Does a critic need a manifesto? A line in the sand, a checklist? I'm not sure that I have it in me to do so. I would much prefer to point my finger at something and say, "That looks pretty good." Of course, the situation is not that simple, or else this would be a list of movies and a thumbs up or thumbs down beside each one. Which would be a short column! I can recommend "good stuff," but what makes something good? And how might someone go about making a work of art that's worthy of attention? Tough questions, and ones that I find more interesting to hash out in the context of specific books or movies or pieces of music. A strong example can go a long way to illustrate a point.
Miyazaki as Director
The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979
Castle in the Sky, 1986
My Neighbor Totoro, 1988
Kiki's Delivery Service, 1989
Porco Rosso, 1992
Princess Mononoke, 1997
Spirited Away, 2001
Howl's Moving Castle, 2004
Well, why not start at the top? Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese writer, director, and animator, has had all of the external signs of success in his career—an Academy Award, box-office smashes, and his own movie studio. He's also hard to fault on the creative side of things: his movies are visually inventive, not to mention emotionally touching in a way that generally avoids sentimentality. He can draw and he can write, rare talents and rarer in this precise and entertaining combination. The movies that Miyazaki has directed are about the best examples of what kind of works of art appeal to me.
A few words about the man himself. Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo in 1941. He got work as an animator as early as 1963, and moved up in the world of TV animation in the 1970s. He got the opportunity to direct his first movie in 1979, The Castle of Cagliostro, which was a story based on earlier TV series. After the success of his manga, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, he got the green light to direct the movie version of the same story. The movie was also quite successful and let him establish his own studio, Studio Ghibli, along with his friend Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies). With two exceptions, all of his subsequent movies were based on his own stories; even a movie like Kiki's Delivery Service, based on someone else's existing characters and story, has a screenplay by Miyazaki himself. He officially retired after Princess Mononoke was released in 1997, but came out of retirement twice, for Spirited Away and then again for Howl's Moving Castle.
Until very recently, Miyazaki movies were not easy to track down for English-speaking fans. A movie like Porco Rosso was simply not available, while Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was given a notoriously bad release: retitled and hacked down in length by half an hour or so. Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli were understandably protective of the rights to their movies after these fiascos. After some searching, Ghibli went with a deal with Disney, and Disney has done a stellar job. Whatever can be said about Disney's original content in recent years, they know how to do distribution and marketing. Porco Rosso and Nausicaä were the most recent DVDs packaged for North America, released in February 2005.
A note. As I'm writing about these movies, I'm making the assumption that subtitles are the superior choice for a non-Japanese-speaking audience. However, I've found that movies, like Miyazaki's, that are also meant for kids play better in the dubbed version with a crowd of kids. Disney's dubs are generally fine, although they tend to add a lot of dialogue lines not in the Japanese.
The Castle of Cagliostro, 1979
The story starts with a bang: master thief Lupin and his buddy Jigen have just pulled off an ingenious and well-paying heist. As they drive away from the scene at a furious rate, Lupin suddenly throws the cash out of the car. He's just realized that all the money they have stolen is counterfeit, and of the most advanced manufacture, so-called goat bills from the country of Cagliostro. Since no one who has gone to investigate Cagliostro's counterfeiting operation has ever come back, Lupin decides that it's a suitable challenge. Lupin and Jigen head that way immediately.
Along the way, they see a woman in a wedding dress trying to escape a posse of gun-toting thugs. After they dramatically rescue her and the bad guys recapture her, they find out that she's the Princess of Cagliostro and is being forced to marry the Count of Cagliostro against her will. So not only is the Count (as we discover) in charge of the notorious counterfeiting operation, he also wants to marry the Princess against her wishes. No wonder Lupin is motivated to mess with the Count's plans! Even the fact that the indefatigable Inspector Zanigata is on Lupin's track is going to work out: Lupin can offer the lead on the goat bills and Zanigata has no choice but to go for greater glory.
The Castle of Cagliostro is a fun adventure story. It's not much more than that, but it's a remarkable accomplishment for a debut by a director. The story moves along at a brisk pace, there are jokes and action and interesting characters, and Miyazaki clearly knows what to do with the artistic tools at hand.
Graphically, The Castle of Cagliostro is a lot more cartoony than Miyazaki's subsequent movies. Yes, they are all works of animation. I mean that this movie has moments where we are obviously operating under the rules of cartoon physics. The later movies try to portray the fantastic as realistically as possible. A floating castle, a robot with laser eyes, or a witch on a broom: all show up in Miyazaki's movies with careful internal consistency and real-world heft (an indefinable sense of weight and pose that is difficult to animate). This debut movie has a distinctly different feel that emphasizes its comic aspects.
Story-wise, The Castle of Cagliostro doesn't have much in common with Miyazaki's later works. His trademark has been the coming-of-age story of a young girl (I'll talk more about why this has been so successful for him with regard to Nausicaä), and here we have the story of a master thief. Miyazaki is also obsessed with flying, and there's not much of that here either.
