Miyazaki Showcase: Kiki’s Delivery Service

July 8, 2004 on 12:55 pm | In Kiki's Delivery Service | Comments Off on Miyazaki Showcase: Kiki’s Delivery Service

The first Miyazaki film to be based on a book, Kiki’s Delivery Service is a movie which has a plot, but not a lot happens. It’s enjoyable and has some good messages … but it lacks development that robs it of credibility.

At 13, a witch must move alone to a city or town that doesn’t have a witch of its own and live independently for a year. On a clear night with a full moon, Kiki decides that it’s finally time to set herself up. She flies off to a bustling city with Jiji, her black cat, and when pressed to find a skill she can use, she sets up a flying delivery service atop a bakery.

Kiki’s Delivery Service gets off to a good start, with Kiki arriving in the city that she falls instantly in love with, and only after landing finds that city people are generally unaccomodating, unlike her old home where everyone knew each other. It’s not until she finds Osono, owner of a bakery, that she gains any confidence at all.
However, after this, the film’s problems come in. In the entire film, Kiki makes maybe three deliveries, not allowing a sense of establishing a business before the film’s drama. When Kiki makes a friend, she suddenly snaps and yells at him, and then she can’t fly any more. The fact that nothing really seems to bring this on is the largest sticking point of them all. Kiki is a generally cheerful and optimistic character, so her battle with depression isn’t handled very well.
Kiki’s Delivery Service still has some very nice ideas and well done scenes. The old woman that Kiki meets provides scenes of joy and care mixed with sadness, and is contrasted by her uppity granddaughter who disheartens Kiki. The culture shock aspect of the film – the general indifference of the citizens who don’t have time to pay attention to a trainee witch, the apathetic fashionable teenage girls – is one of the strongest points; Kiki went from a town where everyone knew each other, to a city where no one wants to know anyone.
Ursula the artist is the most insightful character and it is worth noting that she and Kiki share Takayama Minami as their seiyuu. The themes that hit the strongest are those raised by Ursula: the struggle with talent and ability and creativity is something that many can identify with, but it doesn’t seem that Kiki earned this motivational talk, which is the film’s major problem.
What it boils down to is that this film works as a series of vignettes and a look at a beautiful, interesting society. The injection of drama doesn’t gel, and it just kind of ends.

Kiki’s Delivery Service, because of its narrative flaws, makes Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s other flaws more apparent. One of the main things that one notices – and this is by no means exclusive to Miyazaki – is that the characters frequently burst into laughter. After a while, it becomes quite disconcerting.
The other, more important, factor, is that for once Miyazaki’s simple, bright cel work clashes with the rich backgrounds of the studio. Never before has it been more apparent that the cels and the backgrounds are separate. At times it feels like the characters don’t live in their world so much as they live on it, giving the sense of bad blue screen. Every action is telegraphed because the moving objects don’t blend with their background, and it’s an unnerving effect. Of course, the world is totally beautiful and the city a marvel of design. The flight scenes are well done for the most part, particularly the times when the entire world is made of cels.
The paint is simply too bright a lot of the time.

Hisaishi Joe’s music is, as always, great to hear: particularly the fifties music. Combined with the black and white television broadcasts, the talk of dirigibles and the general antique style of car, this film definitely has an old world charm about it.

Kiki’s Delivery Service has many warm and funny moments, but it doesn’t develop as well as it should in terms of plot or character and is therefore mildly disappointing. Still, that won’t stop many from loving it because, essentially, this is a good film.

Trigun – episodes one to five

July 4, 2004 on 3:40 pm | In Trigun | Comments Off on Trigun – episodes one to five

Now this is like something! These first episodes of Trigun show great promise: a series with a comedic start that will grow to gradually reveal plot elements and dark pasts and unleash its dramatic core! At least, that’s the impression that one gets. Then episode five comes along and they’re proven right.

Vash the Stampede, The Humanoid Typhoon, the man with the $$60,000,000,000 (that’s pronounced “double dollars”) bounty on his head. He’s being chased across a desert planet, not only by bounty hunters, but also by insurance agents. The first four episodes show Vash being hunted by a variety of miscreants and the insurance agents, Meryl and Milly, not believing that he is who they say he is. The fifth decides that maybe it’s time to bring in the big plot.

