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.