Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki: Part One (1979- 1989)

The Films of Hayao Miyazaki Part One (1979- 1989)
My ‘Japanese Cinema Month’ is nearing its end. And after flicking through my reviews, I have failed to write about the most inspirational and prolific directors of Japanese cinema and animation, Hayao Miyazaki. While many will be aware of his award-winning Spirited Away and the recent Ponyo, his filmography goes back to well into the late 1970s. Now at the age of 70, his capacity and ability to craft films that continuously gain critical acclaim and awards, is simply amazing. In the animated world, and general cinema for that matter, I don’t think any director has managed to dish out so many fantastic and unique films. Thus I give you my take on his filmography: 
The Castle of Cagliostro  (ルパン三世カリオストロの城)(1979)

Most definitely the least known Miyazaki film is The Castle of Cagliostro. This film was part of the Lupin III (Lupin the 3rd) franchise, which was based on a manga, based on Maurice Leblanc’s fictional character; ‘Detective Arsene Lupin’. Prior to his work with Studio Ghibli, he had been a co-director of the ‘anime’ series of Lupin III.  And thus The Castle of Cagliostro was his first feature length film, and it is awesome. 
The plot follows Lupin III, a masterful and professional thief. After successfully completing a heist in a Monte Carlo casino, he realises that the money is fake. He traces the notes back to a small country called Cagliostro, where the sinister Count is counterfeiting money and sending it worldwide. Thus we follow Lupin and his crew as they investigate the conspiracy, eventually leading them on a search for a national treasure. Meanwhile, they also attempt to rescue the Princess from marrying the duke. The plot consists of everything from intense action to tasteful romance and humorous comedy, thus keeping the audience truly interested and engrossed.
The characters are all well developed and the voice work is great, matching the personalities relatively nicely. Animation-wise, while showing its age now, it still remains a beautifully detailed and colourful picture. You easily forget these slight issues when the story is constantly entertaining and gripping. The European setting is amusingly created, complete with Fiat 500s and extravagant palaces. 
Overall this is a great animated film which tones down the crazy and outlandish tones of the Lupin III television show, and presents an interesting and engrossing plot. Though not the most memorable of Miyazaki’s creations, the animation is great and the characters are well crafted and engaging. 
Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ) (1984)

Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s "first" film together, Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind is a fantastic start to a prestigious run of animated films. Following the 1980s era of post-apocalyptic genre, the film has a very Dune influence to it in terms of subplot and atmosphere. Giant insect creatures roam the earth, seems very similar to the sand-worms of Frank Herbert’s novel. However, it reduces the various philosophical messages into a child-friendly film that is filled with action and proper story telling.
The film is set after numerous centuries of war have devastated the planet. A conflict between feuding clans and forces continues to be fought, whilst a race of giant, intelligent bugs, Ohmu, poison the Earth’s atmosphere. Princess Nausicaa leads the people of the ‘Valley of the Wind’ as they suffer at the hands of the civil conflict and growing environmental danger. The plot holds contains the moral statement between man and the environment, and female heroism. War and technology have led to a lack of compassion and understand of the planets ecology, and thus ‘mother-nature’ is retaking her lands.
The characters are wonderfully created and expressed on the screen, visually and audibly. Princess Nausicaa is a true female heroine and leader, quite similar to protagonists like Pocohantas. Yet, she is driven by the will to protect her people, and bring harmony between everything living. Strong-willed and compassionate, her character is remarkably memorable and likeable. The animation is good, but definitely looks dated now. The characters all look unique, however the desert backgrounds certainly lack the imagination and detail of Miyazaki’s latest creations. However, its the story that is the main focus and this very much comes through. 
Overall, Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind is a brilliantly constructed film. The animation, characters and plot have all been carefully managed to form a story that is epic and balanced. 
Castle In The Sky (天空の城ラピュタ) (1986)

Using similar themes of conflict and war, Castle in the Sky is a engrossing adventure story influenced by Jonathan Swift’s, Gulliver’s Travels and by the miner strikes in 80’s Wales. The European-esque setting and mining communities clearly show these influences in Miyazaki’s film. However, Castle in the Sky trades in strong moral messages for a streamlined yet deep, children’s adventure story filled with action and mysticism.
The plot follows the newly formed friendship between a young orphan, Pazu and a beautiful girl Sheeta, as they protect a sacred pendant that is the key to an ancient civilisation in a floating castle called Laputa. Our main characters are chased by sky pirates and evil government agents, as they try to find this lost city. Whilst, Nausicaa was a much more mature animated film, Castle in the Sky’s child protagonists bring a much more accessible experience to younger audience. Miyazaki reframes from his usual ‘coming of age’ drama, to portray an adventure from the perspective of a child. Again, morally the film focuses on the greed of the human race, in which force and mercilessness are used to gain riches and power. And the fact that friendship always prevails. However this undercurrent isn’t as abundant or as visible as that of Nausicaa.
Pazu and Sheeta’s journey doesn’t result in an over-complex or drawn out relationship, but focuses on the sudden nature of their meeting. Sheeta simply falls from the sky at the beginning, sparking off the two’s adventure. And its this manner in which we are introduced to the characters that enables a much more childhood spirit to come through. Their immediate friendship strengthens and overcomes dramatic events during the film. I think it’s this simplistic nature that allows for a much more nature and sudden attachment to the characters, rather than being bluntly shown the two’s relationship. 
The various action scenes in the air are beautifully portrayed and intense, with the animation being dazzling, vibrant and detailed. The sense of height and depth is fantastic, as you stare down at the ground from gliders and the mystical Laputa. Laputa, itself is beautifully realised, with influences from medieval castles and gothic architecture. This subsequently creates an even more magical impression to the ‘Lost City’. 
Overall, Castle in the Sky is an entertaining adventure film. It isn’t as memorable as Nausicaa of The Valley of the Wind, but it is well worth a watch. With a strong mixture of drama and action, this is a tense and compelling animated production. 
My Neighbour Totoro (となりのトトロ)(1988)

