Monday, July 20, 2015

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Upon revisiting "The Tale of the Princess Kaguya," I must admit to thinking mostly about how the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature - and did not win. It lost to Disney film "Big Hero 6." Though I don't care all that much about awards, winning sets the budgets for what might be made down the line. I had hopes that the artistic quality of Isao Takahata's final film would be recognized and possibly get more 2D projects budgeted and produced. But this was not the case. Computer animation is fine - but to my eye, many of the CG animated films here in America look somewhat similar. Worse, many have too many similar plot points along the way. I guess that is what called "formula." "Big Hero 6" was better than some, and I enjoyed it, but "Kaguya" is unique in its beauty.

If 2D Hand Drawn Animation is truly on the way out, we are losing a medium that defined the art form of feature animation. For me, hand drawn  has produced many more scenes of awe on the big screen than all the CG effects have done in their much shorter existence. I suppose - or hope - that will change as the technology progresses. Any way...

"Kaguya" is a visual feast and the unique qualities of the images are present throughout the film. Based on a Japanese folktale, the story starts rather simply, but gets deeper as it opens up. The gist of the narrative is being who you are - who you want to be - whether you are told it is possible or not. Princess Kaguya, born of bamboo, is at home in rural Japan and happy. She wants to remain there. Her adopted father has other ideas and wants her to be royalty and live in the city - and if he gets a position in society because of it, even better.

However, the Princess is miserable in the city and wants little to do with the lords and ladies there. She does try to obey her father's wishes, but only at the expense of being who she would rather be. As it turns out, Kaguya actually comes from the Moon, and wanted to experience why existence on Earth was yearned for by someone she knew that had lived there. When the Buddha comes down from the Moon to take her back----

--- and I'll admit that on first watch this got me confused. The scenes of the Buddha and his flying entourage, including musicians, was spectacular, but very odd. I left the theater originally guessing Takahata was expressing some sort of Buddhist beliefs and wanted to end his career with this expression.

But on watching again, Kaguya really is telling the Buddha that he needs to chill out. Life on Earth is just as beautiful as living on the Moon, or Nirvana, perhaps. Her choice to be herself was wasted by allowing her father to push her toward the big city. She regrets none of it, however, because the life she found at first, in rural Japan, was who she was, and it remained with her always. Instead of working toward the after life, or achieving spiritual enlightenment to remove one's self from the world, the Princess suggests that living every day to the fullest - something we hear from many wise places - is truly the way to live life. And if we do that, what we have and what we achieve are less important than the actual living we do.

And though I suppose sometimes that message gets across in Disney CG features, I don't think it ever looks so good as it does in this film.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Revisiting The Secret World of Arrietty

Upon revisiting Hiromasa Yonebayashi's directorial debut for Ghibli, "The Secret World of Arrietty," the first thing that struck me was how "Arrietty" - just as Goro Miyazaki's debut on "Tales of Earhsea" was a project that Hayao Miyazaki had always wanted to do - with wonderful scenes of insects and a general "insect perspective" of the Borrowers, was also something H. Miyazaki had wanted to explore on film.

Though "Arrietty" was much better received than "Earthsea," the lack of enthusiasm for these films from stateside Ghibli fans made me wonder how - if under the hand of Miyazaki on pet projects of his - these films would have been different and perhaps been welcomed with wider arms. However, "The Wind Rises," Miyazaki's last feature film - a historical drama - though reviewed well, also didn't seem to stir the hearts of the fans who loved his earlier films.

"Arrietty" is a charming film though, and when viewed as the first film of the director of "When Marnie Was There," becomes even more interesting, suggesting that an introspective perspective might be a defining characteristic of Yonebayashi as a director.

The pace of this film is slow, not forcing any action and allowing the superb animated scenery to unfold. Whether it is the lush vegetation outside the house or the otherworldly innards of the house magnified for the tiny Borrowers, the film suggests a whole new world around us and under our feet.

