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You May Have Missed: “Whisper of the Heart”

You may have missed this Studio Ghibli film since it is approaching its twenty second anniversary in July, but you still have time to seek it out, and it is well worth the search.

The first film produced by Ghibli that was not directed by either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, it is much quieter than some of the studio’s better known films. The story focuses on fourteen year old Shizuku dealing with two big coming-of-age moments: realizing her passion/dream to write, and navigating her first love.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See #18: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Last Monday, I sat on the hardwood floor of my  apartment, leering at the white cardboard box in  front of me. The box, which contained a  disassembled nightstand from IKEA, had been  sitting under my bed for weeks. And one night after  getting home from work abnormally early (before 8  p.m.), I did the adult thing – I put a load of laundry  in the wash, ordered a pizza from Dominos, dragged  the box out from under my bed, and put on “Kiki’s  Delivery Service.”

“Kiki’s Delivery Service,” or Majo no Takkyūbin, was  a 1989 release from Studio Ghibli about a young  witch, Kiki, who leaves home with her talking cat companion Jiji on her 13th birthday, part of a custom where a young witch must be apart from her family for a year and find another town to live and use her special ability in. Kiki’s ability of flight seems like an ordinary witch power, but she finds that in her new seaside town she is able to use it as a delivery girl for a bakery. But her journey to using her talent doesn’t come without obstacles. After one delivery goes sour, she seems to lose her powers. She can no longer fly or understand Jiji and becomes deeply depressed before finally regaining her confidence in herself and her abilities.

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25 Animated Films You MUST See: #1 Princess Mononoke

We start our list off with a Miyazaki flick — because come on, you should know me by now. This 1997 film was Japan’s biggest blockbuster of all time until James Cameron’s Titanic came along. But if you don’t recognize his name, you might recognize some of his titles, because he’s got quite a hefty animated resume working for him. Let’s start with childhood. Remember My Neighbor Totoro?

No?

UnknownHow about Kiki’s Delivery ServiceNaussica, Valley of the Wind? The newest of the batch, The Wind Rises. And moving into the older audience, there’s Howl’s Moving Castle, and surely you’ve heard of the big one, Spirited Away? All animated and directed by Hayao.

Now before I go any further, I have to make the animation defense, and I’ll do it by highlighting this specific movie’s relationship with my husband. Now, my husband studied film at BIOLA University in California, a school that knows the craft of film very well. He was still in school when this incident happened, and he told me he had never seen a Hayao film before.

After I questioned our relationship, I decided to be excited that I’d get to share a different form of film with him. I begged him for weeks to watch this movie. WEEKS. All the while, we’d been watching the typical films on a “film major’s” list. The 400 Blows, The Seventh Seal, Blue Valentine, A Clockwork Orange, and one night, I finally cornered him about why we hadn’t seen it yet. And although he didn’t mean to, he made it sound as though animation was a form of film that just couldn’t compete with others, because its characters weren’t real.

The child inside me that watched My Neighbor Totoro nearly every day, who cried with Kiki when she lost her witch powers, and who read books upon books of character molded from a writer’s subconscious wanted to swiftly and maturely kick him in the junk and run away. But instead, I led the gentleman upstairs with the promise of chips, dip, and a slew of whatever movie he wanted — if he only watched this one.

large_nQOOHGuhj9s9mDywIECOVpKNl7pSo, we sat down and began our journey into the plot of Princess Mononoke (I should also tell all of you that I plan on typing out “Mononoke” every time it shows up because it’s fun as all get out. And you just tried it. Point proved.)

So, the movie begins with an immediate showcase of the animation Hayao is capable of. The lush landscape of medieval Japan unfolds around us, letting us enter into the dawn of the Iron Age, when nature was at war with civilization — a regular “Gilgamesh.”

