Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Studio Ghibli (For Baby Grace, never The Victim)




It was Christmas 2007, or about then, when Grace, my youngest child and daughter, presented me with my first Studio Ghibli film, Howl's Moving Castle. After all the excellent Disney films and the recent run of Pixar/Disney movies, these Japanese created animations came as a very pleasant surprise. Superb animation, beautifully drawn and with such attention to detail with a story neither mawkish nor 'syrupy'.

'Howls Moving Castle' is a fantasy based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones that features a young girl, a milliner, suddenly transformed into an aged hag, from eighteen to ninety, by a witches spell. Taking the change as a positive effect, the elderly Sophie (voice by the beautiful, now deceased, Jean Simmons) begins a series of life expanding adventures. She meets 'Turnip Head,' a scarecrow fashioned out of a single wooden stick, possibly a broom, and the aforementioned vegetable. She also encounters a powerful wizard named Howl through whom she meets a variety of other otherworldly characters.

It is a film that transfixed me with its solid thread of tempered imagination. I enjoyed it in a way I hadn't before. Disney and Pixar and others have produced some enthralling animations including the 'Toy Story' franchise, 'Ice Age' and of course 'Shrek.' There have been others too, notably 'Despicable Me' but what these films did was re-invent the Disney model. They took away all that sentimental stuff that infused the early films and replaced it with humour, a funny bone that tickled adults and children alike. What Studio Ghibli did that set it aside to those American productions was to invest a Japanese sensibility into the process which drew heavily on the phantasmagorical before taking it to places that no animation had thought of going.

What I liked about the film wasn't just the fantasy element but also the breadth, range and overall depth of characterisation. Here were characters, grotesque at times, that reflected real life people with the shared sense of frailties, fears and desires.  There were, by various twists and turns, plots and sub-plots that co-mingled, coiling and shuddering the narrative along. Above all was an incredible storytelling technique. Strong and defined.

Magical? Yes. More than that? Yes.



Studio Ghibli logo.svg
Founded in 1985, the studio was headed by the acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki along with his colleague and mentor Isao Takahata, as well as the studio's executive managing director and long-time producer Toshio Suzuki. They were, still are, even though the studio recently shut-up shop, a truly remarkable outfit.

Before I had seen the wonderful Howls Moving Castle, Studio Ghibli had produced a series of superb films most notably Castle in the Sky the first of the teams films released in 1986. The film featured a magical reality never before conceived. The story shows us a humanity that has built fortresses in the sky, airborne cities of fantabulous design. Again the imagination but also the delivery of same is impeccable. The Ariel scenes are breath-taking as is again the imagination and delivery of same that takes us skyward into a world like ours but nothing like ours. From the very first scene as we watch transfixed as a girl falls as gently as a leaf into the arms of the boy below we are transfixed. Truly an amazing film especially as a debut.



With their second film the team went out on a limb, something they have never been afraid to do, when they produced not another fantasy film but possibly one of the greatest of anti-war films, the truly classic Grave of Fireflies. It would be trite, stupid even to say forget Schindlers List as that film by Spielberg was a powerful cinematic statement but so is this wonderful animation. It takes, as its subject matter, two Japanese orphans at the close of World War 2. It shows the effects of the working people, those who are forever damned to follow where their leaders take them be it good times or bad. We see the effects on Japanese people, on this occasion through the eyes of children, the devastating ramifications of the Second World War. A very moving and dramatic and utterly spellbinding piece of cinema. It really is worth forking out the money to buy a DVD. Anime at its very best.

Grave of Fireflies

There then followed two more fantasy films: My Neighbour Totoro followed by Kiki's Delivery Service. The first I haven't yet seen, the second I have and again, it is an amazing slice of animation. The utter defiance of what makes and doesn't make a good film can be found here. There is nothing limiting about what can and can't be done. The artwork is inaccurate. It is key to what makes a Studio Ghibli film theirs. The art reminds me of the work of Naomi Okubo. It contains a delicate strength, almost pastel, like some French Impressionists, it is more than decorative. It adds substance, shape and context to the films. The images are honed to an impossibly high definition. Blades of grass move with the whisper of the wind, beetles burrow, ladybirds flutter. This attention to detail is absolute.



The applied label of fantasy, although true in many cases, is not the only genre Studio Ghibli have produced. Their vision of animation has elevated that creative method to new and brave heights. One film that was released in 2013, The Wind Rises, has been widely acclaimed by many as being the greatest anime ever. A bold statement perhaps even if Anime is largely a Japanese province. That said, those same people have gone further suggesting it as being the best animation ever. One thing for sure is that Studio Ghibli's output has managed to what few did before or have since. Their films are not just for children, not just for families, not just for geeky adults but entertainment that can be enjoyed by everyone and of the same film.



As I said earlier, there have been a number of animated films that have pushed the art form to new heights. Not just the aforementioned Disney or Pixar. Laika the producers of Coraline, ParaNorman and Boxtrolls being another noteworthy. And of course, Aardman the producers of Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run and Shaun the Sheep. All of these have not only added some vital ingredients to the art of animation, they have managed to vastly improve on what went before. None more so than Studio Ghibli whose inventions have contributed immeasurably to cartoon feature films. One of the men behind the studio, Hayo Miyazaki, has recently retired. No one can begrudge him that even though his talent will be sadly missed. He has given a great deal to the world on animation.

Hayao Miyazaki



Following Hayao Miyazaki's retirement late 2014, the Ghibli studios announced  a halt in production, a delay to be exact. As one of the founding partners in the enterprise, and so vital to their output, it only seems right that this action was taken, right but also understandable. Miyazaki's influence is huge. Born in 1941, of the Beatle generation, his achievements stand large. The shadow he casts across the anime genre stretches across many disciplines.

No one could deny him time to rest and possibly reflect upon his innovations and shared successes. His partner, the older by some five years, Isao Takahata is another factor in Studio Ghibli's success and longevity.

Both men have given a great deal to films, to animation and to the Japanese art form of anime.

Retirement, hopefully, will not mean cessation. The creative force Miyazaki and Takahata have unleashed will doubtlessly continue. At least, I hope it does as they have given me and my family endless hours of pleasure.

Isao Takahata






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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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