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.

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Old Review: Tokyo Godfathers

Tokyo GodfathersIt is Christmas time in Tokyo, where the unfortunate truth is that the homeless still have to manage their lives. The story focuses on three of these homeless people: Gin, a 40 year old alcoholic with a rough attitude, Hana, a homosexual who used to be a drag queen for a small bar, and Miyuki, a teenage runaway girl who fears of getting arrested. Despite their troubles and their conflicting attitudes towards each other, they are good friends who stick together and help one another to manage living on the streets. On Christmas Day, while looking through a garbage heap, they find an abandoned newborn baby, with no name and its box containing a note wanting the finder to take good care of the child and a locker key. Despite Hana arguing to take care of the now named baby Kiyoko themselves, they all agree to use their first clue to find Kiyoko’s missing parents, and along the way confront their hidden pasts to discover how they ended up on the streets, why they are who they are, and if they find a way to leave their problems for good.

This was Satoshi Kon’s third film after Millenium Actress, which he directed and co-wrote with Wolf’s Rain creator Keiko Nobumoto. At the time it was his most expensive production, with a 300 million yen budget. Apparently it was inspired by a late 40s western film called “3 Godfathers” but for some reason I can’t find any other information about the history of this film. It first premiered at New York’s “Big Apple Anime Festival” and then theatrically premiered in Japan on the 8th November 2003.

The animation for this is strange; it doesn’t look strange but it doesn’t make sense. At some points, particularly early on the animation looks really lazy, with almost no movements or effort for a realistic effect, and at a few points it’s really good, including some really fun action scenes being really fast paced and eye catching. The film also tries to add the comedic style of conventional anime TV series by making the characters have some really goofy facial expressions, mainly Hana which is fitting because her character and personality have a lot of comedic ideas for him. The art style is very fitting with the characters we have, Tokyo is dark and grim even in daylight, a fitting representation for city life and living homeless, and the winter effects are minimal, to give a realistic setting of a winter season. The opening sequence is unimpressive; I see the clever effect of using signs and billboards for the credit text, but it comes completely out of nowhere, and it doesn’t show any sign of interest.

The music is unusual, even for a Satoshi Kon film, unfortunately Susumu Hirasawa, who did Millenium Actress and Paprika, wasn’t involved in this film. To be honest, Keiichi Suzuki does a good job creating a high quality score, but I’m not sure if it is really fitting. The opening theme is upbeat, happy and fits the comedic aspect of the film, but right before was a calm melodramatic piece, so when it cuts to this it’s really out of place. The other music is ok, but like I said, it doesn’t really fit. The accordion pieces do sound sweet in some scenes, and one of the flashback scenes have unsettling, so I think it’s either a minor nit-pick or poor sound mixing.

The voice acting in the Japanese version is very good; Yoshiaki Umegaki gives a masculine voice in a feminine tone for Hana, Aya Okamoto acts like a defiant teenager, but with a subtle soft side. Tōru Emori does have the rough, wasted guy attitude, but for the most part is pretty weak. They didn’t use an actual baby for the voice of Kiyoko, but Japanese seiyū Satomi Kōrogi does at least sound like a convincing baby, and this is coming from the voice of the Pokemon Togepi. For one moment in the film there are Spanish dialogue sequences, which I do admit is well implemented in the Japanese dub. Sadly there isn’t an English dub, so if you want to watch this, then get use to reading subtitles.

I have no idea what kind of film this is; it does have a good amount of funny moments, well-timed and in some cases very subtle in design, yet for a storyline about three homeless people wanting to take an abandoned baby to its parents, the film doesn’t treat itself as a comedy.

There are a lot of serious and dramatic dialogues which are used to explain the three main character’s back-stories, Miyuki’s is much less than the others, but the way they show her back-story actually makes the most sense out of all three. She ran away because she is scared of being arrested by her father, who’s a police detective, even when they are worried about her and want to come back. Gin kind of makes sense, since it’s understandable why he couldn’t face being a terrible father, although I don’t get why he had to make an elaborate story to hide it. What the trailer says about Hana is a lie; her past is in no way amazing. He lost his boyfriend, and soon after attacked a rude and heavily drunk customer for insulting him, but why that meant she ran away and became homeless I have no idea.

