Old Review: Arrietty

A young woman is hiding under a group of leaves with an image of a house behind her. Text below reveals the film's title and credits.Young Sho, a boy with a heart problem, is moving in with his Great-Aunt Sadako after his divorced mother had to go on a business trip. He knows that he would be kept after by Sadako and her maid Haru, but it doesn’t take long to notice they aren’t the only people living at the house. A small family of little people, Pod, Homily and Arrietty, live under the house referring to themselves as Borrowers, as they take stuff from the house that the humans won’t notice is gone in order to survive. However, during her first Borrowing, Arrietty discovers that Sho spotted her from her trip in the garden, causing their existence to be known to the humans. Even though Arrietty believes the humans won’t do any harm, past experiences has meant any human knowledge of the little people’s whereabouts causes danger, and it doesn’t help that Haru plans on catching them as soon as she finds their home. Now Arrietty needs to undo her mistakes, and despite his condition, Sho is willing to help Arrietty make sure none of her family goes into harm’s way.

While both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have considered creating an adaptation of the Borrowers for up to 40 years, Miyazaki began work on the film on July 2008 under the title “Little Arrietty”. Because Studio Ghibli has had a desperate struggle to find new directors to work on their films, Miyazaki decide to let the Studio’s long-time artist and animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi take on the role of directing, becoming the Studio’s youngest director at the age of 36. In 2009, Bretonne singer and performer Cecile Corbel sent a CD of her work to Studio Ghibli, as a fan of their work. Impressed with her music, she was hired to compose the music for the film, including the song “Arrietty’s Song” which was released as a sing less than a year prior to the film’s release. In June 2010, production was complete and the film was released on July 17th 2010. The film was premiered in France on November 30th 2010, and was released in the UK theatrically on July 29th 2011, with a US theatrical release planned in February 2012.

What’s difficult about reviewing Studio Ghibli films nowadays is that when you’ve seen one Studio Ghibli film, you’ve pretty much seen all of them, since the animation and character design has almost remained the same. However it’s difficult to treat it as a criticism since it’s still good animation, with characters moving detailed and smoothly, with even minor movements such as Sho pausing to take breaths and changes in expressions are done to a good detail so it’s clear what the actions are, but not overblown to the point of distraction, beautifully painted backgrounds and all that redundant opinionated views that are normally given to most of their films. However it is much interesting to talk about what’s new or changed in comparison to the Studio’s past titles. In some cases, the film has a great use of both background and foreground objects, particularly in the close up scenes of the garden, which really makes the environment really delightful to look at. One little detail I also like is that animals which are viewed by the Borrowers as dangerous have red eyes, which on one hand seems out of place and unrealistic but to me it a little touch that I think really adds to the creatures themselves. The only real issue I have which I vaguely remember being noticeable in Studio Ghibli’s previous film Ponyo is that the character designs appear to reduce in detail the further they appear to be, especially when they are quite far back to the point where their eyes become little dots. It’s a minor detail to get on the nerves of perfectionists so for the average viewer the animation is as good as every other Ghibli film.

The film soundtrack is mostly very calm and beautifully played. The use of mostly Celtic folk instruments is rarely seen in anime films and from someone who occasionally enjoys Celtic music it is really fun to listen to. The actual songs the play throughout the film also fit well with the scenes they play in and are worth listening to on their own, all of which were sung by Cecile Corbel and include the film’s main theme “Arrietty’s Song”, which is actually my favourite main theme in a Studio Ghibli film. Sadly there aren’t many songs which actually fit with the atmosphere and emotional impact of scenes, such as moments of suspense or signs of any tension, which means that most of those are done through the visual sense. This isn’t a really bad problem if the animation and design is good at doing that job, which it is for the most part, so if you like listening to original music for being music then you’ll love the soundtrack.

Since as of writing this, the film is currently on its UK theatrical run, so at the moment my opinion of the Japanese voice cast is based on the film trailers and clips I find. Most of the characters sound good, particularly Mirai Shida’s calm but curious personality for Arrietty and Ryunosuke Kamiki’s polite and mature young male tone for Sho, sadly I can’t find many clips of the other characters to give a good opinion but I assume that because the Japanese cast features actors which are suitable for their character’s age, appearance and attitude, along with the fact that Studio Ghibli has a good track record of a well-chosen and well rewarded voice casting that the Japanese voice cast will be really good and may be superior to any other dub by default.

