Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

From Up on Poppy Hill – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Coquelicot-zaka kara

 

Similar: Whisper of the Heart

Kids on the Slope

Watched in: Japanese, English, & French

Genre: Historical Romance

Length: 1 hr. 35 min

 

Positives:

  • Art and detail.
  • The soundtrack takes you back.

Negatives:

  • Not much story.
  • The main thread is a dud.
  • Shallow overall.

(Request an anime for review here.)

When Hayao Miyazaki neared retirement (and un-retirement every other year), it was logical for Studio Ghibli to train up a replacement, and who better than the son of your prodigy to take the reins? Thus, Gorou Miyazaki received blessing to head his own projects, the second of which was From Up on Poppy Hill.

Set in a seaside town of 1960s Japan, From Up on Poppy Hill follows high school girl Umi and her work at Coquelicot Manor, a boarding house run by her family. Her school is in turmoil as the old clubhouse faces demolition in the push for modernisation before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. As Umi helps the clubs, she grows closer to one boy in particular – Shun, the cool kid fawned over by the girls – and eventually helps him find the truth about his father.

Let’s start with what I like about From Up on Poppy Hill. The atmosphere is fantastic. Old lounge music warbles as we roam the evening streets of this seaside town bathed in golden street lamps. Bikes tick past, cars rumble on, and vendors announce their wares. Can you smell the fried meats? For something completely different, we go to the school clubhouse, where dozens of clubs have carved out a niche in this ancient manor. The mechanics tinker, the chemists concoct, and the philosopher yells existentialism. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, generations of trinkets and books plaster the manor. One could get equally lost in the knowledge or in the labyrinth of junk that fills this beloved institute.

The clubhouse is the sort of place you could use as the single setting for an adventure game packed with puzzles. Professor Layton would die happy. It breaks my heart when they have to clean it up to be presentable to the committee in charge of the modernisation effort. The Ghibli magic is still here in art and sound.

When it comes to the characters and story, however, the mana pools have run dry. First, the characters: they are remarkably unremarkable – pleasant people but not compelling characters. Umi doesn’t have Sophie’s feistiness or Chihiro’s strength found in Hayao’s works. If Gorou wanted to do something different for his protagonist than his father had done, that’s fine, commendable even. Sadly, he’s removed those aforementioned defining qualities and replaced them with…not much. Shun suffers from similar problems. He’s the cool kid and kind to Umi, but nothing more. These characters aren’t bad. No, they fall under the worst designation of all – forgettable.

And so does most of the story. The main thread is the relationship between these two kids and their search for Shun’s biological father. I won’t give anything away, but let me sum it up in one word: dud. I can’t imagine how anyone saw this plotline and said, “Yes, that is engaging enough to keep everyone to the end.”

As for the second thread, saving the clubhouse, it is better than the first with its greater sense of fun and doesn’t end in a dub. However, the success of this plotline is largely attributed to the art and sound qualities I talked of earlier, not the story itself. Where characters are concerned, the quirky side characters like the philosophy club president outshine the protagonists with mere minutes of screen time. I enjoyed the ensemble cast much more than the protagonists, except for when the two go into town for shopping (thanks to the atmosphere).

This story is too simple, even by simple story standards. It has everything but story and characters, the two elements Hayao Miyazaki usually does best. From Up on Poppy Hill’s greatest use is as an antidote to recover from Grave of the Fireflies when in the middle of your Ghibli marathon.

Art – Very High

The art maintains Studio Ghibli’s high standards – the evening lights evoke great atmosphere. The design and details of the clubhouse warrant full attention.

Sound – High

I could listen to this soundtrack any time I need to relax – love it. English and French voices are fine, but the Japanese is best.

Story – Low

A girl helps a boy find his true father while saving the school clubhouse from demolition. Both of these plot lines receive surface-deep exploration and the mystery of the boy’s father is underwhelming, leaving the atmosphere to almost singlehandedly carry you through From Up on Poppy Hill.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of historical Japan. From Up on Poppy Hill’s story isn’t a reason for attendance. However, if you want to relax in an atmospheric 60s Japan with light conflict and a pleasant soundtrack, then look no further.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Great Music

Negative:

Shallow

Pom Poko – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko

 

Similar: My Neighbor Totoro

The Eccentric Family

Natsume’s Book of Friends

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Contemporary Fantasy

Length: 1 hr. 51 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The tanuki crack me up.
  • The art.
  • Tanuki lore.

