Note: This is part of an ongoing series of marathon film reviews for franchises, filmmakers, or themes (I'm hosting a lot of marathon events this summer). The first of this type--in which I watch and review every Fast and Furious film in a row, can be found here. For this newest entry, I watched seven Miyazaki films in a row with several of my friends on Saturday, May 13th, 2017. One of those friends--Conor Hilton--joins me to write about the experience. You can also read this post at his blog (here).
The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
We skipped this one! We’ll add links here if we write reviews later.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
8:00am. The marathon has begun. The first film of the day is a science fantasy film about forgiveness, harmony, industrialization, and learning to coexist with giant monster bugs. At the start, there are three of us--Conor, Chris, and Rebekah--but Hayden and Callan join soon.
CONOR: As the film starts (one I’m experiencing for the first time), I’m immediately struck by the design of the world and of the characters. The three (then five) of us gasp and exclaim in wonder and amazement repeatedly throughout the film and especially the opening sequence as Nausicaä finds a complete ohmu (the giant monster larvae-like bugs) shell. Our wonder continues as Nausicaä explores the shell, providing exposition as she talks herself through what is happening and why we (the audience) should care. Danger soon strikes and Nausicaa flees to the rescue on her glider, inducing the same sort of wonder I feel watching the Millennium Falcon escape from Jakku in The Force Awakens.
Quickly, we see the film’s central message play out in the action. Nausicaä saves Lord Yupa from an attacking ohmu, but does so without violence. Here, as portrayed throughout the film, violence is a choice, not an inevitable conclusion. Nausicaa seeks reconciliation and peace with the ohmu, not their destruction.
By the time the film ends, I’m struck that thematically this is what How to Train Your Dragon could have been had it leaned into the conflict and ideology that it set up, rather than undermining it in its final sequence.
CHRIS: Another thing that I think is striking about this film--perhaps even more so than the others, even--is the incredible variety of music. The music in Miyazaki’s films is always exquisite, of course, but here there’s a really cool mix of swelling strings, melancholy piano, 80s synth textures, and even sometimes jazzy organ. The film is quite a kaleidoscope, not only of color and motion, but also of sound.
Overall I think my favorite thing about Nausicaä is its overwhelming sense of beauty, wonder, and awe. It almost makes me cry maybe three times (there’s one flashback scene, a little over 67 minutes in, which is particularly heartbreaking). It’s a spiritually moving experience.
Anyway, with regard to your comments about the theme, I think we agree (though I want to hear more about your How to Train Your Dragon comparison!): my favorite takeaway was also that violence is only ever a choice, never an inevitability. Violence is always explicitly portrayed as something that the characters choose to embrace or to reject. I believe there’s only one moment when a character acts violently without really thinking things through beforehand, and she is later shown to be quite shaken by the experience: “I’m afraid of myself,” she says, “the killing must stop.”
CONOR: HOW COULD I FORGET THE MUSIC?!?!?!? It truly is a delight. I’m partial to 80s synths and that honestly may be part of the reason I loved this one so much (in addition to your spot-on pointing to its “overwhelming sense of beauty, wonder, and awe”).
Yeah, your analysis of the violence and the film’s thematic comments on it are solid. To your question on my How to Train Your Dragon comparison--that film seems to be arguing that dragons are misunderstood creatures and that humans need to treat them better and that doing so will improve relationships and allow for a restoration of harmony of sorts. BUT then the film ends with Toothless and Hiccup killing some giant, evil dragon, effectively undermining the entire thematic message in the final sequence. Here in Nausicaä when the film seems to be moving dangerously close to that trajectory, the answer is the opposite. Even when faced with death and destruction, the message is to avoid violence and ultimately that is met with reconciliation. The humans and the ohmu are able to live in harmony! It leans fully into this aspect of the message, which is lovely.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
10:00am. We watch a mysterious, fantastical film about brave children, creepy pirates, floppy-armed robots, and a magic crystal. Jon joins us midway through the film.
