Miyazaki Trifles

Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises, is the centrepiece of the BFI’s celebration of the work of a master animator this April. So we, and in places MostlyFilm: The Next Generation*, wanted to talk about our favourite films from Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli.

Totoro/Ni No Kuni
Kate le Vann

Parenthood is all about the boasting: that’s why you put up with the crap. My kids were agreeable when very young, hating modern culture with hardly any encouragement, embracing quirkiness like tiny Greta Gerwigs. But they got personalities and things went off the rails. I brought in Ponyo. My daughter didn’t like Ponyo. She was angry about Ponyo. Setting aside my ambition, I could see her point. This is the plot of Ponyo: Liam Neeson, depicted as a florid Robin Thicke, walks down the road with a garden spritzer; a boy carries a jellyfish in a bucket, the two things are linked, I forget how.

We retreated to non-classic Disney and CBeebies. My daughter had an encyclopœdic knowledge of the cars in Cars and their sponsors, and I got by on that. One day we were waiting for a bath to run and FilmFour was showing Princess Mononoke. “What is this?” my daughter said. “I want to watch this!” I DVRed the rest and for a few nights we watched the second half of the movie she called ‘The Warthog with Worms’. After that it was childsplay to ease in Kiki and Howl (subtitled!), Panda Go Panda, Arrietty, and the best of them: Totoro. Totoro is about a long, beautiful, sad summer, where all the bad things of life are visible but no real harm can come to anyone. It features the best scene ever made about being a child and waiting. It has the best merch. We wore the cool grey watches. My kids had started to squeal “It’s Studio Ghibli!” when they saw the rabbit.

Then Ghibli made a video game. It’s called Ni No Kuni and the star is Mr Drippy; he’s a small Welsh fairy. There are parts you have to read aloud and you have to read them in a broad Welsh accent. (I was once by myself in the Waitrose car park and I bellowed, ‘A drive-through space, en’t it! TIDY, mun!’ before I realised there were strangers close enough to hear me.) Mr Drippy calls his mother’s vagina ‘Mam’s entrance’. This isn’t just fun, it’s boasting with ribbons on, premium boasting, as in: Oh my kids are so dumb they play video games all the time. Oh, the name? Just some Studio Ghibli thing, you know kids and Ghibli…

It didn’t last. It just got them into video games. They only watch My Little Pony now. But Totoro is mine. My other daughter used to call it ‘Kocho’, no one knew why. It makes me think of my kids running into holiday homes looking for soot sprites and yelling because they’re excited; beanpole legs sticking out of sundresses and the way they run blindly after cats, any cats. It reminds me of the childhood they haven’t had. I hum the tunes. I wear the cool grey watch. “Oh, it’s my kid’s watch,” I tell people. “It’s her favourite movie.”

Kiki’s Delivery Service
Charlie Slade


Kiki’s delivery service is a great family film, it has: drama, comedy and more. It’s about a young witch who is in training to be a good adult witch (she has a VERY sarcastic black cat), suddenly she finds a lovely lady who gives her a job as a delivery girl and then she meets loads more people, animals. But then she figures out later that she has lost her witch powers so she goes on a break with her trustworthy friend. She does have an amazing time. Although there is a boy who likes flying as much as she does, but at first Kiki doesn’t like him (she soon changes her mind). All Kiki thought was training but she soon changed her mind. Even if she did have loads of amazing adventures there were some down parts as well, such as: flying in the rain; being late for a party and not fitting in. Unfortunately her cat couldn’t help her because he got a new girl friend, so she was almost on her own. There was still one friend for her, he was very silly at times but he was always on Kiki’s side. Her best friend in the world.

Kiki is probably my favourite character, mainly because she is brave and determined and she tries her hardest. This is a great film to watch for all the family, when I watched it for the first time I was speechless. It was just beautiful, funny and most of all amazing. It’s a film that you will never forget.

