My Neighbor Totoro (Studio Ghibli, 1988, dist. Fox Video, 1993)
Kiki's Delivery Service (Studio Ghibli, 1989, dist. Buena Vista, 1998)
Princess Mononoke (Studio Ghibli, 1997, Miramax, 1999)  

 

Many Americans perceive Japanese animated films, or anime, as either graphically violent, sexually explicit material aimed at teenage boys, or as loud garish cartoons designed to sell collectibles to small children (think Pokemon or Digimon). In Japan, however, where animated films often account for at least 1/4 of annual box office proceeds, anime is appreciated as both entertainment and an art form. Perhaps the best known of the anime filmmakers is Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki, the force behind Studio Ghibli, is an artist of the old school. Only recently has he begun to use computer animation in his films, preferring instead to draw and tint each frame by hand. And rather than a stable of writers scribbling out drek for a similar stable of cartoonists and techies to animate, Hayao Miyazaki conceives the stories, and remains involved day to day in the writing, scoring, drawing, and dubbing, until the final print is ready for viewing. Along with fellow Studio Ghibli animator Isao Takahata (The Grave of the Fireflies), Miyazaki is probably the finest filmmaker in anime history.

Fortunately for American audiences, Disney and Studio Ghibli reached an agreement in 1996 to distribute Studio Ghibli works in the larger world market. Equally fortunate for the wider audience was the caveat to the deal, which states that Disney may only distribute the films, and may not change so much as a single cel of animation. Of course Disney has contributed to the English dubs of the films, providing actors from the Disney empire to voice the Ghibli characters. Viewers will recognize the voices of such notables as Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thornton, Minnie Driver, and Jeaneane Garafalo in the English language versions. But Miyazaki's stories and animation remain untouched by the Disney hand.

Possibly the most enchanting of the Studio Ghibli films is My Neighbor Totoro, commonly referred to as simply Totoro. This is the story of two young sisters, Satsuki and Mei. The girls are moving with their father Tatsuo to an old house in the country in order to be near the hospital where their mother is being treated for an unnamed illness. This may be the first shock to the American viewer; a film about two girls, rather than the conventional one boy / one girl combination so common in American children's movies. Similarly, the father is a primary caregiver, and doing a good job, too!

When the family arrives at their new house, the girls discover thousands of tiny fuzzy black creatures scurrying about the walls and attic. Their father reassures them, telling the girls that the creatures are "probably just dust bunnies". Later, the old nanny hired to help out around the house tells the girls that the creatures are "soot sprites", which live in old houses.

Though the "soot sprites" leave forthwith, annoyed by the laughter of happy children, the girls are soon to meet their neighbors from the nearby forest, the totoros. A totoro is a forest spirit, though these spirits are not actual Japanese legends. Rather, Miyazaki crafted the totoros from a combination of several mythical creatures.

While playing alone when Satsuki is at school, Mei discovers a trail of acorns left by a small round creature resembling a cross between an owl and a bunny. She follows the tiny totoro back to his home in the woods, and meets O Totoro (the Big Totoro). She proceeds to fall asleep on O Totoro's tummy. Later, Satsuki meets O Totoro while waiting with Mei for their father's bus. Totoro is also waiting for a bus, but what a bus! Totoro travels in the Cat Bus, a huge furry vehicle resembling the Cheshire Cat.

The girls have several encounters with O Totoro throughout the film. Each time the girls encounter him, he acts as both friend and guardian. He is a gentle and calming presence. While the totoros are nature spirits, both unpredictable and obviously powerful, they radiate kindness.

The viewer will notice several clear differences between this film and standard American fare. When the girls tell their father of the totoros, he is calmly accepting of their story. He does not pooh-pooh them. He does not brush it off as overactive imagination. In short, his is the reaction we all hoped for in a parent when we were still children full of wonder. Neither the father nor the other adults are portrayed as adversaries to the children, but as caring and nurturing figures.