What bothered me the most about this film is that there are some points which aren’t explained, one example being the whole sequence with Miyuki being taken hostage by a Spanish crime member, who shot this guy while attempting to assassinate this executive at a party, which you’ll need to see the film if you want to understand what went on to lead to that point. While it is clever how they set the dialogue so that Miyuki doesn’t understand what he or his wife are saying because of the language barrier, it’s clear that it was there to set up Miyuki for her back story, and nothing from the scene is ever mentioned again. The film has a really good twist near the end of the film and the finale ties up some loose ends very well, but the very ending is anti-climactic and finish with a weird and out-of-place credits animation.

Would I recommend these film fans of Satoshi Kon? Yes, why wouldn’t I, it’s close to his style of story and animation. Would I recommend this to anyone else? Probably not, at least not until you see his other works.

Tokyo Godfathers is available from Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Old Review: Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

Ponyo on the Cliff by the SeaPonyo is a magical goldfish that lives at the very bottom of the ocean with all her sisters and her father, Fujimoto. Use to be one himself, Fujimoto hates humans because of how much they pollute the ocean, and kill the life of the fish and sea mammals that live in it for food. Because of this, he plans to eventually reset the world’s balance back to the Devonian era by using an Elixir well, and keeps his children secure so they never meet any life that lives on land. That doesn’t stop Ponyo, as one day she sneaks out and becomes trapped in a jar and washes on the shore on a seaside town and is rescued by a young boy called Sōsuke, who takes care of her and gives her the name Ponyo. Her father finds out where she is, believed to have been kidnapped by the humans, and uses the spirits to retrieve her, but she wants to go back to Sōsuke and be a human herself. So when Fujimoto leave her, her sisters help her escape, accidentally overflows the Elixir well, causing her to both gain the appearance of a human and use the magical powers of the ocean, but also cause mass floods and hurricanes, flooding almost the entire planet and causing the Earth’s gravitational pull to go out of balance. The Goddess of the Ocean, and Ponyo’s mother, is able to restore the Earth back to normal if the relationship between Ponyo and Sōsuke is strong enough for Ponyo to live as a human being, so it is up to them both to pass this test and restore the Earth to what it was.

In 2005, Hayao Miyazaki spent a holiday at the seaside town of Tomonoaura, the imagery of the town and what was in the town gave Miyazaki the inspiration for the story and setting for the film, he also took inspiration from The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian-Andersen, and is also be inspired by Richard Wagner’s opera Die Walküre. Production for the film began on October 2006, and in a bold move for Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki decided that the majority of the film will be hand drawn, feeling that it is the best way to express the motion of the sea and waves, the only use of computers were for colouring. Over 170,000 frames were drawn, which for the amount of frames – time ratio, is a record for a feature length Miyazaki film. It was finally released on July 19th 2008 in Japan, and later won the award of Animation of the Year in the Japanese Academy Awards. It was later released on August 9th 2009 in America where it opened in 927 theatres, reaching 9th on the US Box Office Charts and 5th in the US Overall Box Office Charts for Anime. The film finally reached the UK on February 12th 2010, and it was the first time I saw this film in theatres before buying the DVD.

Like other Hayao Miyazaki films, the animation is wonderful. Characters move smoothly and realistically, the amount of little detail like the way the character’s clothes move against both calm and heavy winds feel very real. Some of the scenes such as Ponyo running on the top of the ocean look really impressive, it’s kind of hard to believe these scenes were completely hand drawn. The art style is very colourful, and really gives the feel of both the mystical blue ocean and the vibrant summer feel of the seaside town.

While the character designs of the human characters are standard for a Studio Ghibli, very human like, the non-human characters are the more interesting in design, on first impressions Fujimoto looked very bizarre and when I first saw him I had no clue what gender he was, since he look like he was a drag queen or something, the goddess of the ocean, known as Granmamare, looks very beautiful, with the glowing nature giving her the enchanted feel of a peaceful entity. Ponyo has three designs, her fish design is slightly confusing, since she’s meant to be a fish, but she has a human face and it takes a while before a human character notices her face, but it is simple and the face does show her as being more than a simple fish and allows her to be expressive. Her human design is kind of normal, but not too normal to make her look too different from her fish counterpart, I did find it funny that she looks like she wears a huge diaper however. She also has this weird design which is meant to be her in-between phase, the best explanation to describe it was it was Kermit the Frog wearing a dress and twigs for limbs and it just looks weird. One fact about the character design is that Sōsuke is based on Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki, while it’s interesting seeing as how both have had a difficult relationship since Goro was the Director of Tales from Earthsea, but in reality I don’t care.

