At the start of this year, I made myself some goals in terms of viewing for 2016. Just some directors and areas of film that I would like to work my through, including one studio. That studio was the iconic Studio Ghibli and I thought I’d start off at the end with When Marnie Was There (2014).
This is a film centred on notions of teen anxiety. Although the film wanders out from there on different paths, it always returns to that to remind you that’s what the film is revolving around. The emotional stakes are intense, as the teenage main character Anna struggles with realistically presented mental issues such as anxiety and self-worth. These are presented in a way that will strike close to home if yourself or those around you have fought with those. As a result of her illness, Anna goes to stay with her aunt and uncle, which also allows the film to delightfully contrast urban attitudes and stresses with rural sensibilities. The latter are encompassed by the aunt and uncle who are gentle, tender and patient people beautifully helping to nurse Anna back to fuller health. In addition to the portrayal of mental health, the emotional intensity is also increased through the themes of betrayal and familial mystery that run through the core of the film.
Every time I start up a Studio Ghibli film, I am immediately struck by the animation. It is not just that it is ‘hand-drawn’ in this world of computer animation, but also how the studio uses that. In this film it is more subtle than in some of their others, with the time spent straddling the real world and a fantastical one weighted heavily towards the latter. But even with that level of restraint, the visuals still provoke plenty of emotion, through their simple beauty but also how in how they help to tell the narrative. There is a quiet beauty in the imagery, think more about how your eye is drawn to a scene of a watermelon being chopped rather than any wild Princess Mononoke (1997) fantastical creatures or sword fighting.
One point of interest for me was that I picked up some real queer overtones to the film. The relationship between Anna and Marnie unfolds like a romance, specifically a lesbian one. Both characters refer to the other as their “secret”. They take things slowly and as it progresses so does the length and tenderness of their physical contact. A late plot reveal means that any overtones do not fit in with the film more broadly, but I still found them to be quite stark. Perhaps this is Ghibli’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). A film with very clear queer themes, but many involved in the production were unaware of those overtones.
Verdict: When Marnie Was There is not one of Ghibli’s absolute best films, but it is certainly one of their most emotionally intense. The simple, central arc of Anna’s mental illness is very satisfying, and the film finishes with a crushing and emotional kicker. Stubby of Reschs
Twitter was abuzz over the weekend at (mainly erroneous) reports that the iconic Studio Ghibli was ceasing production. Whilst the outlook for the studio remains pretty grim, it is also clear that at this stage the studio is not pulling out of making animated films. My heart was even more particularly warmed by this news than it would have normally been because the night before I had watched what is my new favourite Studio Ghibli film – The Cat Returns (2002).
Blu-ray is a bit of a forgotten medium I think, with many assuming it is just the last dead duck physical format before everyone moves to some sort of cloud based subscription service (nooooooo!). Personally, I love blu-ray and this film is a perfect example of why. It is remarkable just how much the colour and animation pops when this film is viewed on blu-ray and it enhances the look of a film which is rendered in an even finer and more painting like style than is the norm for the studio. The story begins with a remarkable act of kindness as a young girl Haru bravely saves a rather remarkable cat. It turns out that this cat is a prince from the Cat Kingdom, and as such the young girl is showered with attempted acts of kindness and repayment from the kingdom. It starts out innocent, though misguided enough, with Haru being followed everywhere by cats and receiving far too many gift boxed mice. However the stakes of the film are escalated when it is demanded that Haru wed the cat prince, something she is rather keen to avoid. Ghibli films always intrigue and The Cat Returns, with the whimsy of cat’s wandering about on hind legs engaging with each other and humans, definitely intrigues a lot. Not to mention the fact that all of the cats have such different personalities, a stark difference from the standard Disney animal sidekick. There is also a sense of more pure adventure in this film than most of the studio’s output that I have viewed. There are thrills and tension galore and if that’s not enough, there’s a freakin maze!
I am not sure if The Cat Returns is an adaptation of a single fairytale, but at the very least there are a lot of classical influences on the story. It feels like it an amalgam of a bunchy of delightful moments from classic tales. And as the tweet above from Dave Crewe of http://www.ccpopculture.com pointed out when we were discussing the film, there is a subtle inversion of fairy tale tropes going on in the film as well. Both visually and narratively, the film recalls Alice in Wonderland, with a young girl adrift in a strange fantastical land slowly gathering a cohort of colleagues to hopefully help her navigate it. In a similar way to Wonderland, the Cat Kingdom is an incredibly built place, one where there is an underlying sense of threat and malice, continually bubbling under the somewhat bright and cheerful surface. In fact that is a hallmark of classical fairy tales, as brightness is always accompanied by darkness or even evil. The tone of the film is whimsical, breezy and light occasionally going as far as bordering on the absurdist. Having said that though, the narrative is essentially linear, so there is no narrative confusion posing as absurdism lurking in the film. Which is great and different to both the more serious environmental old school fantasy novel vibe of Princess Mononoke (1997) or the vibrant assaulting of the senses weirdness and danger of Spirited Away (2001). In fact coming out of the same studio, those two films are an interesting counterpoint to this film, even though broadly speaking all three films reside in the same genre.
The Cat Returns is chiefly an exercise in tone. It is a film that is whimsical and playful, especially when interacting with and subverting fairy tale norms. Funny, adventurous and thrilling, this is definitely one to add to your Ghibli ‘to watch’ list if you have never managed to catch it.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Reel Anime is an annual travelling anime festival that travels around Australia around this time each year. I have been lucky enough to see three of the films in this year’s fest, so I though that this week focusing on Japanese film was the ideal time to take a look at them.
