Friday, February 26, 2010

Hello Japan! Challenge: On the Big Screen

For this month's Hello Japan! Challenge (hosted by Tanabata at In Spring it is the Dawn), we have been tasked with watching Japanese film.  Though I could have tried something completely new (and I definitely plan to in the future), it's a stressful month for me so I decided to just revisit many of my favorite films from Studio Ghibli and to finally watch the one that I haven't gotten to yet.

Founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata in 1985, Studio Ghibli is one of the most famous feature-length Japanese animation studios.  Primarily with the backing of Disney/Pixar and John Lasseter, all but two of Studio Ghibli's films have been translated and released in the U.S. -- including everything by Hayao Miyazaki, a true master.  The U.S. releases almost all have celebrity voices but have been kept as true to the originals as possible.  Many of our DVDs can also be watched in the original Japanese.

Of the thirteen currently available films, we own eight of them and plan to buy Ponyo as soon as it is released next month.  The only film that I haven't watched at least once yet is Grave of the Fireflies.  So here is the list of Studio Ghibli films and the date that I watched (or re-watched) each film.  I watched them all in chronological order for the first time ever.

9 February - Castle in the Sky (1986 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
A young girl, Sheeta, escapes from government captors only to be pursued by pirates.  With the help of a young boy, Pazu, and an eventual alliance with the warm-hearted pirates, she discovers her unusual and unique heritage and returns to her ancestral home of Laputa, the castle in the sky.  There she must protect the world from the unscrupulous plotting of the mysterious Musca -- who plans to use Laputa's tremendous power for his own gain.  This is one Z and I watch regularly.  Some kids might find parts of it boring but there are some fun chase scenes and some awesome robots.

11 February - My Neighbor Totoro (1988 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
After moving to be closer to the hospital that their mother is staying in, Satsuki and Mei explore their new country home and the massive and magical camphor tree nearby.  One day, Mei happens upon Totoro -- the giant spirit of the forest.  Because of their respect and innocence, Totoro helps them more than once to navigate the difficult times they are going through.  If DVDs could wear out, we would probably need a new copy of this one.  Again, some children may find it boring if they are only used to American animation.  Z has been watching it since he was a baby so he loves it.

13 February - Grave of the Fireflies (1988 - directed by Isao Takahata)
A bleak and heartbreaking tale set near the end of World War II in Japan.  Seita and Setsuko have lost their mother in an air raid, their father is in the Navy and their only known relative treats them badly.  This forces these youngsters to try and fend for themselves as best as they can.  The film is based on an autobiography.  This was the first time I watched this one.  It is definitely not for children or sensitive adults as the subject matter and what happens to the children is very grim.

14 February - Kiki's Delivery Service (1989 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Kiki, a thirteen year old witch, has reached the age where she must set out and find her own path.  She settles in the seaside city of Koriko and quickly finds herself with a temporary home and a delivery service.  It is then up to her to find her destiny.  The film is based on a novel by Eiko Kadono.  This is a favorite of ours.  It's a perfect family film but, again, might seem slow to some children.

15 February - Porco Rosso (1992 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
An Italian fighter pilot turned bounty hunter is also a man turned pig.  Somehow cursed (it's not really explained), Marco has become known as Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig.  He fights pirates for a living until things turn personal and an American pilot damages his plane.  Marco must get his plane rebuilt and also his sense of self.  He is helped by a sixteen year old mechanical genius who also happens to be a girl.  I like this one but the rest of the family isn't overly fond of it.  It has a bit of fist fighting and airplane fights.

16 February - Pom Poko (1994 - directed by Isao Takahata)
This story of raccoons fighting against the destruction of their forest is set in the real-life Tama Hills outside of Tokyo.  The clearing of land for the development project of New Tama has already driven the foxes out and the raccoons must use their traditional powers of transformation to try and scare away the humans.  This was my second time watching this one.  It might not be appropriate for younger children even though the American version has been a bit sanitized.

18 February - Whisper of the Heart -- (1995 - directed by Yoshifumi Kondo -- screenplay and storyboards by Hayao Miyazaki)
A chance encounter with a mysterious cat on a train begins this simple story of a young teen, Shizuku, who is starting to think about what she wants to do with her life besides read and daydream.  She is also finding love for the first time and all of the emotions that come with it.  This is appropriate for all ages but kids will probably be bored by it.