CHRIS: This is my first time with this film. I’m immediately struck by the delightful and playful character design at work here. Lovely and subtle little touches in the animation. I find myself grinning ear to ear a lot, particularly in the first twelve minutes. And there are a lot of light-hearted silly moments; Miyazaki clearly has an eye for comedic timing as well as for the awe/wonder we’d seen in Nausicaä.
We could talk for a while about the harmonious embrace between technology and nature (there are giant forgotten robots who literally spend all day taking care of birds and trees), or we could talk about the troubling moments of sexual tension between grown men and a young girl (which is hopefully just the result of sloppy translation from Japanese to English?), or we could talk about the complexity of the narrative (there are so many factions, all with their own grudges and biases and agendas, never simply defined as “the good ones” or “the bad one;” this complexity is a compelling and commendable choice, I think).
Or, we could talk about the role of media in helping us raise children. I think often about what kind of films I want to show to my kids, when I eventually have kids (which is maybe a weird thing for someone without a family to think about), and at this point I can’t help but believe that Miyazaki deserves to be canon in my house when I start a family. His protagonists--often children, adolescents, or young adults--are so brave, optimistic, kind, active, and resilient. They encounter problems, and they’re not perfect--but they’re so often able to confront the difficulties of life with an incredibly positive, empathetic, and thoughtful approach. And I love that!
CONOR: This feels in many ways like revisiting the themes of Nausicaä, but with compelling and commendable complexity as you pointed out. I love the shifting alliances and lack of clear villains. I think there’s some added messiness thematically and narratively (compared to Nausicaä), but that strikes me as being an admirable move regardless (or perhaps because of that).
And yes! Absolutely on board with Miyazaki as films for my future family for precisely the reasons you outline here.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
12:00pm. The six of us are joined by Jeshua and Emily. My Neighbor Totoro is about childhood, parenthood, kindness, grief, and friendly wood spirits--in postwar rural Japan.
CONOR: A soothing change of pace from the sci-fi/steampunk/adventure films we’d been watching. Before we fully embrace that salve, unease fills the room as the film uses horror tropes to introduce us to the world (an isolated, run-down house our protagonists have just moved to filled with mysterious happenings--soot sprites we come to find out). Even though I’ve seen the film before, I’m anxiously awaiting disaster to strike in the lives of these two young girls, Satsuki and Mei. Yet quickly the film charms me over to a less threatening world, where I begin to wonder about the role of belief in our lives. The supernatural seems to be a key factor in these people’s lives, where it is discussed openly and there’s no effort to dissuade children of their encounters with the supernatural, even though the adults (at least in this film) never have direct encounters with it. There seems to be something linking youth or innocence to belief in the supernatural; perhaps suggesting the importance of imagination. The father, and granny, also demonstrate some form of belief in their belief on the words of the children (I’m reminded of D&C 46:13-14, which says some are given to know of Christ and others believe on the words of those that know). Belief and its links to youth and innocence, as well as the subsequent reverence for children seem present throughout Miyazaki’s work.
CHRIS: This one is my favorite of the day. And you’re right--belief and youth are central themes. It’s notable that this one and Spirited Away are probably the only ones we watch today wherein the fantastical elements could arguably be figments of the children’s imaginations. In the other films, magic and wizardry are just part of the world, whether you’re an adult or a child. And in Totoro, only the children are able to really see and physically interact with the magical world, even though the adults are sympathetic to (or even contribute to) their children’s stories. When Mei is worried that her family thinks she’s a liar after she meets Totoro, for example, her father Tatsuo reassuringly tells her that he believes her--and he explains that the creature she met is the “keeper of the forest.”
I said before that I often think about which films to show my children and when. I think Totoro comes to mind as a good example here, a film that expertly teaches some beautiful, nuanced, and empathetic lessons about childhood--while strictly, for the most part, committing to a child’s narrative POV.
Also, like a lot of Miyazaki’s other films, Totoro provides a good example of how to be a good parent. Tetsuo is the best dad! I want to be Tetsuo when I grow up.
