Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

Princess Mononoke – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Mononoke Hime

 

Similar: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

Mushi-shi

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Action Adventure

Length: 2 hr. 10 min.

 

Positives:

  • Excellent visuals and animation.
  • An environmental story that works.
  • Fantastical world and monsters.

Negatives:

  • Forced romance with little development.
  • Princess Mononoke does little despite being the title character.

When the casual viewer thinks of Hayao Miyazaki, they most likely go to Spirited Away, a fun adventure for the whole family. After that fiesta, one wouldn’t expect to find the violence and disgusting creatures of Princess Mononoke, which tells the story of nature’s demise under the expansion of humanity.

The story starts with Ashitaka, a young prince, as he defends his village from a corrupted boar. During the fight, the boar bites him, transferring part of the curse. Now, Ashitaka must leave the village and find a cure for the curse before it consumes him, as it did the boar. The curse also gives him strength – he can decapitate a man with single arrow (not how physics works, but this is minor).

On his journey, he arrives at Iron Town, a locale known for smelting the highest quality iron under the guidance of Lady Eboshi; however, to do so, they require wood and ore from the surrounding environment, which has angered the animal tribes and their gods. Amongst the wolf tribe is a young woman, San or Princess Mononoke, who captivates Ashitaka as he seeks to bring peace between animal and human and prevent the spread of corruption. Princess Mononoke is an intense world where moments of laughter are few and far between.

If it weren’t obvious already, Princess Mononoke is very much an environmental story, a usually tedious sort of story to sit through as the film tries to hammer some ‘save the Earth’ message into your brain with no understanding of reality. Princess Mononoke, however, avoids the ham-fisted approach and handles the human vs. nature conundrum with surprising depth. It shows both sides of the conflict – the need for humanity to expand, but also the effect it has on the environment when said expansion isn’t measured or thought out. And at the heart of it all, greed is the ultimate corruption, neither nature nor humanity immune.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the lore of the world, but the characters left something to be desired. I don’t suggest any of these characters are poor in quality. Rather, they are too standard, too typical – not clichéd, just unvarying. Looking at Ashitaka, for example, he fills the role of the young hero on a quest, yet we never get to see his inner character, his thoughts, his emotions. He fills a role in the action, little more. The same applies to Mononoke, who despite being the title character, has little impact on the plot and has less significance than some supporting characters. She fills the role of the mysterious character on the other side and love interest – the romance is as empty as can be, by the way, and never develops any chemistry between the two characters. I don’t know why they even needed the romance to begin with.

The most interesting character is Lady Eboshi. She is smart, a savvy businesswoman who wants to arm the village to protect it against the emperor and his samurai forces trying to subjugate the village. She makes for a great leader, prioritising her people first, but doesn’t know the consequences of her actions. Even with her, however, we don’t get those small moments that show her inner character enough.

Look to the animals, now there we have characters that are more interesting (the animals can talk). Nature’s decline has led to animosity between the tribes, each living in fear and lashing out at the others. The blind boar god was fascinating. He has this moment of terror that I found captivating, showing us his character in a single scene and the madness this war has brought.

Princess Mononoke was a good film on the macro level. The grand conflict, the world’s lore, the beasts, the different human factions, the idea, all great. Down at the micro level, I found little there. The characters fill roles in the narrative; if the narrative didn’t exist, I don’t feel as though these characters would have much to do, for we never learn of whom they are inside.

Art – Very High

Beautiful art and fantastic animation, as always, from Studio Ghibli. Animating the corruption must have taken a while. Only a couple of shots drop in quality. The creatures look vicious.

Sound – High

Princess Mononoke is great in Japanese and sports a fine dub, though you can ‘hear the acting’ from Claire Danes as Mononoke, but since she is a minor character, it isn’t an issue. Also, one village lady is a sassy black woman – funny, but odd considering the setting. The excellent orchestra is reminiscent of early Disney films like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia, where music punctuates the action and narrative beats.

Story – High

A great story between the progress of humanity and the regression of nature. The plot is enchanting, filled with fantasy, but the characters are a bit too standard to elevate the story beyond.