The music is very catchy and memorable, another good score from Joe Hisaishi. The music really fits the mood of the settings and the main theme “Gake no Ue no Ponyo” is so catchy it’s easy to hum it. Then there is the English…why do I have to talk about this? Well, for people who don’t know, in the English version, not only did Disney record a translated version, but they also made a remix, done in the style common with Disney’s modern “hip” style, both with vocals done by the main two cast members, Noah Cyrus and Frankie Jonas, and both versions were shown in the film’s ending credits. I have heard both the English and the Original Japanese versions and yes, I hate the named “Disneyfied” Ponyo remix, but upon release everyone kept ranting about it and some went to say it ruined the film overall. For the only time I’m gonna be on Disney’s defence, let me say that these ranters are really going too far with this criticism. There are perfectly good reasons why this was done and while it should be allowed in:

  1. Disney marketed this film for kids in general, not anime goers. I do believe that anime goers would want to see this film, but I highly doubt there were many people that stayed until the very end of the credits, when the remix was playing. Whenever I see a film, everyone leaves at the start of the credits.
  2. There was a literal translation of the theme at the start of the credits, and it is nicely done, yet no one gives any opinion or mentions the existence of it.
  3. I watched from beginning to end the full Japanese version, and at the second half of the credit sequence was two minutes of silence, if that was in the English version I would be surprised if the audience were bored out of their mind watching the credits.

The voice acting in the Japanese version is very nice, but it doesn’t really have a lasting impression for me. Yuria Nara and Hiroki Doi are great child actors, and really add to the young innocence of both Ponyo and Sōsuke. George Tokoro has a serious tone, showing him as a strict father figure. I honestly had no hope whatsoever for the English Cast, having Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sōsuke, the younger siblings of the two things that I hate about Disney for the past three years was not something I wanted to see, and even though it had Oskar Schindler as Fujimoto as well both Cate Blanchett and Matt Damon, I wasn’t expecting anything good. When I saw the film, it honestly wasn’t bad. Frankie Jonas doesn’t put as much effort but he does make Sōsuke a likable, smart and caring child, Noah Cyrus is very energetic and happy, although she can be a little whiney in her tone. Liam Neeson as Fujimoto is just hilarious, he does use his normal speaking voice and does give a serious tone that has the similar effect Tokoro did, but during the more comical scenes, he makes them really funny. Yuki Amami and Cate Blanchett are both equally good at portraying Granmamare, sounding calm and soft, very royally as well.

After re-watching all of my Studio Ghibli films these past few months, I’ve noticed something about Miyazaki’s films. When he makes a film for a general audience, like Nausicaa, Mononoke and even Spirited Away, they are overall very good films, with a brilliant array of characters, straightforward yet diverse storylines, with great visuals and music, and they feel just as realistic as live-action films. However, when he makes a film specifically for children in mind like My Neighbour Totoro, they are good films, but they lack in their story and realism. In this case, Ponyo is definitely a good film, it has a good sense of humour and it has a great storyline, but like the first half hour of Totoro, there are moments which are practically just padding for the best scenes. There are also some moments which don’t really make that much sense, like when the Tsunami begins and the sailors don’t notice the humongous fishes that resemble the waves, although one notices Ponyo running on them, I guess you really need to put a lot of imagination and initiative in this film, and since it’s a kid film you should expect to buy a lot. The story does have a great influence on The Little Mermaid, but unlike the Disney film, this one focuses more on both the main characters and the idea of nature and the relationship between Ponyo and Sōsuke.

Overall, Ponyo is a sweat and lovely film, both brilliant in its music and imagery. While it’s not perfect as a film overall, it’s certainly a film kids will love, and even if you are not a kid, it’s definitely worth a watch.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. A 4 volume film comic is available from Viz Media but as I’ve always said about film comics, they are not worth your time and money.