Porco Rosso 
porco rosso

With the release of Miyazaki’s latest and possibly last feature film ‘The Wind Rises’, I thought it was a good time to watch Porco Rosso. Both films feature aviation strongly, and unlike most other Ghibli films they are both set in our world, with a sprinkle of fairy dust. The place names are mostly real, even some of the characters and character names (like the American pilot Curtiss) are loosely based on real people and events.

The obvious exception is the central character Porco Rosso, the Red/Crimson Pig. For reasons not quite explained, the ex-army pilot has been turned into a pig, or at least his head has. Porco is a bounty hunter, hired to recover stolen booty from sea-pirates marauding the Adriatic. While flying his sea-plane to Milan for repairs, he is pursued by Curtiss and his plane is badly damaged.

The middle third of the film sees Porco in Milan, having his plane repaired by Feo, a young female engineer, whilst hiding from the Italian authorities. Eventually girl-power gets him back in the air and Feo tags along to ensure that Porco pays his bills. We then get some backstory on Marco (Porco’s pre-transformation name), and there is a wonderful flashback sequence involving a WWI dogfight and Marco cheating death while fallen friends and foes alike ascend to the long white cloud of dead pilots in the sky.

There are love interests, including Gina the owner of the hotel and cabaret singer who after three dead pilot husbands hasn’t figured out that it might not be such a good idea to pine for Porco. Feo may or may not love Porco, but the Reagan-esque Curtiss wants to bring someone back to Hollywood and if he can’t have Gina then Feo will do.

This leads to the climactic duel between Porco and Curtiss as they fight for sea-plane pilot honour, cash, and a seventeen-year-old engineer. This was my daughter’s favourite part, when ‘the boldy man in blue pushed Porco into the water’. Then Gina turns up to tell them the Italians are on their way and they better scarper.

There are subbed and dubbed versions, I went with dubbed as I wanted my children to have some idea what was going on. Attempts to garner opinion from my 3yo daughter were met with ‘I don’t know’. 1yo son was not much better, pointing to the TV and saying ‘plane!’. Thanks for the help, guys. I better add that Porco is dubbed by Michael Keaton, at the height of his fame, in a very lethargic style.

There’s romance, cabaret, Mediterranean pirate gangs with Japanese names, fascists, pilots, but above all we have planes. Design and construction of which are obviously very close to Miyazaki: the Ghibli name itself coming from the nickname of a WWII Italian fighter. The fairy-tale element common to Studio Ghibli is there in the form of Porco’s porcine predicament, and nostalgia for a time and place where sea-planes ruled the skies and seas.

Stephnie James and Gabriela

Or PON-YO! as it’s known in our house, is, to paraphrase the script, is a “..big and beautiful” film about a little girl with a round tummy.

It’s the nicest possible version of The Little Mermaid, ending happily with a big kiss, or “smoosh” as Gabi would say. No broken hearts, no fobbing off of the (no) consolation prize of becoming a Daughter of the Air with its attendant discharging of  thankless and pretty pointless good works.  I mean, come on!  Send cool breezes to fan overheated children on a hot summer day, and keep it coming for, oh, about another three hundred years in order to earn a soul you didn’t know you wanted when you signed away rights to your own voice in order for a pair of working legs and a fair crack at the handsome prince?  Sounds exhausting.  I’ll take becoming foam on the crest of the wave as the preferable option, thanks.

But Ponyo has everything you could want in an animated film that you may have to watch on repeat for several years if your child likes it as much as mine does.

  1.  It bears up to repeated viewings.
  2. The animation is beautiful and it doesn’t cross the line into the chocolate box territory of old Disney or the lazy computer generated by numbers look of many contemporary animated films for children.  It doesn’t make you squick by setting foot in the uncanny valley.
  3. It’s a quirky tale charmingly told.  It’s not clever-clever.  It doesn’t play to the gallery.  There’s something old fashioned about the telling of Ponyo.  No wink and nod to the adult audience.  Just watch and enjoy.
  4. It all works out happily in the end.

