Princess Mononoke (1997)

Earlier this week, I took our son for his allergy shots, saw that one of the TVs in the waiting room was playing something that looked like Pokemon*, and asked him “Would you like to sit there and watch Pokemon?” He’s ten, and while most of the time he’s still our delightful little boy wanting hugs and cuddles and positive attention while unrolling his world of wild fan theories, he will, occasionally, remind us that the teen years are just seconds away. Suddenly he was fifteen already, embarrassed by his uncool dad, and he rolled his eyes and said “Dah-ah-ahddddd, why do you think all anime is Pokemon?!” Little twerp, I was reading that show was called Pocket Monsters and giving people seizures before I knew what Team Rocket even looked like.

So what happened the very next day? The North American distributor of lots of good things, GKids, made an astonishing announcement. They’ve licensed Future Boy Conan. I’m not kidding. Go read about it. Everybody else I know has a lot more time for Japanese cartoons than I do, but Conan is stop-the-presses huge. It’s a 26-episode TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki for a weekly early-evening slot for NHK in 1978, based loosely on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. Conan made it to several international markets, including Mexico and Italy, but didn’t land in the United States, not even all those years later, once Miyazaki became the de facto face of the medium for people who have even less time for Japanese cartoons than I do.

You can read a huge amount about Conan over at Let’s Anime, where Dave wrote a comprehensive article last year. And the reason I’m so hyped about the forthcoming English-language release of this series, where absolutely no other cartoon release has prompted more than a raised eyebrow, is that about three decades ago, he landed a laserdisc set of the 26 episodes, raw, without subs or dubs, copied them for me on seven VHS tapes, and I watched those bad boys from beginning to end three times in a row, two or three episodes every single day, occasionally baffled but otherwise transfixed. I gave it another spin a couple of years later. They were lost in the VHS purge of 2001, and I am so looking forward to revisiting its weird world, oddball humor, and wild melodrama.

There are so many people in this country whose love of Japanese cartoons and comics have been a springboard for a deeper interest in Japanese language or culture or careers. Maybe our son’s turning into one. This morning, we watched Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which some people consider his best. The lead character, Ashitaka, carries around a bowl, as I believe you did back in the 1400s or whenever, to enjoy some rice on the road. That got the kid wanting ramen for lunch. Unfortunately, we live in Chattanooga, where options for a really good bowl of soup are more than a bit limited. We ended up watching him enjoy the heck out of a giant bucket of tonkatsu ramen while we ate expensively and far worse than he did. (I don’t actually like ramen. I don’t like pho either. Soup for me is what you dip a grilled cheese sandwich in.)

As for the movie, he said that he mostly liked it, but he had trouble with what seemed to him like Ashitaka’s shifting alliances. “Like, whose side is he on,” he protested. He was unprepared for the level of violence – it was very surprising when I first saw this in the early 2000s and remains so today – but mostly fascinated by the story. I think I like Lady Eboshi the best. She’s an interestingly sympathetic villain, who’s done so much good that it mostly mitigates the evil. And I like the score: it might be Joe Hisaishi’s finest after Nausicaa.

But mentioning Nausicaa just brings up the problem: this movie just feels like Nausicaa redux, with a male lead. As Miyazaki explores the wheel turning and civilizations rising and falling and nature taking over and man beating it back, this was perhaps inevitable, but there isn’t anything here that Nausicaa didn’t do better, especially the climax. The great anecdote everybody loves to share about this one is that Miyazaki and/or his PR team sent the North American distributors a firm and slightly hilarious warning against making any cuts, but this climax goes on for freaking ever and could seriously stand to have a good fifteen minutes pruned from it. There’s a lot to like in the end, especially how all the people who live in Lady Eboshi’s town are ready and willing to rebuild and keep her in charge, despite everything, but it takes an agonizing time to get there.

Agonizing. Once we can preorder Conan, that’s precisely what it’s going to feel like. Mononoke is a pretty good movie, but it’s not Future Boy Conan.

*It was Beyblade.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

This was not the first time that my meticulous, and perhaps faintly ridiculous, preplanning for this silly blog has been thrown off by our son getting bedtime reading with his mom. On one hand, we are thrilled that, at age nine, he still wants bedtime stories, and hasn’t dismissed it as kiddie stuff. On the other hand, Marie unpacked Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle in January, when the movie wasn’t on the calendar until May. This took whole minutes to fix, but I’m very glad I did.

