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Japan: Lost and Found – Episode 10: Studio Magic

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I still haven’t had a chance to see Hayao Miyazaki’s new film How Do You Live? 

[Ahem.] I mean, “The Boy and the Heron,” to use its not-so-faithfully translated English title.

But I’m hearing great things, and I’m excited to eventually see it.

People unfamiliar with Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli team might wonder why people wax so rhapsodic about some random anime films.

Isn’t it just entertainment for kids and teens?

It usually is.

Anime is ubiquitous around Japan, but it is typically regarded as disposable entertainment, mostly for kids. Yet Studio Ghibli films are quite different. 

Hayao Miyazaki is revered by people of all ages.

He’s not simply the Walt Disney of Japan, although that comparison has some merit. He’s also the Steven Spielberg. And the Lewis Carroll. 

He created a successful media empire like Disney, and he makes ultra-popular family films like Spielberg, but he is most praised as a storyteller, one who can stir the imaginations of audiences of any age.

A few exceptions aside, I love all of the films of Studio Ghibli. Here are some of my favorites:


Spirited Away

If you only watch one Studio Ghibli film in your life, make it Spirited Away. 

Its broad structure is a coming of age fairy tale, but with many unique twists.

A listless young girl finds herself trapped inside of a bath house for the gods, her parents transformed into pigs.

If she doesn’t learn to adapt, her parents will be eaten, and she will disappear into nothing.

Despite the challenges she faces, the young girl finds her inner strength, learns the rules behind the chaos, and comes to thrive in these strange new surroundings.

But the story is not simply an old codger’s wish that “kids these days” would grow up. Miyazaki saves most of his critiques for the adult world. The bath house is filled with adults and their responsibilities.

But they’re consumed by petty gossip, infighting, easy distraction, narrow self-interest, and outright greed.

It’s the girl’s job, as the hero of the story, to rise above that fray, and to bring out the best in those around her.

I mentioned Lewis Carroll earlier, and there is a clear debt to the Alice books in Spirited Away, both in its narrative structure and in some character designs. But there’s a much stronger moral core to Spirited Away, and a resolutely Shinto way of looking at modern life. It’s one of my favorite films ever.


Grave of the Fireflies

Grave of the Fireflies is harder to see these days, unless you’ve got a DVD player. But this wartime period piece is more than worth the effort. 

Even if you get your hands on it, you’ll find it can be hard to watch.

I won’t say too much about its plot, except that it follows two young children as they navigate the streets of Tokyo during the WWII fire bombings. 

Written and directed by Isao Takahata, the other genius of Studio Ghibli, this film is a haunting rumination on the human cost of war.

I will never see a tin of fruit drop candy the same again.


My Neighbor Totoro

This was originally released together with Grave of the Fireflies for a really incongruous double feature. Whereas Grave is…rather grave…My Neighbor Totoro is a feel-good family film jam-packed with wonder and whimsy. 

Two young girls move with their dad to a new house in the countryside. Their mother is in the hospital, for reasons undisclosed.

While the uncertainty surrounding their mom’s illness provides a serious subtext to the story, most of the film centers on the girls and their bond with the local spirits of the forest.

And those scenes are simply delightful. Like Winnie the Pooh, this is perfect for young kids, and for the inner child in all of us.


Pom Poko

I wasn’t surprised that Disney didn’t release Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, but I was very surprised that they did release his environmentalist fable, Pom Poko.

For two reasons:

One, because despite the silly premise of the story

– packs of tanuki (raccoon dogs) who mimic the look and stories of feudal Japan—it is a heavy film.

It tracks the tanukis’ struggles to survive amidst rampant urban development, and it can get downright bleak.

The other reason is because of a particular anatomical feature of the tanuki that is prominently displayed throughout the film.

Look at old Ukiyoe prints of tanuki, or the traditional statues of them, and you’ll notice that a huge part of the tanuki brand is a pair of monstrously large testicles.

Just like in old lore, the tanuki of Pom Poko use their giant testicles as parachutes and even as weapons.

Disney’s fix was to translate “kintama” as “raccoon pouch.”

They ain’t foolin’ nobody.