Old Reviews: Tales from Earthsea

In Earthsea, the world is falling out of balance, as livestock and crops are dying; the sea current flows uncontrollably and even mystical creatures are fighting against each-other. While searching for the cause of this unbalance, Ged, a powerful wizard known by many as Sparrowhawk, finds a young man named Arren, a Prince who has ran away from his kingdom after killing his father. Arren accompanies Ged to the large city of Hortown, where he rescues a slave girl called Therru, only to be later captured and taken as a slave himself. After being rescued by Ged, and later working at a farm, meeting Therru, we later discover that the change in balance of the world is being caused by an evil Wizard known as Cob, who is trying to search for a secret entity for his own desires, and Arren is revealed to obtain this entity. It is up to Arren, Ged and Therru to stop Cob in his plan and restore the balance of the world of Earthsea.

While originally created for a short story four years earlier, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series began in 1968, and to date has had seven books to its name. For many years, directors have tried to write film adaptations of the series, but she had constantly refused offers to allow an adaptation to be made. One of the directors that tried to adapt the series was Hayao Miyazaki. Being a fan of the seriess since reading the first novel in the late 1960s, he has made references to characters, scenes and settings to almost every film he either animated or directed, most notably Hols: Prince of the Sun, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke. He tried to pitch an adaptation to Ursula in around 1980, but she politely refused.

In around 2003, after watching a few of Miyazaki’s films and a conversation with the Japanese translator of the novel series, Shimizu Masako, Ursula requested Studio Ghibli to make an adaptation of her series, asking Hayao Miyazaki to direct it. While Studio Ghibli was enthusiastic about this, Hayao Miyazaki was working on Howl’s Moving Castle at the time, and it was believed he might be too old to do another action type film. Toshio Suzuki offered his son, Goro Miyazaki, to direct the film, after being impressed with the storyboards he drew. Hayao Miyazaki was negative about this, saying that he lacked experience and he should find his own way to fame in animation, instead of using his father as an interest boost, Hayao only allowed Goro to direct when he showed him some concept art for the film’s poster. When Ursula agreed to his son directing the film instead and production began in 2005, Hayao and Goro’s relationship tore apart, as they never talked to each other throughout the entire production. They didn’t even see each other until the preview screening of the film, only leaving a comment saying “It was an honest way of making, and good.”

The animation in Tales from Earthsea is very good, the same impressive detail that is found in several other Ghibli films. Character movement is very smooth and human like, action scenes are fast paced and easy to see. There are also some great special effects like fire effects and fast paced zooming, which work especially well in the action sequences. Beyond shadows and night scenes, lighting is a bit minimal, but it doesn’t distract the viewer from the film as it focuses on the character and dialogue. The art style is pretty standard for Studio Ghibli, the background and scenery artwork typically show a great range of greens and browns for nature, while HortTown is shown in a colourful set of reds, blues and yellows. Character design is really fitting for a fantasy style setting like this, it has some reminiscence of Nausicaa, but since that film was influenced by the original Tales of Earthsea, that wouldn’t surprise me. My only problem is with the character design is with the evil wizard Cob, for some reason the artist made it difficult to tell what gender he is at first glance, and yes he is a man, having a young man’s physique, long dark hair, yet he has a pale woman’s face and lipstick. I’m not sure why there is this design, unless it has something to do with the wizard wanting to be young, but it’s rare to have this kind of gender confusion.

The music is ok, it sets out the scenes and the quality is very good, but it isn’t very special or memorable. The only real exception to this is the main theme song “Therru no Uta”, written by Goro Miyazaki and originally sung by Therru’s seiyuu Aoi Teshima. It’s beautifully sung and the lyrics are nice and fitting for the film, and the English various is an almost exact translation. Sadly there isn’t the lovely background music that is in the official version but it might’ve ruined the scene.

The voice acting is listenable both English and Japanese, but it’s pretty weak overall. The English version has the awesome Timothy Dalton as Sparrowhawk and William Defoe as Cob, both doing a brilliant job. The Japanese dub has Junichi Okada, who does a great debut performance as Arren, and despite casting a woman as Cob, Yuko Tanaka is a great voice actress who makes Cob sound evil and sinister, sometimes I forgot that it was a woman doing the voice. The problem is that everyone else does sound great but their performances are weak. Arren in the English dub is pretty bland and Blaire Resraneo does have depth, but not much of it. Meanwhile in the Japanese dub, I can’t be too mean to Aoi Teshima since she is a good singer, but she isn’t the greatest at acting, and Bunta Sugawara was just disappointing.