CONOR: Tetsuo is the best dad. Strong agree with all you have here.
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
We skipped this one! We’ll add links here if we write reviews later.
Porco Rosso (1992)
We skipped this one! We’ll add links here if we write reviews later.
Princess Mononoke (1997)
2:00pm. Hayden departs. Another two guests arrive--Chris (a different Chris) and Liz. Liz is immediately dismayed that the version of this film that we’re watching is dubbed in English, because the translation of this one in particular--a fantasy film about wolves, demons, violence, and the forest--is somewhat imprecise.
CHRIS: This one is most people’s favorite. It’s not my favorite! I love it, but I don’t love it as much as I love many of the others. I don’t know why! Help me make sense of this, Conor.
I mean, it’s a wonderful film. Classic Miyazaki themes--like iron-versus-nature, the complicated nature of identity, the forgiveness of villains, the corruption of violence, et cetera--are back in full force. And the visuals are, as always, incredibly detailed and diverse and beautiful and grotesque and colorful and tactile.
So why didn't I love it? Maybe it’s because, as Liz points out, the translation is imprecise. Maybe some meaning is lost. Maybe it’s because the death toll--not only higher in Mononoke, but also more brutal and explicit--creates a significantly heavier tone than we see in the other films (“we’ve been burying our friends all day,” says one character grimly after a battle). Maybe it’s because the art style depicting the animal characters is less accessible and relatable than in Miyazaki’s other films (still detailed and nuanced, but in a more grim, blood-tooth-and-nail kind of way).
I don’t know! What do you think, Conor?
CONOR: This is a lot of pressure you just put on me Chris and I’m not sure I can live up to it, but I’ll give it a shot. Mononoke I think is easily the most brutal of the films and the violence is more striking and shocking following the other films (especially coming right on the heels of Totoro).
This was my introduction to Miyazaki, when I was 10 or 11 and it holds a soft spot for me because of that. There’s a stronger archetypal feel to this film too, I think, with a more recognizable hero’s journey component than many of Miyazaki’s other films, while maintaining strong Japanese cultural ties and working with the characteristic Miyazaki themes as you identified.
Though maybe it comes down to the characters? San/Princess Mononoke is fascinating, Ashitaka is compelling, all the animal-gods are intriguing, Toki is great comic relief, but the stand out for me is Lady Eboshi, who is one of the most compelling villain-figures. Her drive to care for these marginalized members of society (lepers and women who worked in brothels) coupled with this violence and ferocity does some really interesting things. As we’ve touched on before, Miyazaki villains are usually quite complex and treated with great compassion and forgiveness by the films, but I think Lady Eboshi stands out from the rest.
I don’t know. Re-reading your description, I was struck by resonances with Guillermo del Toro--I think you could argue that, visually, this is the most del Toro-esque of Miyazaki’s films. I’m not sure if that explains people’s love for it and your more reticent response, but it may be worth considering.
Spirited Away (2001)
4:00pm. Chris leaves to pick up some sushi for the group. New arrivals include Benni, Eli, Kevin, and a plate full of adorable Studio Ghibli-inspired cookies. Spirited Away is about a little girl who encounters some obstacles trying to rescue her parents from a magical bathhouse (at which they’d been transformed into pigs).
CONOR: I’m immediately reminded of why I always wish I knew more Japanese folklore, mythology, etc. when I watch this film. I feel as though I only have some of the pieces to truly access what I am seeing on screen, there’s a distance and a richness that I can sense, but feel not quite able to drink from. Characters come and go sometimes at a whirlwind pace, feeling significant and rich with meaning. I can almost sense knowing audiences making sounds of recognition and insight (much like I do when there are literary or pop culture references in film, or many of the easter eggs in the MCU).