Even more - the relationship between Arrietty and Shawn is similar enough to Marnie and Anna in "When Marnie Was There" that the parallel struck me. Shawn believes he is going to die from a heart operation, and has seemingly resigned himself to sighing in bed, or slowly walking around the house. Anna in "Marnie" feels like she has died already, hating herself and wishing she might disappear. Arrietty - as the only young person of her kind - is similarly alone, though she does have a loving family life. Her parents have nurtured her own independence out of necessity and made her brave and ready to take on the world, though she still feels alone for the lack of any other young people. Marnie has no family to take care of her, but her own will is enough to make her brave enough to face life squarely on her own. Though outwardly fine, both Arrietty and Marnie yearn for others - or at least another - to share their world with.

Both films explore how we can help others to emerge from shells, not by ditching an inward perspective but by embracing it and letting it be seen better. Arrietty teaches Shawn to be brave and live life, no matter if it might end soon; the trouble Shawn causes for the Borrowers by discovering Arrietty eventually leads her to meeting Spiller, who we can only surmise will become her husband some day; Marnie teaches Anna that she is special, allowing her to make real connections to the people already in her life; Anna shows Marnie that her own bravery was something to be proud of, as it lead to Anna, a talented kid who just needed someone to say it.

Other comparisons can be made, but for now, I'll say that Yonebayashi's two-film body of work is needed - slowly paced films affirming the introverted side of life are not the usual films you can see at the cinema. Kids that feel alone because they are not interested in the mainstream of popular culture (perhaps like many Ghibli viewers here in America) - shouldn't be prodded into extroversion, but guided toward paths on which they might make connections that allow them to emerge as who they are, not who culture wants them to be.

In the first scene of "Marnie," if a young boy had not slipped in the playground, Marnie's teacher would have seen her beautiful artwork and perhaps given her encouragement to be happy about her self. In chance moments, lives are made. Let those moments take their time slowly and develop fully.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Fine On the Outside

"Fine On the Outside" is the English language theme song of Ghibli's "When Marnie Wa There." It plays over the end - and the end credits. This was the first English language song chosen for a Ghibli film and I think there is a great story behind it.

The singer/songwriter is Priscilla Ahn and this is a song she wrote when she was younger. She did not necessarily want to release it - it was very personal, maybe too personal. But Ahn was a fan of both the original book as well as of Studio Ghibli films in general. When she heard Ghibli was making a film version - knowing the themes of the book - she submitted her song to the Studio. It's quiet and introspective, and it has really grown on me.

And Studio Ghibli eventually chose it as the theme song for the film.

I think it was pretty audacious for her to submit it, and that is the real point of this post. My guess is - she never thought they would select it. They had never used a song in English before - why would they do it for this film? But she sent it in. Her personal song, that she avoided releasing, because it fit so well with the inward and melancholic perspectives that run through the film. And Ghibli saw that and made it their own.

I can relate to Ahn's belief in herself, attempting something with very little real hope of success. Heck - I went to get a degree in Mythological Studies. And I consistently try and find my way in to the things I want to be involved with. One project in particular I am working on that I really have no idea of how to get it done - but I'll be posting about it soon because I really believe in it.

But this isn't about me. It is about the effect a story like Ahn's should have on everyone. It should be an example and give everyone the spark they need to submit - to try - to poke your nose in somewhere you want to be - and see what happens.

It may turn out that you belong there.

Here is a pretty cool short essay that Priscilla Ahn wrote about her love of Ghibli films.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Tales From Earthsea redux

I seem to be unable to stop thinking about "Tales From Earthsea" and move on to explore other Ghibli films yet. What has kept this film on my mind has been reading "The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga," a beautiful art book and history of Tezuka, a superstar of Japanese manga and animation. His output is one of the most amazing amounts of work I have ever encountered from any artist. The variety of work is astounding as well - from Unico, a cute little unicorn (which I have only heard about) to Ayako, a completely adult manga about a woman who has been locked up in a basement by her incredibly brutal family. The little guy on the cover here is of course Astro Boy, one of the first anime series to make it to the USA, maybe even the first. There is so much more.