20 February - Princess Mononoke (1997 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
A teenage prince saves his village from attack by a demon.  He is injured in the attack and must leave his village forever to find out what enraged the boar so much that he turned into a demon.  Ashitaka soon arrives in Iron Town and finds that they are cutting down the forest to get to the minerals in the ground.  They also plan on killing the forest spirit so Ashitaka joins Princess Mononoke, a human adopted by wolves, to save the forest and to find a way for the humans and forest to co-exist.  This is not a family film as it is heavy on the violence and blood and becomes quite scary at times.

22 February - My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999 - directed by Isao Takahata)
This slice-of-life film follows the Yamadas through random events in their lives with short vignettes.  The simple animation leaves the focus on this modern Japanese family and their ups and downs.  Between the antics of an ornery grandmother, a scatterbrained mother, a traditional father and a teen boy and young girl, we see many facets of everyday Japanese city life.  There isn't anything really objectionable in the film but it will probably bore most children.  This was the first time I watched the entire film through.

23 February - Spirited Away (2001 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
A ten year old girl, Chihiro, and her parents get sidetracked on their way to their new home and find a mysterious place where the parents are turned into pigs.  Chihiro must work to free them and to regain her name at a magical place -- a bathhouse for spirits. She is helped by Haku, a dragon who is being held against his will because he has lost his true identity.  This has a bit of blood and some intense situations and so is probably best for older children.  Z watches it and likes it but we talk about some of the things that happen so that they aren't scary.

23 February - The Cat Returns (2002 - directed by Hiroyuki Morita)
A sequel of sorts to Whisper of the Heart, this story features Haru, a girl who saves a cat from being hit by a truck.  The cat turns out to be Prince of the Cats and their grand reward for her is to transform her into a cat and have her marry the Prince.  Though Haru has a rough life as a human, she doesn't want to be a cat and so she asks for help at The Cat Bureau from The Baron, a unique jewel-eyed cat character, and his friend Muta -- the cat that Shizuku follows on the train in Whisper of the Heart.  This is an innocent and fun film -- great for all ages -- and should have enough action to entertain most kids.

24 February - Howl's Moving Castle (2004 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki)
Sophie, a quiet young hat maker, is saved one day from lecherous soldiers by a mysterious man.  Unfortunately, it's the infamous Wizard Howl and the Witch of the Waste, his worst enemy and also his greatest admirer, is jealous.  So that night, the witch goes to Sophie's business and puts a curse on her and she ages prematurely and becomes an old woman.  Because she can't be seen by her family, she leaves and ends up hitching a ride on the moving castle of none other than Howl himself.  She becomes the self-appointed cleaning lady and learns many things about this mysterious man and the world of magic.  This movie has some intense scenes but is fun for most children.  It might be my favorite and if you haven't read the novel by Diana Wynne Jones on which it is loosely based, you're missing out!

The final U.S. released film is Ponyo (2008 - directed by Hayao Miyazaki) and we have it on pre-order.  It will be released on DVD on 2 March.  We watched it in the theatre and can't wait to see it again.

Whew!  This turned out to be a much bigger task than I thought it would be!  Most animated films are around ninety minutes but Studio Ghibli films tend toward two hours long.  Since I've probably spent over twenty hours watching these films this month, I'm going to just give you a few bullet points on what to expect from these films.

  • They are almost all about children but they are not necessarily for children.
  • All of these films use traditional, hand-drawn animation.  Though the quality improves somewhat through the years, it is relatively consistent.  You will definitely recognize a Miyazaki film.
  • Main characters and "good guys" tend to be drawn more realistically with villains and, strangely, the elderly being drawn in more exaggerated ways.
  • Few of the films focus on romantic love.  Much more common are innocent "first loves", very strong friendships and familial love.
  • Other common themes are nature and the environment, magic, flight, animals and education.
  • Almost all of the films feature strong female characters -- whatever their ages.
  • Most of all, these films all give a view of the world that is different than the American one.  Eight of the films give various views of Japanese life.

Though time-consuming, this has been a wonderful project and I really appreciate Studio Ghibli more now that I have watched all of these films together.  I don't love them all and, in fact, there are some that I probably won't ever watch again, but they all have value for one reason or another.  And it was a different experience to watch some of our favorites and really focus on the fact that they are Japanese films.  A big thank you to Tanabata for this experience!

