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Posts Tagged ‘Studio Ghibli’

The half-term school holiday is upon us once more, here in the UK, with the attendant jostling for space by films eager to snap up all that extra potential trade. Pole position is naturally held by the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I note that Warner Brothers are wheeling out Wonder Woman this coming Thursday in order to take advantage of the last few days of the week. And, of course, there is the potential for counter-programming, which as far as family films go means smaller, quieter, more reserved fare, not backed by major corporations or fast-food tie-ins, films which the most bien-pensant sandal-wearing parents can take their tinies to see, even if those tinies are as yet too young to even understand a phrase as simple as ‘Stop kicking the back of my seat,’ even when it is said to them many, many times.

Doing quite well in my neck of the woods with this cute-but-exasperating crowd is Michael Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle, which is an animated Belgian-Japanese co-production (yes, I know what you’re thinking: oh no, not another one). The size and prominence of The Red Turtle‘s release is almost certainly due to the fact that the Japanese end of the deal is being handled by the legendary Studio Ghibli, beloved by art-house cinema proprietors up and down the country.

I have to say that for an organisation which announced it was ceasing operations nearly three years ago, Studio Ghibli is still cranking out movies with impressive frequency (although I understand this may be due to reports of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement proving to be exaggerated). Apparently, in this case, it was the Ghibli team who sought out Dudok de Wit with a view to collaborating, Miyazaki himself being impressed by one of his short films. Now that’s what I call getting the nod.

The Red Turtle is another one of those films seeking to get round the obstacle of not being made in English by not bothering to include any dialogue whatsoever – also known in these parts as the ‘boom-bang-a-bang’ theory of international cinema. The story, naturally enough, is a relatively simple one: the movie opens with a spectacular storm out at sea, at the heart of which a castaway is struggling to survive. Survive he does, and pitches up on a reasonably well-appointed desert island.

Having explored his new home and collected himself, the man decides to take his chances on a bid to return to civilisation, and builds himself a raft. However, shortly after leaving the island, he finds his fragile vessel deliberately smashed to pieces by an unseen force. This happens repeatedly, and our hero eventually discovers that the culprit is a large turtle of an unusual crimson hue. Angry and frustrated, the man returns to the island, and when one day he happens upon the turtle making its laborious way up the beach, he decides to eliminate the vindictive beast and the menace it poses to his liberty…

Now, here the story takes a rather startling and unpredictable left turn – unpredictable to anyone who isn’t a dyed in the wool fan of Ghibli movies, anyway. A lot of Ghibli movies look a bit trippy, in their own gorgeous way, but what it’s easy to forget is just how weird the stories virtually always are. Never mind being forced to work in a sauna for ghosts, there are films about juvenile starvation, aviation design, odd things you find in the bamboo, possible cases of sibling attraction syndrome, family ghost stories: the list goes on and on. Despite the fact it’s a co-production, the story of The Red Turtle stays proudly true to its Ghibli heritage by suddenly becoming exceedingly odd: the man and the turtle fall in love with each other.

This is not a euphemism or a metaphor or anything like that: the man and the turtle end up having a baby together (this sequence is quite delicately handled by the animators, thank God) – suffice to say the manly charms of our hero are sufficient to bring the turtle out of her shell (thanks everybody, I’m here all week). What can I say? I thought Gamera: Incomplete Struggle was the weirdest Japanese movie about a turtle with unusual faculties that I was ever likely to see, but of course I had reckoned without the supreme eccentricity of the Studio Ghibli script department.

Well, the story may be rather bizarre (and then some), but this is still a stunningly beautiful piece of animation. Quite what the Belgian creators are bringing to the mix is a little unclear – although I have to say all the human characters do look rather like Tintin the boy reporter – as this looks very much like any other Ghibli production you care to mention, incredibly naturalistic but also extremely beautiful and effortlessly charming (there are some very endearing crabs in this movie).

This is not some anthropomorphic fantasy, but a more measured piece about – I expect – the circle of life and the place of humanity in the world. There’s also a bit where someone nearly throws up while skinning a seal, which you don’t get in your typical Pixar movie. Does the story seem deceptively simple or is this just one of those movies which is operating on a number of levels? I’m not completely sure, but while I did find the story perhaps just a touch underpowered and by no means under-length at only 81 minutes, I found it very pleasant to watch throughout (once I’d recovered from how barking mad the central conceit is).