Overall Quality – High

Recommendation: A great fantasy adventure, easy to recommend. Despite the colourful aesthetic, remember that Princess Mononoke may frighten children with its imagery and violence.

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

Positive:

Fluid AnimationGreat MusicStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Spirited Away – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi

 

Similar: Howl’s Moving Castle

Natsume’s Book of Friends

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Fantasy Adventure

Length: 2 hr. 5 min.

 

Positives:

  • Imaginative world.
  • So much to see.
  • Quirky characters abound.
  • Superb animation.
  • Subtle depth to the story.

Negatives:

  • Nothing.

I have never liked Alice in Wonderland, any version of it. Even as a child, watching Disney’s version, I grew bored. I find the ‘lol random’ nature of its world to be a dull smokescreen for mediocrity. Concluding Spirited Away, I realised I had finished an Alice in Wonderland type story and loved it. A miracle.

Spirited Away is the liminal story of Chihiro into a world of spirits and wonder. During her move to a new home, Chihiro and her parents stumble upon an abandoned amusement park, though it seems one restaurant is open for business. While her parents pig out, Chihiro sees a bathhouse across the way, meeting a boy called Haku, who warns her to leave before sunset. However, upon her return to bring her parents the warning, she finds them transformed into literal pigs and her way back blocked by water. And as night falls, the spirits come out to visit the bathhouse for a refreshing soak. Alone in this strange world, Chihiro must work at the bathhouse to find a way out, lest she forget her own name and become trapped in the spirit world forever.

Spirited Away’s initial appeal is in its art. There is so much to see in its world. The amusement park alone is packed with detail in its various stalls and attraction; however, once we enter the bathhouse, it feels like an entire kingdom crammed into a single building. Dozens and dozens of different creatures grace the bathhouse from little balls of sentient soot to a walking fat turnip. No expense was spared in filling the bathhouse top to bottom, each fantastical creature with individual quirks and mannerisms. Chihiro, the outsider human, is considered weird among such oddities for being the only normal character. A miserly old woman with a giant head runs the bathhouse, for magic’s sake! But wait until you see her baby.

Most memorable of the creatures is No-Face, a spirit who reflects the personalities and actions of those around him. When he discovers the workers’ love of gold (he has an endlessly spawning supply), so too does he turn into a persona of greed in a fascinating sequence. He is the creepy-hilarious sort, as he just stands there staring at you, but learning from you in an innocent way at the same time.

No-Face’s reflection of character is but one of many symbols in Spirited Away. Each trial Chihiro faces represents a stage of growth towards adulthood, maintaining the theme of liminality. The journey shows her all the temptations – curiosity, gluttony, greed, corruption, etc. – that everyone will face in life and must overcome. As with most people, Chihiro is resistant to change, at first, for she urges her parents to turn away from the amusement park, away from the food. Growth, however, cannot be stopped. She cannot retreat into childhood, hide in the corner pretending the world holds no evil, but must look forward and grow if she means to survive.

Spirited Away is a special film. It shows unparalleled animation in a detailed world where all fits together, makes sense, wrapped in an intriguing narrative. I pondered for an age to see if I had a negative for the bullet points above, but I couldn’t find anything noteworthy. Sure, one could ask for more – who wouldn’t among such creativity? The bathhouse has places left unexplored and Haku’s story could tell us more, but that is just being fastidious.

Art – Very High

Absolutely gorgeous. The detail, the imagination, the number of assets to animate boggles the mind. So much thought went into the world design – they have enough here to place another dozen stories.

Sound – Very High

Spirited Away uses music to great effect in assisting the action, which is always a pleasure to experience. The great script is equally good in either language

Story – Very High

A young girl stumbles into a bathhouse for spirits and must find a way back to the human world. Imaginative, engaging, and magnificent.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch for anyone, whether anime fan or not. Spirited Away will convey a different meaning and experience based on the age of the viewer, so it’s even worth watching again at later stages in life.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive:

CharmDeep NarrativeExtensive Character DevelopmentFluid AnimationGreat MusicHoly S***Stellar Voice ActingStrong Lead CharactersStrong Support CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None

Howl’s Moving Castle – Anime Review

Japanese Title: Howl no Ugoku Shiro

 

Similar: Spirited Away

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

 

Watched in: Japanese & English

Genre: Steampunk Fantasy Adventure Romance

Length: 1 hr. 57 min.