The character of Totoro recently appeared in Toy Story 3, and has become the icon of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki. Seen very much as the Japanese ‘Winnie the Pooh’ or Mickey Mouse, this one character has had a massive cultural impact. (I have to admit, I have a Miniature Totoro plush in my room). Whilst the most child friendly of his works, My Neighbour Totoro is stunning, charming and has been carefully crafted by Miyazaki and his team. 
The plot focuses on Satsuki and Mei as they move to their new home in rural Japan. Their father is currently looking after them, whilst their mother is in hospital. Curiosity, and adventure soon sees Mei and Satsuki forming a friendship with their neighbouring tree/ wood, ‘rabbit-like’ spirit: Totoro (Keeper of the Forest). Gone, is the conflict and threat that were predominate in Miyazaki’’s last two films. Instead, My Neighbour Totoro, pushes for a much more pure and heart-warming experience, suggesting that imagination is the sole ingredient for a cute and engrossing adventure. 
The characters are all fantastic and lovely. Mei, about 5 years old, is the realistic young girl, full of energy and adventurous. Satsuki, about 11 years old, attempts to balance her own childhood, while acting as mature adult in place of their ill mother. We care about these realistic characters, as they remind us of ourselves at that age; playing hide and seek, climbing over hedges etc. However, the real impressive feat, is the character of Totoro. The large, egg-shaped, rabbit-esque creature’s name is in the title of the film, yet he never says a word. He sports a blank expression or a big-ass grin and is a bit of a sloth. However, Totoro is just delightful. The lack of audible character development, leads us to craft our interpretation and understanding of the character through Totoro’s physical appearance and movement. From, holding a child's umbrella in the rain, to flying around the landscapes, we build a comedic, cuddly and innocent relationship with Totoro. 
Overall My Neighbour Totoro is whimsical and enchanting. The child-like innocence and colourful imagination, certainly brings a smile to the faces of mature audiences as they reminisce about their child-hoods. It’s this emotional reaction that Miyazaki is countlessly able to induce from his audience that is astonishing. It also has a flying cat bus, what’s not to like. 
Kiki’s Delivery Service (魔女の宅急便) (1989)

Only completed a year after My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service is my personal favourite of all Miyazaki’s productions. Originally developed in 1987, the film only gained Miyazaki as its director after the success of his previous features. Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, Miyazaki adds his charm and detailed imagination forming a film that is spectacular, heart-warming and delightful. 
The story follows 13 year old Kiki, who is a witch-in-training. Following the traditional values of witches, she leaves home for a year to establish herself in a community and gain  true experience. Equipped with a radio and her talking black cat, Jiji, she soon fits into a picturesque coastal town. She experiences setbacks, makes friend and must confront her maturing difficulties and adolescent worries. Setting up a delivery service, she soon makes integrates, and begins to realise her position in the world and appreciates her own talents. This is very much a traditional ‘coming of age’ drama that Miyazaki tends to portray in his films. Its simple premise allows for a greater focus on character development and therefore means an increased emotional attachment to the memorable characters. 
Kiki is adorable with her big red bow, and remains charming throughout the film, creating a character that the audience finds likeable and stays attached to. We feel her worries as she enters the real world, her problems and her eventual jovial experiences as she slowly settles into her surroundings. Jiji offers ‘moral’ support, and provides the main laughs as he complains and reacts to other people. Its this pure and everyday portrayal of a child’s day to day life that brings a change of pace from the usually intense nature of Miyazaki’s work. No robots, no villains or explosions, its simple story-telling, almost reminiscent of a nursery rhyme.
The European influences play a massive part in constructing the world that the film is set in. Essences of Swedish and Danish culture and society are clearly visible from the architecture to the landscapes. The animation complements these influences, and creates a realistic atmosphere with a detailed and colourful look. 
Overall, Kiki’s Delivery Service is thoroughly enjoyable and has been carefully crafted for a wide audience. The animation is beautiful, and the story is much more relatable when compared to his previous works, even with witches. I personally felt a greater attachment to this film, than any of the other Miyazaki features. Everything is balanced so perfectly that you can’t help but shed a tear at its brilliance. 
This concludes Part One of the Hayao Miyazaki filmography ‘breakdown’. The next part is here:

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