Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

The Tale of Princess Kaguya – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Kaguya-hime no Monogatari

 

Similar: Mushi-shi

Wolf Children

Spirited Away

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Historical Fantasy

Length: 2 hr. 17 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Masterful artwork.
  • Simple, yet has depth.
  • Employs surprising subtlety.

Negatives:

  • Folktale simplicity does limit character attachment.

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya was the final film directed by the late Isao Takahata, the other half of Studio Ghibli’s directorial excellence alongside Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata tended to direct the studio’s more realistic works, such as Only Yesterday and the best-film-I-never-want-to-watch-again Grave of the Fireflies. I found it unusual for him to be at the helm of this project based on the Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The departure from his comfort zone isn’t cause for concern however, for he executed this film brilliantly with a unique art style that makes the subtle story leap off the page.

We start with a bamboo cutter at work in the forest. To his astonishment, he finds a little girl growing inside a bamboo shoot and takes her home to his wife. They take the girl in as their own, but it is clear this is no ordinary child, one they believe is a blessing sent from heaven. She grows at an alarming rate.

Another blessing lands before the cutter when he finds a mound of gold inside a bamboo tree. This convinces him that she must be a princess. And a princess must live like royalty, so he tears up their mountainside roots and takes her to the capital. He gives Kaguya everything to make her happy – a mansion, the finest clothes, servants, the best teacher in etiquette, and dozens of suitors after her hand in marriage. Nothing is too much for his princess. But did he ever ask if she wanted any of this?

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is most effective in its combination of art and sticking to the folktale narrative. The art is beautiful, so beautiful. Even if you aren’t a fan of folktale stories due to their simplicity, Kaguya is worth it for the imagery. The style recalls old Japanese paintings (see below for one from The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, 17th century), though modernised a little to work better in motion. Studio Ghibli managed to make the art look traditional and have such texture (one can feel the “paper”) that you could believe they had taken some 17th century artist’s sketchbook and simply animated it.

This art is a great example of the “less is more” concept for the visual side of storytelling. They could have easily used effects to add more stars in the sky and atmospheric lighting, which I am sure would have still looked fine, but the restraint to exclude many modern techniques makes it special.

Narratively, Kaguya has similar restraint. It reminds of Western fairy tales, where the purpose isn’t to explain every detail or fantasy element. Why is Sleeping Beauty to die from a spinning wheel and not a sword? Where did Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother come from? It doesn’t matter. The tale is about a simple character in a simple story with a simple message.

You have to watch Kaguya with the same mentality, which is where I think some people may not be interested. Fairy tale simplicity isn’t for everyone. I love Disney’s adaptations of fairy tales, so Kaguya was great for me. (Funnily enough, I don’t enjoy reading these same fairy tales because without the visuals and style, I find them too shallow.)

What made this tale so interesting to me was its sadness. Frankly, The Tale of Princess Kaguya is rather depressing. We see her father seduced by greed, yet still believing he’s doing everything for her. He deems the villagers they lived with as beneath them (reminds me of Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – recommend the TV series). Kaguya doesn’t want her eyebrows removed and teeth blackened like other noblewomen, yet she also doesn’t want to disappoint her family. Outside of the humour with the five buffoons that call themselves princes, professing how much they will worship her and how rare of a treasure she is, I find little happiness here. Then again, perhaps that’s just me. Even when she meets one of her old village friends again and has a moment of freedom, it just made me sadder because I knew how fleeting it would be.

And the ending…well, I leave that for you to experience.

Art – Very High

The Tale of Princess Kaguya’s art is both stunning and unique. To change the style would mean to lose more than just the art.

Sound – Very High

The dub is perfectly fine and the performances by Kaguya’s parents are particularly emotive. However, go with the original Japanese to get the full experience of all the formalities and uncomfortable elements of the period. Also, Kaguya’s voice matures better with the character’s arc in Japanese. Nice in-world music.

