghibli writers’ customary skill. Is it heavy going for a bit? Well, perhaps, but you almost expect a challenging narrative from this studio – this is actually quite lightweight compared to some of their past projects – and the conclusion of the story is ultimately a positive one. This is a ghost story where the past is embodied not as a monster seeking to wreak vengeance, but as a source of answers and understanding.

By western standards the story does feel a little unfocused – is there supposed to be a big moment of revelation when we discover one of the characters is a ghost? It doesn’t feel like it, plus the audience would really have to be very slow not to guess the film’s final revelation long before it’s made – and perhaps also lacking in incident. But set against this there is the usual Ghibli mastery of form – these people do make the most beautiful animated films in the world. Even then, I did feel there wasn’t a whole lot going on here I hadn’t seen before – there’s the bit where the wind stirs the long grass, the incredibly busy and detailed crowd scenes, the loving depictions of meals being prepared and consumed – all of it meticulously done, but somehow lacking in the visionary touch of the fantastic that marks out their best films.

When Marnie Was There is beautiful to look at, of course, and laden with all the essential storytelling virtues, of course. No-one could accuse Studio Ghibli of departing with a sub-standard production. But at the same time this is solid rather than anything really special – it’s easy on the eye, and passes the time very pleasantly. It’s just not truly exceptional in the way the studio’s work has so often been in the past.

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Not being the owner of children does free me up to visit the cinema with the frequency to which I am accustomed, but it also inevitably impacts on the types of film I usually go to see. This is why regular readers will not be living in fear and trembling of my starting to wiffle on about Cars 2 or The Smurfs, for example. However, I have nothing against the idea of young people going to the cinema (as long as they keep their damn mouths shut if they’re there at the same time as me) and I’m all in favour of them being given high-quality films to enjoy while they’re there.

A well-made children’s film is self-evidently also going to be a well-made film, and I’m always interested in seeing one of those. Into this category we may place Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Arrietty, the latest production of the revered Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. This movie is based on Mary Norton’s much-loved series of Borrowers books (already previously adapted for film and TV in live-action).

The title character, Arrietty, is a Borrower herself. The Borrowers are, basically, little people (just about the right size to fit in a hot dog bun), who live secretly in the houses of human beings. They scavenge all their requirements from the property of their oblivious hosts, something they slightly euphemistically refer to as ‘Borrowing’. (I would have expected outrage from the Daily Mail about the exploits of a clan of unemployed light-fingered squatters being the focus of a children’s animation, but the fact the Borrowers don’t appear to claim benefits may have helped their cause somewhat.)

Arrietty is fourteen, just about the age when she has to learn how to Borrow properly herself, and so she accompanies her father into the vast interior of the house in which they live. Things do not go according to plan and Arrietty finds herself developing an unlikely friendship with a lonely human boy staying in the house. However, the code of the Borrowers insists they avoid all contact with humans, and Arrietty finds herself torn between her new friendship and the wellbeing of her family.

To be honest, not an enormous amount happens in terms of plot in Arrietty, but this doesn’t stop the film being almost irresistibly charming, and beautiful to look at too. The skill and attention to detail of the Ghibli animators is unparallelled in the world today, and their work (coupled to a very sweetly melodic soundtrack) basically had me smiling like a dope from the start of the film to the end.

Given this is a film originally made for the domestic Japanese market, it’s not entirely surprising that Studio Ghibli have opted to relocate the story from a timeless Britain to contemporary Japan, but apart from this there are very few signs of them having done serious violence to the source material. An environmentally-friendly angle has been inserted, not terribly subtly (but then Borrowers probably are an endangered species), and there are a few scenes with Studio Ghibli’s trademark gribbly creatures, but the whole thing hangs together very well. It’s a real pleasure to see not just a hand-drawn animation, but one which doesn’t feel the requirement to be all arch and knowing and work on a number of levels and engage in film and TV pastiches.

Instead, it relies on the classic storytelling virtues of character and plot and atmosphere. This may not prove to be an absolute timeless classic like other Ghibli productions such as Spirited Away or Mononoke, but at the same time there’s very little that’s obviously wrong with it. I could complain that the ending of the film doesn’t seem to have much connection with its climax, and almost seems unnecessarily downbeat, but this is really very minor stuff compared to all the good things happening in this movie. A film I hope to be sliding a DVD of into my niece’s Christmas stocking in a few years’ time, and I can’t think of much higher recommendation than that.

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