Castle is not among my favorite Miyazaki movies, despite its gorgeous animation and wonderful design, and what I might think is Joe Hisaishi’s finest score since Nausicaä. There’s a whole lot to love here, but there are other movies that I love much more. I also think the climax is very nebulous and ultimately disappointing. The problem of the war is apparently resolved, but offscreen, and the antagonism between the wizard Howl and the witch Madam Suliman barely gets started, much less finished.

But it worked out very well that they finished reading the novel a few weeks ago. It was very fresh in our son’s mind, and he told us that the book was “real different, but I loved both.” I haven’t read the book myself, so I relied on him to give me a very lengthy rundown of the changes and differences. Among many that he mentioned, Jones apparently had a much more satisfying resolution to the story in mind; her book had two climaxes, according to the kid, and while the character of Suliman is radically different in the original, there’s a lot more meat to Howl and Suliman’s rivalry. Also, the book apparently detours to Wales, while the movie is set emphatically in one of Miyazaki’s signature middle-European never-neverlands.

While the novel gave him lots to chew on as he tried to relax enough to sleep, the movie gave us a very funny fire demon, a hopping scarecrow, a ramshackle castle that walks on bird legs, and basically two mostly satisfying hours. Our son had been looking forward to it all week, and it didn’t disappoint at all.

Porco Rosso (1992)

Shout! Factory and GKids have been releasing director Hayao Miyazaki’s films for Studio Ghibli in these beautiful steelbooks with minimal design and bright, solid colors. I told myself years ago that I would not, would not, would not let myself be tempted down the steelbook path, but all of my Ghibli films were badly in need of upgrades, and I prefer uniform design, and they’re all so gosh-darned pretty.

I was a little concerned and discouraged, because Miyazaki is not the only director with that studio, and their other output deserves the same treatment. Happily, they have announced that the next two in the series were directed by other people: Whisper of the Heart and The Cat Returns, coming in March. I’m very glad to see them shift the focus to the rest of the really talented directors at that studio, and while it does mean that Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso, as well as The Wind Rises, will have to come later on, I don’t mind waiting. After all, I’d waited 29 years to watch this one already.

I sincerely have no idea why it took me so long to get around to watching this movie. It’s been on my get-around-to-it list for decades, but when I decided to introduce our son to old and beloved films together around the structure of this blog, I just picked up a copy seven years ago (DVD, from the Book Nook in Marietta GA, the receipt tells me) and let it collect a little dust until it came up in the rotation. It was worth the wait; we all enjoyed this tremendously.

“Porco Rosso” is the unflattering nickname given to a man originally named Marco. He was a seaplane pilot in the 1910s with many friends, but somehow – and I love how this is not detailed at all – he was cursed by a witch and now has a pig’s head. So he keeps to himself and works as a bounty hunter in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas, which are beset by dangerous, albeit lovably stupid, air pirates. One of his old friends runs a hotel and restaurant nearby and he goes to see her occasionally, and another old pal is a mechanic in Milan who occasionally gives him a small line of credit to repair all the massive damage his plane takes.

So one day, a hotshot American contracts with the pirates and shoots Porco out of the sky while he was on his way to Milan for repairs. Milan isn’t safe anymore, and all the young men have joined the army and the air force, but the mechanic insists that his seventeen year-old granddaughter is a great engineer and his all-female crew is perfectly capable of rebuilding his plane. But can he get out of Italy before the secret police find him, and do something about that American flyboy?

So no, I shouldn’t have waited so long to watch this. I really enjoyed it, probably even more than our son, who chuckled and laughed all the way through over the pirates’ dumb shenanigans and people refusing to back down from escalating situations. Miyazaki pulls out several tricks he’d used in earlier movies about flying, including the lever-pulling tech within cockpits, and planes moving in and out of clouds, so it’s familiar in many ways but it’s such an interesting story. It’s set in someplace broadly like our history, but at kind of an odd angle.

I like the characters of Porco and Theo quite a lot, and just love the way the story is told, especially the ending. Perfectly, it sets up a possibility or two after the climax and lets the audience wonder about them. It’s a very, very good film. When Shout! announces the steelbook, I’ll have a preorder in at RightStuf immediately.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

So for those of you who don’t know, Lupin III is the world’s greatest thief, and in The Castle of Cagliostro, he and his gun-totin’ buddy Jigen decide it’s time to do something about an international counterfeit operation that’s been going on for decades. They get involved with a runaway bride in a tiny European country and are in for the fight of their lives. I told our son that there would be hijinx and he said “Good. I love hijinx.” He found the experience completely satisfying.

