On New Years Day, 2004, I had flu. Not an everyday head cold or the sniffles – but actual proper flu.
I had slept through News Years Eve and awoken feeling thoroughly miserable.
With just a crappy portable tv for company I found myself flicking through the usual fare – The Great Escape, The Sound of Music – and so on. Finally settling on a channel I watched the Disney’s masterpiece Snow Dogs, starring Cuba Gooding and Sisqó (of Thong Song fame). It also featured a collection of sled dogs and some snow. Highjinks ensued.
If you like the idea of 90 minutes of Cuba Gooding falling over in snow and getting barked at – then Snow Dogs is the film for you!
If not then… you, uh, best give it a miss.
Mercifully, Snow Dogs soon ended. Following it was a film I’d heard a few things about – but never taken the time to see:
The film was something of a revelation.
It matters a lot how you’re feeling when you first see a film – great movies can just slide off you if you’re in the wrong frame of mind. Princess Mononoke, on that miserable January 1st, was perfect.
Mild spoilers ahead.
Set in the forests and mountain valleys of feudal Japan, Princess Mononoke is the story of Ashitaka, a tribal prince. Early in the film Ashitaka becomes infected with a strange corruption and sets off on a journey to find a cure. The source of the corruption leads Ashitaka to a conflict between an industrious town and the titular Princess, who fights to save the environment the humans are exploiting. But this isn’t the real world – Mononoke is the Japanese word for ‘spirit’ – the story is set in a land of mythical beasts and strange forest creatures.
I won’t divulge the rest of the story – if you haven’t already seen the film then I urge you to do so!
In that inimitable Studio Ghibli fashion Princess Mononoke is filled with a dreamy energy. An urgency that gives events significance despite their abject strangeness.
There’s that moment in Akira where Tetsuo begins dissolving and mutating into a pulsing mass of flesh and tissue – and for a moment you’re like “really?”. It’s just so strange – repulsive and grotesque – and it kinda takes you out of the film.
Miyazaki has the ability to show you things unreal and creepy and bizarre – and it just fits.
- Notable Miyazaki Films
- The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
- Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
- Castle in the Sky (1986)
- My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
- Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Spirited Away (2001)
- Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
- Ponyo (2008)
The serene and otherworldly Forest Spirit is beheaded and its flesh begins to melt and transform. Somehow you knew that’s what it was going to do. The action of the mercenaries in trying to capture and defile this godly creature would be doomed – and all of them with it. Of course it was a mistake to meddle with powers such as these.
You’re invested in the world they create, and when the next spirit beckons from the edge of the wooded path you feel as inclined to follow as Ashitaka and his red elk Yakul.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Yakul – the ideal silent companion. He’s wise, faithful and totally bad-ass in a scrap. Probably my favourite character in the film.
The entire film is carefully crafted, beautiful to look at and deeply memorable. Crucially it also has something to say – and leaves you thinking long after it’s all over.
These are all hallmarks of Miyazaki’s style – a style that led to tremendous success and critical acclaim for the studio. It certainly did wonders for me on January 1st, 2004, giving me a chance to escape into a new and enchanting world for a few hours.
Perhaps my favourite Miyazaki film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, carries the same style and energy.
Created just before the founding of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki wrote and directed Nausicaä based on his own manga, which he’d created a few years earlier.
The film is set in the far future, a thousand years after civilisation has been destroyed in an apocalyptic war. The world is mostly a hostile wasteland – covered by impassable toxic forests and populated by giant insect-like creatures. Some small habitable territories do remain – one of which is the Valley of the Wind.
It’s understandably more melancholic than Mononoke, but there’s a clear environmental theme that the films have in common. It also shares that same dreamy atmosphere, a menagerie of fantastical creatures and a terrific quick-paced plot.
The human characters are treated with a fair bit of cynicism – they’re flawed, vulnerable and untrustworthy. A notable exception to this is Lord Yupa, voiced in the dubbed English-language version of the film by none other than Patrick Stewart.
The politics of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind reveal a human species a thousand years into the future – and still riven by short-sightedness, back-biting and double-crossing.
Miyazaki’s criticism of the baseness of some human nature is as evident here as with the greedy townspeople of Princess Mononoke. He makes a persuasive point.
The success of Mononoke, Nausicaä and others led Miyazaki (and Studio Ghibli) to create perhaps their best known film, Spirited Away, which enjoyed wider international attention and acclaim than most anime features. It became the highest grossing film in Japanese history.
And deservedly so.
In Spirited Away, the lead character is Chihiro – a young girl who, with her parents, discovers a seemingly abandoned town whilst lost. Later we realise the town is actually part of the spirit world, and Chihiro and her family are trapped.
Strange ghostly creatures appear and Chihiro’s parents are cursed, turning them into pigs. Chihiro finds an enormous and elaborate bathhouse, where she is given a job as a means of paying for her and her parents’ freedom – and to find a way to break the curse.
Spirited Away is even more overtly dreamlike than the two films mentioned above. The entire sequence exists on another plane of existence that fits perfectly with a fevered imagination. It’s like a stress-dream – one where you’re trapped at every turn by nebulous or otherwise intractable forces.
That doesn’t mean the film is difficult to watch – it has a soothing quality and a way of constantly surprising you with unexpected twists. It’s a more ‘polished’ anime film than most – thanks in part to its budget – and it is probably the most approachable for uninitiated western viewers.
It’s one of the few animes I’d recommend in its dubbed form – the English language adaptation was overseen by Pixar‘s John Lasseter, a fan of Studio Ghibli. The dialogue has been rewritten in an effort to match the lip-sync of the animation whilst also keeping true to the original.
I could go on profiling my favourite Miyazaki films – there are many worth mentioning – but perhaps I’ll leave that for another time.
The writer-director has threatened to retire a number of times before, but reappeared in some capacity to continue Studio Ghibli’s success. It seems likely that this latest announcement is a little more final.
It’s a great shame we won’t be seeing any more of his work – but on the plus side he leaves behind an impressive portfolio of over two dozen feature-length and short films for future anime fans to discover.
It’s quite easy to bang on about legacy and reputation in an industry where hyperbole often gets the better of critics and fans alike. I think for Hayao Miyazaki these sorts of accolades are more than justified – the man has an extraordinary talent and we’re lucky enough that he’s used that talent to make some really stunning and memorable pictures for us to enjoy.
So if you’re new to anime – or if you’ve seen the entire Studio Ghibli catalogue a dozen times – go find yourself a Miyazaki film to watch. Regardless of the film if you know Miyazaki is at the helm it’s safe to relax – you’re in good hands.