What’s really unusual and intriguing about the English cast is that there is actually two, since from what I guess; Disney created both a US voice dub and a UK voice dub to gain recognisability in both countries. The US cast features Bridget Medler, David Henrie, Carol Burnett and Amy Poehler, mostly actors of US TV Dramas with the younger cast having a history with the Disney Channel, not a cast that would be known to the common UK audiences, and since the US version will not be released until February 2012 I won’t be reviewing it. The UK cast is a mixed bag, although it’s rather listenable. Arrietty, voiced by Saorise Ronan, is probably the most tolerable, since she has a nice, young and uplifting voice, and having a light British accent is effective, but while she tries to convey emotions, she doesn’t have a very noticeable range. Tom Holland and Phylida Law as Sho and his Great Aunt Sadako respectively are examples of the middle ground performances in this film, they sound like their characters but don’t really give much emotion or realism to make them memorable performances. One thing that bothered me about the voice of Sho, and I’ve noticed this in other Ghibli films is that he either sounds too old or in this case too young in comparison to the English dub. Pod and Spiller, voiced by Mark Strong and Luke Allen-Gale, on the other hand are actually quite interesting. Pod is normally sound calm and collected, but his tone stills conveys a form of authority over his wife Homily and Arrietty. Spiller, a native type of borrower, has a very minimal use of words for dialogue, but his hostile sounds and tone of voice really shows the native and wilderness personality. Either way, it’s tolerable and worth a listen.

To be honest, there isn’t much to talk about the story as a film, it’s simple and easy to follow, the amount of suspense and exploration is kept to a minimum, there is a small message about the human’s impact on the world that’s neither subtle nor forced and most of the actions and reactions of both the humans discovering the little people and the little people seeing the large world around them through their eyes is pretty much the same as other films and stories which uses that similar story element. There’s nothing terrible about it outside that it’s rather dull, but it still has a charm to it that makes it enjoyable. As an adaptation the story is viewed differently, but I don’t regard faithfulness to the original source material as form or praise or criticism because in my mind, a film is a film and a book is a book, and the word “adaptation” means the story that is written to be told through one medium is retooled so it can be told through a different medium. Anything that is lost or altered in the translation is through the choice of the writers, and they should be judged on whether it makes the telling of the story through that medium works, not whether the change makes the adaptation better or worse. So as a story for an anime film, it’s good to watch but nothing that would win the awards for storytelling because it doesn’t pull off any risks or contain any special moments. The films only problem, especially when I saw it, was Haru, Sadako’s maid and the film’s closest form of an antagonist and the problem mainly lies with the way she is portrayed. Throughout the film, she switches from quiet and shifty-eyed suspicious character to goofy and over the top villainous character constantly as she wants to catch the little people, just like Ms Driver from the novel, so most of the time I knew she was supposed to be the antagonist, but not really sure if she was meant to be the diabolically comedic or the cartoony villain, whether she is the same or different as Ms Driver in the books does not change my opinion in any way.

Overall, what we have as one of the latest from Studio Ghibli is a film to enjoy for its visual and musical appeal more than a story telling epic like Laputa or Only Yesterday. The film is worth a watch for its great design and music, although its story is nothing too special. What is special about this film is the amount of stuff done differently for a Ghibli film, and some for anime films in general, such as having a foreign musician brought on as the composer or the film internationally supported by two dubs for one language for recognisability. The film did amazingly well in Japan, especially for a debuting director, so let’s make sure this film does as well in the rest of the world.

Arrietty is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. The original novel series written by Mary Norton has been reprinted countless times and are currently available from Puffin Books. A film comic version is available from Viz Comics, but unless you haven’t read some of my past Studio Ghibli film reviews, Film comics are not worth your money unless you like seeing film screenshots pasted into pages with speech bubbles attached. Unrelated to the Ghibli film, the Borrowers has had quite a few other adaptations, some of which may be worth your time. These include a 1974 made-for-TV movie starring Eddie Albert from NBC, a 1992 miniseries and a 1993 follow up titled “Return of the Borrowers” from the BBC and Turner Home Entertainment, and a 1997 theatrical film starring John Goodman from PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.