That’s my tuppence ‘orth.   Now here are Gabi’s thoughts on the film, which she has dicated to me thusly:
Ponyo’s daddy is like a human and her mummy is really huge and swims up in the ocean.  Before Ponyo’s name was Ponyo she was called Brunhilde!
A little boy called Sosuke saves Ponyo from not being able to breathe because there was a jar stuck on her head. There was a net that was catching fish that Ponyo escaped from, but that’s how the jar got stuck on her head.  (S. notes: don’t judge – we’ve all been there.)
Sosuke finds her and takes the jar off, although he gets cut saving her.  Ponyo licks the cut to make it go away.  Then Ponyo gets the power to be a little girl!
At the end Ponyo’s mummy turns her all tiny and makes her in a tiny bubble and when Sosuke holds the bubble on land: POP!
And she’s a little girl.  And Sosuke’s mummy says Ponyo can come live with them so Ponyo gets to stay a little girl and eat noodles and ham and drink some hot milk with honey and that is something I’d like to taste.
Ponyo’s one of my favourite films along with Snow White and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T and the one where Charlie Chaplin gets frightened because he goes in a lion’s cage that he thinks is a camper van and lots of other films.

Shorts by Hazao Myazaki
James Moar
Not all of Ghibli’s cartoons have been released outside of Japan. Actually, there are some shorts which haven’t even been released outside Mitaka City, only being screened at the Ghibli Museum. I’ve been lucky enough to get to see one, and to get the picturebook for another.

The one I’ve seen is Yadosagashi (“Looking for a Home”). A young woman leaves her home in the noisy city and heads out into the country. This might seem like a rather heavy-handed pro-nature story at first (she’s even seen walking down a road markedfurui michi, “Old Way”). But it lightens up as it begins to focus instead on her dealings with the spirits of place — offerings to a roadside Buddha first, followed by a sequence where she puts up in a creaky old cabin and undertakes a complex series of negotiations with its soot spirits, mostly involving sharing out instant ramen. Finally, she meets the mysterious spirit of the forest (who bears a certain resemblance to Totoro), and a further gift of ramen nets her a comically large pile of apples in return.

The use of instant ramen is interesting. It would be the food to pick to represent modern, industrial Japan, and yet it’s used here in equal exchanges with spirits of nature, undercutting the dualism that the short begins with.

The story is told with almost no dialogue (‘arigato’, mostly). Its sound effects are made by spoken word, and appear as characters on the screen. While the character designs are classic Ghibli, the slightly looser animation style and use of bright flat colours means it has its own distinctive look, that suits its cheerful, funny tone.

The picturebook is for Mei to konekobasu (“Mei and the Kittenbus”), which is a pendant to Totoro. In it, Mei meets a kittenbus (who, being young, is more like a taxicab in shape than a bus), and makes friends by offering caramels. The kittenbus later takes her on a night ride to a gathering of catbuses and spirits, where she has a happy reunion with Totoro, and meets the giant, cruise-liner shaped Granny Catbus, who turns out to be another aficionado of Mei’s caramels.

It’s a simple story, but even reduced to a picturebook, it carries on Totoro’s charm.

So, all in all, I recommend them if you happen to be in the area.

Studio Ghibli: stories from the other side of the looking glass
Caitlin Watson

Where to begin on my love of Studio Ghibli films? I’ve been a fan since I first saw Howl’s Moving Castle years ago; I found it utterly charming and magical, able to take me right back to a state of child-like innocence. When it comes down to figuring out exactly what about them transports me to safer, more wondrous times, it becomes a little more difficult. Let’s face it; a lot of WEIRD stuff happens in Ghibli films, and there’s a fair amount of peril. These are actually the ones I prefer; Whisper of the Heart, for example, while still charming to look at, is too angsty and nostalgic for my liking. Give me those Pom Poko racoons using their nut sacks to transform into humans, ghosts and other things any day.

I’ve always gravitated towards the more surreal type adventures, typified by my life-long obsession with Alice in Wonderland. Despite being in a bizarre place, with off-kilter things happening, Wonderland seems to have its own set of rules. Rather than find this sinister, I find this strikes a chord with me. My favourite version is by Jan Švankmajer, which feels closest to the “just on the right side of magical menace” vibe I got from reading the books.