I suppose that in the end The Red Turtle is indeed a film which is a metaphor about life. You try to find your way through the turbulence of the world, perhaps a little haphazardly, and then you meet someone. You may not initially appreciate the connection you have with them. You may indeed find yourself moved to try and brain them with a chunk of wood and turn them into soup. But then the realisation dawns that you share a special bond, and one day the two of you slope off to some sleepy lagoon somewhere to fertilise some eggs together.  It’s the story H.P. Lovecraft would have written had he ever tried his hand at romantic fiction. Or maybe it’s just a metaphor suggesting that age-gap relationships can work out after all (turtles can live for over a century, after all). I’m not completely sure. This is an odd little film, but a superbly made and very relaxing one to watch.

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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.

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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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The announcement that the beloved (for once the word is entirely apposite) Japanese production house Studio Ghibli would be taking a short break from producing movies was, predictably, greeted with yelps of concern from Ghibli’s legions of fans. I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t some yelping from the proprietors of art-house cinemas and dedicated movie-only TV channels, too, for there seem to be few more reliable propositions than a Ghibli revival or a season.

Nevertheless, with the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the brief (or not so brief, who can say?) hiatus is almost upon us, with the studio’s last couple of full-length releases reaching the UK. The tendency is to treat Ghibli as something of a one-man – or one-family – operation, but other directors have always worked for the company, most prominently Isao Takahata, and it’s Takahata’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya which is currently on release.

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Takahata’s most famous film is probably the extraordinary full-throttle gloom-fest Grave of the Fireflies, and anyone familiar with that might be forgiven for approaching his other work with a degree of trepidation. However, Princess Kaguya is a rather more traditional piece of story-telling, based on a Japanese folktale.

It concerns an elderly bamboo-cutter who one day comes across a strange light emerging from a bamboo shoot. Investigating, he finds within a tiny girl in the robes of a princess, whom he naturally takes home to show his wife. The girl transforms into a rather more conventional infant, whom the couple decide to raise as their own, believing the strange circumstances of her discovery are a sign of the fate which the powers of heaven intend her to have.

The rapidly-growing girl makes friends among the local children, but soon enough she and her parents must move to the capital, where her education as a lady of substance begins. Her remarkable beauty and rumours of her other qualities soon leads to interest from the highest echelons of society, but – regardless of what heaven wants for Princess Kaguya – is it what she really wants for herself?

‘Distinctive’ is usually an understatement when it comes to a Ghibli movie: I always find it hard to review any of them without near-automatic recourse to words like ‘charming’, ‘meticulous’ and ‘breathtakingly beautiful’. Even within the canon, however, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is something a bit different – simply in terms of its sheer look. The whole film has a soft, almost hand-drawn look to it, as though it’s been made with either water-colours or pastels rather than more traditional methods of animation. I’ve never seen this approach used before on a long-form project, and it perhaps results in a slightly more stylised film, but it’s also one which is gorgeous to look at and very memorable.

Based as it is on a traditional story, the script for this movie doesn’t have the feel of having been written using a spreadsheet, as is sometimes the case with modern American animations. There is the usual Ghibli quirkiness, not to mention a few charmingly grotesque character designs, built into the film, and the whole thing has a flavour – and a few plot developments – that I can’t imagine any other production company having the confidence to take on.

The story has a somewhat episodic feel, opening with numerous sequences concerning Kaguya’s idyllic rural childhood, before covering her education in the big city and the antics of various suitors, before finally reaching a somewhat unexpected, but nevertheless deeply moving climax. I should mention that the overall tone is gently comic and perhaps a little sentimental, but – spoiler alert – no-one protractedly starves to death, and the guiding imperative of the film seems to be to entertain the audience rather than plunge them into a slough of despair.