Old Review: The Castle of Cagliostro

Legendary criminal mastermind Arsène Lupin III has succeeded at a robbery of a casino in Monaco, along with his good friend and excellent marksman, Daisuke Jigen. While celebrating in their getaway car, Lupin is disappointed to find that the bills from the loot are all fakes. He knows from a near death predicament in his past that the largest and most hidden source of fake bills come from a small Principality known as Cagliostro, so he decides that he should try and uncover the hidden mystery of the money by heading there again. Shortly after arrival, they meet a young girl named Clarisse after rescuing her from a group of thugs. She turns out to be the Princess of Cagliostro, and she is being chased by the country’s ruler, Count Cagliostro, who is forcing her to marry him so he can obtain a secret treasure hidden in the main castle. It’s up to this professional criminal to become the hero of this country, along with his friends including Jigen and samurai Goemon Ishikawa XIII, as well as his enemy Inspector Kenichi Zenigata, to solve the mystery of the fake bills and the rescue of one young princess.

In 1971, Tokyo Film Shinsha released Lupin III, an anime TV series based off the popular manga by Monkey Punch (real name Kazuhiko Katō). While most of the early episodes were directed by Masaaki Ōsumi, the series was mainly directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Although the show originally had poor ratings and after 23 episodes it was cancelled, series became so popular that a second season called “Lupin III Part 2” was made and a feature length animated film, known outside Japan as “The Secret of Mamo” was made. In 1978, after the success the second season and Mamo, Hayao Miyazaki was brought on to direct a second feature length film known as “The Castle of Cagliostro”. This was Hayao Miyazaki’s feature length directorial debut, as well as the project that began the friendship between Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, which later led to the creation of Studio Ghibli, so this film has significant importance to his career.

The animation is really fun to watch, it has the feel of a 1980s and 1990s anime series. It can get over the top and some of the movements are exaggerated, but not in a bad way as you can tell the animators were having fun turning a cheesy criminal TV series into a feature length ride. The animation can get quite good at times, and the action scenes do keep your attention throughout the experience.  The character design for the most part is faithful to the anime series, but for some reason like in Chie the Brat, two characters in particular, some of the characters look different from all of the other characters. They are well drawn and Count Castliogro’s design really suits his slimy personality, reminiscent of a James Bond villain.

The music is also fun to listen to, especially if are into cheesy secret agent, police squad and criminal heist TV shows and films. It’s very jazzy and 1970s, with the occasional orchestral pieces for the serious drama. It’s the kind of soundtrack that’s hard to critics, although the music can occasionally be repetitive and I personally don’t enjoy the vocal tracks. I think anyone can like this soundtrack, but if you are into the kind of TV shows I mentioned before, you’ll probably love the soundtrack more.

The Japanese cast consists of the main cast from the anime series such the late Yasuo Yamada as Lupin III and Goro Naya, a set of well-known Japanese voice actors who do an alright job and work well with the character traits, Lupin being crafty but fun loving criminal, Jigen being the gruff and sometimes comical side kick and Zenigata being the uptight police officer for example. As far as the other cast members, they are alright, nothing too special. The Count sounds like your average mysterious villain and his servant sounds as slimy as ever. There are two dubs that have been released, but sadly I only own the oldest and easily available version in the UK, which was done by Streamline in 1991. Despite this, I don’t believe the more recent dub that Manga did in 2000, is any better. Granted the Streamline version uses an altered script from the original Japanese version, but I think the voice acting and even the dialogue is better as an English dub of an anime compared to the later version. Some of the voices in the Manga version are a lot more gruff and raspy, which doesn’t sound right.

What I found really interesting about the story is that, when you think about it, a young and adventurous guy trying to protect a young and shy girl, who is actually a member of a Royal Family, from a slimy political man, who is also technically a member of the same Royal Family, who wants her for a piece of jewellery which holds a key to some source of great wealth and power. It makes me think that the plot here bears some striking resemblance to a later epic from Miyazaki, Laputa: Castle of the Sky. Even the princess Clarisse and the Count’s designs and characters also share similarities to later Miyazaki characters. Many fans of the franchise consider this the best Lupin film to date and it’s easy to see why. You don’t need to be a Lupin fan to enjoy this film, I only knew of Lupin when I first saw this. My only real problem is that the romance between Lupin III and Clarisse seems tact on and there are one or two plot holes, mainly involving Jigen and Goemon. Other than those problems, this is a really fun film, and it was a great debut of the great animator Hayao Miyazaki.

The Castle of Cagliostro is available from Manga Entertainment and Optimum Releasing. The previous anime film, “The Secret of Mamo”, directed by Sōji Yoshikawa, is also available from Manga Entertainment. A third film titled “Legend of the Gold Babylon”, directed by Seijun Suzuki and Shigetsugu Yoshida, was available from AnimEigo but apparently it is currently available from Walt Disney, a fourth film titled “Farewell to Nostradamus” directed by Shunya Itō, is available from FUNimation. The first and a later third season of Lupin III are apparently not available officially in western areas, but the second season was available from Geneon. The original and a later manga subtitled “World’s Most Wanted”, both by Monkey Punch, are available from Tokyopop.