Thankfully, there’s enough of a compelling narrative and fascinating thematic possibilities that the film is still enjoyable and one that I always find worth returning to. I’m struck by the backseat that Miyazaki’s ‘man vs nature’ theme takes here (perhaps because it is so prominent in at least three of the previous four films we’ve seen today). Belief resurfaces, but identity seems to be the theme I can’t stop seeing and how our identities are shaped by those around us (individuals, institutions--there’s material for a compelling critique of capitalism in the text of the film, I think). We continue to see characters transform, frequently literally, and run into doubles of many of the characters, creating a fluid sense of identity.
Towards the end of the film, I’m struck by the link forged between identity and memory. That not only our own memories shape our identity, but the memories and thoughts that others have of us. With the climatic transformations, the film seems to argue that the memories and thoughts of others about us are salvific (or at least have the potential to be so) and that the opposite--forgetting--can be damning. As the film ends, I’m left with much to chew on and work to decipher (and many questions that I may turn to the internet to try and answer).
Howl's Moving Castle (2004)
6:00pm. Jon, Liz, Jeshua, Emily, Benni, and Eli exit, leaving both Chris’s, Conor, Kevin, Callan, and a brief return from Rebekah, who'd stepped out earlier. Based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, this film tells a story about magic, technology, beauty, war, and love--set in a fictional 20th-century style kingdom and influenced by Miyazaki’s opposition to the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003.
CHRIS: There’s a lot going on here! It’s really different (possibly because it’s based on a British novel). And it’s great. There’s a lot of understanding, forgiveness, and compassion in this film. A particularly touching moment of kindness (about 48 minutes in) reminds us that friendship exists, and that umbrellas are important. Other random compliments: I love Billy Crystal’s voice-over work as the helpful (but sassy) fire demon Calcifer; and Jean Simmons (as the older version of Sophie, a young milliner) is, of course, excellent.
Within the first eight minutes, our protagonist (Sophie) meets Howl, who saves her from lecherous predators in the streets. The scene is not unlike V’s rescue of Evey Hammond in V For Vendetta. Sophie’s story pretty quickly becomes a wild and unpredictable adventure befriending wizards, people, and demons aboard a magical walking metal castle. Mostly through Sophie’s eyes, the film has a lot to say about love, loyalty, and the destructive stupidity of mindless warmongering.
There’s also some compelling imagery involving magic, construction, and re-construction. As Howl draws runes and recites spells to transform his eponymous “moving castle” into new forms, the reconfiguration of furniture, walls, and appliances seems almost violently chaotic and frightening, while also being wondrous and majestic. It reminds me of something C. S. Lewis said about the spiritual transformation we undergo as we become better people: “imagine yourself as a living house,” Lewis says, and that you find God “knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense.” But it does make sense, because the end goal is different and more ambitious than you had anticipated: “You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.” Or, perhaps, a moving castle.
CONOR: I enthusiastically second the greatness of Billy Crystal’s vocal work here.
I love the C.S. Lewis quote you bring in to talk about the transformation aspect of the castle. Transformation seems like a key theme as not only the house, but most of the characters undergo physical transformations throughout the film: Howl’s hair and various bird-like states (also there seems to be something about birds and individuals that practice magic in these films--Howl, Yubaba, etc.), Sophie, the Wicked Witch of the Waste, Calcifer, Turniphead, etc. I’m especially struck by the fluidity of transformation for Howl’s castle, Howl, and Sophie in particular. It seems to me to be suggesting that this work of transformation and rebuilding is continuous and complex. It reminds me of my preferred model of faith crisis/transformation: the faith remodel. There’s a variety of reasons to motivate such transformations; sometimes they are forced on us by others (Sophie’s curse), sometimes we choose them even when they might have negative consequences (Howl’s actions throughout are generally in this category), sometimes it seems purely aesthetic or personal (maybe occasionally Howl and perhaps the Castle), or sometimes it could be our survival instinct (the castle, Howl, and maybe even Sophie fit here).
Anyway, really enjoyed this one. Let’s make moving castles out of ourselves!
