100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty Two – Pom Poko

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty Two – Pom Poko

Movie Night #16: Pom Poko

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Isao Takahata
Released: 1994
Run Time: 119 minutes

I have been procrastinating all day to avoid writing this piece. I don’t like Pom Poko, and frankly, I’m not sure I have any good reason for it. The first time I watched it, I got sick part way through, and I haven’t been able to enjoy it since then. Being sick right now, I’m not planning on giving it a re-watch.

The art and animation is beautiful, and there’s a deep dive into Japanese folklore that I’d normally get a kick out off. However, the movie boils down to an amazing but very obvious environmental PSA about the destruction of nature in Japan told by way of tanuki. It seems to drag on for much too long, but my history with the movie is probably partially to blame for that.

Tanuki are often called raccoon dogs outside of Japan. They’re cute critters, and they feature prominently in Japanese folklore as (usually) benevolent tricksters. Tanuki in folklore are renowned for having giant testicles, and that has been something of a hang up for the localization of Pom Poko. I was already familiar with tanuki stories before watching this movie, so that was never much of a hang up for me, but it’s understandable that western audiences are put off by a movie about raccoons with magic scrotums that seems to be aimed at children.

Unfortunately, there’s not nearly as much information about the making of Pom Poko as there is about some of the other Ghibli movies. Considering the themes and presentation, I’d imagine this was a movie fairly close to Takahata, and it is very definitely geared toward Japanese audiences more than international viewers.

I wish I had the energy to give Pom Poko another shot right now. Its message is as relevant as ever, but for now, this is all I’ve got.

Until tomorrow.

Addendum: I don’t enjoy Pom Poko, but I do care about the rainforests that are an integral part of our environment. I’m not sure how much reach I really have here, but if you’re also concerned, consider donating to Rainforest Trust.



100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty One – Ocean Waves

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty One – Ocean Waves

Movie Night #15: Ocean Waves

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
Released: 1993
Run Time: 72 minutes

Ocean Waves is the only Ghibli movie I’ll talk about in this series that I wasn’t at all familiar with prior to seeing it on Wikipedia’s list of Ghibli features. The movie is based on a Saeko Himura novel, which was released as a serialized story in Tokuma Shoten’s Animage magazine in 1990.

Unlike the other Ghibli movies I’ve written about, Ocean Waves was made for television, and it’s shorter than most Ghibli fare, at only 72 minutes. The film was conceived as a test for the younger Ghibli staffers to see if they could produce something befitting the studio’s standards cheaply and quickly.

Most of the staff was under 40. Mochizuki was 34, and he’s said that the job gave him ulcers. It is also the first Ghibli movie to be directed by someone besides Takahata and Miyazaki. Much of the animation was outsourced to Madhouse, J.C.Staff, and Oh! Production.

The film ultimately fell behind schedule and went over budget, and the result is middling at best. It’s an average anime movie, and I don’t mean it’s Ghibli’s average production.

The story is centered on a love triangle between the hard-working Taku, his friend class representative Yutaka, and the super tsundere new girl Rikako. Like Only Yesterday and Porco Rosso, I think the subject matter skews a little older than what we often associate with Ghibli, but the story fell pretty flat for me.

Taku is a well-crafted character. He’s principled, hard-working, and smart, but he’s also a teenager who can be short-tempered, socially dense, and situationally irresponsible. We get the story from Taku’s perspective, but the emotion feels super muted to me. I tend to associate Ghibli films with their quiet, reflective moments, but they’re also super expressive and emotive. This leans too hard on the former, to the point it almost feels like an impression of a Ghibli movie, not the authentic article.

Very few characters get substantive screen time, to the point that I can only remember the names of the leads. However, of the leads, only Taku really gets developed. Yutaka’s characteristics are that he’s Taku’s friend, he’s principled, and he has a crush on Rikako.

Rikako feels more like an obstacle and eventual goal for Taku than an actual character, and she’s never given any redeeming qualities for the love triangle to make sense. Rikako’s parents have just had a bad divorce, she’s a daddy’s girl and her dad is kind of the bad guy in the situation, and she’s had to move away from all of her friends in Tokyo. It makes sense that she lashes out and isn’t easy to get along with, and the other girls in the movie are gossipy and rude. However, Rikako is pretty much a jerk to everyone she meets unless she needs something from them.

She cons Taku out of several hundred dollars so she can go visit her dad in Tokyo. She makes one friend and promptly uses her as an excuse so that she can sneak off to Tokyo to see her dad, and she intends to rope said friend into the trip along with her even though she is clearly incredibly uncomfortable with the situation.