Old Review: Howl’s Moving Castle

Howl's Moving CastleSophie Hatter is a young woman who works in a hat shop, while it is not the life she wants she is happy to take it after the death of her father. She lives a normal life but after getting harassed by some soldiers down an alleyway, she meets a mysterious and caring wizard who goes by the name of Howl. While people warn that Howl is an evil man who eats the hearts of beautiful women, he is nice and charming enough to rescue Sophie from the soldiers, along with some strange blob men, and safely fly her back to her home. The bizarreness of the day doesn’t end there, as an evil witch known as the Witch on the Waste finds out about her meeting with Howl and puts a curse on her to take the appearance of a 90 year-old woman, and is unable to tell anyone about it. Wanting to lift this curse, she goes on a journey across the wastelands, and with the help of a magical scarecrow, she finds none other than a walking and possibly living castle that Howl calls his home. After getting to know the other residents of the house, including a talking fire demon known as Calcifer, Sophie finds out that she’s not only the only person with a mysterious curse, and there is more to see from Howl and his Moving Castle.

Not long after Spirited Away was released (2001), Hayao Miyazaki wanted to retire as a director, stating that he would only be involved in Studio Ghibli as either a writer or producer for the animated shorts that feature at the Ghibli Museum. In the same year, it was decided that the next film would be an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Dianna Wynne Jones, and the role of director was not given to Miyazaki, Takahata, nor any other director or animator from Studio Ghibli. It was given to Mamoru Hosoda, a director from Toei Animation who at the time was most well known for directing both the “Digimon Adventure” film and “Digimon: Our War Game!”, which were both compiled along with a third film “Digimon: Hurricane Touchdown”, to become the theatrically released “Digimon: The Film”. Due to creative differences between him and the executives at Studio Ghibli, Hosoda left the production in around the summer of 2002, and the project was left in limbo. Interested in the idea, Miyazaki proposed to direct the film himself. After the project was rebooted, development of the film lasted two years, and Dianna Wynne Jones herself was one of the first people to see the film in 2004 at a private screening in England.

The animation is for Studio Ghibli standards, really good. There is a lot of detail and realism in even the movements of the more fantasy characters. At most times it is very smooth and once again, a lot of effort was clearly put in it. The overall design borrows inspiration from early 20th Century Britain, and it looks brilliant, the colours and the attention to detail really gives the idea of a classic old fashioned setting. It looks like you are really there in that time, even with the walking mechanical houses, tanks and flying warheads. Even the dark scenes of battles and magical elements are really colourful and atmospheric.

My only really issues are the designs of the Castle and Calcifer. To me, the Moving Castle looks weird and out-of-place. It looks all dark and rusty, with the appearance of several animals. Calcifers design is also strange, in the original novel he is literally meant to have the appearance of a demon of fire, looking kind of frightening but easy to look at. Since this is a Miyazaki film, Calcifer’s design is toned down to look like the slime from Dragon Quest games. This childlike design means you can’t take him seriously, but since he is portrayed as a comic relief character, the design does work. The Witch of the Waste’s character design is a bit off some of the time, looking like a large blob more than an overweight woman, but there’s not much wrong the character design beyond that.

The music is really good, and I think it is really underrated soundtrack of Hisaishi’s work. The melodies are really nice and slow, the use of instruments from accordions to pianos adds to the overall setting in the film. There are also great use of silent and action heavy scenes. The only time I remember the soundtrack going off its path is in this one scene where a witch uses her spell to unveil Howl’s “true form” by using fire spirits around him, not shown due to spoilers sadly, and there are childish chanting music which sounds great, but doesn’t fit with the rest of the music in the film.

The Japanese voice cast is ok, but not great or impressive. Most of the cast is bland but I give credit to Chieko Baishô for voicing both the Young and Old versions of Sophie, since she does put a good effort giving a contrast to the tone of voices to give a change in age. Calcifer’s voice is also funnier in the Japanese version, done by Tatsuya Gashûin. However, I think the English version is the superior dub. All of the cast do a really good job, from Josh Hutcherson’s young and innocent voice for the wizard apprentice Markl, Billy Crystal’s quirky and humorous portrayal as Calcifer and Lauren Bacall gives an up-class but evil witch like tone as the Witch of the Waste. The two best portrayals happen to be the main characters, Sophie and Howl. Sophie is portrayed by both Emily Mortimer and the late Jean Simmons; the character was one of the latter’s final roles and while both are different actresses, they do a really good job trying to sound similar, while Emily Mortimer I believe sounds weak in her performance as the young Sophie, the older Sophie is very sweet and lovable. Howl is portrayed by Christian Bale and my god does he sound awesome, Bale offers a very dark tone which adds to the mystery of the character, yet he shows emotions like both a child and an adult so he is a well rounded character to say the least.