8:00pm. Callan departs, with only four remaining--the two Chris’s, Conor, and Kevin. We finish the marathon with Ponyo, a fable about a little boy and his goldfish friend, who has the face of a human girl and really wants to leave the ocean to live among humans.
CONOR: As soon as the film starts, it’s clear we’ve returned to some of the whimsical wonder of Totoro, though perhaps with a slightly darker edge to it. The ‘woah’s and ‘whats?’ of Nausicaä return though whether it’s because of the hour and our significantly altered mental state as we enter our twelfth hour of watching (at least for Chris and I) or because the film is genuinely that wonderful and weird, I couldn’t say.
The characters here are great! The design and the narrative is fascinating and keeps me engaged. We’ve got Liam Neeson voicing The Goblin King Under the Sea (Fujimoto is the character’s actual name, but he’s definitely a David Bowie-inspired King Triton sort of figure), with Ponyo being a Jedi-Jesus-chicken-fish-person (a goldfish, but with magic that exists in various stages of transformation that visually invoked the previous description).
The balance of humanity and nature is brought up again here, explicitly, as it’s The Goblin King Under the Sea’s goal--and this may be the first time I’m thematically troubled by the resolution of the conflict. Perhaps it’s the Little Mermaid elements of the story, or perhaps it’s something else, but I’m not entirely settled with how that resolves. Though, the other thematic elements of the film are wonderful. Again, we see a strong trust in youth and in their abilities and beliefs.
CHRIS: I might disagree that it’s got a darker edge than Totoro; I think the tone of Ponyo is consistently more gentle (not only thematically, but chromatically) than anything else we’ve seen today. There are light pastel colors, cute simple animation, and--at least in the first act--relatively lower stakes. But at any rate, there’s definitely a quirky, whimsical tone here.
Another thing worth noting here is how impressive it is that the four of us are still laughing out loud pretty often during this film. Like you said, maybe that’s a testament to how wonderfully weird Ponyo is, or maybe it’s just a testament to how loopy we were feeling from having watched Miyazaki films for literally the entire day.
Tiny human-faced fish! A flamboyant Irish David Bowie villain! Adorable “BUG OFF BUG OFF BUG OFF” messages in morse code! A five-year-old boy who tells his girlfriends he can’t play with them because he’s got “work to do!” It’s so delightful.
CONOR: I think it felt darker than Totoro for me, despite the gentler themes and chromatics, because I felt more afraid. Maybe I’m just more scared of the ocean than the forest? Maybe the hours of watching had lowered my defenses and I was more vulnerable? Maybe giant fish waves and floods are the stuff of my nightmares?
CHRIS: Maybe you’re afraid of Liam Neeson! He does have a particular set of skills, after all, that make him a nightmare for people who fear giant fish waves and floods.
The Wind Rises (2013)
We skipped this one! We’ll add links here if we write reviews later.
10:00pm. Many of the guests have left. Much of the popcorn and other snacks are gone. But the house is not empty. Conor and Chris remain to discuss.
CHRIS: I loved doing this. I think it’s safe to say that Miyazaki is one of the greatest artists out there. With other filmmakers or franchises, spending all day watching their work back-to-back might feel like a chore (or at least, thematic hypocrisy and tonal problems might start to bother you after six or seven hours), but not so here. Each film felt fresh; each story had something important and distinct to say (not to mention challenging and thoughtful questions to ask) about central Miyazakian ideas like relationships, identity, and the Earth.
CONOR: Yes yes yes. 10/10 would do this again. I loved these films and seeing the Miyazakian ideas that you identified play out in fresh and interesting ways. There’s a cohesion here that is quite remarkable for a career as long and as varied as Miyazaki has had, but that manages to remain distinct and individual. The thematic resonances across the films reinforced one another and created a beautiful tapestry of characters and themes that seem to coexist and be in conversation with one another.
I think Miyazaki’s worldview (and my experience) is beautifully expressed by the mother in Ponyo (Lisa), voiced by Tina Fey: “Life is mysterious and amazing.” Words to live by.