Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Ponyo (2009), and the Weirdly Relaxed Plotting of Hayao Miyazaki Features

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Although the animation medium he works in sometimes pigeonholes his accomplishments, Hayao Miyazaki is truly one of the masters of cinema, right up there with names like Bergman, Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Corman. And just like with a lot of the masters of cinema, I’ve only seen a small fraction of his work and I’m scrambling to catch up. Lately I’ve been making more of an effort to familiarize myself with a wider range  of Miyazaki classics outside re-watching Spirited Away & My Neighbor Totoro multiple times a year, which has lead me to a few less readily recognizable titles like Howl’s Moving Castle & Princess Mononoke over the past year. It’s been difficult for me to distinguish Miyazaki’s work form the rest of the filmmakers at Studio Ghibli in terms of style outside of his fascination with themes like immersion in the natural world & the wonder of flight. While recently watching the features Ponyo & Kiki’s Delivery Service in a single weekend, though, something struck me about the way Miyazaki’s features’ approach plot & pacing I hadn’t yet noticed. Once the director establishes the majesty of his films’ worlds & settings, he’s remarkably comfortable with bringing the story down to a full stop simply to marinate in the immense beauty he’s constructed. I had never noticed before how his films all tend to work this way in their own individual moments of lowkey self-reflection & immersion in setting before watching these two titles in rapid succession. Nor had I noticed how oddly comforting that plot structure can be.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a simple story about a young witch coming of age as she leaves home to start a new, autonomous life in a foreign city. In an early jaunt of exposition the Miyazaki trademarks of intricate, detailed animation (seen most easily in its shots of wind blowing through tall grass) & wonder with the majesty of flight (she’s a witch after all; she even made her own broom) seem to promise an epic story of witchy misadventures as Kiki tries to find her footing in an overwhelming, sometimes terrifying world. I was more or less expecting The Worst Witch restructured as a big budget adventure epic. The film does feature some dangerous run-ins that fit the mold I’m describing, like an early tussle with some vindictive crows & a climax revolving around a downed zeppelin, but for the most part action & adventure are the furthest thing from the film’s mind. Most people in Kiki’s new city are supportive of the witchy visitor, especially once she becomes familiar & finds a sense of purpose in her broomstick-driven delivery business. For the most part the film’s plot is centered on small scale concerns like “Will she make new friends?” “Will she make her deliveries on time?” and “Will she beat the rain?”  Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t a tale of a witch venturing out into the world as much as it’s about a witch finding confidence & autonomy within herself, with the film’s most major crisis being whether or not she’ll get her mojo back once her magic begins to fade. The way Miyazaki allows this inner struggle to play out & resonate is to establish a living space (an indoor-kid’s fantasy of an attic loft above a bakery with an ocean view) and allow Kiki to ruminate within it, as if she were morphing inside a cocoon. To pile any more action onto the plot would detract from the impact of Kiki’s inward journey & Miyazaki’s brilliance is in the way he’s comfortable with letting his protagonist’s downtime breathe & slowly mature.

Although its setting trades Kiki’s Delivery Service’s high in the sky adoration with flight for a polar opposite physical realm deep under water, Ponyo follows a similar trajectory in terms of plot & pacing. Miyazaki opens the movie with an immensely intricate galaxy of deep sea wonders, dazzling the audience with a majestic display teeming with underwater lifeforms. This peaceful balance is disrupted when a humanoid fish befriends a small human boy on dry land & shapeshifts to please him, playing out a strange slant on the fairy tale structure of The Little Mermaid. Ignoring the warning that “Fishes with faces who come out of the ocean cause tsunamis,” the two unlikely friends explore a life together at everyone else’s expense, causing a massive flood, as promised, that separates parents – both underwater wizards & overworked nursing home employee mothers alike – from their young children. Again, what’s interesting in the way Miyazaki constructs this fable is that he doesn’t push for big, exciting action sequences at every turn in Ponyo but instead seeks out a languid kind of majesty that’s remarkably confident & emotionally affecting in the way it allows you to sink into the places he’s created. Ponyo’s story works twofold in its development of a heartfelt, but doomed friendship and its sense of loss & confusion in the search of a misplaced loved one. What sticks with you in the film isn’t necessarily specific events or plot points, but rather visual details like a jellyfish galaxy or a candle-powered boat and, yet, an emotional story arc caries through in that setting-specific artistry