While this is one of the few animes which I read the original source material for, it isn’t really necessary to compare a film to a book. Since Miyazaki uses the source material as a basis and not a storyline, it’s obvious both versions would be different, and Calcifer’s design is only one example of the things that are different. As a film, I think it’s a story that doesn’t know what genre it is, there is a romance between Sophie and Howl, and there are elements of both realism and fantasy, but it doesn’t feel like a fantasy or a romance film. One minor problem I find with the film is that there are things in the ending in particular which don’t really make sense on a first viewing or maybe even a second viewing for some people, and other things aren’t even explained that well. What the story does have is great characters, which really develop like relatable people. Even the Witch of the Waste, shows a nice and peaceful side to her.

Overall, while I don’t think its Miyazaki’s greatest film, it is definitely a great film with a brilliant set of characters and a great musical score. Even if it’s a weak adaption, and on its own not a great story, it has a great set of characters and environments so it is certainly worth viewing.

Howl’s Moving Castle is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. The original novel by Diana Wynne Jones, originally released in 1986, has been reprinted many times and is currently available from HarperCollins. Jones later wrote two sequels, “Castle in the Air” in 1990, and “House of Many Ways” in 2008, both of which are also currently available from HarperCollins.

Old Review: Spirited Away

Chihiro is a young girl who is moving with her family to a new home, which she dislikes because she has to leave all her old friends behind and make new ones. Before her family can get to their new home, her father took the wrong turn and end up being blocked by a strange statue and a long tunnel. They all decide to explore, despite Chihiro’s doubts, and find what they think is an abandoned theme park. Went Chihiro later explores on her own, she later finds that this isn’t at all a normal abandoned theme park, but a Land of Spirits. As the day turns to night, spirits start appearing and her parents turn into pigs. To avoid any more danger, a new friend of hers named Haku leads her the way to work in the main attraction of the town, the Bath House, ran by an evil witch called Yubaba, who makes spirits and people slaves forever by taking their name. Chihiro now needs to use all her strength and skills to free herself from Yubaba, save her parents and leave this strange world behind.

In 1998, Studio Ghibli had hit a really hard curve, as long time art director and long time friend of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Yoshifumi Kondo, died of an aneurysm at the age of 47, with the most likely cause was exhaustion from excess work. In the same year, Hayao Miyazaki said in an interview that because of his age and the amount of work he did from Princess Mononoke, he stated that Mononoke “will be the last (feature-length) film that I make in this way”, since he checked every key frame of animation, and redrew them himself. Many people thought he was going to retire completely, and he even built up a new studio, formally leaving Studio Ghibli. Fortunately in the end he moved back to Studio Ghibli, willing to help with productions for writing and producing.

The inspiration for the film came from meeting a group of long time friends on a regular summer vacation at a log cabin, where he wanted to make a film about a 10 year old girl that other girls could look up to. After three project proposals, the film was finally in production in 2000. A lot of scenes were hand drawn, but digitally coloured and processed, and to keep with the deadlines, Studio Ghibli doubled their staff, and were successfully able to release the film on time on July 27th 2001.

The animation is overall very good; a large portion of it is very smooth and realistic, and the very small 3D effects blend very well with the 2D effects. There is a lot of action that still keeps the flow and detail of the more calm scenes, so you can tell how much effort was put into this production.

The art style is more natural, even when a lot of the film takes place in spiritual settings. The design of the backgrounds and environments are possibly the best since Pom Poko.

The music is brilliantly composed but not memorable, I do give credit to Joe Hisaishi for the amount of effort he put into the orchestra scores, since they definitely add atmosphere and tension to some of the early scenes, and the traditional Japanese style pieces really work well with the spirits. My only problem is with the music that plays in the credits and the main theme song of the film, it definitely fits the overall theme of the film lyrics wise and it’s possibly the most memorable track in the film, but its style is a large contrast to Joe Hisaishi’s work.