A Letter to Momo (2011) is about as close to Studio Ghibli as a film can get, without actually being made by Ghibli. This is not meant to be a criticism, it is just the film pretty openly wears influences such as Spirited Away (2001) on its sleeve.
Like all three of these films, the animation in this one is incredibly beautiful. In A Letter to Momo it is the use of colour that most stands out, feeling like as much care has gone into the choice and use of colour as all the other aspects of the visual approach. The simple concept is a wonderful one that allows the filmmaker to gradually incorporate a more fantastical world into proceedings. Momo is a young girl who misses her recently deceased father. Her grief, and resultant emotional distance from those around her, is exacerbated by the fact that she had argued harshly with her father the last time that she saw him. One of her prized possessions is a letter he had begun to write to her following this which simply reads “Dear Momo”. Momo spends a lot of time holding this letter, looking at it hoping for a flash of insight as to what her father would have written next. Into this world come a number of spiritual beings or monsters that only Momo can see.
Some of this has been done before. Momo has been moved to a new town and her struggles to fit in are heavily reminiscent of The Karate Kid (1984) and a myriad of other films. Likewise the idea that there are monsters visible only to a child did not initially grab me. But as the film progresses, and the really fun personalities of Momo’s new spiritual companions (or light-hearted tormenters) come to the fore, there is a lot of fun here and also an original sensibility that at least in part stops the film from simply becoming ‘Ghibli-lite’. The interaction between Momo and these charismatic beings us quite charming I think and ranges from the extremely cheerful to flashes of if not malice, than at least the generation of some strong negative emotion. Also as the film progresses, the emotional relationships Momo has with her mum and grandad are explored more and more. I wish there was more of both these characters because the exploration of how Momo’s relationship with them is influenced by the grief of all three parties works extremely well.
This is definitely not anime in the mind blowing, searing sense. But as a gentle emotional journey with plenty of fantastical lashings, A Letter to Momo definitely succeeds a lot more often than not.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
With a title like 009: Re Cyborg (2012), I was hoping for some balls out, full on huge robot fighting action. However this is possibly because I don’t really know what a cyborg is.
As the film begins, suicide bombers obeying “His Voice” are destroying cities worldwide. This leads to the bringing together of an Avengers style cyborg superteam to try and deal with matters. The animation style is super artistic, bringing to life the urban sensibility through a washed out approach. There are a number of thumping action sequences that have a very cool, street based sensibility to them as well, which is helped no end by a really good soundtrack.
Whilst there is no doubting that some of what went on went over my head a little, 009: Re Cyborg is an extremely interesting film. At times the film is awash with biblical references and the plot goes into some complicated territory. The latter one is a bit of an issue though. As the narrative spirals to include a U.S. government conspiracy… or something like that anyway, my mind began to wander and the film lost its grip on my focus. This is not helped by a tendency to get bogged down in religious, philosophical and psychological babble through the second half of the film. But the film on balance gets away with it all because it is so interesting. Even if you lose exactly what is happening there are still cool things to appreciate, allusions to classical private eye films and a strong thematic concern with the military industry and the disruption of peace for profit.
When 009: Re Cyborg is doing action, it is doing it awesomely. The long stretches of talking that fill in the gaps are less engaging. But if action anime is your thing, then you will probably be happy enough to sit through that for the good bits.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
At just 44 minutes long, The Garden of Words (2013) is either a long short film or a short feature. Whatever it is, it is my favourite of these Reel Anime films I have seen. It also does not really sit comfortably within the realm of any anime I have seen before.
The film is essentially a love story between a 15 year old boy and a 27 year old woman. Not a love story in the passionate erotic sense. But in the sense of a meeting of two people who need each other and complement each other so well that their connection extends beyond mere friendship. A young boy skipping school becomes intrigued by a woman who is sitting in the park one weekday morning drinking beer and eating chocolate… I get it. Who wouldn’t be intrigued. So begins the connection of these two characters in what is a really incredible character study. The filmmakers manage to jam more characterisation and interesting back-story into these 44 minutes than most filmmakers can manage in a film three times that length (six times that length if your name is Peter Jackson). One is an old fashioned soul who dreams of being a shoemaker. The other is a person who for whatever reason cannot bear to face her workplace. Together they manage to find in the other what they need, at least for a short period of time.
You often hear animators talk of the challenge that is animating water. Those behind The Garden of Words almost thumb their noses at this by opening the film with shots of an incredibly clear lake being broken by rain drops. Much of the film takes place in the pouring rain and it still manages to look sharp as anything. The animators also do incredible work of contrasting the urban and the natural. Shots of a park are cut against close-ups of a racing train wheel. Indeed this park, a natural oasis amongst the grime of the city, is where the two main characters spend most of their time. Technically the film is faultless. As a drama script, the writing is borderline perfect, not being afraid to write something thematically that is really quite adult in its intended audience. For my personal tastes, one scene toward the end did get a little too sentimental. But I am nitpicking and it did not affect my enjoyment of the film in any way. The film is ‘shot’ really creatively too, with montage, close-ups and shot composition all being used to make this a really fun and beautiful film to look at.
It has been a while since I can recall being so enamoured with a film. I just found my self so thoroughly bought in to the narrative on the screen and the two main players bringing it to life. Playing at times almost more like a hymn or a song, The Garden of Words is one to definitely check out.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
This week thanks to Madman Entertainment, you have the chance to win a copy of Ace Attorney plus two other Japanese films on DVD. Head here for all the details on how to enter.