Vash is the series’ drawcard. He’s one of those great heroes with a repertoire of hilarious faces but also can be serious. Whenever there’s a big pinch, he expertly handles it while looking like he’s bumbling through it. At some memorable times, he can look like he’s contemplating serious things, and is about to voice them … and then he throws up. There are some hints in his dialogue as to what his intentions are, but presently they’re few and far between. He’s also a lech, constantly trying to get into fan service situations, but nothing ever comes of them except perhaps a kick to the head. If Vash isn’t getting his peeks in, neither is the audience. Quite an admirable approach to the issue.
Vash is really made by the performance of Onosaka Masaya. I started watching Trigun based on his work as big Kero-chan in Cardcaptor Sakura, and his Vash is even more impressive. As with the character himself, Onosaka’s voice runs the gamut of emotions. At first, Vash has a very effeminate voice. He soon starts to speak normally, but he also has these blistering moments of pure drama. Vash is most often compared to Rurouni Kenshin‘s titular character, and Onosaka’s range is somewhat similar to Suzukaze Mayo. They may share some themes and character elements, but they’re still independent.

Thusfar, Milly and Meryl are not too heavily involved beyond turning up at every incident that Vash is at. It appears that their mission, as agents of Bernardelli Insurance Company, is to politely ask Vash to stop causing so much damage as his legendary tendency to destroy towns has caused a spike in claims. Failing to believe Vash is who he really is, despite his always turning up at just the right time and doing just the right thing, is something that hinders them.

The character designs vary. Vash has his hilarious faces, but he also has a disturbing tendency to come over all bishounen from time to time. Meryl is compact and cute, and her temper is fiery without coming close to shrewishness, a disease that beset anime women in the late nineties. One of the big turn offs in looking into Trigun, however, is Milly. To look at her, she’s very tall and masculine. Watching the series itself, you quickly grow used to it when it becomes apparent that that’s the kind of character that they were aiming for, and it’s not an accident of design.
The colour pallette is fairly dull, as one might expect of a Western anime set on a desert planet. The building designs are closer to Westerns set in Mexican places, and as a result almost all of them are white. It’s not enough to make the series boring, however. The rest of the setting remains a mystery – what’s the giant lightbulb? What is a plant? – these are questions that will hopefully be answered, as the story of this world is just interesting enough to be explored.

It should be noted that the OP is fairly generic, and the ED is … not very nice to listen to.

Trigun has a lot of potential and has been quite enjoyable in these first five episodes. When it reveals more of itself, it’s sure to become even more entertaining. The setting in particular looks to be very promising.

Miyazaki Showcase: Laputa – Castle in the Sky

July 4, 2004 on 12:02 pm | In Laputa | 1 Comment

Miyazaki’s effort from 1986 is one of his less popular films, but Laputa: Castle in the Sky is enjoyable nonetheless. It has so much to offer, and delivers on much of it; of particular interest is a fresh and innovative take on the Tower of Babel.

Pazu lives by himself in a mining town, when one night a girl wearing a mysterious blue stone floats down from the sky and into his arms. Her name is Sheeta and as it turns out she’s being chased by a team of pirates and also the government. Pazu is one of those characters who is dedicated to whatever cause he deems worthy, and when he finds out that Sheeta is somehow linked to the legendary Laputa, the castle in the sky that haunted his father until death, he has no doubt that he’s going to help the girl.

Thematically, many of the plot elements of Laputa have been covered before. The Tower of Babel is a favourite of anime writers, but this device is a refreshing treatment of the whole element. The anime that this most closely resembles is Nadia. Sheeta’s mysterious Blue Water family pendant holds the secret to a lost civilisation and a team of air pirates who initially want her stone end up helping her.
Despite its seeming lack of originality, however, it’s still a great film to watch.
Basically it’s a tale about Atlantis, but Atlantis is in the sky and there are airships instead of submarines. How’s that for innovation? That Miyazaki didn’t take the straight path actually does make it less derivative than it might sound.

The characters are nice, with the obvious exception of the oppressive government agents. Sheeta and Pazu are young and full of hope and, of course, a bit too idealistic. They go well with the initially villainous air pirates, who naturally take them under their wing in the greatest comical villain tradition. One might accuse them of being overly simple, but Pazu’s dedication to validating his father’s claims to having seen Laputa. Muska is more than a pointless evil man, and he has some history himself. Of course, though, Dola the air pirate matriarch is the film’s highlight; without her the world would be a much duller place. Despite their sparing presence, Laputa‘s other matriarchal characters are also quite strong.