The voice acting in both Japanese and English are very good, but I’m not entirely sure which one is better overall. On one hand, I find Daveigh Chase does a better job at portraying Chihiro than Rumi Hiiragi, performance wise, and both versions have a decent cast. On the other hand, Yubaba’s portrayal in the English version done by Suzanne Pleshette is slightly weaker when compared to Mari Natsuki, and for some reason Disney thought that more people needed to talk or have extra lines, and while it does at a little bit more atmosphere to the idea of a populated bathhouse but it sounds strange that all the spirits speak English in thick accents and was it really necessary? I guess if you prefer watching animes in Japanese, then you are better off watching it in Japanese, but in the end you’ll get the same exact experience if you watch it with English, minus the subtitles and with a little extra dialogue.

Like many people, this was the film that got me into Studio Ghibli and anime films in general, and the main reason if for the story. It is very well done, and the main character Chihiro is very likable and recognisable, and how she progresses from nervous to strong and confident really makes people want to encourage her to go on with her adventure. Other protagonists such as Haku, Yubaba’s henchman who knows Chihiro from sometime in the past, Lin, one of the bathtub cleaners who helps Chihiro with her time and Kamaji, a spiderlike wizard who works in the boiler room are all very well written and likable too. Even the villains are really well presented, there’s even a side-antagonist only known as a “No-Face” whose presence always gives a bizarre yet exciting impression whenever it appears…up until the end when it goes fat and greedy and ends up becoming just bizarre.

From beginning to end this film is wonderful in one way or another, and to me, this film never gets old. It is easy to see why this is Hayao Miyazaki’s best work and one of the best anime films in history, so if you haven’t seen it then you must have been living under a rock for way too long.

Spirited Away is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. A film comic adaptation is available from Viz Communications, but unless you like screenshots from the film arranged like a manga, it is a waste of money. A novel called Spirited Away (The Mysterious Town Behind The Fog) written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, which Miyazaki used as an influence early on in the film’s development, was translated into Italian but is officially unavailable in English.

Old Review: Princess Mononoke

It is late in the Mouromachi Era; a Giant Demon Boar suddenly charges and attacks a nearby village, where the last Emishi Prince Ashitaka lives. He is able to defeat the Giant Boar but his arm was struck and has developed a cursed wound, which would eventually kill him and turn him into a demon himself. Left with this possible fate, Ashitaka leaves the village and heads west to find a cure.
After finding two survivors, he arrives at a large town in the mountains called Iron Town, which clear forests to dig and produce charcoal and iron. The leader of the Town, Lady Eboshi, and her army are at war with the creatures of the forest, with one of her biggest enemies being a Shishigami which takes the resemblance of a deer and a group of large wolves which includes a woman named San, who people call the Wolf Girl or the Princess Mononoke.

Ashitaka and San need the power of the forest and the Shishigami to stay alive or the world around them could be filled with death, and Ashitaka could never be cured from his curse.

The history of this film is actually longer and more in-depth than what people normally think of this film, but I’ll give the brief run-down. Miyazaki had an early concept for a film titled “Mononoke Hime”, a literal Romanised Japanese name of Princess Mononoke, drawn back in 1981. The story was about a young girl who was forced to marry a Mononoke, aka a spirit, by her father. It was pitched in 1982 along with Nausicaa and Laputa, but was rejected for being an original idea. It was then pitched as the next film after the release of Nausicaa, but Laputa was eventually decided as the next film. The story of Princess Mononoke was completely rewritten and it is believed early version became a  manga Miyazaki wrote called the Journey of Shuna, first released in 1983, which was also seen as an influence for Nausicaa. Over the next 8 years, Miyazaki continuously changed the story and the characters drastically, but finally got his final story after visiting the Yakushima Island. However, at the time for deciding his next film, he was stuck between both Princess Mononoke, which the storyboards were unfinished, and Boro the Caterpillar, a kid’s film about the life of a tiny caterpillar and its large adventures. Producer Toshio Suzuki advised him to do Princess Mononoke, as it might be the last action film he could make. So on August 1994, production began, and because the storyboards weren’t finished until months before the planned premiere, along with the amount of work put forward, the film was released on July of 1997 in Japan.

For Studio Ghibli standards, the animation is outstanding, with smooth and realistic character movements, perfectly animated action sequences and great focus on detail. At the time, Princess Mononoke was the most expensive Japanese animated feature as well as the longest, a record the film kept until the release of Steamboy by Otomo. To speed up production some of the scenes had Computer Generated animations and artwork created and added within the traditionally animated stuff, and it blends in so well it’s very difficult to point out what was actually digitally animated.