When Taku realizes Rikako is uncomfortable traveling to Tokyo for the weekend alone, he volunteers to go with her. When her dad puts him up in a hotel, she ends up crashing at the hotel with him, unhappy about the changes her dad has made. She gets drunk and passes out on the bed, forcing Taku to sleep in the tub. The next day she complains that she had to go downstairs to use the bathroom, and tells Taku to get out so she can change. Then she asks Taku to come rescue her from an ex-boyfriend.

After the trip, she totally ignores him, and she further isolates herself from the other students, refusing to participate in class events. The climax is when the other girls confront her for her lack of participation. Taku overhears, Rikako lashes out at him, Yutaka punches him for not sticking up for her. Honestly, it just all seems like aimless melodrama. (I can’t speak for the novel, of course.)

I was more invested in Taku and Yutaka’s friendship. I could understand Yutaka’s crush as he never really got to know Rikako, at least that we saw, but I couldn’t understand Taku’s (important but understated) feelings for her. Ultimately, the boys’ friendship just made so much more sense, and it was easier to invest in a little.

Animation-wise, this is nothing to write home about. The backgrounds are beautiful, but the character designs lack personality. The animation is flat and devoid of emotion in a very un-Ghibli way.

I did really enjoy the music. Scored by Shigeru Nagata, the music reminds me of the soundtrack to the first two generations of Pokémon games and of Animal Crossing‘s soundtracks. I can’t find much information about Nagata. Anime News Network lists four titles for him, all from the early ’90s.

While the movie does have some decent reviews, it seems to mostly be considered a flop. I think it’s just too short to develop characters properly, and it’s uneven with how it handles the development it has time for. For instance, Taku and Yutaka spend just a couple of seconds discussing the chef at the restaurant where Taku works who is, allegedly, a former yakuza. This never comes up again, and the chef is irrelevant to the rest of the movie. In the reunion scene, a couple of minutes are given to a character we’ve never met before confessing his feelings for Rikako’s only friend, who doesn’t reappear until after the confession and barely reacts to it.

The movie has been released overseas a few times, but it’s never been dubbed in English. It didn’t arrive in the United States until GKids released a subtitled version in 2017.

Next we’ll talk about Pom Poko, and I’m not looking forward to it. Until tomorrow!


100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 30.66 – Porco Rosso

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 30.66 – Porco Rosso

Movie Night #14: Porco Rosso

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Released: 1992
Run Time: 94 minutes

Once again, we’re running into a movie I wrote about last year. Porco Rosso might be my favorite Miyazaki movie, regardless of how the director himself feels about it. It’s based on Miyazaki’s 15-page manga, The Age of the Flying Boat. The manga ran as part of Miyazaki’s Daydream Data Notes, a series of annotated manga that ran sporadically in Model Graphix, a monthly magazine about scale models.

Porco Rosso is shockingly grounded in history for a cartoon about a pilot with a pig’s head. Porco’s air force friend Ferrarin and his pilot friend Bellini are at least inspired by two real Italian pilots. Porco’s real name is Marco Pagot, named for Italian animation pioneers, Nino and Toni Pagot. Toni’s sons Marco and Gi Pagot collaborated with Miyazaki on the Sherlock Hound TV series.

Curtis is also an homage to aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss who founded the Curtiss-Wright Corporation with the Wright Brothers. Many of the planes in the film are real aircraft designs from the ’20s and ’30s. Even some of the fictional designs take their inspiration from real aircraft.

The movie was initially intended to be a much lighter project. However, several conflicts, including war in Yugoslavia, occurred during the creation of the movie. These considerations and Miyazaki’s own feelings took the movie in a more serious direction.

Once, again I feel like I’ve said pretty much everything I want to about this movie. Miyazaki has called the movie over-indulgent, but I appreciate seeing where Miyazaki goes when he’s crafting something for himself.

Until next time.

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 30.33 – Only Yesterday

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 30.33 – Only Yesterday

Movie Night #13: Only Yesterday

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Isao Takahata
Released: 1991
Run Time: 118 minutes

I talked about Only Yesterday last year in my analysis of Takahata’s works. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a movie that made a huge impression on me, but there are some things I appreciate about it, namely the animation.

The movie is split into an adult framing plot and a series of childhood flashbacks. The flashbacks are the actual content of the manga of the same name by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, and they were animated traditionally in Studio Ghibli’s house style with the art being produced before the voice over work.

