I haven’t been reading anything much lately, except hospital COVID policy documents and a lot of gloomy newspaper articles. My library and local bookshops have been shut for months and Sydney’s latest COVID outbreak has destroyed my ability to concentrate on long, complex books. However, I have subscribed to Netflix and I’ve been watching various TV series and films, which has led me to my best discovery of this year: Studio Ghibli films.
Yes, I know, people around the world have been rhapsodising about Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s work for decades, but as I had little interest in fantasy or animated movies, I hadn’t paid much attention. Still, several Memoranda commenters had recommended his adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, so I decided to give it a go.
I think I might have liked this film more if I hadn’t read and loved Diana Wynne Jones’ novel. One critic has accurately described it as ‘fanfiction’ of the novel. Imagine if there was a film called Harry Potter, in which there was no magic and Harry was a coffee shop owner and Draco ran the florist shop next door and Draco’s father was a property developer trying to raze the neighbourhood to build luxury apartments and Harry and Draco fell in love. That’s how much resemblance there is between the book and the film of Howl’s Moving Castle.
I quite liked the film’s version of the castle, a giant mechanical beast roaming about the countryside on chicken feet, and Sophie retained a lot of her characterisation, but oh, I hated their version of Howl! They turned a fascinating, flawed human into a romantic superhero who sacrifices himself to stop the war between two countries. (Mind you, I was so confused by the changes to the plot that I didn’t even realise the soldiers came from two different kingdoms until near the end of the film.) Calcifer is voiced by a wise-cracking Billy Crystal, the Scarecrow is a benevolent Christ-like figure instead of a terrifying enigma, Sophie’s sisters barely feature in the story, there’s no visit to the ‘Land of Wales’… But the worst part is that the ‘war is bad’ theme is hammered into each scene so heavily that there’s no space left for the story. The hand-painted animation is often very pretty, but I can’t say I liked this film very much. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 2006, but lost to Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. I agree with the judges — The Curse of the Were-Rabbit is much better (and a lot funnier).
Netflix then recommended My Neighbour Totoro and I’m so glad I persisted with Studio Ghibli because this film is adorable. Four-year-old Mei and her older sister Satsuki move to the country with their father, to be closer to their mother’s hospital (I assume she has tuberculosis, although that’s never confirmed). The children meet some furry creatures in the forest — a small one, a medium-sized one and a giant Totoro — and have some very gentle adventures. Roger Ebert wrote a lovely review, in which he pointed out that this is:
“A film with no villains. No fight scenes. No evil adults. No fighting between the two kids. No scary monsters. No darkness before the dawn. A world that is benign. A world where if you meet a strange towering creature in the forest, you curl up on its tummy and have a nap.”
It’s true that My Neighbour Totoro doesn’t involve any thrilling, action-packed scenes or follow a conflict-driven storyline. The closest it comes to tension is when Mei, worried that her mother is dying, runs away from home to take her mother some home-grown vegetables, and Satsuki and all her neighbours try to find her, although I was always aware that everything would turn out just fine. There may be a lack of conventional ‘drama’, but this film is consistently engrossing, warm-hearted, funny and poignant.
My favourite scene is when an awestruck Satsuki meets Totoro for the first time at a bus-stop. Totoro has only a very inadequate leaf on his head to protect himself from the rain, so Satsuki offers him an umbrella, to his delight. He gives her some seeds as thanks, then steps aboard the eight-legged Catbus and disappears. It’s a nearly wordless scene, but the facial expressions and gestures perfectly communicate each character’s feelings. I watched the version dubbed into English and I found the American actors’ voices a bit jarring. I think I might have liked this more if I’d watched the original Japanese version, even if there weren’t any subtitles.
Netflix’s next recommendation was even better. I thought Spirited Away was a masterpiece (and the Academy Awards judges agreed with me, making this “the only hand-drawn and non-English-language animated film” to win Best Animated Feature Film). Ten-year-old Chihiro is unhappy about her parents’ decision to move to the country. Driving to their new home, they get lost and her parents decide to explore an apparently deserted theme park. Unfortunately, it’s also a gateway to a terrifying, confusing spirit world, where Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs and Chihiro finds herself trapped by a witch, who steals Chihiro’s name and makes her work in a bath-house.
I don’t speak Japanese, haven’t visited Japan and know almost nothing about Shinto beliefs, so, much like Chihiro, I only understood about a third of what was going on, but I was still enthralled by every minute of this film. Each scene is beautifully depicted, from the witch’s elaborate, Western-style penthouse furnishings to the mechanics of the Japanese bath-house to the amazing landscapes. Chihiro is a relatable character — initially spoiled and sulky, then terrified by her situation, unable to decide who to trust, then determined and compassionate and courageous. The supernatural characters are fascinating, scary and often hilarious (my favourites were the soot sprites who fake injuries so Chihiro will do their job and then steal her shoes and socks, although I also developed a soft spot for enigmatic No-Face). The plot is inventive and complex and intriguing. The messages about the dangers of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction are cleverly woven into the story. I was still thinking about this film for days afterwards. I highly recommend it, even if you don’t usually like fantasy or animated movies. If anyone has recommendations for further Studio Ghibli films, please do let me know.