One of Tezuka's major themes is the cycle of life - we are born, live, die - and then rebirth, perhaps. This is generally the core of Buddhism. Showing respect to all life is the hopeful theme that many of Tezuka's works center around. In fact, he has an eight volume series, Buddha, which I highly recommend - and I have only read the first two volumes so far. Comics at their finest. I particularly enjoy his cartoon style figures living in the most detailed worlds - a really beautiful style.

It was this major theme of Tezuka's that kept reminding me of "Tales From Earthsea" as I read the book about him. The cycle of life is the major theme of the film - and the reason, I wrote earlier, about why this film may not have been so well received in the States. In thinking about this, I was wondering if the director, Goro Miyazaki, had been influenced by Tezuka's work. I was also wondering if the reason he had the young prince in his film kill his father, the King, had anything to do with his relationship with his father, Hayao Miyazaki.

In searching for some insight into these questions, I found an excellent blog post at Manga UK: "Tales From Earthsea and Family Feuds." There is not much more to add as this covers it really well. From this and other sources, though Hayao was not the best father as far as being around - which both he and Goro acknowledge - they seem to get along to some degree now. They even worked together on Goro's next film, "From Up On Poppy Hill," which I would say was a great film.

And though the themes of "Earthsea" are similar to some of Tezuka's work, there does not actually appear to be any connection. Other than perhaps coming out of Japan! an interesting additional point for me is that, though there is some controversy over Miyazaki talking smack about Tezuka's work, this seems completely overblown. When I read Miyazaki's "Starting Point," it seemed to me he just wanted some freedom to create in his own direction - no disrespect to an older master, but the need to do what he wanted to do. As any artist would feel, I think.

And of course, I would suggest this is what Goro did when making "Earthsea."

A couple of links:

This is a weblog, translated, of Goro's while he worked on "Earthsea." From what I have read, very interesting.

And here is a link to the website Tezuka in English. Where you will get all the info you need to find what works of Tezuka's are available here. I suggest you read some. And if you want to help make more of his works available in English, well, they have a little campaign to print Tezuka's "Storm Fairy" on Kickstarter - $20 gets you the printed manga when its ready. Well worth it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Revisiting Studio Ghibli's "Tales From Earthsea"

I am revisiting some of the later Ghibli films in order to reassess their vision and the reception many of these films have received, which I will address in further posts. Today, just a quick thought on "Tales From Earthsea" upon the first time I have re-watched it since my older posts. I still think it is a wonderful movie, beautiful as Ghibli films always are, and a film that makes you think. And I notice the internet critics still - for the most part - dislike this film. I take that from reading some of the Netflix reviews.

I don't think the film is unclear - I just think you have to be open and think about what you are watching.

But I did realize that there is a theme in this film that perhaps accounts for some of the negative reception it gets, at least here in America.

The major theme is that one must accept death - that nothing lives forever, and that life can only be appreciated if one understands that death is inevitable.

And in our country today - and probably the world - people want to live forever. Lord Cob, the villain of the film, uses beauty makeup - perhaps even magical Botox - to look younger. She wants to live forever, because she is important. She deserves to live forever. And if you view today's media - and specifically relevant is the commercial advertising - we constantly have on our screens, the selling point of everything is how young it will make us feel, or how much better and longer our lives will be because of it - it being whatever star, or product, is the current marketable economic driver.

"Tales From Earthsea" directly states that this is all nonsense. Death is the end and beginning of the forever ages old cycle of life. There is no life without death; there is no appreciation of life without death. I think too many viewers are not interested in that message. I do believe that is a message often found in earlier Ghibli films, but usually in a gentler fashion than Goro Miyazaki brought to "Earthsea."