This movie, however, does have one of those quirks that show up over and over again in his movies. He tends to favor vaguely Europeanized settings and few distinctly Japanese characters. This comes up again and again. Porco Rosso is an exception to the vague rule because it's a movie that's obviously post-WWII Italy. A better example is My Neighbor Totoro, which is ostensibly post-WWII Japan but feels a lot less specific, to the point where I've known people who didn't even think it was a Japanese movie. I'm not sure if it means anything except that Miyazaki makes movies about people and places that interest him, and he's interested in a lot of varying things. More on this later.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984
In a post-apocalyptic time, everyone is terrified of the toxic jungle that is gradually spreading across the world. We get our first glimpse of Nausicaä, the princess of the valley of the title, as she takes a trip into the jungle; she's wearing a breathing mask and she's surrounded by bizarre lifeforms, but she's not afraid. She also rescues an adventurer from an ohmu, a creature that's about four stories high and twice as long when full-grown. She's definitely handy with her glider.
She returns to her valley, and the plot begins when a massive airship crashes in the area. Onboard is a giant mechanical/organic warrior, now dormant, but one of the many that caused the Seven Days of Fire (as the apocalypse is quaintly called) a thousand years before. Nausicaä's small kingdom is in trouble: most of the nations in the area would be happy to wipe each other out in order to gain control of the warrior. Most also claim they would use its colossal powers to burn back the toxic jungle.
But what is the toxic jungle? And what is Nausicaä's connection with the ohmu?
The first thing anyone watching this movie will notice: its incredible visual inventiveness. The jungle has an entire ecosystem of strange plants, spreading spores, guardian insects, and the ohmu (at various stages of development). Few imagined worlds have this profusion of life. Nausicaä's world is simply busting out with weird and wonderful stuff, some of it quite perilous, some of it with beauty that only Nausicaä is looking for. This last point is worth noting, because it leads to some quiet moments of reflection or awe amid all the hubbub. It's a nice touch, and it highlights the design work while giving us a break from the briskly paced plot.
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is similar in tone and structure to Princess Mononoke. These are the only two Miyazaki movies with overtly fantastical settings, beginning to end (Spirited Away features a there-and-back-again-style trip to a fantastical world; it begins in the real world). Both movies have some amazing action scenes, which might make them a little too intense for younger fans of his other movies. Both have also been accused of being heavy-handed with their message.
Nausicaä is definitely the clumsier example of Miyazaki's preachy streak. Any post-apocalyptic story has this problem, so it's partly intrinsic to the setup of the narrative. By default, the message of any such story becomes "You bastards, you destroyed the planet." At one point, as Nausicaä and her friends are investigating the relationship between the toxic jungle and widespread pollution, she actually says, "Who could have polluted the whole Earth?" Indeed. We get the point, and then Miyazaki hammers it again for good measure. The hammer is always tempting; humans have an infinite number of justifications for stupid behavior, and it's easy to get frustrated if you believe in a cause strongly enough and those fools just won't listen to you. All I can say is that Miyazaki usually balances his story and message with more care than is the case here.
The Disney DVD of Nausicaä has a hilarious and informative segment from Japanese TV on the birth of Studio Ghibli. It's easy to fall into auteur-theory-speak when discussing Miyazaki—he writes! he directs! he draws! he has vision!—but as this documentary shows, he has been fortunate to have a wonderful team around him. He's nurtured quite a lot of young talent too. The documentary also shows the genesis of Nausicaä: he pitched the idea for a movie and was rejected. His friend (and later his producer) Toshio Suzuki told him to do a manga version of the story first, to build up some buzz. That worked so well that the result runs to four volumes! Since Miyazaki continued working on the print version until 1992, the movie version is understandably shorter.
A few notes about manga (this paragraph will be old hat for some). "Manga" simply means "comics" in Japanese, and it's a popular form in Japan, covering every conceivable topic and addressed to any age group. Although I should be careful in drawing parallels between different cultures, it seems true that manga doesn't face the same condescension in Japan as comics of various kinds do in North America. Manga are just another way of telling a story, which seems refreshing. A well-defined market is for young girls. Miyazaki's Nausicaä manga doesn't fit the strict definition of this subgenre, but neither does the young girl aspect of the story reduce its complexity or seriousness. As I said, refreshing.
You can tell that Miyazaki didn't just see a market niche—"Oh, I could sell a story about a young girl growing up"—and that instead, it's something that he's genuinely passionate about. Sure, there's some folderol here about the beloved princess of the realm, which is pure wish fulfillment—sometimes that's pandering, sometimes that's the best engine of the story. In this case, you can see pretty clearly why people would follow Nausicaä's leadership, even if she's young; she's charismatic, she's competent, and she kicks ass. And she's not a stuffy role model either. The story gives her room to breathe as a person.
And she's amazing with that glider! Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind has some of the most exhilarating moments of flight in any movie. It's hard to see how Miyazaki could top them. . . .
Castle in the Sky, 1986
But top them he does, in a movie that's all about flight.
Castle in the Sky has a shocking opening. Sheeta is a young girl onboard an airship, a prisoner of some official-looking men. A group of pirates attack the airship, and in the resulting scuffle Sheeta falls off the airship and into the clouds. Cut to credits.