I think a large part of the brilliance of Miyazaki’s slow crawl pacing & sparse plotting is the way it allows you to sink into a space. The underwater world of Ponyo & the above-the-bakery apartment of Kiki’s Delivery Service live vividly in my imagination long after the end credits, feeling as real or as tangible as real-life spaces I’ve physically inhabited. As I look back to past films I’ve seen from the director I realize that this aspect has always been a major aspect of his appeal to me. I don’t always remember the finer points of the various adventures & mishaps in his films as much as I remember details like the gloriously crowded bedroom in Howl’s Moving Castle or the inside of the catbus in My Neighbor Totoro or the old woman’s cottage in Spirited Away. I was pondering the other day about what didn’t quite work for me in the recent French animated feature April and the Extraordinary World and I’m starting to think it had something to do with the film’s decision to crowd its runtime with an action chase plot instead of slowing down & luxuriating in the intricately detailed space it had created. The only animated film outside of Studio Ghibli I can think of that similarly pulls this trick off is Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland (it even features a Ponyo-like flood), which, no surprise, Miyazaki himself had apparently worked at some point during its long, troubled production. The director’s reverence for defined space over quickly plotted pace has a special touch that allows you to mentally live in his worlds that some less pointed works would allow to fly by in a blur. For some reason it took rapid succession viewings of Ponyo & Kiki’s Delivery Service for me to catch onto that aspect of his work, but looking back I realize it had been there with me all along.

-Brandon Ledet

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Princess Mononoke (1999)

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fourhalfstar

I’ve gradually become accustomed to a certain warmth & comfort in Hayao Miyazaki films, where a slow, languid pace allows the plot to trickle as we come to settle in an infinite, domestic space full of immense wonder. Even otherworldly dangers like Howl’s Moving Castle’s bird wizards & Spirited Away’s No Face are tamed & consoled by the warmth & domesticity of Miyazaki’s intricate, natural worlds. His characters always seem to find their way to calmness & peace in interior space, occasionally contrasted with the expensive majesty of flight. Imagine my shock, then, when I recently watched Miyzazki’s Japanese folklore masterpiece Princess Mononoke for the first time. It was like a glorious, unexpected punch to the face. Princess Mononoke might be the single most metal animated feature I’ve ever seen. Its shapeshifting warthog demons, severed arms, decapitations, and eco warrior terrorism were not only unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a Miyazaki film before; they were also inexplicably invigorating in a way that only the best of cinema can be. Its PG-13 violence was shocking, but also darkly beautiful and added a whole other layer of complexity to a director I’ve been gradually less able to fully understand or pigeonhole with each passing feature. It’s an exciting feeling.

The story of Princess Mononoke appears to be heavily steeped in Japanese history & folklore, but its basic elements are fairly understandable to a cultural outsider. A young prince must leave his village on a quest to lift a curse from his arm he incurred while slaying an undead demonic boar. His cursed wound allows him to “fight like a demon,” but being a mighty warrior is a small consolation prize for a spreading illness that will eventually bring his death. On his journey he finds himself stuck between two sides of an impending war. On one end stands an industrial iron-producing village helmed by a warmongering matriarch, representing the modern world. On the opposite end stands the natural world, represented by mythically large talking beasts, ancient spirits, and a Jungle Book-type princess who was raised by a pack of wolves. The prince must negotiate a peaceful balance between the modern world & the natural one before the two sides’ bloodbaths get out of hand, an escalating tension reflected in the way his cursed wound pulsates & worsens each time they clash.

It’s difficult to capture the fierce beauty of Princess Mononoke in words. I can’t describe the pure badass beauty of its titular character riding into battle equipped with a spear & mask on a giant wolf’s back, but nothing could supplant seeing it for yourself. Although his accomplishments are typically contextualized solely within the world of animation, Hayao Miyazaki is truly one of cinema’s modern masters & Princess Mononoke is one of his finest works, as complex & violent of an outlier as it is. The film juggles concepts as varied as war, deforestation, ghosts, industry spirituality, and the basic instructions on how to kill a god, all without ever feeling bogged down or overstuffed. In some ways its story is as simple as a young man fighting on both sides of a war he finds abhorrent in order to put an end to it & find peace. The implications of what that war means and how we define balance in a modern, industrialized world is much vaster & more fascinating, though, a depth Princess Mononoke commands in very few brushstrokes. Besides, it really is just so goddamn metal. You really need to see that girl riding that wolf into battle.