The art style is also brilliant, showing several blends of green, brown, blue and red with some great character designs to go, seeing how this came out in the same year as Neon Genesis Evangelion, an anime series that had great animation for its time, this film would easily be considered a masterpiece and stands well with more recent anime feature films.

The music is great; however it’s not much a hit and miss, but a homerun and bunt. Some of the tracks are really beautiful, striking and very memorable, and go really well with the scenes they are in, but other tracks aren’t that great in comparison. The main theme written by Joe Hisaishi is clearly the best track in the entire film and the singer Yoshikazu Mera adds to the brilliance this track has. The English version is worse by comparison but it’s easily listenable, but people hate on it anyway. Despite this, I still think it’s forgivable at least.

The voice acting the Japanese version is great like other Studio Ghibli films, but I still firmly believe it doesn’t hold a torch compared to Pom Poko. Most of the actors put a lot of emotion and definitely put effort into their character. I find Ashitaka kind of bland but Yoji Matsuda isn’t as bad as his English portrayal done by Billy Crudup.

Then we get to the main criticism of this film, the English cast. I agree that this is one of the dullest, but not the worst, casts I’ve seen in a Ghibli film. This was Disney’s first effort to try and bring interest for Studio Ghibli across the general western audience, after securing the theatrical and video rights to all of Ghibli’s theatrical releases, and had a cast full of award winning actors but they had to choose the wrong award winning actors and my general first impression of most of the voices were dull and bland, leaving almost no impression.

The story in Princess Mononoke is probably the hardest one I will ever write about in a review for two reasons. The first reason is that this is a very well loved film with a large fan base and was the film that helped Japanese Animation gain recognition among the western theatrical film demographic, so criticising it too much is wrong, and I like the film as much as anyone else who has seen it. The second reason is that it is difficult for me to find why it is so good, because the only spoiler warning I’m giving you in this review is that the most basic plot summary is that bad guys fight nature, San and Ashitaka work with nature to fight back, and because they did: nature wins, the bad guys give up and the environment is back to normal. In its most basic form, it’s like all the environmental films that bore me. But why don’t I dislike the story of Mononoke like I do with the story of Avatar?

I think the reason is because once you look into it further, it’s not as standard as one would first glance. One reason is that the main focus for most of the characters, the Shishigami, is not the god or spirit that people expect, it gives and takes lives from people, and it doesn’t care about other beings, and it doesn’t need any dialogue to show this. But like I said before, it’s very difficult for me to say. Really, if you look at a preview and are impressed at what you see, then you have absolutely no reason to pass on it, because you’ll walk away feeling satisfied or grateful for watching an animated masterpiece.

Princess Mononoke is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. Journey of Shuna, also known as Shuna’s Voyage, the manga that was believed to be the influence for Mononoke has not been released to Western audiences but has been fan translated and could be easily found online.

Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

In the time heading up to the Tokyo Olympics, development is occurring round the city and nearby areas to prepare for the big event. A young high school girl named Umi lives near a harbour, and regularly raises signal flags out to the ocean, as she was taught by her father who died in the Korean War. On a regular day at school she comes across a boy named Shun, an editor for the school newspaper and the leader of a protest group that wants the school to keep an old boys clubhouse, which is planned to be demolished for a new building in preparation for the Olympics. While reluctant at first, Umi finds a liking to Shun’s effort and personality and helps out with the newspaper as well as encourage most of the female students to volunteer cleaning and restoring the building. All seems to be going well until it is discovered that the principle is going forward with demolishing the building, as well as both Shun and Umi discovering something about their lives that means they may never be together like they wanted to be. Continue reading

Old Review: Porco Rosso

Porco RossoIt is 1929; the Adriatic Sea is a common area for pilots, including sea pirates. The only pilot in that part of the ocean that keeps the sea pirates under control, whether they like it or not, is a bounty hunter named “Porco Rosso”, a former World War I pilot who left the Italian Air Force because of their fascist ways. Because he became disillusioned with humanity, he was cursed to take the appearance of a pig. Porco’s bounty hunting days are now hanging in the balance when an American pilot by the name of Donald Curtis joins the side of the sea pirates to take him down. Along with his relationship with his long-time friend Gina, and a young engineer Fio, as well as the Italian government on his back, Porco needs to find out how many flying days he has left, and whether he can understand if it is good to be human.