The adult framing plot was created entirely by Takahata, and the dialogue was recorded before the animation was produced. The intent was to more accurately capture the movement of facial muscles in the adult sequences.

As I mentioned last time, what really impresses me about Takahata’s work is how hugely varied it is. Subject matter and protagonists vary widely, and the art style in particular is wildly different from film to film.

It seems to me that Miyazaki is a craftsmen, interested in perfecting his form, while Takahata, still a known perfectionist, was more of an experimenter, interested in new styles and techniques and pushing the limits of the art.

One tidbit I didn’t include last time was that Only Yesterday makes pretty heavy use of Eastern European folk music to represent its rural themes. The soundtrack includes Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Romanian folk songs and traditional instruments.

I don’t have much to say about Only Yesterday. Reviewers have heaped praise on the movie, and I think my familiarity with Ghibli may have just numbed me somewhat to its strengths. I’ll leave you with this short review from Chris Stuckmann.

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty – Kiki’s Delivery Service

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Thirty – Kiki’s Delivery Service

Movie Night #12: Kiki’s Delivery Service

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Released: 1989
Run Time: 103 minutes

Kiki’s Delivery Service is the fourth animated feature from Studio Ghibli, and it’s the third Ghibli film directed by Miyazaki. It’s based on a novel by Hans Christian Anderson Award winning author Eiko Kadono. The novel is the first in a series of five books about Kiki.

Miyazaki and Takahata were both tied up with My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies when the project first came to Ghibli, but Miyazaki agreed to serve as its producer. Miyazaki initially brought on Sunao Katabuchi to serve as the director. After a trip to Europe where Miyazaki and senior staff studied landscapes and architecture for the movie and a Miyazaki re-write of the script, Miyazaki decided he should  direct because he’d already had too much influence on the film.

Kadono was initially unhappy with changes being made to the story, and the film was in danger of being scrapped. However, Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki visited Kadono and invited her to visit the studio. After the studio visit, Kadono consented to the project’s continuation.

Like with some of the other Ghibli films we’ve talked about, there is a Streamline dub created for Japan Airlines, and a later dub done by Disney. The dub by Disney includes quite a bit of added or change dialogue and some significant re-arrangements and additions to the music. The introductory theme and closing theme are also completely different in the Disney dub. Through various releases of the film by Disney and GKids, the dubs have been tweaked a number of times.

Jiji the cat is significantly changed for the Disney dub. In the original Japanese, Jiji is a girl whereas in both the English dubs, Jiji is a boy. Phil Hartman provided the voice for Jiji in the Disney dub. It was one of his last roles before his murder. Hartman ad-libbed some lines, and the Disney Jiji is quite a bit more cynical than the original.

In the original Japanese, once Kiki loses her powers, Jiji stops speaking and doesn’t speak for the rest of the film. Miyazaki has flip-flopped on the exact reason for this. Either Kiki has matured and become independent from Jiji, or Jiji just doesn’t have anything else to say.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is pretty straightforward coming of age story, but despite the protagonist being only 13, a lot of the “coming of age” elements seem more applicable to young adults leaving home and trying to find a path in life, particularly young creatives. Kiki’s loss of powers, caused by a loss of self-confidence, is even directly compared to artist’s block.

We’re coming in a little short on this one, but I just don’t have a ton to say about it. Tomorrow we’ll dive into the made-for-TV Ocean Waves. (I promise I didn’t intend that pun at the start of the sentence. It just kind of happened.)

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Twenty Nine – My Neighbor Totoro

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day Twenty Nine – My Neighbor Totoro

Movie Night #11: My Neighbor Totoro

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Released: 1988
Run Time: 87 minutes

Released as a double feature with Grave of the FirefliesMy Neighbor Totoro is a gentle, fantastical depiction of childhood in 1955 rural Japan. Totoro has become the mascot of Ghibli, and is essentially Japan’s answer to Winnie the Pooh. An asteroid and a species of velvet worm have both been named after Totoro, and the character has become something of a symbol for rural village life in Japan.

Though beautiful, bright, and ultimately optimistic, My Neighbor Totoro is melancholic with an ever so slightly scary edge to it. Roger Ebert, who included it in his Great Movies list, described it as “a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself.” The movie is light on conflict and plot, focusing more on observing sisters Mei and Satsuki as they explore and experience.