-Brandon Ledet

Illegal Art: Miyazaki’s On Your Mark (1995) & Girl Walk // All Day (2011)

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When Brandon first mentioned that there might be some difficulty finding Girl Walk // All Day in order to watch it as this month’s MotM feature due to its rights issues, the first thing I thought of was On Your Mark. A seven minute experiment that Hayao Miyazaki churned out while dealing with his writer’s block on Princess Mononoke, the short film is an animated music video created for Japanese rock group Chage & Aska. It was originally released in theatres with Studio Ghibli feature Whisper of the Heart (which Miyazaki wrote but did not direct or animate), but has never had a legal release in the U.S., and is often pretty hard to find, even online (I found a version with a quick Google search, but won’t provide the link for fear that it will be immediately discovered and pulled). It was set to be released as part of a stateside Studio Ghibli DVD set, but Aska’s arrest for alleged possession of MDMA and other paraphernalia in 2014 meant that the set was delayed while Disney Japan scrubbed the video. Earlier sets of the DVD released in Japan were even recalled and new discs returned that did not contain the short. A note to international travelers: don’t do drugs in Japan. You’ll see your body of work erased from existence like lost, unnamed pharaohs.

The video itself is utterly beautiful. There’s no dialogue, and I don’t really know if the song itself has anything to do with the images, but the story is relatively straightforward despite being non-linear. There is an outside world that is ostensibly irradiated, and an underground metropolis that is visually evocative of both Blade Runner and Akira. Within this city, a group of policemen crash an airship into a tower filled with armed cultists, and two of them stumble upon a young girl with beautiful angelic wings. The girl is immediately taken by E.T.-esque scientists, and the two policemen who first discovered her break into a laboratory to liberate her. The three fail to escape and plunge to their deaths, but then a Lola rennt style rewind-as- montage leads back to the point where they fell and they instead fly away; the two policemen take the girl out into the sun to release her back into the sky, where she floats away and out of sight.

There are a lot of Miyazaki’s recurring elements in play, most notably his love for the imagery of flight. Whether it’s a flying fortress in Castle in the Sky, Nausicaa zipping around on her flier in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, porcine fighter pilots in Porco Rosso, or pretty much the entirety of The Wind Rises, Miyazaki loves to make the audience feel like they’re soaring. The three characters have little in the way of characterization, but the policemen show a lot of personality in just their faces and their selfless attempts to save the girl from experimentation. We don’t really need to know much about their world at all, but the narrative of the story is clear regardless. Just as Girl Walk tells a story with no words, so to does On Your Mark. And, as both are constantly facing potential deletion, so to should you take any opportunity that presents itself to catch either film.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 2001 narrative dance video Girl Walk // All Day, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at five other classic visual albums.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Howl’s Moving Castle (2005)

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fourstar

Acclaimed, visionary animator Hayao Miyazaki recently announced that he’ll be returning from what has been a very brief “retirement” to work on a 3D-animation short film, which is exciting news for rabid fans of Studio Ghibli & innovative visual craft of all kinds. Not being especially well-versed in Ghibli’s or Miyazaki’s history, I didn’t realize that this decision was a case of history repeating itself. Miyazaki had “retired”several times before in the past, once doubling back on his resolve to return to the director’s chair (does that idiom translate to animation?) to helm the somewhat troubled production of 2005’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Whether or not Miyazaki was brought in as a pinch-hitter/afterthought on a project that apparently needed a strong guiding hand, Howl’s Moving Castle was well worth the animation giant’s time & efforts. It’s not the most mindblowing or heartwarming film among the few Ghibli titles I’ve seen but it is a singularly magical experience that the world is better off for being enriched with (with its context as a pacifist take on the war in Iraq being especially fascinating). If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Miyazaki in the few works I’ve seen from him it’s that the world is all too lucky to have him & we should all be grateful for each precious gift he delivers on his own time.