Negatives:

  • No surprises.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Did you know that the meteoric rise in popularity of energy drinks is because of tanuki, who drink to restore energy when shapeshifted into humans? I’m onto all of you energy drink addicts. I know what you are! This is according to Pom Poko at least. But in all seriousness, stay away from me – my uncle’s twice-removed cousin’s sister’s grandfather’s son is an exterminator (and he works for Nintendo).

Pom Poko tells of the secret tanuki world. The tanuki’s habitat has faced serious deforestation while they were too busy infighting. Now on the verge of extinction, they turn to the art of shapeshifting to interfere with construction sites. Two amongst them also go on a mission to enlist the three sages for their superior skills. Interference begins with minor jump scares and faulty equipment, but as the humans persist in Tokyo’s expansion, the tanuki get more deadly.

This is one hilarious movie. The tanuki watch human TV as part of their 5-year plan to stop urban development, but end up so distracted by the TV shows that they forget all about the deforestation! I lost it. Tanuki are so notoriously lazy that the elders pretend to be asleep when needed by others. The shapeshifting also lends great comedy. I’m sure you have all seen the gif of flying tanuki using their testicle sacs as parachutes. Pom Poko has many oddities.

It’s also a great film to learn about Japanese folk lore, as the tanuki shift into various spirits from folk tales to accomplish their goal. You would have seen some of these spirits in the likes of Persona or Yokai Watch. Unfamiliarity with the plethora of spirits may turn away some viewers however, since it could come across as nonsense.

The environmental message is not heavy-handed, in true Ghibli fashion, presenting animals that benefit from both nature and technology. Instead of taking sides, it raises the notion that true evil lies in excess. The problem isn’t humans clearing some of the forest; it is clearing too much. The problem isn’t tanuki enjoy man-made creations; it is overindulging in them. In fact, the tanuki’s greatest destruction comes from infighting. Ghibli’s mastery of ‘show don’t tell’ and the adherence to never telling the audience how they should feel always impresses me.

Pom Poko’s faults lie in the lack of surprises. Now, I don’t mean twists I predicted. There are no twists. The sequence of events and the contents of said events go exactly as you would expect, on reflection. The story never tries to throw you. So while Pom Poko is hilarious and entertaining, I find myself without a care for the story or these characters. It’s like watching a great sitcom with consistently funny scenes, but once the episode is over, you don’t care if the protagonist gets with the girl later on or succeeds at work. Still, I enjoyed my hilarious time with Pom Poko.

Art – Very High

Great as always. The environments look like Thomas Kinkade paintings (you have probably seen the puzzles of his paintings). The shapeshifting animation must have taken half the development time.

Sound – High

Good voice work. I love The Brain (Maurice LeMarche) as the narrator in English.

Story – Medium

In an effort to defend their habitat from deforestation, tanuki use shape shifting talents the scare the locals away. Though the story has no surprises, it is a lot of fun along the way.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it. Pom Poko’s zany humour is worth a shot. You are in for some weird times.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

HilariousStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Only Yesterday – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Omoide Poroporo

 

Similar: Millennium Princess

5 Centimetres per Second

The Ocean Waves

Whisper of the Heart

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Romance Drama

Length: 1 hr. 58 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • The childhood scenes.
  • Depiction of children.
  • Pleasant art and music.

Negatives:

  • The adulthood scenes.
  • Pretty boring unless you strongly relate.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Now for something a little different from the usual Studio Ghibli fantasy fare. Fourteen years delayed in receiving a Western release, Only Yesterday is a nostalgic story of a ‘typical office lady’ returning to her hometown in the Yamagata countryside, where she will rediscover herself. Familiar places bring back memories of her childhood, relating in particular to the fifth grade and her strict father.

The primary story is her adult life and romance to an old acquaintance, with the childhood advancing pieces at a time as triggers recall the next step of the story. Only Yesterday is simultaneously charming and boring. The charm oozes from the childhood story. The adulthood story, on the other hand, is dull. I wonder if they could not have found someone with a more interesting life story to tell. Genuinely, nothing remarkable happens to this woman. She goes to the country, meet an old friend, chats a bit, works on a farm, chats some more, and experiences little conflict. This would be fine if we received a character study instead of this honest, yet unengaging life. Watching this woman was like listening to a stranger on the train tell you about their life, when you are too polite to tell them to you want to sit in silence. They aren’t rude or anything – I simply wouldn’t suggest they make a film of their story.