Instead, the film deals subtly and gracefully with a number of classic themes, many of them the stuff of numerous folk tales, others more universal. Partly it is about the contrast between the carefree pleasures of childhood and the greater responsibilities of adult life, partly it is about regret and nostalgia, but it is also about what it means to live a good life – is it social and financial success, as Kaguya’s father seems to think? Or is it more about self-expression and emotional fulfilment? Running throughout all of this is a profound interest in the relationship between human society and the natural world, and the importance of living in harmony with the rhythms of nature. There is, as you can perhaps see, a lot going on here, but the film never feels overly busy or pretentious.

It is, in short, an extremely distinctive and accomplished film even by the soaringly high standards of the Ghibli marque, although it is such a departure from the style of the various Miyazaki films that I can’t imagine it instantly being universally adopted by every single devotee of the studio. It is the result of a singular artistic vision, with no sign of any compromise being made, and one executed to the highest of levels. Even if the film’s somewhat reserved and distinctive style makes it a little difficult to fully embrace, it is impossible not to admire and be impressed by it on almost every level.

 

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As one legend of Japanese cinema makes a long-awaited return to UK screens, another bids farewell: at least that’s what the publicity for Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises indicates, for this film is described as his ‘farewell masterpiece’. Even if we can’t be 100% sure about the ‘farewell’ part, the ‘masterpiece’ thing seems pretty much on the money. But then this is Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, and masterpieces are virtually their stock in trade. Beauty and charm, along with dazzling technical expertise, are what you expect from a Ghibli movie, even the ones dealing with somewhat off-the-wall subject matter (demon bathhouses, child starvation, and possible cases of genetic sexual attraction).

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It says something about how peculiar some of the Ghibli back catalogue is that a romantic social history of Japan between the two World Wars, focussing on the life story of the man who designed the Mitsubishi Zero (the all-metal fighter plane used by the Japanese navy to devastating effect in the early stages of the Pacific war), is a relatively straightforward choice of story by comparison. This is a heavily-fictionalised biography of the engineer in question, Jiro Horikoshi.

As a young boy in 1918, Jiro dreams of becoming a pilot, but his poor eyesight makes that impossible. Inspired by a dream in which he meets the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, he decides to become an aeronautical designer instead. The film follows him through university and his career with Mitsubishi, taking in major historical events like the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the great depression, as well as his relationship and ultimate marriage to his long-term sweetheart. The film also covers the rise of totalitarianism throughout the 1930s, both in Japan and Germany – the relationship between the two countries is, to some extent, dealt with in the film.

And, as usual, the artistic virtuosity on display throughout is simply jaw-dropping, including virtually photo-realistic backdrops and astonishingly intricate designs for characters and planes. Much of the time every inch of the screen is filled with colour and movement, and it is immaculately done – I’ve said this before, but I don’t think even the Disney company in the golden age of hand-drawn animation had the sheer level of expertise and attention to detail that the Ghibli animators routinely deploy. Nobody has ever made traditional animation better than this.

On paper the story does not sound especially engaging, but the actual film is very absorbing: quite apart from the sheer look of the film (which, as I believe I said, is gorgeous), the characters are appealing and the story is not without a certain fascination. Rather as in From Up On Poppy Hill, nostalgia for an older, unspoilt Japan is evident throughout The Wind Rises – there are numerous lovely landscapes, and everyone lives in beautiful traditional houses – but given that this is a film set in the 1920s and 1930s there is always a slightly ominous tone to the story. Every time Jiro or one of his colleagues vows to help Japan become a modern, technological country, a rival to Germany or America, you can’t help but be reminded that this is really not going to end well for the Japanese people.

It’s a mark of the film’s enormous subtlety that this point, though clearly intended, is never laboured or dwelt upon: in short, it treats the audience with intelligence (and, by the way, it’s clearly intended for a mature audience: probably not a movie to take your four-year-old to see). There’s also something very Japanese about the delicacy of the way in which it deals obliquely with some elements both of history and its own story. The climax is oddly obscure and understated, with a considerable amount left for the audience to surmise for themselves, while a post-War coda alludes to the terrible events which have occurred without addressing any of them in detail.

There is perhaps an issue with this, in that Jiro’s own responsibility as the designer of a warplane is never really addressed by the film. He is clearly a patriot, and a man interested in technical achievement for its own sake – ‘All I wanted to do was make something beautiful,’ is Jiro’s own comment – but to what extent does that excuse him from culpability, given his involvement with the Japanese war machine? Is there a greater responsibility than to nation and beauty? Again, it’s left for the audience to decide, but the difference here is that it’s a question that the film almost feels keen to evade.