Because Miyazaki was allowed to be fanciful, the scenery is truly innovative, creative and beautiful. He can make rural Japan beautiful, but the products of his own mind are marvellous. The mining town is in a deep valley that could go on forever. It’s the combination of rural charm and industrial grit that makes everything as interesting as it is. Laputa itself goes for another look still; it’s a beautiful castle city which has been overrun by nature.
Miyazaki even takes the chance to use the opening credits to imply the history of the lost civilisation without explicitly saying it. The style is sketchy, and it’s a good way to represent the distant past. It’s used several times outside of the opening sequence, and each time has to do with part of the puzzle of civilisation; it’s a result of careful direction that brings the subtler picture together.

The character designs, as always with Ghibli films, are the least inspired. All of these designs are very simple, following his tradition of putting ordinary looking people in fantastic situations. The biggest problem with this is that he borrows from himself indiscriminately. The air pirates are the only interesting looking characters (the soldiers are actually faceless drones in suspicious uniforms), and they were all used again in 1992’s Porco Rosso (to better effect). Still, the plain characters aren’t a hassle to watch, and it allows for a blank canvas approach to character development.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is perhaps the least original of Miyazaki’s works (excepting, of course, his films that are adaptations of books), derivative of many things including his past – and future – efforts, but a nice adventure film to watch regardless. It doesn’t take what’s old and make it new again, but it does dress it up in interesting clothes.

Miyazaki Showcase: My Neighbour Totoro

July 1, 2004 on 11:38 pm | In My Neighbour Totoro | Comments Off on Miyazaki Showcase: My Neighbour Totoro

Despite being a film in which essentially nothing happens, My Neighbour Totoro is one of the simplest and greatest pleasures that anime has to offer.
The film is nothing more or less than the story of two girls who move to the countryside with their father while their mother convalesces in hospital and occasionally meet Totoro, the “kings of the forest”. There’s little more to it than this, as it’s really just a collection of events in the children’s lives with a sad bit thrown in and a moving ending.

It’s very hard not to like this movie; it’s enjoyable even in its FOX dubbed form (which will soon go out of print and be replaced by the Disney dub). The Totoro are memorable characters but in reality receive very little in the way of screen time. Satsuki and Mei are the film’s true stars and the reason it’s such a lovely effort is because Miyazaki perfectly catches a child’s sense of wonder. Everything is so perfectly innocent and honest.
Mei herself is at the age before children have come to understand social mores or general volume control. This is essentially licence to allow her to say anything, and very loudly. While Satsuki is less brutally honest, it’s their childish acceptance of circumstance and bizarre situations that makes the film such a delight. The other layer to their characters is that young children are, of course, prone to crying. These girls are not afraid of much, but when they do cry the drama quotient rises quite effectively. The final fifteen minutes of the film are quite harrowing and the very, very happy ending makes for a most excellent pay off.
Because I’m quite prone to crying (at anime) myself, I was hit.

The production values are typically high for a Studio Ghibli film; lush backgrounds and simple character designs. Miyazaki’s concerns are traditionally environmental, and at times he has been accused of coming on too strong. While My Neighbour Totoro stars the environment, it can in no way be considered a film with any sort of message. The design of films such as this are what makes so many people fall in love with Japan. The presentation of a Japan that may never have existed, a perfect Japan not overrun by industry, with some dilapidated but still present links to its strong spiritual roots.
The beauty of the countryside shown in this film is essentially justification for the frequently strong environmental messages of anime, because it’s not the most easily replenishable natural resource. The ideal Japan, free of political struggle, able to recognise itself. To some it may seem to be dangerous nostalgia, but it’s the irresistably romantic lure that seemingly can only be found in anime.

My Neighbour Totoro could be described as the base Miyazaki film. At their core, all of Miyazaki’s films are essentially the same. This should not be construed as a criticism, as Miyazaki has clearly composed a diverse oeuvre of film; it’s just that each of these films boast the irrepressible spirit of Miyazaki, and it is this vitality that has made each of his films as timeless as they are. The forestry of the film links it closely to Princess Mononoke, the sense of nothing happening but being led on a journey gives the impression of Spirited Away. Each film stands alone, but the ability of Miyazaki to make the audience reflect on other works and issues, is testimony to his ability.

My Neighbour Totoro is a 90 minute examination of the time two girls spend living in the countryside. It does not profess to being anything else and succeeds admirably. It’s less a film than it is the commission of emotion to the animated form. As horrible as it sounds to say it: My Neighbour Totoro is an experience, and one that an anime watcher should not be without.

Postscript: After having written this, I realised I hadn’t mentioned anything of the Totoro. Their appearances are fun, heartwarming and hilarious, but they’re surprisingly quite incidental. The family unit is the important part of the film.

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