The International Writers Magazine: Film Space

Studio Ghibli: Animated Magic
David Gordon

Studio Ghibli is considered, worldwide, as being the leading light in Japanese anime films. The men who founded the studio, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, have become synonymous with anime both in Japan and internationally.

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki
What’s the Story?
Considered as being among one of Miyazaki’s best works, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the story of a world far in the future that has been ravaged by war. The remaining humans fight a constant battle against terrifying gigantic insect creatures and heavy pollution.

Nausicaa is the Princess of the Valley of the Wind, which is a small peaceful settlement. Her love of nature and her determination to understand the pollution that has taken over the earth lead her into danger. Giant insect-like creatures called Ohmu, mutated by the pollution that spread across the earth, threaten to wipe out mankind if they are not left alone.What is interesting about this film is the deep understanding that Miyazaki has with the source material. Originally created as a manga (Japanese for comic) by Miyazaki, the four-volume compendium is a staggering 1400 pages long. Miyazaki had reservations about creating a film out of his comic series because he felt that it would be too difficult to adapt and probably wouldn’t work as an animated film. The popularity of the comic series was so intense that the anime magazine, Animage, was getting hundreds of letters a week inquiring about whether there was going to be a film version or not. After giving into pressure from Tokuma Shoten Company (a notable distributor and parent company of Studio Ghibli) Miyazaki reluctantly accepted the proposal and transferred the story to the big screen.

Probably the most major theme of the film is Miyazaki’s portrayal of mankind’s destruction of nature (a recurring theme through lots of Miyazaki’s more pessimistic films). Around the time the film was made there had been a huge disaster in Japan where masses of mercury had been spilt into Minamata Bay. The resulting pollution meant that the fish in the bay were inedible and thus were no longer fished. This meant that over a few years there was a huge increase in the amount of fish in the bay.

Talking to American novelist Ernest Callenbach in 1985, Miyazaki said that he admired the toughness and resilience of other living creatures that they could absorb the poisons humans create and continue to thrive. This event could be seen as the inspiration for the wild Ohmu that threaten to destroy Nausicaa’s people. The Ohmu act as an allegory for the way man pollutes the earth yet certain species survive and in some cases thrive.

Nausicaa, the young Princess that the story follows, is an amalgamation of different mythical and literal influences. When in early childhood Miyazaki had read a traditional Japanese folklore called The Princess Who Loved Insects. This is the story of a medieval Princess who was obsessed with insects and was more interested in her studies of different creatures than her duty as a Princess. Another influence that Miyazaki claims helped him create the character of Nausicaa was the Phaeacian princess of the same name, who rescued Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem, which he had read in Bernard Evslin’s Dictionary of Grecian Myths. So Nausicaa in Miyazaki’s film is really a hybrid of the classical Greek Princess and the princess from the traditional Japanese folklore.

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki
iWhat’s the Story?
Set in an alternate nineteenth century, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is the thrilling tale of a girl, Sheeta that literally falls from the sky, but is saved by a magic crystal that is the key to her ancestry. She is one of the only surviving descendants of Laputa, a floating city in the sky that contains all the technological knowledge of a long lost civilisation.

We follow Pazu as he attempts to help his new friend, Sheeta, escape the clutches of the government and pirates, who want her crystal to guide them to the treasures of Laputa. Their adventure takes them flying through the sky on enormous flying machines in their attempts to escape their pursuers. Laputa: Castle in the Sky is officially Studio Ghibli’s first major release (although Nausicaa is made by the two directors it isn’t strictly a Ghibli production, but it’s success did lead to the formation of the Studio). The opening section of the film is set in lush valley’s that are inhabited by simple, poor hard-working people that provide for themselves by mining the local area. Miyazaki’s portrayal of the people in the mining community bears mention as he drew inspiration from a trip he made to Wales. He visited mining communities in Wales and appreciated the working values of the people there. In an interview in 1999 he said, "I was in Wales just after the miners’ strike. I really admired the way the miners’ unions fought to the very end for their jobs and communities, and I wanted to reflect the strength of those communities in my film."