I call Howl’s Moving Castle magical because it’s a film that values the folklore of magic, wizards, and witches over the more human realm of physical labor & constant war. A lover’s quarrel between The Wicked Witch of the Waste(land) & a frivolous, vain wizard named Howl claims the health & well-being of an innocent passerby, a young hat shop clerk whose meeting of Howl in passing enraged the jealous, possessive witch. This jealousy inspires the wicked witch to cast a spell that ages the hat shop girl horribly, so that she loses her precious youth & beauty to an old, withered body that upends her life. Determined to win back her cursed youth, the girl moves into Howl’s castle, which is indeed a moving, walking, transitive structure that would serve as event the most casual of steam punk’s wet dream. What she discovers is that he wizard is in a perpetual state of adolescence, in desperate need of someone to care for his body & home, and prone to teen angst temper tantrums that result in him summoning “the spirits of darkness” when he’s bummed & exclaiming things like “I see no point in living if I cant be beautiful!” Howl is in no shape to deal with the crushing realities of a hard-fought war & ends up needing the help & emotional support of the cursed hat shop girl just as much as she needs him.

What feels so right about the approach to magic in Howl’s Moving Castle is just how fluid everything feels in the details. The rules of the curse seem to change from scene to scene as the girl’s age fluctuates depending on her mood. Enemies who initially appear to be pure evil soon reveal themselves to be hurt, vulnerable souls in need of repair. Physical spaces (especially the titular castle) & people’s bodies (especially the wizard’s) change constantly, directly reflecting the ebb & flow of a universe that can be hopelessly cruel or endlessly wonderful depending on the tides of fate in life’s current direction. The only thing that seemingly doesn’t change is the way the film values magic & fluidity over the concrete, destructive concerns of governments & war.

Appropriately enough, it’s that exact value system that makes Miyazaki & other folks at Ghibli feel like such a gift & a blessing. They’re constantly exploring new ideas & techniques within their craft, but their general spirit is deeply rooted in an old world magic & tradition that feels both authentic & endlessly endearing. It’s a testament to how powerful the the studio’s output is that I was greatly impressed by Howl’s Moving Castle, but still hung up on the Ghibli flim about racoon testicles that I had just watched a few days before. Every Miyazaki work is worthy of attention & adoration to some degree and Howl’s Moving Castle was no exception to that rule. It wasn’t the most spectacular, wonderful, magical animated feature I’d ever seen or anything like that,but I still felt like I was lucky to have seen the film, which feels like par for the course for Miyazaki & his peers. May his retirement never be permanent & may the studio never officially close its doors. May our luck never run out.

-Brandon Ledet

Pom Poko (1994)

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fourhalfstar

The Japanese animation empire Studio Ghibli (most closely associated with the brilliant work of Hayao Miyazaki) is an intimidating force from the outside looking in. I’m familiar with the bigger works like Spirited Away & My Neighbor Totoro that dominate the studio’s branding, but there’s dozens of Ghibli titles I’ve never taken the time to approach partly due to the intimidation factor of the studio’s staggering output, despite the fact that most of their work seems to be of impossibly high quality in the medium of hand-drawn animation. If there’s just one Studio Ghibli film I wish I had seen years & years sooner it’d be the raccoon eco-warrior mockumentary Pom Poko. The small-community-vs-the-empowered-hegemony political tone, harsh mix of tragedy & black comedy, and ungodly amount of raccoon testicles that shape the story of Pom Poko would’ve made it a perfect fit for a movie night favorite in my younger, punker years. It’s all too easy to see how young anarcho-punks could empathize with the raccoons fighting the impossible-to-topple enemy of an encroaching housing development & even if they couldn’t align with the creatures politically, they’d still be able to draw a great deal of humor from the creatures’ ever-present, comically oversized testicles. Because it was a film we all grew up with, the movie that filled this niche when I was actually young & angsty was Ferngully. Pom Poko offers a much more beautiful, well-crafted, crass, and ultimately pessimistic version of the Ferngully sentimentality, though, and would’ve made a much more appropriate choice for repeated drunken viewings in my salad days.