But in the midst of the gorgeous animation, we are immediately confronted with a problem. There is a watchtower guard who shouts that he has noticed something “wrong with the forest.” From this point on, a giant creature, revealed as a boar-like creature covered in black leech-like worms, comes crashing out from the woods and begins to attack. Here we meet our hero, the brave Ashitaka, who is the prince of his isolated people, those who still live in accordance with nature, and who are peaceful towards it, not encroaching on its space. We also meet Ashitaka’s noble steed (who’s actually more of an ibex, but you understand), Yakkuru. Ashitaka and Yakkuru do battle with the creature, and he is finally able to slay it, but not before the worms attach themselves to his skin and leave a deathly-looking scar.

A wise shaman of the village is able to interpret what went on. The monster was a boar god, until a small iron bullet casing was embedded in its flesh and drove it mad. We are left wondering where the bullet came from, until Ashitaka is suddenly told he must cut his hair (a symbol of being cut off from the others) and leave the village, because he too has been infected with a demon of hate inside his arm, a curse. And so Ashitaka obeys. We watch him have a wrenching goodbye scene with his sister and he rides off towards to West to find the source of the bullet and to find out why nature is acting so strangely.

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From here on out, Ashitaka is thrust into a world of violence and war. Nature versus Civilization, humans versus gods, and he is caught in between to find some balance. He finds an area that is rule by Moro, a wolf god of an entire pack of gorgeous white wolves, and sees a human living among them, one who has been raised by them since birth. She is introduced as San — or Princess Mononoke

And San’s intentions seem wild, but noble. She is out to destroy Lady Eboshi, an iron-willed ruler whose village is manufacturing the very bullets and guns that are causing nature to revolt.

Ashitaka also ventures into Eboshi’s village to ask that she stop this production. Although her townspeople are gaining profits and land, they are loosing the ability to know the language of the gods (and animal gods are literally only being able to speak in animal sounds, rather than being voiced by actors). Their land is stripped of trees, slaves work in their factories, and lepers make weapons for Eboshi. Ashitaka even meets a slick-talking Jigo who wants to take the head of the Spirit of the Forest to have full control over nature.

But before you go pointing out the obvious “bad guy” here, Hayao throws in elements that make things far less black and white. Emperor Eboshi is adored by her people, and the lepers are accepted members of society (unlike Ashitaka was when he was pronounced diseased) by helping keeping the economy afloat, and she genuinely cares for her people and wants them to be wealthy and powerful. Even Jigo’s motives make sense at times. It becomes obvious — there are risks to each side, there are heartbreaking deaths that happen to major characters on each side of the problem, and everyone has their own reasons for justification. Pretty complex for moving drawings, don’t you think?

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All of this action includes an extreme depth and scope of human nature. For example, Ashitaka and San, who admit love for one another, see that they can never “lead the life of the other” and must sacrifice their love for freedom and see one another in passing glances. How many live-action love stories have been so deep?

The animation is stark, real, vivid, and appeals to the realistic view of the audience — no character is an afterthought. The white wolves are wonderfully crafted and detailed. They are not Disney-friendly. When they bear their fangs, they are shown as violent gods, ones who can and will kill for their ideals.

….As for my husband?

Unknown-1Once the movie was over, I flicked on the light and saw him staring, wide-eyed at the rolling credits. I asked him what he was thinking. He looked at me and said:

“I forgot that was an animated film well over an hour ago.”

Now I do not give you this review without pointing out a couple of things that might’ve distracted me. First off, it is a bit long (a little over 2 hours). I feel as though Ashitaka’s journey really, really takes him awhile, but when he meets San, things pick up considerably.

Also, it really does reflect “Gilgamesh” quite a lot — not that this is a bad thing, but it can make the plot a little predictable about motives and wether or not everything will come out alright in the end.

Speaking of which, I didn’t plan on sharing the entirety of the plot with you, because I want you to watch this for yourself. I want you, the reader, the follower of this blog, to have an experience. I want you to see that animation is not just reserved for Saturday morning cartoons; it can make the world of the animator come alive — he or she can bend time, space, reality, and get away with it all because they convinced you their characters were as real as Tyler Durden was to the narrator in Fight Club, and they can affect you just as much.