And a few notes ....
Screenshots and links in this post are courtesy of the fabulous Ghibli-centric site, Online Ghibli.  They have comprehensive information on every film and would be a great resource if you want to choose a film to try out.  There's also a brand new Ghibli blog by GalleryNucleus that features fan art and news.  And, finally, if you are in Japan, don't miss the Ghibli Museum!

Expanding our world view through international film,
K and Z


  1. Came here through Tanabata's site, and as always, I'm so so happy to have found another Studio Ghibli fan! I've not watched all of them, sadly, but of the ones I've watched, I particularly loved My Neighbour Totoro, Laputa (or Castle in the Sky) and Princess Mononoke. There's another one that I didn't see on your list, but loved, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

    The other thing I love about Studio Ghibli animations is the music, which I blogged about for Tanabata's January mini-challenge about Japanese music. =)

  2. Hi Michelle! So, Nausicaa is a Miyazaki film but not a Studio Ghibli film as it was made before the Studio was created. I would have loved to watch it as well but had my hands full just with the official films! I almost made this just a Miyazaki fest because I adore him and his films but I thought I would get a bit more out of this if I included the Takahata films -- especially since they deal more with Japan.

    I hope you get to watch more of the films. They are great! And Totoro has a cameo in Toy Story 3 ... yay!

  3. This was a great post! Loved reading about all the different Studio Ghibli films. I did not realize about this studio.

    My daughter and I watched Spirited Away for this month's mini-challenge. I loved the movie. I think it would be a great family movie but yeah, maybe not for younger kids. My younger children did fine with the movie (3 and 6) but I talked to them about certain scenes AND they have older siblings so they are exposed to more stuff.

    I am going to check into the other titles. If they are just as good as Spirited Away then I think I will be buying a few.

  4. Laputa/Castle in the Sky is my absolute favorite. I also love My Neighbor Totoro. Another favorite that I didn't see on your list (maybe even more so that Totoro - but it is more "grown up") is Valley of the Wind. Love the theme song.

  5. Forgot to say that after watching Avatar, my sister and I both thought there were some elements of Castle In the Sky and Valley of the Wind in Avatar. And I have to say I prefer both Castle and Valley, to Avatar!

  6. Wow! You've had a movie-watching marathon!! I've only seen 3 Miyazaki films so far (Spirited Away, Laputa/Castle in the Sky, and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) but they were all ages ago. Oh and parts of Kiki's Delivery Service but never all the way through.

    A little off topic, but one of my students, to practice her English, bought the book version of Kiki's Delivery Service (in Japanese) and each week translates a portion of it into English. So each week I get to hear about some of Kiki's adventures. :)

    Thanks so much for joining in Hello Japan! again this month and for your great post!

  7. That's an awesome journey! I watched almost all Ghibli movies. From your list, I haven't watched Porco Rosso and The Cat Returns. My favorites are Pompoko, My Neighbor Totoro, and My Neighbors the Yamadas. If you liked Whisper of the Heart, you should watch Only Yesterday, because they're on the same vein. I can't wait to watch Ponyo!

  8. Wow, what a brilliant marathon! I think I've watched 5 out of the 9 movies, and my favourite is still Totoro! I adore the way Miyazaki portrays the little children. And I enjoyed Spirited Away because of all the different Japanese spirits the you encounter. But The Graves of the Fireflies is also a film that I've watched only once but have never forgotten. I agree that it's totally heart-wrenching and difficult to watch at times. I think they show it almost every year in Japan in remembrance of the victims of WWII.

  9. ibeeeg - I hope you and your family find more Miyazaki films to love! I would definitely suggest Totoro next.

    Christa - The first time I saw Castle in the Sky I didn't love it but each time I watch it again, I fall for it even more! (And like I said above, Valley of the Wind isn't a Ghibli film so I had to draw the line somewhere!)

    Tanabata - I love the Kiki book. I reviewed the two together a year or so ago and found that they really seemed like different scenes in the same girl's life.

    Mee - We don't have Only Yesterday available in the U.S. yet but I'm hoping it will be soon because it sounds good! And I can't wait to see Ponyo again too!

    Chasingbawa - I love Totoro. Mei and Satsuki are adorable! That's really interesting about Grave of the Fireflies -- it's certainly an appropriate film to bring to attention all of the innocent victims of the war.