Story – High

A bamboo cutter finds a girl inside a bamboo shoot and wants to give her the world, not realising that the world is too much for a little girl. This simple folktale uses subtlety to evoke great emotion in the reader.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: Watch it. Despite the pastel art, I recommend The Tale of Princess Kaguya more to adults than to kids. The emotional subtlety is rewarding.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStellar Voice ActingStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Ponyo – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gake no Ue no Ponyo

 

Similar: Tsuritama

My Neighbour Totoro

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Adventure

Length: 1 hr. 41 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful visuals.

Negatives:

  • Ponyo, the character.
  • No arcs, no development.
  • Drags on.
  • No stakes.

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Ponyo is The Little Mermaid but with children and no consequences. A little fish-human hybrid escapes from her sea wizard father to see the surface world, where she meets human boy Sousuke. The two become fast friends. However, her father, knowing the damage she could unleash on the world, summons the power of the ocean to bring her back. Things deteriorate when Ponyo tastes human blood and begins to transform into a girl with magic that throws the world off balance, causing insurmountable natural disasters.

This is the worst Studio Ghibli movie I have seen to date and with only five left for me to complete, it will likely be the worst overall. Yes, worse than Tales from Earthsea. It will be difficult to detail why Ponyo is so bad without revealing the end, so the next paragraph onwards will have spoilers. The short version of my review, for those interested in seeing this film for themselves, is as follows: Ponyo is an obnoxious character, the mother should have Sousuke taken away from her due to recklessness, there is no character development and no arcs, the end is garbage, and the story is boring. I do not recommend Ponyo.

Spoilers from here on.

So, Ponyo’s use of magic and fraternisation with Sousuke’s causes disasters around the world, with a tsunami most notable to our characters. One’s first expectation seeing this is to assume something will occur to halt the tsunami in time or everyone will die. Should the tsunami hit – keep in mind this is a Noah’s ark, God’s judgment tsunami – there is no way you could recover in a children’s movie without some bad writing to fix things, hence the above expectation. But the tsunami goes unchallenged and wipes the landscape. My alarm bells ring. And I am right, for no one dies in the end. There isn’t even any damage. I do not jest – nothing of consequence occurs by the conclusion. How is everything okay? Magic!

Go choke on six pack rings, you garbage movie. What a condescending story, treating children like morons that can’t cope with any stakes in life. Is Ponyo a film for the mentally fragile that cover their eyes and block their ears to reality, pretending everything is perfect?

The problems don’t end there. We’ve had decent stories with bad endings before, but Ponyo makes you suffer along the way by forcing you to sit through dull scene after agonisingly boring scene of Ponyo and Sousuke bonding or Ponyo being obnoxious. If only the fisherman had harpooned her at the start. Their “bonding” not only fails to capture the child spirit, Ghibli’s signature, but the scenes often serve no purpose to the story. I’m sure you’ve seen the infamous scene of Ponyo interacting with a baby. Is Ponyo’s monstrous face supposed to be cute? Nightmares are made of the stuff.

These “whimsical” scenes drag on forever in a vain effort to make this brat charming. Everything in Ponyo is overdone, including the score, which swells up as if at the climax of the film every other scene. This feels like a near 3-hour movie.

With an ending like Ponyo’s, of course there is no character arcs or development. All that changes is Ponyo becomes human because she and Sousuke “love” each other. I don’t need to say it at this point, but those two have no basis for a romance so strong that it fixes the world. If our world were reliant on them to save us, we’d be screwed.

Some things I’ve heard complaints about don’t bother me, such as how did Ponyo’s human-sized father have a fish child with a giant goddess. How did Hagrid’s human father mate with his giantess mother in Harry Potter? Who knows… Some questions are best left unanswered. The small details aren’t the problem in Ponyo. You need to look out for the big things.

There are only two good scenes in the entire film: when Sousuke’s mother flashes in Morse code to his father how much of an idiot he is for cancelling on dinner again (he has to work at sea) and the scene with the sea wizard walking on land. They got a laugh from me.

If you removed Ghibli’s visuals from this movie, no one would remember it.