Nevertheless, this is a minor issue given the achievement of the rest of the film on virtually every level. I saw the American dub, featuring the vocal talents of (amongst others) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, William H Macy and Werner Herzog, and all of them are fine, but the real strengths of this film are in the script and the realisation. This is a thought-provoking and beautiful film – and, yes, a masterpiece. I am actually rather astonished this film did not win the Best Animated Feature Oscar – perhaps it is just a little too mature and thoughtful for comfort. Either way, The Wind Rises is a superb film and a fitting conclusion to Miyazaki’s career.

 

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Hard to believe though it may seem, I am not globally respected and adored, and so my ability to put myself in the place of anyone who is is therefore somewhat compromised. However, it’s impossible not to imagine that being so loved has some effect on you – whether that effect is simple complacency or something rather more eccentric.

Everyone loves Studio Ghibli, and with good reason: with Disney and the other American studios long since having abandoned traditional hand-drawn animation, the Japanese production house is fighting a spectacular rearguard on behalf of the form. They make the best hand-drawn animated features in the world. (They make virtually the only hand-drawn features in the world that anyone pays any attention to, but even so.)

And yet I wonder whether Studio Ghibli’s unquestioned mastery of the form, the sheer brilliance of their work, and the deserved acclamation that has resulted, haven’t combined to create an enterprise which is slightly… well… oddball in some of its ideas. Long-term readers may recall my last encounter with a Ghibli movie, the re-released Grave of the Fireflies: an exquisitely assembled full-length cartoon about the collapse of society during wartime and infantile death by starvation. To say I found this a difficult film to come to grips with is a bit of an understatement.

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Never mind. The latest Studio Ghibli production, From Up On Poppy Hill, got its UK release the other weekend, and on the surface looked to be a much more conventional affair. Directed by Goro Miyazaki, this is a nostalgic romance set in Yokohama in 1963. The Olympics are coming, symbolising a new dawn in Japanese society after the privations of the post-war period, but the young people of the town find themselves caught between the promise of the future and the demands of unresolved history.

Central to the story is Umi, a thoroughly decent, slightly lonely girl who looks after her grandmother’s boarding house. As the film opens she seems to have lost herself in the rituals of domestic life – but also maintains her tradition of raising signal flags outside the house, an attempt to contact her father who was lost at sea during the Korean War.

But time marches on and Umi finds herself involved in a heated controversy at her school: should the old clubhouse, embodying so much tradition and so many memories as it does, be torn down to make way for a new building? Many of the male students think not and are agitating to save it. She finds herself drawn into their efforts, mainly thanks to the persuasive talents of Shun, one of the boys.

This is an extremely sweet, almost totally innocuous film, and so the chemistry that sparks into existence between Umi and Shun is extremely understated: almost to the point of the viewers being invited to imagine it for themselves. Nevertheless, U-certificate romance does seem to be on the cards until the youngsters make the unsettling discovery that Shun’s father was lost at sea during the Korean War, too, and the family photo Shun has of him is identical to that of… now wait just a cotton-picking minute here!!!

Yes, it’s another jaw-droppy-open moment in the annals of Asian cinema: this is a sweetly romantic, U-certificate melodrama about the perils of falling in love with your own long-lost sibling. Death from malnutrition… Genetic Sexual Attraction… is it me or does the subject matter of these naturalistic Ghibli productions suggest people somewhere at the top of the studio are making bets with each other? ‘Okay, Toshiro, I managed to make a cartoon about senile dementia, now pay up.’

Having said that, the sibling-romance element of the story really did grab my attention – the rest of the story, though executed with Ghibli’s customarily gorgeous virtuosity, is a little bit too nice and lacking in incident. Everyone is a charming, decent person, Yokohama is a lovely place to live (it still was when I last went there, by the way: like Blackpool but with more skyscrapers), big businesses are run by kindly patriarchs who listen to reason, and so on.

You’re never really in much doubt as to how the save-the-clubhouse plotline is going to work out, but I really couldn’t be sure which way the sibling-romance story was going to go: surely they weren’t going to…? But then again, this is a Japanese movie, and they do things magnificently differently over there.