Friday, June 5, 2015

When Marnie Was There

Studio Ghibli's latest - and possibly last - feature, is a stunning film, one I would call a masterpiece. I would understand if that view is not shared by everyone in the audience though, as I think Marnie is a film focused on the interior of its characters. It allows the introverted personality type a screen on which to play out and animation is a form which allows character's inner senses to be shown exquisitely to an audience. Anna, the main character, questions her place in the world. If you don't find any resonance with Anna and her perspective on her place in the world, this may be a bit melodramatic for you. Though the film will still be enjoyable as a mystery - and as always for a Studio Ghibli film, it is beautifully drawn and edited together. If you are sympathetic or aware of the introverted personality, you may also see this as a masterpiece.

When Marnie Was There is unlike most American animated films and certainly almost all CG animation. As a film for the introvert, the quiet amongst us, or even just those unsure about their place in the world, Marnie is a different film experience. In the end, it also becomes a film about accepting who we are and being comfortable in our own skin, even when we are not flashy or popular. For me, this is an important narrative for our current consciousness, so hyper-available and exposed on social media. In comparison with many films today, and certainly with most animated films, a celebration of being kind and empathetic, instead of snarky and cynical, is a refreshing change at the cinema.

I loved this film for being everything most films these days are not. And no one does this better than Studio Ghibli.

"Marnie" is something of a ghost story, in the sense that memory and history are at the heart of the very best ghost stories. Anna, a foster child who believes she is, as she says to open the film, "outside the circle" that everyone else is within, discovers much about herself by opening herself up to others.

And the others she opens herself to really shine through as characters unseen in film. Each is somewhat minor, but they make up her world and the whole becomes greater than each on their own. The Oiwa's, a couple she goes to stay with are not typical for caretakers these days - they recognize Anna as sensible enough and let her go her own way, even when there might be a bit of danger or a sense of going alone. They give her an opportunity to meet other people, but never push her. (For what it is worth - I saw both the subtitled and the English versions - though I probably prefer the subtitled, the Oiwa's dialogue in English was funnier and endeared me to them even more.)

Anna also meets Toichi, an introverted fisherman to the point of never speaking, but who seems to understand that Anna needs a friend. And Sayaka, a new younger friend for Anna who is passionate, but smart, embodies the role in film of the kid who decides to investigate - to get to the bottom of the mystery - and comes through with the information in the end. All the empathetic characters play off other minor characters who are more typically extroverted. In their extroversion, they just seem pushy because of their inability to see  those around them who are not interested in being open books to the world.

And then there is Marnie. A child who tells stories and lives life to the fullest when she can. Capable, but still doubtful of much of her life. Someone who needs Anna as much as Anna needs someone like Marnie. Any more could spoil the narrative.

I'll end my first post in a long time by suggesting the narrative of what Studio Ghibli is might need a bit of modern revisioning. For most in the audience, Ghibli means the amazing fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki. There can be little doubt that Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and the worlds of Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle are what Ghibli's reputation is built on. But there are also the visionary works of Isao Takahata. And mostly more recent films featuring more personal and realistic narratives, seemingly fantastic because their simple perspectives of kindness and empathy are not often seen on screen, let alone in our daily lives - (i.e., Whisper of the Heart, From Up On Poppy Hill, The Wind Rises, and now Marnie). This type of narrative is for me what Ghibli is about - even through all the earlier films - and only one of the films I named above was directed by Hayao. I also have a great appreciation for The Secret World of Arriety, directed by Marnie's director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Many Ghibli fans like these films, but many more on the internets have bashed them for various reasons - often for not being like Hayao Miyazaki's films. I can't help but feel this is the reason the young directors Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki have left the Studio.Though perhaps Miyazaki and Takahata understand the public in the same way.

If When Marnie Was There is to be Ghibli's last feature film, I say it is a fitting coda to an emotional set of themes that Ghibli did so well - and almost exclusively. It is playing around the country now - and if it's not in your town, you can set up a screening by gathering a bunch of viewers to commit to coming. It's a great film and well worth seeing on the big screen.