Much of the charm of Totoro is directly attributable to a single factor, and yet this one point is so skillfully handled that it may come as a literal shock to the viewer. As the movie draws to a close, it will occur to the viewer that this film has... no villain! There is no evil in this film. True, Mother is sick, but this is treated as a fact of life. While the girls worry about losing their mother, they behave as any normal child would, playing and laughing and generally going about their lives. The sickness is not treated with a sense of impending doom. There is no villain to battle and, even better, there is no deep moral to the story.

Totoro is simply a series of events in the lives of two children. It is a glimpse into that magical world in which children still live -- one many of us may have lost the ability to see. Even the incredibly detailed and magnificent artwork is done in soft water colors, showing the world through the softer eyes of children. Yet Miyazaki is able to speak to us of childhood without stooping to condescension. He is able to make a film that is sweet, without being insipid. Totoro is a truly magical and heart-warming film.

Almost as delightful as Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service is less geared toward the magic of nature and more toward the magic of... well... witches. Kiki lives in a world much like our own, with one slight difference. Witches really exist, and though they're rare, everyone knows about them. A town is privileged to have a resident witch, and people visit witches to have fortunes told, purchase potions, and buy charms.

The film opens on the night that Kiki leaves home to begin the year of independent living upon which every witch is required to embark when they reach the age of 13. Kiki (voiced by Kirsten Dunst) is confident that she will find a beautiful seaside town in which to live and that she will soon be a full-fledged witch. With her black cat familiar, JiJi, she flies away, though her concerned mother insists that Kiki take the trusty old family broom instead of the broom Kiki has crafted herself. After a rainy night spent in a freight train, she does indeed find a beautiful town by the ocean. Almost immediately, though, things begin to go wrong for Kiki, beginning with an unpleasant encounter with a traffic cop who intends to cite her for reckless flying.

The townspeople are neither cruel nor un-welcoming, simply distant, as anyone might be to a stranger in town, but Kiki is discouraged. When she offers to do a good deed for the local baker, the woman befriends her and offers her a place to stay. As Kiki's magical talents are somewhat limited to flying, they hit upon the idea of Kiki using her broom to make deliveries, and Kiki goes into business with her delivery service.

The rest of the film chronicles Kiki's deliveries and the people she meets along the way. The characters are not deep, though Kiki and JiJi are both loaded with charm. However, each character has just enough personality to make him or her a distinctive presence in the film. Jeaneane Garafalo is particularly enjoyable as the artist Ursula, though she does end up doing the only moralizing in the film. Still, she does it without coming off as overly irritating.

There are also some great action scenes. If you ever get the chance to fly a broom, avoid doing so in a storm! The artwork, as in any Studio Ghibli release, is fantastic. The picturesque town is extremely realistic, resembling any number of quaint village scenes that the viewer may have seen in travel books or on PBS.

I'm also particularly fond of the music in Kiki's Delivery Service, which is to say, I don't really notice it. When so many of today's animated films are filled with singing bugs, dancing animals, trite lyrics, and ghastly bubblegum pop melodies, it's a huge relief to simply enjoy a film with suitable and subdued background music. In fact, it's positively delightful to see JiJi NOT dance, cavort, or otherwise overwhelm the film with over-the-top sidekick antics. JiJi is voiced in the English dub by the late Phil Hartman, and his portrayal of the cat is understated, slightly sarcastic, and extremely witty.

Again, as in Totoro, this film is refreshingly devoid of villains. A slightly spoiled teenager, a cranky traffic cop...this is as far as villainy goes. The obstacles in Kiki's life are no more than the ordinary situations that each of us may face in our own lives. No evil plot is necessary. Kiki's biggest problem to conquer is her own discouragement, and which of us can say that we've never faced that demon? Her good heart and helpful nature help her through life, and if one requires a moral in a film, this is as good as any.

Princess Mononoke, on the other hand, is rife with villains... or is it? This is the most recent release in the United States by the Disney/Studio Ghibli partnership. Though Princess Mononoke grossed more at the box office in Japan than did Titanic, response in the U.S. was deeply disappointing. The movie was under-promoted, and what little publicity there was failed to prepare audiences for the dissimilarities between Mononoke and previous Miyazaki offerings.