The childhood is a different matter. It should come as no surprise that Ghibli’s superior child representation manifests beautifully in Only Yesterday. The school scenes had me smiling ear-to-ear – when someone reveals their crush on you, or when complaining about having to finish ALL your lunch (“Who drinks raw milk? Yeuch!” – little me), and that goody-two-shoes classmate we all had that wanted to introduce more rules (you know who you are).

Conflict arises through her troubles with learning maths and her abusive (in my opinion) father, who berates her without making an effort to help her. This conflict is a relatable example of how children see the world as unfair. Sometimes they are right; it is unfair, but once grown, we do also realise our parents may, perhapspossibly, you know, have been right…a little – on occasion.

It is my understanding that the childhood scenes come from the source manga, whereas the adulthood scenes are additions by Ghibli to tie the childhood together without having to detail every scene in between. I have to admire this approach. It certainly works, never feeling fragmented. If only the grown up story was more engaging. Apart from one heart-warming scene where she sees spectres of herself and classmates as children around her, it doesn’t quite have the charm to match.

If you can relate to someone travelling back through childhood, you are more likely to enjoy Only Yesterday. For better personal rediscovery movies, see Millennium Princess and Bollywood film Three Idiots (a must watch).

Art – High

High quality art and animation, but there isn’t much to see. I like the storybook watercolours used for childhood scenes.

Sound – High

Only Yesterday has a good multinational soundtrack and good acting, save for the adult protagonist’s stiff delivery in English.

Story – Medium

An office lady takes a sabbatical to the countryside, triggering a flood of memories from her childhood and questions about her path in life. Only Yesterday is a realistic and accurate portrayal of childhood and reminiscence. That doesn’t make it particularly interesting, however.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: Try it if the story sounds relatable to you. If you can’t directly relate to her journey, Only Yesterday is unlikely to elicit the emotions required to keep you engaged to the end.

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Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

Fluid Animation

Negative: None

My Neighbor Totoro – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Tonari no Totoro

 

Related: Mei and the Baby Cat Bus (spin-off)

Similar: Wolf Children

Spirited Away

Howl’s Moving Castle

Natsume’s Book of Friends

 

Watched in: Japanese & English (Disney version)

Genre: Supernatural Adventure Comedy

Length: 1 hr. 26 min.

 

Positives:

  • Disgustingly adorable.
  • Heart-warming characters and emotion.
  • Ghibli quality standards.
  • Excellent child writing and acting.

Negatives:

  • Could do with more adventure.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Right now in your house, balls of black puff called soot gremlins hide in your bathroom and behind the oven. Can’t see them? Ah well, I guess you’re too old then. That’s My Neighbor Totoro’s premise as it explores childhood innocence from the view of two sisters.

Satsuki and Mei move to the countryside (did Miyazaki relocate a lot as a child, or something, to have this recurring setup?) with their father while the mother is in hospital. Soot gremlins hide in baths, scurrying away at first sight, and rabbit-raccoon-like Totoro spirits live in the forest next door. The adults see naught, too busy with work and life to notice the magic beneath the canopy, but children, they possess the imagination and wonder to look deep in the forest and find the magic within.

This film is so cute. The opening sequence alone was enough to have me in a seizure of cuteness. How do they do it? How does Ghibli make everything so adorable? The three Totoros are cute enough, but add in Studio Ghibli’s perfect depiction of children and it’s overkill. Miyazaki, you have a death on your hands, for you slew me with cuteness. Older sister Satsuki is at that stage where she’s learning of the real world, on the precipice of losing innocence, yet with a little encouragement for little sister Mei, she can still embrace imagination.

One of my favourite moments was with the lunchboxes. Satsuki makes everyone lunch, and Mei loves the lunch box so much that she can’t wait to eat it. Just after Satsuki leaves, Mei – too young for school – is running in the background to her father’s work and asks if it’s lunchtime. Breakfast hasn’t even gone down yet! It’s such a kid thing to do. Does it add to the story? No. It sums up Mei in a single scene, however.