Now, obviously, I can’t tell you exactly how the story works out, but I will say I found the manner of its resolution to be the most disappointing part of the film. The climax is very abrupt and almost unforgivably oblique – there’s a big scene where the plot is resolved, but not the following scene where the characters react to this and express their emotional response, as you’d expect in a normal romantic drama. I’m not sure it’s even 100% clear quite what the conclusion is.

Studio Ghibli’s grasp of the narrative virtues is usually so rock-solid that this kind of climactic fumble came as a real surprise. As a result, I can’t imagine anyone would claim this is one of their best films. Nevertheless, it does look as absolutely beautiful as you would expect, there’s surely nothing in the story that could give offence to anyone sensible, and it at least has a certain sort of peculiar novelty value. The results are strangely charming (and perhaps a little charmingly strange), and I suspect this, in addition to the Ghibli cachet, will be enough to find the film a responsive audience.

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One of the things I love about Japan is that the unique nature of the country’s history has left it with an equally singular and distinctive culture. Quite simply, many of the normal rules and attitudes do not apply; they have a unique attitude to censorship, for example, with ultra-violent early Steven Seagal movies turning up on TV as a weekday matinee. In Japan, too, it is much more acceptable for a serious fim-maker to come up with a drama about giant monsters on the rampage (which probably explains why Japan does this kind of movie better than any other country in the world). Having said that, one still occasionally comes across an example of this cultural idiosyncrasy which brings one up short and may in fact provoke a jaw-droppy-open moment. I can just about imagine a film-maker from another country making a bleak drama about two children, orphaned and made outcasts by a major war, slowly starving to death – but doing it as a cartoon?! The stuff of Disney this is not.

Yes, it is Isao Takahata’s celebrated 1988 movie Grave of the Fireflies, currently enjoying a limited re-release for its 25th anniversary (showing in some places in a double-bill with My Neighbour John Turturro, not that I caught that one I’m afraid). Although a product of the famous Studio Ghibli, this film is a world away from the usual whimsical fantasy: instead it is a relentlessly bleak and even grim story, utterly up-front about its intent to mess with the viewer’s emotions.

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This is established very early on as the central character, a teenaged boy named Seita, announces the circumstances of his own death, shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War: he died of starvation while homeless and living in the main railway station of the city of Kobe. We see his spirit reunited with that of his sister Setsuko, who’s not much more than a toddler, and the rest of the film proceeds to show us the circumstances leading up to their passings.

As the story proper opens, the children are preparing to flee an American air-raid, which duly arrives: the resulting firestorm destroys their home, along with much of the rest of the city. But even more seriously, they are separated from their mother in the chaos and when they find her she has been horrifically injured in the bombing and dies shortly afterwards. With their father away in the navy, they are effectively now orphans, and are forced to rely on the hospitality of distant relatives to find food and a place to stay.

From here, by tiny increments, life gets harder and harder for the children: their reserves of food run out, they are forced to pawn their mother’s possessions to buy more, their relationship with their aunt deteriorates to the point where they decide to move into a disused air-raid shelter, and so on.

Given the way the movie opens, it’s never in doubt how things are ultimately going to play out, and the arc of the plot is relentlessly downbeat: there are lighter moments along the way, scenes of the children being able to enjoy their lives, but these are never much more than grace notes. The entirely twist- and reversal-free nature of the plot is very unusual, by the rules of conventional storytelling, and only adds to the impression that this isn’t, strictly speaking, a piece of entertainment.

I generally have a problem with movies which set out to be really brazen tear-jerkers – they usually end up being so obvious and manipulative that they have no real purchase on my emotions. That said, if you have the slightest soft spot remaining in your heart, Grave of the Fireflies will ruthlessly seek it out and pierce it. I managed to last until the final few minutes before I actually Went, but Go I ultimately did.

Having said that, there’s a thin line between being a tear-jerker, and  – well, look, I overheard two people in the next row discussing their response to the film, and in particular trying to decide which section was the most depressing (there is obviously some competition). You can admire the artistry and naturalistic beauty of the animation and storytelling here as much as you like, because this is a superbly well-made film, but the fact remains that you’re not going to come out of it whistling and with a spring in your step.

