With news of Netflix finally adding the films of Studio Ghibli to its service, making available its first seven in February, there’s no better time to revisit these seminal stories. So which films truly measure up to the Ghibli name? Let’s find out in part two of our review series (read part one here)!
ONLY YESTERDAY (1991) Director: Isao Takahata
A young working woman ventures to the countryside for her ten-day vacation, and finds herself inundated with memories of her childhood.
Mono no aware is a somewhat untranslatable Japanese term that describes a sweet sadness associated with the recognition of one’s own impermanence. In its frank, earnest and tender exploration of memory and identity, Only Yesterday is teeming with tangential moments that blissfully elucidate this culturally pertinent concept. Undertaking a dual narrative dividing protagonist Taeko’s past and present with grace and verve, Isao Takahata proves himself every bit as masterful as his more renowned compatriot Miyazaki. These tales interlock with tremendous wit and vitality; the past serves as a succession of vignettes – animated in a ravishing sepia hue that so perfectly mimics the sensation of nostalgia – as the present offers a linearity that regulates the narrative. Compared with Miyazaki, Takahata devotes particular nuance to the facial expression of the characters, perhaps a contributing factor in generating such palpable empathy. It is not a showy film, unlike many other Ghibli efforts, but offers so much to savour. By the time I reached its note-perfect final scene, I was completely disarmed by its warmth and sincerity.
Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
PORCO ROSSO (1992) Director: Hayao Miyazaki
A seaplane pilot, afflicted with a curse that grants him the appearance of an anthropomorphised pig, faces off against an American rival and his pirate allies.
For better or worse, Porco Rosso earns the title of Miyazaki’s worst film. Yes, yes, of course this is an undeserved title, given the superlative strength of his filmography. Aesthetically, the film is predictably gorgeous; the Adriatic sea is Miyazaki’s chosen setting, and almost all of the film takes place either on water or between a group of tiny islands. Particularly wonderful is the titular porcine hero’s hideout (pictured above) where we are introduced to him, snoozing on a deck chair beneath an umbrella as a cigarette butt smokes out in its nearby ashtray. What really separates the film from Miyazaki’s other superior efforts is its slightness. Even his least grand narratives possess an unwavering and potent emotional core, but Porco resembles above all things a Saturday morning cartoon, with its cartoonish non-threatening villains and low stakes. In Porco, emotion is strived for in the character of Gina, a worker at a hotel frequented by pilots who has a history with Porco, but ultimately their relationship is far too underdeveloped to generate Miyazaki’s desired effect. Porco Rosso also by distinction the only Miyazaki film that shows its age. The two female characters, Gina and the young Fio, are depicted as intelligent and skilled, but eventually become (consenting) objects of exchange for their reckless male counterparts. Warts and all, it’s still endearing and memorably eccentric.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
OCEAN WAVES (1993) Director: Tomomi Mochizuki
A young man, whilst travelling to his high school reunion, reminisces over his senior year of high school, particularly concerning his relationship with a brash, beautiful and frustrating girl who transferred mid-year and upended his life.
Even some of the most devout Ghibli fans may have never heard of this twee, understated gem. Released as a telemovie in 1993, Ocean Waves was intended as an opportune project on which Ghibli’s younger employees could cut their teeth (albeit free from the inflated financial risk of a theatrical feature). Atypically for Ghibli, the film prioritises character over plot. The alluring Rikako, who arrests the attention of the two friends, is unquestionably the film’s epicentre, a sensitively rendered creation who is alternately vitriolic and fragile. Her presence reflects the passion and disillusionment of adolescence with graceful sincerity. The protagonist Taku’s role is more an audience surrogate – we share his exasperation as Rikako constantly vacillates between moods, emotionally blackmailing him before treating him with complete indifference. At seventy-two minutes in length, Ocean Waves is by distinction the shortest Ghibli effort, which is ultimately to its detriment; dramatic conflicts are rarely granted an adequately satisfying sense of closure, as the film prefers to savour in wistful encounters. This contributes towards conjuring a sense of nostalgia, a fondness for a succession of momentary episodes, though at the expense of a disciplined narrative. Given that the earlier Only Yesterday dealt with similar subject matter with a defter hand, Ocean Waves does feel a bit like a less substantive retread. But all this is easily forgivable; as an evocation of adolescence, Ocean Waves is honourably authentic.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE).
TALES FROM EARTHSEA (2006) Director: Goro Miyazaki
A prince murders his father and flees his kingdom, soon encountering a powerful wizard in the desert, who rescues him from a pack of wolves. Together they must contend with a malevolent warlock who seeks to upend the natural balance of the world in the pursuit of eternal life.
Where to start with this one? Probably the most ignominious Ghibli film yet made, and sporting a forty-three percent on Rotten Tomatoes, Earthsea was met with collective indifference upon its 2007 release. Hayao Miyazaki sought to adapt Ursula K LeGuin’s fantasy series for decades and finally was given the go ahead after the monumental success of Spirited Away. However, occupied with work on Howl’s Moving Castle, the film’s duties were relegated to Hayao’s son Goro, who had never directed before. Hayao had no reservations about airing his dissatisfaction, declaring after the screening that his then thirty-nine year old son was “not yet a man.” In turn, LeGuin was none too happy with the final product. “(It was like) watching an entirely different story,” she explained, “confusingly enacted by people with the same names as in my story.” Now that the dust has settled, perhaps it’s time to recognise Earthsea as (somewhat) unfairly maligned. Yes, the animation – while vivid and involving – falls short of the sweeping majesty of Miyazaki Snr’s work. Yes, the script definitely needed some workshopping and is the source of most of the film’s problems; as a condensation of four books (combined with Miyazaki’s own manga The Journey of Shuna, to boot!) Earthsea feels positively overstuffed with ideas that it can’t hope to resolve, and in turn, Goro and co-writer Keiko Niwa’s attention towards characterisation is unforgivably scant. Nonetheless, the film still works as a moderately exciting fantasy epic, whose reception would have surely been more favourable had it not been burdened with the weight of the Ghibli name. Of particular note is the film’s antagonist, the spindly Lord Cob, whose gaunt frame and serpentine voice secures him a place among Ghibli’s most chilling creations.