Tag Archives: hayao miyazaki

Castle in the Sky (1986)

Every once in a while, I’ll enjoy seeing a thread on a forum or Twitter where people will reminisce about the mountains we used to scale to watch old TV shows, or cartoons from other countries. Uphill in the snow both ways, you remember. In the mid-eighties, I watched a fair amount of Japanese animation, enjoying the camaraderie more than the cartoons it must be said, and lots of it was untranslated. Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 film Laputa – that’s what we called it then – was one of those movies. I think you had to either get it on a T-160 tape or get a SLP/EP copy of it because the darn thing’s a hair too long to fit on a proper T-120 on SP speed.

My SLP copy looked like garbage and had lots of tracking errors, not – this time – because I was too lazy and cheap to buy nicer quality tapes, but because I’d had one of those BASF T-160s in the red cardboard case snap when I rewound it. But I watched the heck out of it anyway, wondering what the dialogue was, and particularly baffled by the scenes deep down in the mine with Uncle Pom.

Certain films and shows possessed a real power to thrill me even despite the language barrier. I’ve always been interested in Miyazaki’s movies and shows even if I was watching them in the original Japanese. I figured out early on that lots of what we could get our hands on was either junk to sell toys and candy or it just wasn’t going to appeal to me in any language no matter how popular it was. I couldn’t get into Iczer One or Bubblegum Crisis or any of the many and varied forms of Gundam, but eventually two of my best friends went in on a laserdisc set of all 26 episodes of a 1978 TV series that Miyazaki directed called Future Boy Conan and I jumped. Seven tapes of that (SP, thank you, TDK E-HG) and I was set for weeks, leaving my college roommate absolutely baffled why I was watching a cartoon in a language I didn’t speak. They were such nice copies, too. Not a hint of a tracking error.

(Strangely, one of those said best friends doesn’t seem to have written an article about Conan at Let’s Anime, possibly because he seems to suffer from some major Miyazaki malaise. So read his story about Horus, Prince of the Sun instead.)

Anyway, so I’d struggled through the tracking errors and washed-out colors of my lousy copy of Laputa seven or eight times in the late eighties, and suddenly I had this beautiful old show which basically had the character dynamics between the young heroes that would be echoed in Laputa already in place eight years earlier. It was such a neat feeling, figuring out similarities in character and theme when I didn’t even know the names of most of the characters. Nowadays, Wikipedia figures it out for you.

Eventually, Streamline would release a dub of Castle in the Sky, as it would be renamed, and then Disney would redo it with James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin, and Mark Hamill doing his Joker voice, and Cloris Leachman being absolutely amazing as the air pirate Captain Dola. I’ve always felt that Leachman is channeling Billie Hayes! Tell me that her Dola doesn’t sound like Witchiepoo. You’d be lying.

Fathom Events wrapped up this year’s run of Studio Ghibli films with Castle in the Sky this weekend. On my right, I had my son, who was probably more wired and more amazed in a theater than he’s ever been before, literally hopping in his seat during the train chase. On my left, a teen girl who started the movie insisting to her father that no, he had not seen this one, because she doesn’t own a copy, and who spent most of the two hours plus a hair quietly saying “Oh my God oh my God oh my God oh my God.”

And they weren’t the distractions. It was just me, wondering why the heck I can’t get a nice English dub of Future Boy Conan on Blu-ray in this day and age.

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Our son does mostly well with staying quiet while we watch things together. We’ve been working on this for several years now, in no small part because we want him to be quiet and still and respectful of the audience when we see a movie in a theater. Most of the time he does a great and commendable job, especially when he sees that the program is pitched a little higher than his age level and he needs to pay attention.

Lately, though, he’s been a complete motormouth whenever we’re not watching something together. He’s started humming, constantly, at all hours. We used to walk down the toy aisles in a shop and he’d be largely silent, but now every box prompts him to shout “OMG, look at this! And this! And this!”

And this morning, Phil Hartman, in his final acting performance, had him talking and yammering through the film Kiki’s Delivery Service like he’d never seen a movie before. I think that he had to repeat every single one of Hartman’s lines at least twice, after he finished laughing. It wasn’t just Hartman’s dialogue, though. Whenever Jiji the cat did anything, he jumped out of his seat to imitate him. The cat curls up on the bed, our son curled up on the floor. The cat shakes itself dry, our son shook himself dry, and each time he added “He’s just like –” and then the imitation. At one point, Jiji tries to stay perfectly still, and I wished our kid would have taken the clue.

Well, he wasn’t a truly well-behaved boy this morning, but he certainly had a great time. Kiki’s Delivery Service was written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and was released in 1989. It’s based on a popular children’s novel by Eiko Kadono that was written a few years previously, though I understand that Miyazaki beefed up the slight story a good deal and gave it the dramatic climax, which is the downright definition of breathtaking.

Last year, we enjoyed My Neighbor Totoro and I mentioned that my copy of that film is the first American dub, done by a company called Streamline. For Kiki, I upgraded my older Streamline dub for one that Disney put together in 1997, using the talents of Hartman, Kirsten Dunst, Tress MacNeille, and Janeane Garofalo. I’m glad that I did, and evidently our son agrees. He really loved this film.