Princess Mononoke is set in early Japan, near the beginning of the Iron Age. Prince Ashitaka (Billy Crudup) is injured defending his village from a monstrous demon, a great boar covered in writhing snakes. He kills the boar, but in touching the snakes he is wounded and marked with horrible scars. The wise woman of his village announces that an iron rifle ball found inside the dead boar caused it to become a demon of rage and hate, and that Ashitaka will succumb to the same fate, eventually dying from the infection of the demon. He must leave his village forever and make his way into the world to try to discover what happened to the boar.

On his travels, Ashitaka meets Jigo, a traveling monk voiced by Billy Bob Thornton. Honestly, though the dubbing in Mononoke is brilliant, Thornton is not the actor I would have chosen to portray this character. His delivery is by turns stilted and rushed, and frequently wooden. I found him quite annoying.

Eventually, Ashitaka comes upon Irontown, a mining and smelting operation/fortress controlled by Lady Eboshi. Lady Eboshi has been razing the countryside with her mining and has turned the local forest into wasteland, angering the forest gods. Lady Eboshi was responsible for the iron bullet that turned the giant boar, who was a forest god, into a demon.

Moro, the giant wolf god, is also angry that Lady Eboshi is destroying nature. Along with her adopted human daughter, San, she is attempting to destroy Eboshi's operation. San (Claire Danes), who is called "Princess Mononoke" ( a mononoke is the spirit of a beast ), has been raiding Irontown in an attempt to kill Lady Eboshi and stop the mining. Ashitaka intervenes and attempts to convince all that nature and human progress can co-exist.

Added to this mix are: a local warlord who wants to take over Irontown, the Forest Spirit who controls nature and can both heal and kill, and Jigo, who is actually an agent of the Emperor, trying to use Lady Eboshi to kill the Forest Spirit in order to take the Spirit's head back to the Emperor for his own uses. Through it all, Ashitaka continues to attempt to make peace among the factions, but he is constantly forced to defend himself. Whenever he becomes angry, the rage and hate of the demon's curse become worse, as do his scars. The rage and hate also give him superhuman strength in battle.

It's easy to immediately take the side of nature over the evil destructive humans, but Miyazaki doesn't make things that simple. Lady Eboshi, for example, rescues lepers and gives them a home in Irontown. She has purchased the contracts of many women from the city brothels, giving them jobs, teaching them skills, and giving them a new life of dignity. The nature gods and animals are filled with rage and hatred and see only one solution: to kill. San, too, is blinded by hatred so, though her intentions to protect nature are good, she is stubborn and cruel. Even the Forest Spirit is a gentle healer by day, a cruel god of death by night. Hayao Miyazaki colors his films with many shades, but he avoids the trap of black vs. white. There is a moral to this tale, but it's up to the viewer to sort it out and grasp it in all of its complexities.

This is by far the most violent of the Studio Ghibli films that I've encountered. Parents expecting another Totoro or Kiki may be horrified by the many scenes of violence, gore, and death. Yet, for this story, the violence is appropriate. An old way of life is dying, and a new one is coming into being; what is birth without blood? Still, as some American parents may prefer to protect their children from these realities, Princess Mononoke may not be the best choice for younger kids.

The artwork in Mononoke is extremely rich, vivid, and realistic. Though some computer animation was used, the hand of the master is still apparent in each frame. Neil Gaiman adapted the script, with spectacular results. The music, for the most part, is amazing and perfectly appropriate for each scene. Again, too, the dubbing is so well done that the viewer might think the characters were drawn with the intention of making it an English language film.

Fans of Studio Ghibli will be pleased to note the coming release of more Ghibli material, including a just announced production of Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle. Even those who do not generally watch anime should give the work of Studio Ghibli a try. These are all beautiful films made to engage the mind, heart, and spirit of the viewer.

[Maria Nutick]

More information on Studio Ghibli can be found through this unofficial English-language site.