The plot of Pom Poko is a fairly straightforward one, though its kookier details gradually escalate to heightened degrees of insanity over the course of its runtime. As a massive housing project threatens to level the forested area where a large tribe of magical raccoons reside, the woodland creatures decide to fight back through their limited means. Think of the guerrilla Ewok resistance on Endor in Return of the Jedi & you pretty much get the picture. The major difference, of course, is that these woodland creatures are not only cute, they’re also magically transformative. They can shapeshift from their natural raccoon shapes to look like supercute cartoon raccoons or an average human being or everyday inanimate objects or anything, really. Some use this skill to scare humans from encroaching on their territory. Some use to live among the humans to escape persecution. Some use it to transform their testicles into gigantic weapons to punish/kill human intruders, a move that positions Pom Poko as the premiere children’s film that deals in testicular homicide. As a small crew of wisened elders join the raccoons’ ranks, the transformations get more complicated & mythical from there, leading to stunning recreations from Japanese folklore (the exact kind you’d find in Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare). The ethereal display is supposed to intimidate the humans from encroaching any further, but any & all actions taken to protest the impending housing development seems doomed to fail. Business as Usual sees no threat big enough to discourage a potential profit & stopping the housing development proves to be a Sisyphean task.

Much of Pom Poko feels as is it may have been lost in translation from Japanese culture & language to its Western, English-speaking version. Firstly, despite what the English dub labels them, the tanuki portrayed here aren’t truly raccoons at all, although the two species do look remarkably similar. Tanuki also have a long history in folklore that justifies the excessive presence of their magical testicles in a children’s movie. The English translation (which features voice work from J.K. Simmons, Brian Posehn, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and at least three Futurama vets) does its damnedest to soften the oddity of its testicular content by translating “testicles” to “pouches” as if kids would mistake the creatures for being marsupials, having never seen themselves or anyone else naked. The yokai folklore on display in the film’s visually stunning third act might also fail to fully translate for Western audiences as well, even though it’s easy to tell from the outside looking in that there’s a rich history backing up its exquisite artistic craftsmanship. The film obviously didn’t have too hard of a time traveling to Western markets, though, since it was submitted for consideration for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1994 (not that it won any accolades or even an official nomination). That kind of pedigree is not too shabby for a children’s cartoon drowning in a sea of furry testicles.

What easily breaks through the language & cultural barriers in Pom Poko is the flm’s anarco-punk spirit. As a radical community uniting against a much larger, better-equipped enemy, the racoons of Pom Poko have many philosophical discussions about the acceptable levels of violence & the effectiveness of non-violent protest in their tactics to combat the housing development, which is a never-ending debate among young progressives, I assure you. Their youthful spirit is also a detriment to their cause, as they’re prone to celebrate small victories long before achieving any longterm goals. The little creatures just love to party. They’re all too easily distracted by beer, pizza, pro wrestling, sex, cheeseburgers, and all sorts of hedonistic temptations that also often distract human punks from organizing & enacting a significant socio-economic change. If you’re looking for proof that this metaphor holds any water, just look to the political chants the raccoons use to rouse their ranks in times of depression or distracted partying. With the right guitar & percussive backing track any one of their chants could easily pass as a song from the seminal anarcho-punk band Crass. The film even addresses the concerns of what happens when these kinds of communities grow up, give in, die off, or decide to join the enemy, which is pretty much the plot of every 00s mall punk’s cinematic handbook, SLC Punk.

Besides the incredible level of skill in the film’s hand-drawn craft, the aspect that makes all of this work in Pom Poko is in its matter-of-fact storytelling style. The film is presented as a documentary & a collection of oral histories, which saves it from delving into the broad, slapstick frivolity of its spiritual cousin, Ferngully. The film can be cartoonishly humorous, sure, but it also aims to break your heart with depictions of death & defeat that a lot of modern children’s films (unfortunately) avoid at all cost. It’s an all-the-more rewarding film because of this detached tone, too, since you not only accept that racoons for who they are & cheer for their victory, but you also fear the idea that it’s a fight they can never possibly win.

-Branodn Ledet