In this respect, I think the stranger Ghibli films are quite similar – most of them contain references so culturally distinct from our own cultural touchstones that it’s difficult to get a handle on them. And the things that happen (Chihiro’s parents being turned into pigs in Spirited away; Howl turning into a bird/monster) could be viewed as completely nightmarish, but not to me. As with Alice, Ghibli films create a whole world, with an implied internal logic that seems to make sense.

Upon further reflection, there were some cartoons I found frightening as a child. I’m still not ready to talk about Watership Down, particularly the different style of cartoon at the start. I was terrified of the Cat in the Hat – why did they let him in?? What would their parents say when they got back? Why didn’t they listen to their goldfish? There seemed to be no logic to the intrusion. WAS ANY OF THE CHAOS HE WROUGHT MEANT TO BE FUN?? Also, as much as they have a place in my heart now, any later Hanna Barbera cartoons were also off the menu – I remember hating the animation style of Wacky Races etc. It’s probably no coincidence that one of the only Ghibli cartoons I haven’t sought out has been My Neighbours the Yamadas…the art style just isn’t to my taste.

I’ve seen Spirited Away compared with Alice, which I’d have to agree with. So many elements of this could easily work their way into a fever dream/night terrors, and yet I almost find them soothing…examples that spring to mind include the radish monster, Yubaba and her massive head, her baby, her baby being turned into a hamster for being selfish, and primarily, No Face. No Face could be seen as extremely disturbing, especially in the bathhouse when he’s feeding everyone’s greed eating everyone, but to me he’s not. The things he does before and after eating the frog make him seem lonely, like he just needs a friend. Even Yubaba loves her hamsterbaby and is distraught at it being gone. I guess the rounding of all characters (even the threatening ones) to show the goodness in them/their motivation just appeals more than a black and white interpretation. Closer to reality (albeit a form of reality you’d be more likely to experience whilst asleep).

Here’s a quick run-down of my favourites:

  1. Howl’s Moving Castle – primarily for Sophie’s innocence/growing confidence to be herself and Howl learning to be human again
  2. Totoro – despite the cloud of the mother’s illness hanging over them, this feels like a long summer holiday when you were at the start of primary school. I love how it’s totally engaging, even though it doesn’t have a main baddie to drive it. Everything so full of wonder. That song will stick in your head
  3. Spirited Away – even though he sort of makes me uncomfortable, No Face really makes this for me
  4. Porco Rosso – kinda love the fact that everyone is ok with the fact he’s been enchanted, and although it’s at the heart of the story, nobody makes a big deal of it
  5. Pom Poko – really, really WEIRD. And they also have their own theme song

So I suppose in the end, the charm of Ghibli cartoons, for me, comes from not only their dream-like, otherworldly quality with its own rules to follow, but also how beautifully rendered they are – although the characters aren’t often drawn with a lot of detail, they have a distinctive style, quite different to the Disneys and Hanna Barberas we’re used to, and a depth of character that enhances the magic, as do the backgrounds. Adding their own cultural spin to stories we’re familiar with (Ponyo, Arrietty) makes them feel fresh again, creating an enjoyably-recognisable-yet-still-surprising new story.

Love Live Ghibli.

*We got our kids to write it

2 thoughts on “Miyazaki Trifles

  1. I’ve spent the whole day the WHOLE DAY looking for any version of Mei and the Kittenbus, book, youtube, torrent, whatever. I can’t BELIEVE they make you go to Japan for it!

  2. Only Yesterday must have the most emotional and perfectly built up yet subtle ending to any film I have ever seen. Whisper of the Heart is a lovely heart warming slice of life, innocent and positive. Two of my favourite films to come from Studio Ghibli, neither directed by Miyazaki funnily enough.

    I was lucky to see The Wind Rises at the Glasgow Film Festival and it may be my favourite Miyazaki film. After that it’s either Porco Rosso or Spirited Away. You can do no wrong visiting any and all films to come from this studio however. Absolutely stellar work and I hope they can find a way to continue their style of film making long into the future.

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