Anyway, fantastic film. And oddly enough, the most accurate and informative Ghibli film with respect to real Japanese folklore.


Princess Mononoke

This was the first Ghibli movie I saw, and it’s still one of my favorites. 

It’s an epic fantasy set in a fictional version of medieval Japan.

Prince Ashitaka is attacked by a boar god whose hatred of humans has curdled into a curse that threatens to spread and kill the young prince. 

Like in Spirited Away, the hero of the story finds himself acting as a mediator between two warring factions: the gods of the forest, and the humans trying to expand their territory. One figure speaking for the forest is San, a young human girl who was raised by wolf gods, and fights against the other humans.

The villagers she attacks have given her the titular epithet “Mononoke Hime,” which translates to something like “Ghoul Princess.”

Whereas Spirited Away was a more aspirational fable for inner goodness, the plot of Princess Mononoke channels Miyazaki’s more despairing side. It presents a fair and measured take on human nature, and it’s not without hope, but such glimmers only come after some devastating events and irrevocable changes take place.

Despite the fantasy setting, this is Miyazaki at his most adult.


Only Yesterday

Takahata’s Only Yesterday is another example of Studio Ghibli for adults, but it couldn’t be more different from Princess Mononoke, and really all of the other films listed here.

It’s like an indie drama, focusing on a young woman’s travels and memories. 

Only Yesterday is slow and subtle, so I don’t recommend it as your first Ghibli venture. But it’s come to be one of my favorites. Simple, sober, elegant, and poetic.

That’s it for now. 

Does anyone have thoughts on the films mentioned here? 

What’s YOUR favorite film about tanuki testicles?

Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Thumb” Upvote! 

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Phylum of Alexandria

Committed music junkie. Recovering academic. Nerd for life.

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rollerboogie
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March 20, 2024 8:26 am

One of my worst decisions I made as a new-ish parent was watching Spirited Away with my preschool daughter without properly vetting it in advance. When the parents got turned into pigs, my daughter started screaming in terror and I quickly shut it off. It was a dark, horrible moment for me as a parent. After she went to sleep, despite my tremendous guilt, I watched the rest of it by myself and it truly is one of the most unique and poignant films I’ve ever seen. Can’t recommend it more. But not with a young child.

When she was older, we watched several Ghibli movies together, but the only one on this list is My Neighbor Totoro. That’s also amazing. She still talks about it and has watched it several times over the years.

Those are probably the two best I’ve seen, but also would highly endorse Ponyo and Kiki’s Delivery Service.

I haven’t been able to get my daughter to watch any more of these movies as a teen, but I may have to give the other ones here a try. As covered here, you don’t have to be a kid to love these movies. They are for everyone.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
Virgindog
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March 20, 2024 9:39 am

I’m afraid I haven’t seen any of these movies, but I’ve heard of a couple of them. I think Spirited Away won a lot of prizes back in its day. Maybe the Oscar for Best Animated Film?

Just looked it up on Wikipedia: “…and the first hand-drawn, Japanese anime and non-English-language animated film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards.”

ISurvivedPop
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March 20, 2024 11:29 am

It’s also the highest-rated animated feature on They Shoot Pictures Don’t They.
https://www.theyshootpictures.com/gf1000_rank1-1000.htm

ISurvivedPop
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March 20, 2024 11:32 am
Reply to  Virgindog

To be fair on that last paragraph, that was only the second Best Animated Feature award ever given. Shrek won the first one.

Pauly Steyreen
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March 20, 2024 11:37 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Correct that omission forthwith, V-dog! Start with Spirited Away, and I think there’s a decent chance you’ll want to devour more soon thereafter.

Pauly Steyreen
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March 20, 2024 11:35 am

Absolutely adore Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, and I’ll go to bat for Howl’s Moving Castle as well. In everything Miyazaki creates, he creates a world so distinct and vivid, you feel embodied in the dream.

JJ Live At Leeds
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March 20, 2024 12:51 pm

To my shame I haven’t seen any Studio Ghibli films, and that’s despite the glowing reputation I know they come with. Too many films, not enough time….. Just waiting on that retirement in 20 years to get caught up.

blu_cheez
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March 20, 2024 8:51 pm

Excellent write-up.