But is it more than just a tear-jerker? It’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that there is a further subtext to Grave of the Fireflies. There are potential difficulties here – it’s easy to conclude that this is a film about the suffering of Japan at the end of the Second World War – very much in line with the official position that Japan was a victim of the conflict, rather than an aggressor (it’s also telling that the exact circumstances of the Japanese surrender are not gone into). As Philip French observed in The Guardian, ‘seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai on TV a few hours later, I was reminded there’s another side to this story.’

I think the film does just enough to avoid appearing over-simplistic in terms of its historical context: it’s clearly more about the effects of war on the innocents caught up in it, than any particular situation. Also, the least sympathetic character in the English dub is the children’s aunt, who is a fierce nationalist and constantly criticises their failure to contribute to the war effort – criticism of Japanese militarism is implicit.

On the other hand, the director himself has gone on record that he does not see this as an anti-war film – according to Takahata, the film takes a very conservative stance, depicting the various travails of the characters as a consequence of their rejection of society and the responsibilities that go with it. This element is there in the film, certainly – it’s Seita’s refusal to swallow his pride and apologise to his aunt that’s presented as the ultimate cause of the childrens’ tragedy – but it does get swamped by the enormous compassion and pathos present throughout the rest of the story.

I suppose that digging around for subtext and deeper messages in Grave of the Fireflies is almost wilfully perverse, given the basic story of the film is so simple and so strong. It’s true that the movie achieves what it sets out to do: in this respect, if no other, it’s something of a masterpiece. And yet it’s also so obviously not simply a piece of entertainment that one has to wonder about the motives of its makers.

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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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published December 11th 2003:

It’s all too easy to get elitist and precious about cinema from the far east, or western films which seek to ape it (a sentiment I think I shall return to at least twice in the next two or three months). But when faced with a masterpiece like Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, it’s quite tempting to lay aside any attempt at objectivity and simply pile on the superlatives.

Hmm. Kinda laid my cards on the table there, haven’t I, folks? But to even attempt any other response to this magical, beautiful piece of animation would be intellectually dishonest. It’s that good. It’s the kind of film that makes one want to be a child again, simply so one could submit to it more easily, unencumbered by worries about job or rent or relationships.

This is the story of a young girl named Chihiro, whose parents are in the process of moving house (somewhat to her chagrin). En route to their new residence, her father takes a wrong turn and they find themselves in what seems to be a disused amusement park. Ignoring Chihiro’s vague sense of unease, her parents tuck into some of the delicious food that’s seemingly been left unattended. But as the sun sets the park reveals its secret: Chihiro and her family have strayed into an odd netherworld which is basically an entertainment complex for the myriad gods and spirits of Japanese mythology, ruled by the grotesque sorceress Yubaba, and any one of several horrible fates could await any human who stays here too long…

To say more would be to spoil the richness and wonder of the magical world Miyazaki and his animators have created. It’s quite extraordinarily detailed, endlessly inventive, and populated by an array of characters who are as bizarre as they are memorable. The story is rooted in Japanese folklore, true – but it’s still hugely accessible and owes an equally large debt to Greek mythology and the Brothers Grimm (I’m sure I detected a dash of that old Prisoner vibe in a couple of places too).

But the ideas are equalled, and perhaps excelled, by the quality of the animation. I can’t think of another animated film, certainly not since the 1940s, that’s so evidently had such love and talent lavished over every single from. From simple effects like grass rippling in the wind, to fantastical set-pieces like the visit of a Stink God, the pictures are gob-smackingly lovely, even when the subject matter is either icky or frightening.

Because Spirited Away is basically an old-fashioned fairy tale, as funny and moving and scary and enthralling as any you’ve heard before, and thankfully it eschews any didactic preachy eco-cobblers message in favour of simply making it clear that it’s much, much better to be brave and kind and generous than it is to be selfish and cruel and cowardly. And surely no-one can argue with that. It’s really just a crime against cinema, not to mention our own younger generation, that a film of this stature is tucked away unnoticed in an art-house slot while Disney’s latest formula vehicle for selling fast food is playing on two screens. Do your kids a favour. Do yourself a favour. Seek it out. Seek it out.

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