Since I’ve never read any of the Earthsea novels, I’m not comparing the story to the original novels. From what I’ve heard, the film is loosely based on a combination of plot elements the first four novels, with the storyline based off the third one. Many people have criticised the film on its story, and while I do think it ties with My Neighbour the Yamadas as the weakest film, I think it’s unfair to criticise the film and call Goro Miyazaki the Worst Director for it. I’ve also read that a main criticism of this film is that there is too much action and not much drama, which I disagree because the amount of action isn’t as much as the story itself. The actual problem with this film is that it goes on about how important life is and that you need to accept death, and it gets bothersome. I also don’t understand what the problem was with Therru early in the film, she is rescued by Arren from some slave takers who were almost about to kill her, and she just does an evil glare and pushes him away and gets frustrated whenever they meet.  She states she doesn’t like anyone “who do not care about life”, and Arren did go into a violent state when fighting the guards, and almost pushed the slave taker into killing her when the guy threatened him, but silly as it sounds, a sign of gratitude would’ve been the least you could’ve given for someone who saved your life. Not to mention if it wasn’t for him you would’ve been taken as a slave.

Despite these problems, I don’t see why as a fan of Studio Ghibli films why you shouldn’t see this film. While it isn’t really faithful to the original story, I don’t think it should’ve been. At the end of it, it’s a really nice fantasy tale with an interesting set of characters that progress through the film, and the fact that Goro Miyazaki never directed a film before this one really amazes me since the quality is on par with Hayao Miyazaki. If you are into Studio Ghibli films, you should see this for its great animation and good story, maybe not the best choice though if you want to start watching Ghibli films though, at least not before watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind since what that film had is what makes this film good to begin with.

Tales from Earthsea is available from Walt Disney and Optimum Releasing. While it was shown in England and Australia around a year after the Japanese release, it wasn’t shown in America until August 2010 because of a live-action drama series done by SyFy. A Manga Adaptation produced by Tokuma Shoten has not been made available in English. The original Earthsea novels by Ursula K Le Guin, titled “A Wizard of Earthsea”, “The Tombs of Atuan”, “The Farthest Shore”, “Tehanu”, “Tales from Earthsea” and “The Other Wind”, which began in 1968 and the final book was first published in 2001, are available from many publishers including Parnassus Press, Atheneum Books, Harcourt Brace & Company and Puffin Books.

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: The Cat Returns

Haru Yoshioka is a mature high school girl with a lot of bad luck, she wakes up late for school, has a crush on a guy who is already dating someone and is prone to a few accidents here and there. Her day suddenly turns from unlucky to bizarre when she rescues a strange looking cat crossing the road from a truck, as it stands on two legs and thanks her for saving his life, all to her amazement and disbelief. The following day, she finds out from other talking cats that arrive at her door that the cat she rescued is Lune, the Prince of the Cat Kingdom. To show his thanks and gratitude, the Cat King arranges Haru to be taken to the Cat Kingdom so she can take Lune’s hand in marriage. Haru doesn’t like the idea of marrying a cat, but unfortunately she is unable to refuse the arrangement. A soft voice calls to her and tells Haru to find the Cat Office Bureau where she can meet the Baron, a statue that comes to life at sundown. After meeting with the Baron and his friends, Haru is taken away to the Cat Kingdom, and it is up to the Baron, his overweight assistant Muta, the crow statue Toto and Haru herself to get out of this unwanted marriage and leave the Cat Kingdom to head back home.

In 1999, a Japanese theme park gave a proposal to Studio Ghibli for a 20 minute short animated film that involved cats for one of their rides, Hayao Miyazaki was interested and started writing a story for it. The idea of cats reminded him of Whisper of the Heart, a 1995 film which he produced. This gave him the intention to add three key elements to the Cat Project: The Baron, Muta and an antique shop. He commissioned the original author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari to create a manga version, which Miyazaki would base the short on. Soon after this, the theme park decided to cancel the proposal, but Miyazaki wanted to continue with the project, so he wanted to extend the short to test future directors. After showing creative work and ideas from My Neighbour the Yamadas, producer Toshio Suzuki decided to place Hiroyuki Morita as the director. He wrote a 525 page storyboard for the film, which impressed both Miyazaki and Suzuki that they decide to make this a feature length film. It was released on July 19th 2002, and is technically the only Studio Ghibli that is a follow up from a past film.