I would rank Princess Mononoke as the “if you only get to watch one movie” pick (because Miyazaki + Neil Gaiman english translation = GOLD), followed by Totoro and then Spirited Away, and then Castle In The Sky, and then Kiki’s Delivery Service.

LinkCrawford
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March 21, 2024 10:20 am

Boy, you are hitting home here, Phylum! I have 4 kiddos (now all in their 20s), but they all love the Studio Ghibli movies. I honestly think we own them all. I have seen a handful of them.

I’m surprised that you recommended “Grave of the Fireflies”. I watched that one (a lot of years ago), and my memory is that the movie was quite the downer. Like, I never want to see it again, downer. I’m not sure I would say that it was a bad movie, but whew!

Mrs. Crawford’s favorite is definitely Totoro, but my kids really love various ones…Spirited Away, Nausica, The Cat Returns, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke…

I must confess that they aren’t my favorites. So much bizarre, grotesque imagery (well, not in them all…but Spirited Away comes to mind). A lot of heavy themes. They are amazingly creative. I’m not sure why, but I just can’t enjoy them as much as my kiddos. Probably my favorite that I’ve watched is Howl’s Moving Castle. I do like that one.

cappiethedog
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March 21, 2024 7:55 pm

Vladimir Putin is putting forth the narrative that Poland invaded Germany. I admire Art Spiegelman for turning down offers from Hollywood, but maybe after that incident, he should reconsider.

LinkCrawford
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March 22, 2024 7:39 pm

After polling my four kids, the results are as follows:
Kid 1 (F): 1) Nausicaa 2) Whisper of the Heart 3) Castle in the Sky
Kid 2 (F): 1) Princess Mononoke 2) Nausicaa 3) Howl’s Moving Castle
Kid 3 (F): 1) Princess Mononoke 2) Howl’s Moving Castle 3) Castle in the Sky
Kid 4 (M): 1) Castle in the Sky 2) Arrietty 3) Princess Mononoke

And Mrs. Crawford is definitely My Neighbor Totoro.

cappiethedog
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March 21, 2024 4:11 pm

Roger Ebert was a good guy. I can still feel his loss. He encouraged people to be intellectually curious. Ebert didn’t put Hayao Miyazaki on the map, but I remember sitting in awe as he waxed poetic about Kiki’s Delivery Service.

Kacey Musgraves is reportedly a fan of My Neighbor Totoro. Somebody in Golden, Texas bought it for her when she was six. That’s a better starter film for small children than Spirited Away. The latter gets a small mention in the Alexander Phillipe documentary Lynch/Oz. Blind purchase. It was on sale at Barnes and Noble.

Martin Scorsese and Ebert were great friends. He is the new ambassador for world cinema.

WALL-E is in the collection. That was a surprise. Dealing with Disney is easier than Toho, I guess. (Somebody on the mothership told me that Ran will never happen.) If Janus Films can somehow acquire the rights to a Miyazaki, I hope it’s Princess Mononoke.

cappiethedog
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March 21, 2024 7:29 pm

Oh, sure. I was thinking in terms of Hayao Miyazaki. I forget sometimes that Ghibli is not Hayao Miyazaki’s boutique label, like Coppola’s Zoetrope. What happens in Grave of the Fireflies would be pretty darn unwatchable in a live action film. I saw it several years ago. It reminded me of Testament, starring Jane Alexander. I forgot the director’s name. I have it completely blocked from my mind. Oh, my; female filmmaker. Her name is Lynne Littman. 1983? Major studio? She’s practically a unicorn. The plot synopsis: A mother watches her children die from radiation poisoning following a nuclear war.

Hiroshima Mon Amour is way too baroque. Grave of the Fireflies is the better anti-war movie.

Aaron3000
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March 24, 2024 11:12 am

Can we add Tanuki Testicles to Bill’s band name list, or is that too risque?

Virgindog
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March 24, 2024 11:54 am
Reply to  Aaron3000

I’ve never let good taste get in the way of a good time before, so it’s on the list!

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