After the credits, the audience gets to sigh in relief: the crystal on Sheeta's necklace flares to life and floats her gently to the ground. No wonder the pirates and her original captors are after her, if she's the only one who can unlock this crystal's many powers. Unconscious, she's found by a young boy named Pazu, who hides her when the pirates come looking. The pirates are also busy fighting with the army, who have been called in by the official-looking men. The rest of the story is basically a long chase, as Sheeta and Pazu try to figure out why everyone else is after them.
It's that pesky castle in the sky. Long ago, the sky was filled with floating cities, but now all have been lost, except for the rumored exception of one called Laputa. Sheeta is a descendant of Laputan royalty, and if she unlocks the powers of her crystal, it will lead everyone to Laputa itself, or whatever's left of it. As the story progresses, the military gets more and more scary, while the pirates become more bumbling and lovable. Even so, a clash is inevitable if Laputa is ever found.
Castle in the Sky is a bit long, clocking in at over two hours, and its structure is episodic, which makes the movie feel longer. In retrospect, some of the more disjointed elements get woven into the story. For example, there's an awe-inspiring scene of destruction about halfway through at the point where Sheeta has been captured by the military and her crystal awakens a long-dormant battle robot. It's blow-it-up-real-good on an incomparable scale. The robot scene serves to get Sheeta away from the military and foreshadows what stupendous forces are available to exploit on Laputa. However, at first viewing, this scene of uber-destruction massively overbalances the narrative around it and seems to come out of the blue.
Two other segments were a bit of a surprise to me. The first, a surprise of the pleasant kind, is how long the movie spends on Laputa once Sheeta and Pazu arrive there. Significant screen time is devoted to their initial explorations of the floating city—some lovely quiet moments, like the ones I pointed out in Nausicaä. The second surprise was not quite as much fun to sit through. Once Sheeta is aboard the pirates' airship, she gets put to work in the kitchen, and all the pirates fall clownishly in love with her. Slapstick ensues, but no humor.
I hasten to add that Castle in the Sky has a successful share of Miyazaki's sense of humor. It's based most often on the secondary characters. One of my favorite such moments happens early in the story. People from Pazu's town try to protect Pazu and Sheeta from the pirates, leading to a showdown. The two burliest men on each side have a pre-fight competition: who can, by flexing of muscles, make their shirt burst into shreds in the most intimidating way? On the side of the townsfolk, the wife stands behind her husband and says, "Who's going to mend that shirt?" Her grumpiness would be more convincing if she didn't have a frying pan in hand ready for some clobberin'!
I also liked the gung-ho train driver whom Pazu and Sheeta meet later. When he sees them climb onto his train, he says cheerfully, "Playing hooky for a date?" He's only too happy to pile on the fuel when he sees the pirates in pursuit.
The setting is one of those vague ones that I mentioned—if you get the vibe of Wales in coal-mining times from Pazu's town, that's deliberate on Miyazaki's part. Even though the setting is more realistic than Nausicaä's (or relatively so, considering that floating castle), Castle in the Sky also has a strong flavor of fantasy. The movie has an overwhelming feeling of melancholy and lost knowledge, and it's got a long-lost royal family member who is the only one who can unlock the mystical powers of a gemstone. Thankfully, the story doesn't reduce down to simple nostalgia for lost times, despite the quaint coal-mining town. When Pazu and Sheeta are talking about the race to find Laputa, Pazu says, "Airships are improving. Someone will find it."
Miyazaki's fascination with airplanes and strange flying devices is evident throughout this movie. I think this tendency skews his movies away from straightforward fantasy towards the realistic—gotta have those airships! That's not to say that his flying devices are always capable of flight in the real world. In his next two movies, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, the flying scenes happen because of a magical forest creature and a witch on a broom, respectively. In Castle in the Sky, there are military airships, the flying headquarters of the pirates and their wing-flapping scout planes, and the floating castle itself. The most dramatic flying scenes happen on the way to Laputa, which has surrounded itself with a wall of storm and cloud.
I should point out that "Castle in the Sky" is the Disneyfied title. The original title is "Laputa: Castle in the Sky," by way of Swift's flying city of Laputa—Gulliver's Travels is mentioned explicitly in the movie. Laputa of course means something notably rude in Spanish (which Swift knew but Miyazaki did not), and so Disney purged the title of its unpleasantness. I'm not surprised, but it strikes me as strange since nothing else about the movie has been changed. Anyone who might be offended by the naughty language now has no warning that they are about to watch a movie in which everyone will be constantly talking about the diseased whore in the sky. Thanks, Disney!
In a future column, I'll be talking about the next three Miyazaki movies, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Porco Rosso. And this summer Miyazaki's latest movie, Howl's Moving Castle, will be released in North America. After that point, I'm going to take a look at the three most recent movies on his CV, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle—could it be three masterpieces in a row? In the meantime, check out the lovely piece on Spirited Away by Amy Harlib right here on Strange Horizons.