The movie began as an early draft of Princess Mononoke, revolving around a girl and a cat like creature. As the project developed, the protagonist was split into two to give the girls more independence. The story owes some of its background to Miyazaki’s own life. His father was an academic, and his mother recovered from tuberculosis in a rural sanitarium. He has said that the protagonists were changed to two girls so that it wouldn’t be quite so autobiographical. Mei was modeled on Miyazaki’s niece.

Artist Kazuo Oga began working with Studio Ghibli with this project. The backgrounds are his art style and have become part of Ghibli’s signature style. Oga has worked on a number of Ghibli projects and also worked on movies like Ninja Scroll, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and A Letter to Momo.

There have been two English dubs of My Neighbor Totoro. The first was, like with Castle in the Sky, produced by Streamline for Japan Airlines intended to be shown as an in-flight movie. The second is the Disney dub starring Dakota and Elle Fanning.

My Neighbor Totoro is good, light fair. It’s reaffirming and beautifully crafted. All that said, I don’t have a lot to say about it. I appreciate its refusal to try to explain the fantastical elements, and its attention to even very minute details.

However, I do have a problem with one of the common fan discussions around My Neighbor Totoro. It’s one of a few Ghibli movies that some folks have felt the need to reveal its “true, darker intentions.” I have probably complained about this trend on this blog before. There is a cyclical trend of reinterpreting innocent media for children as having some true, terribly dark underlying backstory. If you’ve spent 15 minutes on the Internet, I’m sure you’ve run into this already. Everyone who has ever made art, according to these interpretations, is a deviant and a monster, and it just gets really tired really quickly. Characters are inevitably dead or in comas or something of the like, and while it annoys me, usually I can dismiss it out of hand.

Unfortunately, My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away both get this a little worse than some other shows and movies. Other Ghibli movies may have the same problem, I’m not sure. If someone tells you Hey Arnold! is about the afterlife, you’d probably dismiss it out of hand, but something about these movies being Japanese and not explaining every element of their fantasy has led some parts of the community to accept these reinterpretations as possibly true. In the case of My Neighbor Totoro, the idea is that Mei and Satsuki died and the Catbus sequence is them visiting their mother in the hospital on their way to the afterlife. There are probably variations on this, but that’s the one I’ve heard repeated most often.

This isn’t what happens. In the end, the mother is cured and returns home, and life goes on. I find these reinterpretations to be troubling for a lot of reasons, and it doesn’t help that My Neighbor Totoro was essentially the palette cleanser for the much darker, sadder Grave of the Fireflies.

I don’t like the fetishization of “childhood ruining.” I think innocence in art is underrated and all too rare. It ought to be protected when we find it. I also think it’s just bad form for anyone who wants to really, seriously talk about art to spend too much time on these glorified bad creepy pastas. It also undermines the value of art that really does intend to go to dark, upsetting places, and I think that value needs to be protected, too.

Tomorrow we’ll move on to Kiki’s Delivery Service. Until then.

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 28.5 – Grave of the Fireflies Redux

100 Days of Anime 2019: Day 28.5 – Grave of the Fireflies Redux

Movie Night #10: Grave of the Fireflies

Studio: Studio Ghibli
Director: Isao Takahata
Released: 1988
Run Time: 89 minutes

Last year, I talked about Grave of the Fireflies in my analysis of Isao Takahata. Grave of the Fireflies was released as a double feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s much softer and gentler My Neighbor Totoro. Based on a semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka, the story follows two orphans as they struggle to survive the hardships of World War II and its aftermath, eventually dying. The movie has a powerful antiwar message, though Takahata refused to label it an antiwar film.

I didn’t want to talk about Grave of the Fireflies again. I won’t watch it again, but I do appreciate it. I have a sister, and our age difference is almost the same as the one between protagonists Seita and Setsuko. Maybe that adds a little extra poignancy for me, maybe not, but I don’t like to be sad the way Grave of the Fireflies makes me said.

Nonetheless, while writing last year’s piece and in the interim, I’ve seen a strain of criticism that I really want to address. The criticism has as much to do with Nosaka’s original story as it does with Takahata’s movie, but to be perfectly honest, I think most of the points are true to an extent and totally invalid as criticism.

There are several arguments being made including that the movie intends to manipulate the viewer into feeling sad, that the movie’s plot is too simple and its characters aren’t characters, that Nosaka was writing to make himself feel better, and that Nosaka (and Takahata by proxy) looked down on younger generations. There are other criticisms, but I don’t have time to get into all of them today so I’m sticking to the ones I find most egregious. Youtuber Bennett the Sage has a video that encapsulates all of these criticisms, but he’s not the only source I’ve seen making them. Studio Chōjin has a direct response to Bennet’s critique that goes fairly in depth.