Art – Very High

There is no denying that we have gorgeous art with a ton of animation. Just look at the opening scene with all the marine life swimming around the sea wizard’s submarine. The amount of effort that scene alone would require is astonishing. Shame it didn’t go towards a better story.

Sound – Medium

The opening opera singer is magnificent. The score, taken as individual tracks, is great too, but the usage is overdone. It’s trying to be Fantasia.

Story – Very Low

A little boy finds a sea creature that begins to transform into a girl, though heralds natural disasters as well. With weak characters, scenes that drag, and the worst ending in anime, Ponyo’s story is utter garbage.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Avoid it. I haven’t decided on whether Ponyo should be in my lowest tier yet. Regardless, it isn’t worth your time. A few clips of the visually beautiful scenes on YouTube are the best there is from this title.

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

Positive: None

Negative:

Atrocious PlotLacks ConflictNo Development

Tales from Earthsea – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Gedo Senki

 

Similar: Castle in the Sky

Princess Mononoke

Howl’s Moving Castle

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Adventure

Length: 1 hr. 55 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Gorgeous art.

Negatives:

  • No depth to the characters.
  • Lacks engagements.
  • Doesn’t explore anything.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Tales from Earthsea is often the lowest rated feature film by Studio Ghibli on anime database sites, sometimes by a significant margin. This discrepancy for such a venerable studio has always made Tales from Earthsea stand out to me. It looked like a Ghibli movie, so what could be wrong?

The world is deteriorating. A division of desires between dragons and humans has thrown nature off balance. Archmage Sparrowhawk goes on a journey to find the cause, meeting Arren, young prince of the kingdom, who has just killed his father and is on the run. The prince harbours a darkness within that grants him both strength and cruelty. The sorcerer Cob sees Arren’s weakness as an opportunity to tip the balance further and open the gate to immortality.

Confusion. I characterise Tales from Earthsea best with the word ‘confusion’. The above plot outline isn’t clear until the movie is almost over. The storytelling is so vague. It doesn’t lay out any clear information at the start. You don’t know what any character wants, where anything is going, or why anything is this way. In any story, you must give the audience something to care about from the beginning, whether it is a character motivation, a goal, or an ideal. You wander aimlessly through Tales from Earthsea. I paused several times to watch a YouTube video out of boredom. I care nothing about this film.

Sparrowhawk is a one-note noble wizard, Arren doesn’t have anything going for him outside of these visually intriguing nightmares, and Cob is just Evil Guy 63728. His subordinate slaver is more interesting. We don’t receive reason to care for their actions or their fates. Lacking are the ‘human’ moments that make us love Ghibli’s other characters. How charmed are we by Howl’s first interaction with Sophie? How lovable is Chihiro within minutes? Who could say no to the fluffy Totoro after a single yawn? How strongly did we feel for Seita’s predicament before we even knew his name?

The world of Earthsea almost made me care. When the main characters reach the town of Hort, it’s a magnificent sight, hinting at a deeper world. A back alley shows us citizens crippled by an opium-like substance. A slaver insinuates he will sell a girl into sex slavery. Drugs, slavery, and other dark elements speak of a depth created by the novel’s author, yet not translated by the film studio. These dark elements don’t matter in the movie.

I can see why praise is scarce for Tales from Earthsea with so little to recommend itself. With the basics of storytelling and characters missing from here, there’s no point commenting on the higher layers, such as the scene-to-scene. It’s a waste of time when every problem could be summed up with, “You need to go back to the story/character and fix it first.”

Tales from Earthsea was the first feature film directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro, and he hadn’t grasped the Ghibli magic that made the studio’s films stand out.

Art – Very High

Even with a bad story, Studio Ghibli delivers quality art. The shot of the city impresses me in particular, as does the cinematography on the dragon’s back in the opening scene.

Sound – Medium

The acting is decent. The dub needs more energy, especially from the girl. In the dub, Willem Dafoe replaces a Japanese woman as the sorcerer, oddly enough.