I honestly think Roger Ebert (who gave this film FOUR STARS) said it best:

“Animated films are not copies of “real movie,” are not shadows of reality, but create a new existence in their own right. True, a lot of animation is insipid, and insulting even to the children it is made for. But great animation can make the mind sing.”

Ending Point: My Journey Through Miyazaki’s Essays In Light of Studio Ghibli’s Possible End

71EuDoeYx5LAbout two weeks ago, I started reading “Starting Point,” a collection of essays, speeches. interviews, and newspaper articles written by Hayao Miyazaki. For those of you who don’t know, Miyazaki is one of the biggest reasons artistic animation is taken seriously in the U.S. Miyazaki animated several blockbuster hits such as “Spirited Away,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” and “Princess Mononoke,” one of the highest-grossing films of all time in Japan. He also animated “My Neighbor Totoro,” the first movie I remember seeing. To put it simply, he did a lot for me as a kid, mainly opening up my brain a little every time I sat down to watch one of his films. His imagination, couple with his brilliant team at Ghibli, have produced fantastic worlds that draw you in with their sights, sounds, and gorgeous rich colors.

In short, my feelings toward the guy are nothing short of adoration. And to read “Starting Point” is to feel a little closer to the person who inspired my side work in comics and made my childhood really special. I’d really recommend the book to anyone who was interested in animation, or who likes picking the brain of a creative person. I’ve loved every page of the book, and it’s full of meaningful little quotes that really make his work and personality come alive, like this one:

“A moving perspective that incorporates a sense of space in the picture, that creates a sense of liberation, and that makes our souls want to greet the wind, the clouds, and the beautiful earth we see unfolding far below – these are the wonderful scenes and machines I dream of someday depicting.”

But when it was rumored that Ghibli Studios might be putting down its pens only a few months after Miyazaki had retired, I had some mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it seemed wise for them to know when to pack it in; they spent years making beautiful films and if they ended now, they could still be remembered that way, not as a company that desperately tried to cling to a reputation that had changed into something new over the years. But on the other hand, just because Miyazaki knew his time in the sun was over with, it didn’t mean the studio couldn’t go on and create more beautiful things. Plus, it’s a selfish reason, but I wanted Studio Ghibli to continue making movies because, well, why wouldn’t they? There was so much to want to cling to, there was such a large legacy there – and I know that if I was personally working there, I’d put up a fight to keep on animating.

Either way, it’s just a rumor, but there is something to think about here – how do we as creative people (and people in general) regard the things we create? I know that my own personal connection to things that I’ve written or drawn is a strong one, and I wouldn’t want to just give it up because in some small way, it proves I made something of my life, I did something worthwhile – no matter how small. And the more successful those creations get, the harder it is to come to terms with one day letting it go.

But Miyazaki had another lesson to teach me here as well. Below, you can see stills from the Studio Ghibli documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” which was originally released in Japan last year. These stills are from Tumblr site Nicholas Kole:

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To me, a statement like that takes a lot of humility to say. I think that a lot of people, including myself, would practically throw themselves at Miyazaki’s feet and beg him not to let the company go, asking him to keep it around for reasons – some big and extravagant, like making beautiful movies, and some for practical reasons, like making money or keeping jobs in the animation arena open.

Because as creative people, things like recognition and fame still matter. We still vie for the attention of others and chase the elusive, all consuming aspect of fame. But I really think that Miyazaki challenges us to remain dedicated to what we love, not what can become of it – and in a way, he also challenges us to embrace how small we are as humans. Yes, he founded one of the biggest, most successful animation studios of all time, and yes, he’ll be remembered long after he passes away. But for him, it’s about knowing when to let go, because even if Ghibli isn’t closing up shop now, it will eventually. But it seems that he knows when to say, “I have done what I loved to do, and now it’s time to rest.” There’s a certain grace to it, and it makes the argument that fame isn’t what lasts, but rather the experiences and love you share with others during the journey.

But all in all, no matter how I view the possible closing of one of my favorite companies, I do recommend Miyzaki’s book to you. Even if you aren’t into animation, it’s about much, much more than lines on a page.