One of the main themes of the film is the corrupting influence technology has on mankind. Miyazaki’s scepticism about science and technology as tools of progress is often seen in his films. He draws comparisons between the escalating technological advancement and the rising levels of violence, greed and injustice, as well as detrimental damage to nature. This is not to say that he distrusts technology but is unsure of man’s ability to use it wisely. Miyazaki’s films fit into a growing trend in Japanese culture that has seen a new sense of cultural nostalgia. After the Second World War, American forces occupied Japan. This brought about a change in the countries beliefs and work ethos. There was a distinct move towards progress in science and technological advancement, and especially capitalism. This meant that there was a move away from the deeply ritualistic past that Japan was known for. Over the past couple of decades Japan has gone through an economic slump that has made society look back on its past with a sense of cultural nostalgia. This is prevalent in Miyazaki’s work, this idea of advancements in technology moving too quickly for society to control.

Grave of the Firefly’s (1988)
Dir: Isao Takahata
What’s the Story?
Grave of the Firefly’s is the heartrending story of two young orphaned children whose lives are turned up side down by the Second World War. The American bombing campaign against Japan takes their mother, who is buried in their air-raid shelter after taking a direct hit, and their father is away in the Navy fighting in the Pacific.

We follow Seita and his little sister Setsuko as they attempt to survive after being orphaned by the war. Their aunt takes them in but with food shortages and rampant inflation, it’s not long before they are not wanted. They run away and live in an isolated cave by the lakeside. We watch their descent through starvation and gasp as we see their inevitable fate unfold.Grave of the Firefly’s is a deeply moving portrayal, from a Japanese viewpoint, of the bombing of Japan during World War II. Takahata adapted the story from Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical graphic novel, which didn’t actually have any comment on the specifics of the conflict. At no point during the film does the narrative condemn or condone the events that take place. There is no real enemy just the consequences of actual events. That is what creates the atmosphere in this film; the two young protagonists are the victims of circumstances that are beyond their control. The futility of their struggle to survive is evident straight away with the two main characters being introduced as ghost that are lit in a dream-like scene surrounded by firefly’s. The fact that we are watching two young children spiral into homelessness and eventually starvation has more resonance from a Japanese viewpoint. In Japanese culture children are revered for their youth, they are seen as the future and therefore have a high standing in Japanese culture. So, the portrayal of two children in a desperate situation really heightens the desperation of the story.

This film is expertly animated (credit going to the art-director, Yoshfumi Kondo, who worked under Takahata’s guidance but designed most of the aesthetic), showing the two protagonists naively running through the macabre background. This is a distinctly reserved piece of filmmaking that doesn’t attempt to make bold statements about who was right or wrong, but simply attains to telling a powerful, yet simple story.

Porco Rosso (1992)
Dir: Hayao Miyazaki
What’s the Story?
Set in a typically Miyazaki-esque fantasy image of early twentieth century Europe, Porco Rosso is the story of an ex-Italian fighter pilot who, out of grief for the lose of his friends in battle, turns his back on humanity and metamorphosis’s into a pig.

The film is the story of his fight against a menacing, but not too bright, group of sky pirates. He is a hired mercenary, who patrols the skies whilst vying for the attention of an attractive nightclub owner. However, he faces competition from a brash American pilot who sees the women and the scalp of the pig as trophies to take home with him.Miyazaki’s father had worked in a government factory during the Second World War assembling aircrafts. This has obviously had a major influence on his films as he uses flying machines in lots of his most notable work, from the simple glider that Nausicaa uses in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, to the gigantic flying fortress in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. So, flying machines really are a passion of Miyazaki’s, which highlights how much of a personal film Porco Rosso is to him. Asked about his inspiration for the film in a interview in 1999 he said, " Bottom line, I like that style of aircraft. Although I make films for children, that particular film is really because I wanted to express my love for all those ships." So, Porco Rosso is a very personal, indulgent film for Miyazaki, he had always loved aircrafts and wanted to make a film that showcased them.

Although Miyazaki’s work is obviously pure escapism it is important to look at the lead character in the film, Marco Porcello (who was once a man but mysteriously changes into a pig) when looking for some sort of cultural significance. Japan is an extremely competitive country that is obsessed with youth; a stereotype that is prevalent through out Japanese contemporary cinema is the ‘tired middle-aged business man’. If you put this stereotype to the character of Marco you see that the "pig" is actually a metaphor for a man who has lost faith in mankind and has chosen to reject his own humanity. In the English language version of the film Porco is actually transformed through a magical spell; whereas according to the Japanese release, and Miyazaki’s book The Art of Porco Rosso, Porco somehow transforms himself because he has become disillusioned with war and politics and the despair of fading into middle-age. This differing in versions highlights the pertinence the character of Marco has in Japanese culture. He is indicative of a section of society that is ostracised because they are getting old and realising that they are seeping into mediocrity.
© David Gordon May 2006
David is a graduate from the University of Portsmouth

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