The animation is once again well done for Studio Ghibli, there is a lot of minor detail in animation and it appears very realistic. The cats are done really well in detail, and it looks really accurate when they appear, walking on two legs instead of four. Lip movements are also good for anime standards, being accurate for Japanese dialogue. There are some really striking scenes; two noticeable is a cat march which is almost haunting but mesmerizing at the same time, with the lights and a large group of cats moving slowly through the streets. Another noticeable scene is a ballroom scene, which has such close detail that all the spectators of the dance turn their heads so their eyes are focused on the dancing couple Haru and Baron. The use of colours on the background is very calm and light, with a good variety.  The character designs are accurate as expected, but for some odd reason the film doesn’t really have consistency for skin colour for, with the common skin colour is a very light pale colour, with the occasional light brown and rose pink tones, which isn’t really a big problem but I was always wondering if most of the humans in the film were just sick or stay out of the sun a lot.

The music is very nice and definitely set the scenes. There a good amount of silent scenes to focus of the characters, but music plays at the right time when needed and some of it is really dramatic, and the two really striking and memorable scenes both have scores which add to the drama and tension of the scenes. Another good track is the ending theme performed by Ayano Tsuji, which is really lovely to listen to and end off the film, with a ukulele as the main instrument and sweet charming lyrics to go with it.

The Japanese voice cast is really good, with some great vocal works from Tetsu Watanabe as Muta, giving a low pitch fit for like a bodyguard, Mari Hamada as the overly excited secretary Natoru and Tetsurō Tanba as the old and grouchy King of Cats, just to name a few. Yoshihiko Hakamada does a nice job as the Baron, acting gentlemanly and very suave, although I do miss the voice of the Baron from Whisper of the Heart, Chizuru Ikewaki does a good job as Haru, but I don’t think she really elevates her voice enough, so when she screams it sounds quite weak.

The English cast is pretty hit-and-miss overall, with some roles sounding awkwardly bad or practically have flaws with them. One example if Andy Richter as Natoru, mainly because they decided to give a male voice to the character instead of a female in the Japanese version, but since he does a really good effort, with a cute voice like a really flamboyant secretary then it isn’t a big problem. Tim Curry I think was a really weird choice for the King of Cats, mainly because he makes him sound like an overweight Jazz musician and for the most part was really off putting. I don’t think the cast is bad overall, since there are some good performances done by actors such as Anne Hathaway as Haru and Judy Greer as the pretty white-furred Royal servant Yuki, and Cary Elwes actually reprises his role as The Baron, which I think is extra credit for an English Studio Ghibli voice casting.

What makes the film worth the watch is the characters, every character has something likeable whether they are funny, intimidating, or in the case of Haru, very relatable, or in the case of the Baron, how awesome he is. In almost every scene he’s in he is either very polite or such a bad ass.  The Cat King as a villain isn’t really taken very far, but he is very comical and dedicated to say the least. While it isn’t as long as other Studio Ghibli films but the story itself is well written and progresses at an even pace so I doubt that the film would have been any better at a larger length without purposely dragging the story. I think the only problem with this film, and other people have mentioned this also, is that the overall moral of the story is over used and out of place. While I find it more of a problem in the English version and how it was written in, even in the Japanese version you can’t watch 20 minutes at least without either Haru, Muta or the Baron saying that it’s important to be yourself, speak your mind and do what you think is right and while it is somewhat relevant to the plot, I don’t think it was necessary to place it directly into the dialogue and use it more than once.

Overall, The Cat Returns is a very charming film that is very lovely from beginning to end; there are a great variety of likeable characters with some really memorable scenes and an ageless storyline.

The Cat Returns is available from Walt Disney and Optimum. The manga of which the film was based on titled “Baron: The Cat Returns” written by the author of Whisper of the Heart, Aoi Hiigari, upon the request of Hayao Miyazaki, is available from Viz Media.

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.