Story – Low

A boy combats his inner demons as an evil sorcerer seeks immortality. Tales from Earthsea lack direction, foundation, development, and depth to make a compelling story.

Overall Quality – Low

Recommendation: Don’t bother. Unless you must watch Tales from Earthsea to complete the Ghibli library, there is no reason to waste your time on this film.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationStunning Art Quality

Negative:

DissapointingHollow World BuildingShallow

Whisper of the Heart – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mimi wo Sumaseba

 

Related: The Cat Returns (spin-off)

Similar: From Up on Poppy Hill

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Garden of Words

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Slice of Life Romance Adventure

Length: 1 hr. 51 min. movie

 

Positives:

  • Beautiful small character details.
  • Full of heart.

Negatives:

  • Empty first act.
  • Ends just as it gets going.
  • Doesn’t give characters the whole stage to perform.

(Request an anime for review here.)

Shizuku loves books more than anything else in the world. Peculiarly however, in the borrowing card for each book she reads, someone else had borrowed them from the library before her. Who is this Seiji Amasawa? He must be a wonderful guy.

One day while going about her easy life of books and snacks, she follows a cat on the train, who leads her to a workshop of antique wonders and classical instruments run by an old man. He turns out to be the grandfather of the boy who makes fun of her at school. Worse yet, this boy is her perfect match in literature!

Whisper of the Heart is another lite-n’-easy film from Studio Ghibli, similar to the likes of Only Yesterday and From Up on Poppy Hill. But where I found those two rather dull with little to recommend themselves in terms of engagement, I enjoyed my time with Whisper of the Heart because of its characters. And just as it was drawing me in close, it ends. The first act being so empty made this more frustrating. What amounts to the equivalent of Chihiro and her family driving to the fairground in Spirited Away (several minutes) requires half an hour in Whisper. It takes too long to get to the point.

I like the scenes with the grandfather in the workshop, but these are rare. Most scenes involve Shizuku doing ordinary every-day activities like household chores or attending school. The first act has enough of these ‘nothing’ scenes to fill an entire film, so having even more than that makes the film feel like half filler to reach feature length. If Makoto Shinkai had directed this film, which is in his wheelhouse, he could have conveyed the same story in half the time with more said by the end.

Outside the filler, we spend most time with Shizuku and Seiji growing closer. Conflict arises from his goal to become a violin craftsman, which will likely send him overseas, whereas she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. She finally finds her match and now he’ll probably be gone forever. However, these plot beats pop up and dissipate without much impact.

This story gets everything right, except for the plot. Whisper of the Heart’s events aren’t as strong as they could be, don’t challenge the characters as they should, and don’t give these brilliantly written children the whole stage to work with. Their small details are beautiful, such as how a girl reacts to seeing her crush or in the way a boy goes crazy at the roundabout way girls drop hints (pro tip: hints don’t work on guys). The Miyazaki touch is clear.

The poster for Whisper of the Heart shows Shizuku flying through the air alongside a gentleman cat, giving the impression of a strong fantasy element. This is deceiving. We only get one such scene inside her imagination, which is a shame, for it is a beautiful scene. We should have returned to her imagination several times as a metaphor for her inner growth, later reflected in her outer growth. These could have added depth instead of the filler scenes that serve little purpose to character or story.

I love much about this film, characters in particular, yet I want so much more.

Art – Very High

Studio Ghibli.

Sound – High

Good acting and solid music – it is interesting to hear an American classic in Japanese (Take Me Home, Country Roads).

Story – Medium

A fateful encounter with a cat leads Shizuku to solve the mystery of who had borrowed all her favourite books from the library before her, and she may even find inspiration for a purpose in life. Whisper of the Heart’s charming character barely get going when the story ends, making one wonder why so much empty space remained unfilled.

Overall Quality – Medium

Recommendation: For fans of other light Studio Ghibli movies. If you enjoy the more slice of life-type anime movies, Whisper of the Heart is another to add to your folio.

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

Positive:

Stunning Art Quality

Negative: None

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