 

Positives:

  • Howl’s castle.
  • Charming world and characters.
  • Plenty of humour.
  • Attention to visual detail.
  • Enchanting.

Negatives:

  • Finale could have taken a moment or two longer.

There was once a time when I was unaware of Studio Ghibli. Times were darker then, the teenage years. It was a late night at a friend’s house after hours of mahjong that he decided to play Howl’s Moving Castle. I was enchanted. Where had this Japanese Disney been all my life? Howl’s Moving Castle drew me in with its vibrant, detailed world of wizards, curses, and the best house in fiction.

Sophie works as a simple hatter until, by chance, she meets the enigmatic wizard Howl, who literally sweeps her off her feet. Jealous of Sophie’s meeting with Howl, the vain Witch of the Waste curses Sophie into old age. Sophie must find Howl to lift the curse and climbs aboard his castle as it roams the grassy hills.

Seeing the castle alone was the price of entry. It is a ramshackle place, a bit silly (not as silly as Camelot, of course) in all the right ways. The front door has a special lock, which when turned, opens up to different places in the world. Howl, despite his prodigious skill, lives akin to a messy child with junk everywhere – likely has never seen a dustpan across its surfaces. Sophie takes it upon herself to clean the place, get everything prim and proper, scolding Howl in the process. Howl’s Moving Castle is very reminiscent of Mary Poppins, right down to the music, if you gave her magic side to Howl and her discipline to Sophie.

Sophie makes for an unlikely protagonist and a feisty old lady. She doesn’t take the curse lying down; hell, she doesn’t accept nonsense from anybody, evil witch or handsome wizard. I like her. A favourite moment of mine is when she bosses Calcifer, the fire demon that powers the castle from the hearth, around as she whirls through the castle in a storm of broom and dust.

Apprentice to Howl is Markl, a young boy with magic of his own. Like most Ghibli films, he plays the stand-in for the younger audience and conveys their innocent outlook on the world. Ghibli, as always, gave extra attention to character mannerisms, making them feel alive. When granny Sophie’s neck cricks or her back breaks, you feel the excessive effort and pain. There is so much charm packed into every detail.

The plot takes place against the backdrop of a war and every wizard must answer the call of duty. Howl despises the king and his royal sorcerer who wants to catch him, hence the need for his mobile castle. Howl’s aversion to conflict isn’t as much out of noble intentions as it is his child-like manner. He is spoilt, obsessed with his appearance, prone to sulking, and unable to take responsibility – explains the state of his abode. He’s no Gandalf, but is a great character.

The story’s one flaw is in the conclusion. A few extra minutes to explain the end ending further would have worked wonders, and a minor twist, of sorts, comes out of nowhere. Its sudden nature is more humorous than anything.

Howl’s Moving Castle sparked my interest in Studio Ghibli and it’s easy to see why. This film has it all: witches, wizards, a magic castle, monsters, a sentient scarecrow, and a cheeky dog. I loved every moment of this enchanting film.

Art – Very High

Gorgeous. The colour, the world, the design, all feels magical. The castle’s animation alone would take more time than most anime seasons. I have to pause every shot to admire the detail.

Sound – Very High

The Japanese is good, but I found the dub superior. The characters had more energy in English, Calcifer in particular, performed by a memorable Billy Crystal, whereas the Japanese Calcifer is rather forgettable. Only Christian Bale falters as Howl in English, though he is grumpier, which suits the character. Charming Mary Poppins music.

Story – High

A woman cursed by a witch seeks a wizard in his moving castle. Enchanting, imaginative, and fun throughout.

Overall Quality – Very High

Recommendation: A must watch for the whole family. Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away are the best films to start you journey in the wonderful worlds of Studio Ghibli.

(Request reviews here. Find out more about the rating system here.)

 

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

Positive: 

CharmFluid AnimationHilariousPositive Recommended English Voice TrackStrong Lead CharactersStunning Art Quality

Negative: None