Following the acorns, which Totoro love so much, she soon meets those very creatures, including the Snorlax of Totoro, Big-Totoro (or King-Totoro). She’s fearless in the face of his roars. They also meet a Catbus. No, not a cat with a bus, but a cat that is a bus. Creepy, certainly, but still I find it adorable. It must be what inspired Harry Potter’s Knight Bus, as trees jump out of the way and people can’t see it zoom by.

After smothering you with cute, My Neighbor Totoro brings matters down with heavy emotion. Not too much as to become Grave of the Fireflies (please not again, I beg of you!), though still enough to add weight to the story and make you ache. The family drama is just right.

I found only one major problem in the otherwise great My Neighbor Totoro. It doesn’t have enough adventure. Mei and Satsuki play with the creatures but a little before the third act (when drama dominates). I would have liked an extra fifteen to twenty minutes within those first encounters to go on an adventure. Think Chihiro’s first time working in Spirited Away’s bathhouse, Kiki’s first delivery, or Sophie’s excursion downtown in Howl’s Moving Castle. This film misses that segment. Outside that, I love it.

My Neighbor Totoro is filled with imagination, capturing that sense of childhood innocence in a manner few films can boast. I had returned to my infancy until the credits ended. If a child ever told you they saw a Totoro, you’d be sure they were lying, but a part of you may just think it’s the truth.

Art – Very High

Gorgeous art and animation (I feel like I’m repeating myself with Ghibli at this point). Creative with its adorable creatures.

Sound – Very High

Custom orchestral soundtrack to match the movements like classic Disney. Great acting – the dub is fantastic – perfect kids supplied with natural child dialogue.

Story – High

Moving to a new house in the countryside, imagination permits two girls to befriend spirits of the forest. Disgustingly adorable and heartfelt, but My Neighbor Totoro could have extended the adventure portion of the film.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch. My Neighbor Totoro has to be Ghibli’s most adorable film (there can’t be cuter, can there?) and is an easy recommendation for all ages.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmFluid AnimationStellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Laputa: The Castle in the Sky – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Tenkuu no Shiro Laputa

 

Similar: Children who Chase Lost Voices

Howl’s Moving Castle

Porco Rosso

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Adventure

Length: 2 hr. 5 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Grand adventure.
  • Fun cast of characters.
  • Ghibli’s art and animation for an imaginative world.

Negatives:

  • Villains could do with more development.

I’ve always wanted to live either in the sky or at the bottom of the ocean with sharks and rays swimming outside. I never even read the blurb for Laputa: The Castle in the Sky; having ‘castle in the sky’ in the title alone convinced me to watch it.

The story follows orphan boy Pazu and young girl Sheeta as they seek the legendary floating castle Laputa, while evading capture from pirates and the army. They target her for the magical necklace she possesses.

Laputa took me back to my childhood. This was my kind of story as a child. Laputa reminds me of Asterix & Obelix, some problem showing up on their doorstep, and they must go on an adventure against pirates and the roman army – random brawl in town included. Pirates are dealt with differently in this case, however. I love the pirates. A tough grandmother leads her sons in piracy, and their scenes are the film’s best segments.

The army villains, on the other hand, lack a certain something to make them memorable like the pirates. We needed to see more of them. Cutting to their perspective on occasion would have allowed more development. The army makes serviceable villains, but not particularly interesting ones.

The world itself, from technology to environment, is great. Shame then, we don’t see much outside of the airships and castle. For example, we join Pazu in his cliffside mining town, but barely see any of it before he and Sheeta run off. Even five more minutes inside the infrastructure would satisfy.

There’s not much more to say. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky delivers an adventure worthy of the Studio Ghibli seal of approval. I can’t think of any reason why one should not watch this film.

Art – Very High

An imaginative world rendered with fluid animation. I particularly liked the airship designs.

Sound – High

Good acting in both languages, even with some celebrities in the dub. Mark Hamill is never a bad choice for a villain.

Story – High

A young boy helps a girl escape from pirates and the government alike, as they seek the legend of the flying castle Laputa. A grand adventure with memorable characters, except perhaps the villains.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: Watch it. Laputa: The Castle in the Sky is a fun adventure for anyone to enjoy. If I had seen this as a kid, I would have watched it dozens of times.

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Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)

Positive:

CharmFluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative: None