The story is about a thirteen year-old girl in a nebulous fantasy European country in the middle of the 20th Century. She’s a witch and the world doesn’t seem to have ever known war. At some point during a witch’s thirteenth year, she must leave home on a clear midnight full moon for a year. Kiki makes her way to a large port city. She’s very lonely, but she finds a home and starts a delivery business. She eventually allows herself to make friends in time to get some encouragement and inspiration when she loses her powers and isn’t able to fly anymore.

Like several of Miyazaki’s other movies, I really enjoy it even though it’s so slight that it’s not a world I want to come back to every week. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure this won’t collect too much dust on the shelf before our kid wants to see it again. Hopefully he’ll tone it down a little next time!

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

News traveled very, very slowly in the late 1980s. I was talking in a recent post about how I’ve got no time for all that “good old days” nostalgia, but I confess that, of course, I’m fond of thinking about all the hoops we had to jump through to watch television and movies from other countries when I was a teenager. These days, I understand you can subscribe to a streaming service – a legitimate one! – and watch Japanese cartoons, subtitled, the same week everybody else gets to see them. There’s even a company called Discotek that specializes in licensing the most obscure titles imaginable, from stone-cold classics like Endless Orbit SSX to garbage like Chargeman Ken, with English translations by people who actually care about doing them accurately.

But back then, months and months would go by before VHS tapes would start to circulate. People would hear about new films and TV shows, but heaven only knows when anybody would see subtitled copies of them. If I remember correctly, I didn’t see a subtitled edition of this movie, then called Totoro of the Neighborhood, until either the 1989 or 1990 Atlanta Fantasy Fair. (And what I remember is dubbing my own copy of the movie while minding the anime video room, because that’s what we did in those wild west days.) A dubbed edition, made by a company run by the late Carl Macek, didn’t appear until 1993. I have a pan-and-scan DVD of this release which I bought to replace the VHS tape that my older children watched to death. It was redubbed under the Disney umbrella in 2005; I should probably have purchased a proper widescreen version of this dub before now.

(Madly, the release history of Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is more convoluted than that; I have the Manga Video/Anchor Bay DVD and that’s good enough for me.)

So anyway, My Neighbor Totoro is flatly one of my favorite animated movies, despite lacking the sort of plot-driven dynamic that I usually enjoy most. This isn’t an adventure movie; it’s a little character study about two little girls who meet some woodland spirits. The most that happens is that the younger girl gets lost. But it’s just so good. If you enjoy cartoons for perfect comic timing, then this thing is a masterpiece. There’s not a frame introduced too early or held too long in the legendary bus stop sequence. The scene is one perfect shot after another, and I have never watched it without laughing so hard that I cry.

And Mei, the younger girl, is an absolutely perfect creation. Every single thing that Mei does, from opening the same doors that her big sister opens to exploding with tears and stomping away with snot all over her face, just has me in stitches. So when she does get lost, it’s scary. Even having watched this movie two dozen times and knowing perfectly well that she’ll be fine, it’s still scary.

We gave our six year-old son a heads-up that the girls in this movie get scared, but that there is nothing to worry about and everybody in this film will be fine. Either it didn’t sink in or Mei getting lost really is that troubling, because our son was really, really worried for her. But overall he loved the movie, as all children do, and told us that the Catbus was – of course – his favorite character. Everybody loves the Catbus.

Totoro is a magical movie. From the color choices to the music to the nervous body language of the boy next door, it’s a movie with so much more attention to detail than I was expecting in the late 1980s. The 87 minutes you spend in this little rural community feel like weeks, and you won’t mind the time investment even slightly. Whether you’ve got kids or not, this movie is a must.

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Ponyo (2008)

Marie asked whether we were going to show our son Ponyo. I said nah, let’s throw him in the Miyazaki deep end with Princess Mononoke.

I’m kidding, of course. If you want to start listing reasons why Hayao Miyazaki’s films are so beloved in the United States, then you could get a little cynical and grouchy, or you could note that there are Miyazaki movies for every age. He’s directed films for eleven-at-hearts and for older audiences, but he’s also made a few that are absolutely perfect for six year-olds. So here’s the first of a couple that we’re watching this fall. Ponyo was released in Japan in 2008 and came out in the US with a very wide release in multiplexes all across the country the following year. It did pretty respectable business for a cartoon without any merchandising, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it attracted crowds beyond anime fans, and I just can’t believe anybody left without a smile of curiosity and amusement. It’s just so darn cute.

Our kid was absolutely hypnotized by it. The movie hits on similar themes of life out of balance that Miyazaki has explored in other films, but the core for children is a simple adventure film centered on a five year-old boy named Sosuke and his very odd new companion, a little girl who was a small fish when he first met her. They have a safe, not-frightening, but visually dazzling experience of looking for his mother after the little girl, given the name Ponyo, throws the world off-kilter by abandoning an underwater life of magic in favor of humanity.

I won’t say there’s a ton here for adults to really embrace beyond the beautiful animation. While the movie never drags and never annoys – given the unspeakable awfulness of modern American cartoons, that alone is a massive recommendation – the lack of any real struggle or danger keeps me from embracing the characters or situation. This is a movie to be shared with children, who will almost certainly be as charmed and captivated as ours was. Put another way, watched without a kid, then Ponyo is a treat for the eyes from a visionary director, but so lacking in meat and fire that it’s mostly forgettable. With a kid, this is exploring a vibrant and exciting little world. If you don’t have children of your own, sit down with somebody else’s and prepare for two incredibly satisfying hours.

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