The day after Only Yesterday was released; Hayao Miyazaki immediately began his next film. An agreement was made with Japan Airlines to create a 30-45 minute animated film to be shown in flights on the airline. Hayao Miyazaki wanted to make “a film which tired businessmen on international flights can enjoy, even with their minds dulled due to lack of oxygen.”, since his first major interest was on air planes (which he has had since childhood), he decided to make the film based on the manga “The Age of the Flying Boat”, which he wrote back in 1990 for a scale model magazine. His imagination expanded so much that the short film became a 1 ½ hour feature film, with characters being more fleshed out than in the manga. It was released on July 18th 1992, Japan Airlines was still interested in releasing it as an in-flight film, so Studio Ghibli had a text introduction written in ten languages, and Tokuma hired studios to dub it into other languages including English, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

The animation is good for Studio Ghibli’s standards, but it doesn’t look at all impressive when I watched it, there are a few scenes where effort is put in but this is definitely not an anime film to watch for its animation. I do give credit to the film’s animators though, there are some great scenes that show large groups of people, not one either looks alike, doing the exact same actions or just stays in one spot, each member of this crowd scene is truly individual and to me, that is great animation.

The art style is surprisingly similar to Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is weird because these are completely different films. So it’s bright and colourful, and there is a sense of realism, instead some of the scenes are based on a real-life city of Milan. The film is also a homage to classic fighter planes, so the design of each plane is taken into great lengths to ensure that the designs are accurate to the originals, when I researched and compared them to the real planes, thought they were pretty accurate, though if you know a lot about classic air planes you’ll probably spot errors, which makes the film all the more fun for you.

Unfortunately this film has a good but forgettable soundtrack, the only track that is memorable is the main theme, a French song called “Le Temps de Cerises” (The Time of Cherries), which the composer Joe Hisaishi didn’t write or compose. Despite that it is a very good song, the performance was simple and beautiful to listen to, the song itself suits Porco’s character (it’s about the Paris Commune, and the loss of life in the days that are gone), and it is sung by the actress of Gina herself, Tokiko Kato, and it is kept in every version of the film. The other tracks vary from the slight comic-relief for the bumbling sea pirates to dramatic and fast paced for most of the air battle scenes.

What makes this film’s voice acting so interesting is that I don’t know what dub is superior. Since the film was made for international audiences there has been a divide on what version is the most superior. While I do like the Japanese dub, with Shuichiro Moriyama giving an old and low-pitched voice for Porco and Tokiko Kato giving a calm classic style singer voice for Gina, and the English dub by Disney really does a good job keeping the original style of the Japanese performances with English actors, including the most notable being Michael Keaton as Porco. However from my research, a lot of people, including Hayao Miyazaki himself, believe the French dub, with Jean Reno as Porco, is the most superior dub. I have watched a clip of it, and it’s good even for a French dub, but I still prefer the Japanese and English dub

The one thing that this film is worth watching for is its story, it is part action, part romance and part drama with a little pinch of comedy. There is some really good character development between Porco and Gina, each having one very good scene together, with Porco talking about a moment in his past being very calm and eerie, although whoever they cast as Porco from the past in the Japanese version deserves way more credit than a younger sounding Michael Keaton, his performance is excellent and drives the scene brilliantly. However, if there was anything to take back after watching this it isn’t really Porco and Gina, but the large family team consisting entirely of women that help Porco rebuild his plane. Because all the men in the family moved to the larger cities to get jobs, all of the women are the only people to help, with a 16 year old Fio being the plane’s engineer. While Porco is reluctant to all of this, after seeing how dedicated all of them work, he changes his mind and is proud of what they’ve done, yes it is a feminist scene but unless you are sexist, the entire act that it takes place will probably be the most memorable scene in the entire film. If I did had to nit-pick and create some spoilers then my only problem is the ending, since there is very little change to any of the characters, it pulls of a really silly cliché for a serious film and it just ends on a monologue that really states the obvious. But overall, Porco Rosso is a very nice and moving romance with a lot of heart put into it, very memorable scenes and very good characters which lead an impression, no matter what language you watch it in.

Porco Rosso is available from Walt Disney and Optimum releasing. The original manga written by Hayao Miyazaki titled “The Age of the Flying Boat” was translated by Matt Thorn and was published in Animerica Magazine, but it’s still available (in some form) by Viz Media. In a September 2010 interview, Hayao Miyazaki mentioned one future film idea he has being a follow up story called “Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie” which would possibly be set in the Spanish Civil War period, although whether it will actually be made will be up to Studio Ghibli on a whole.