Because it was directed by Hayao Miyazaki, Cagliostro is probably most Americans’ first introduction to Lupin III. Some people have a tendency to want a starting point when they’re looking at a big media franchise, and Lupin, with a couple of hundred TV episodes and close to thirty films, is a pretty big one. Nobody ever asks where they should start with James Bond or Law & Order, though, do they? I wonder why that is.

Anyway, I’m far from an expert on the subject. I’ve probably only watched a combined ten hours of Lupin myself, and I don’t like the original comics by Monkey Punch at all. I like the heroic Lupin of Cagliostro; I think that the previous movie, Mystery of Mamo, which we’ll watch later this summer, might be the better of the two, but I like seeing Lupin not being a thief and a creep for long enough to play Robin Hood and save the first decent member of a centuries-old crime family.

I gave our son a quick potted history of the gentleman thief trope, and how the original character of Arsène Lupin was created by Maurice Leblanc in the 1900s, amid a wave of similar characters created by Simon Boothby and EW Hornung. In the 1960s, the trope resurfaced in film and TV (The Pink Panther, Topkapi, It Takes a Thief), and Monkey Punch seemed to create his comics as a reaction to those. Punch’s thief was well-dressed, but certainly no gentleman. His Lupin III, allegedly the grandson of Leblanc’s original, was a protagonist but not a hero. He got toned down massively for television, and tamed further still for some of the features.

So while Cagliostro might be the tamest version of them all – it certainly has that reputation, anyway – it’s still a hugely fun ride, full of car chases and underwater brawls, slapstick violence and real bullets, intricate schemes and hilarious improvisations. Everybody enjoyed the movie hugely and I’m looking forward to the next couple of films that we’ll see later in the year.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I think I’ve probably seen Nausicaä – or at least 85% of Nausicaä – more times than I’ve seen every other Miyazaki movie combined, but I’ve never seen it on a big screen before tonight. There’s one off the bucket list.

Nausicaä is Miyazaki’s prog rock movie. He started developing it in the late 1970s, around the time he was working on the TV series Future Boy Conan and going through some issues with the rise and fall of civilizations, cycles, rebirths, that sort of thing. This feel is enhanced by one of my favorite scores to any movie, ever. Joe Hisaishi spends parts of this film channeling Rick Wakeman and other parts channeling Nick Rhodes. Hisaishi has scored all of Miyazaki’s movies since this one, and they are all wonderful and memorable, but there’s such an odd mix of styles in this movie that it stands out as the most unique and weird. It kind of has to be heard to be believed.

When I was fifteen and sixteen, I inhaled this film. I had a copy of the original English language dub, which was called Warriors of the Wind, and I watched it constantly. To the disgust of purists, Warriors was edited by twenty minutes, down to a lean 100, so that after it finished its theatrical run, New World Pictures could sell it to TV stations for a two-hour slot. So sure, tampering with Miyazaki is eee-eeeevil, but that original voice cast was so much better than the one they got to perform the contemporary dub. It’s not just that Patrick Stewart just phoned in his lines and sounds like he wasn’t in the same country, never mind the same studio, it’s that everybody in the original sold the hell out of it.

The original English voice for Nausicaä – well, they renamed her Zandra, and I can’t defend that and won’t try – was Susan Davis, who was the original English language voice of Pippi Longstocking in Fred Ladd’s dubs. She was perfect. There’s a scene in the Warriors cut where Nausicaä slides backward on the shore of a lake of acid. She’s been shot twice and her ankle, wounded and bloodied, slides into the acid and she lets out a scream that still makes me shiver. This new girl sounds like she stubbed her toe.

This might be where the purists might add that I could just watch the subtitled version, and they’re not wrong, but our son is still too young to happily go along with reading movies. Once he’s ready, I’ve got some subtitled Dr. Slump cartoons for him. I’m still steamed those aren’t dubbed.

Our son was mainly in it for the fox squirrel. He had a great belly laugh when three old codgers steal a tank, and he joined in with the rest of the theater chuckling when a soldier tries to rally his troops to kill the planet’s best swordsman, but the cute animal is all he wanted to talk about afterward. There’s probably a plush cuddly toy if he wants to save his allowance. They’ve merchandised everything else with Miyazaki’s name on it.

He didn’t like it as much as Castle in the Sky and Marie didn’t like it as much as Spirited Away and I didn’t like it as much as Warriors of the Wind, but I got to see it on a big screen and it was beautiful. Fathom Events has another good lineup this year. We’re going to see three more new-to-him films in this year’s Ghibli Fest by some of that studio’s other directors. Might watch Totoro again, too. Hard to pass that one up on a big screen…

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.

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!

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.

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.