I’ll start with the simplest problem I have. Nosaka is part of the Generation of Ashes who came of age in Japan during and immediately after the war. He, like his contemporaries, saw human suffering that most American audiences would have difficulty wrapping our heads around. This included watching as his younger sister starved to death. Nosaka blames himself for being selfish and immature, so yes, of course, the story, which he has portrayed as an apology to his dead sister, was written in part as an exercise in healing.

Nosaka has been open about his shortcomings. He’s not trying to trick us into thinking that he was a hero. Seita dies in Grave of the Fireflies. That a man who watched his baby sister die when he was only a teenager himself feels guilty and seeks healing through art is not a flaw in the story. There’s no trickery here.

Tied into that point, yes, the movie about two children dying is supposed to make you sad. Art is manipulative. Fiction is a lie designed to inform, invoke emotion, and impart truth. I have tried to avoid waxing philosophic on what I believe the purpose of art is, but to address this properly, I think I need to.

Art is meant to convey possible truths, to let us see from other perspectives, and I believe the best art is also beautiful in some aesthetic fashion. Nosaka and Takahata portray the very possible, semi-autobiographical truth of two children whose world has failed them, struggling and ultimately failing to survive. Art doesn’t have to be pleasant or life-affirming or give you an adrenaline rush or make your hair stand on end. Art just has to take you on a journey that delivers its message, and the message of Grave of the Fireflies is not one with a happy ending.

Nosaka was telling a profoundly personal story, but Takahata takes that same story and reapplies it to his own core theme, communities. It seems that Takahata views war as a failure of communities. After Seita and Setsuko’s mother dies, their family fails them, their neighbors fail them, their country fails them, and by bringing about these circumstances, the world has failed them. The message is crystalline, and it’s delivered with Ghibli’s signature poetic visuals.

There isn’t much plot, that much is true, but plot is overrated. Not every story of value needs a complex skeleton of cause-and-effect with twists and turns and a driving force. Indeed, that’s counter to a lot of Japanese art. The characters are as much characters as most other young children in realistic art. Seita is prideful, short-tempered, but cares deeply for his sister. Setsuko is a curious, sometimes temperamental child. Bennett argues that we’d feel sad if it were any other child dying, and yes we’d be sad. But we’d only be as sad if we’d spent the whole 89 minutes getting to now them, watching them play, watching them starve, watching them cope with loss.

Maybe this movie didn’t really effect you. I suppose that’s possible, but that doesn’t make it bad or manipulative, only something you didn’t connect with.

There are certainly movies and stories that are simply wallows in misery for the sake of misery itself, but Grave of the Fireflies very clearly has a point beyond “gee, isn’t this sad.”

Lastly, I want to address the belief that Nosaka and Takahata believe that the Generation of Ashes was somehow superior to later generations. Nosaka may have believed this, though certainly not about himself. He paints Seita as spoiled and selfish, and it seems like Nosaka saw himself as a failure because of the death of his sister. Nosaka may have believed that his contemporaries were sturdier, more stoic people, even as teenagers.

Takahata certainly didn’t. I think some of the misunderstanding comes from a 1994 interview with Nosaka and Takahata in the magazine Animerica. Takahata points out that the typical wartime protagonist, be they teenagers or not, tends to be stoic and endures the hardships without question, and he talks about how Seita certainly isn’t like that. He says audiences should have an easier time relating to Seita who does have emotional responses and doesn’t just endure whatever is thrown his way.

Takahata also says that his generation believed you should be stoic, but that younger generations don’t think that way. There’s no value judgment there. Instead, Takahata seems to believe Seita is a better protagonist than the stoic, perfect wartime teenager because he’s more realistic and audiences can relate to him. Takahata seems to have some disdain for the wartime teenage hero character and the pedestal it’s placed on because he’s concerned young audiences might feel inferior and unable to relate to such characters.

Essentially, Takahata says that he wants to erase the notion that past generations were somehow inherently heroic young people. Teenagers were teenagers, even during the firebombing of Japan, and the story Takahata wanted to tell is more effective when you can actually relate to the protagonist rather than be forced to look up to him.

All that said, once again, I’m not sure that what Nosaka and Takahata think about younger generations has much influence on the quality of Grave of the Fireflies.

It’s a painful story. It’s meant to be, and it’s a story that’s as relevant now as ever.