The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s spiritual, silent fable is an early favorite for Best Movie of 2017.

The Red Turtle PosterIn just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable The Red Turtle runs the gamut of the life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our existence. It’s breathtaking.

The Dutch director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit brought his hand drawn work to Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese studio that spawned Hayao Miyazaki and his spiritual, life affirming films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. What de Wit provides in meditative, thoughtful and dreamy filmmaking on par with Ingmar Bergman, Studio Ghibli gives The Red Turtle a deep connection to nature, a hint of whimsy and curiosity. Continue reading “The Red Turtle”

Only Yesterday

From Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata’s 1991 film “Only Yesterday” finally gets an American release.


OnlyYesterdayPosterOut in the Japanese countryside, budding yellow flowers dot the fields, trees line the horizon and a stream cuts through the valley. From the top of a hill, you learn that over hundreds of years, everything you can see has been man-made. In “Only Yesterday,” Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli animated film from 1991, the farmer Toshio (Toshiro Yanagiba) explains to the visiting Taeko (Miki Amai) that on this farm, “Every bit has its history.” Each moment of Takahata’s film shows that a person’s experiences shape their life and identity. There’s history and beauty in even the most mundane and ordinary moments of life.

For her vacation from work in the city, 27-year-old Taeko decides to visit her family in the countryside to work on their farm. As she travels, she reflects back on her life as a child. The 10-year-old Taeko (Youko Honna) is spunky, sunny and just a little bashful and spoiled. She’s a typical little girl, so overwhelmed with joy as she visits a bath house that she faints, mystified by how to cut open a pineapple, and so smitten and petrified in her crush on the cute, 5th Grade pitcher of the baseball team.

“Only Yesterday” shares the look of all Studio Ghibli animated films, with soft pastel colors and rich, painterly, hand drawn detail within every frame. But unlike the fantastical tropes of Hayao Miyazaki’s many films within the studio, Takahata grounds “Only Yesterday” in reality. The film’s modest scale only make the many slices of life more beautiful.

Takahata made the film back in 1991 (since then he’s been nominated for an Oscar with “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” in 2013), but Disney originally blocked its American release due to a scene in which the naïve kids start piecing together what it means to have a period. Sure enough, “Only Yesterday” approaches many mature, adult themes through young eyes. Similarly, Takahata’s masterpiece “Grave of the Fireflies,” his previous film in 1988, deals with war, violence and death in a way that perhaps a child can understand.

“Only Yesterday” however finds tragedy in smaller moments. In one scene, Taeko gets a single line in a play, and though she’s discouraged from improvising new lines, she makes the most of it in her performance and gets offered a part in a college production. Her fantasy about fame blooms to life in preciously hilarious pinks, yellows and greens around her. It’s adorable, and it’s so intimate that it hurts all the more when her father quietly puts his foot down and dashes her dreams. In another, Taeko gets a D on a math test because she doesn’t understand dividing fractions. She draws a picture of an apple and cuts it into pieces, so she’s clearly practical, but her older sister thinks there must be something wrong with her, and it’s devastating to see Taeko within earshot of her sister’s ridiculing.


Of course the spirit of any Studio Ghibli movie lies in its animation. Every film that has ever come from this studio has a meticulous, loving care in each still frame. Takahata literally blurs the frame itself to give “Only Yesterday” a hint of magic. After a baseball game, Taeko quickly runs home to avoid the boy she has a crush on. Though he’s just as bashful, the boy chases after her, and there he is, standing in the distance, a small figure at the end of an alley. The bright orange sunset is just behind him, and everything else in the frame is white and washed of its color, with the edges of the foreground specifically erased to create a sense of depth within the 2D, animated frame. He mumbles out a question: “Do you like sunny, rainy, or cloudy days?” She stutters out her answer, “c-c-cloudy,” they both smile, and he runs off. Taeko then turns down the block and starts to seemingly climb up the frame and fly away. You’ll melt watching it.

“Only Yesterday” drips with warm, fuzzy sensations of nostalgia. The childhood story and characters are whimsical and light-hearted but are concerned with intimate, personal truths about life in a way that would be meaningful at any age.

4 stars

The Wind Rises

“The Wind Rises” is Hayao Miyazaki delivering at the top of his game a film pitched differently than any he’s ever made.


There are directors who are acclaimed, and ones who are considered the greatest of all time, and then there’s Hayao Miyazaki.

The man is exalted. Anyone who has seen one of his movies knows him as a household name and knows him not just as a great artist but a “Master” of animation.

News that “The Wind Rises” would be his last film was more news than the film itself. To see a filmmaker retire when his reach has never been greater is near unprecedented, and any film he put out would in its own way be more of a personal statement than anything that came before.

“The Wind Rises” echoes the magical tones of all of his greats, and yet it is pitched at an entirely different tone than the surreal fantasies that invited American kids like myself into a culture of anime and world cinema. It’s both fantastical and bittersweet, coming across as the most grounded movie Miyazaki has ever made.

Telling the life story of famed Japanese aeronautical engineer Jiro Hirokoshi, it first helps to understand it is not a kids’ movie, but that hasn’t stopped Miyazaki from providing the whole experience a colorful, joyous, airy charm. It’s not pure whimsy, but the film opens with a lovely, wordless flight sequence that sets the complex tone.

A young Jiro scurries up a rooftop that undulates and floats, gets into a small aircraft and soars over the town while waving at girls down below. But his dream is rattled when an airship carrying monstrous bombs and baring German insignia materializes in the clouds.

These are the sort of emotions we’re dealing with, the torn rift between creating vehicles that allow flight in wondrous displays of beauty and elation, but are more specifically designed to be machines of war. Hirokoshi was brought up square in the middle of this conflict, and in his creation of the Zero Fighter, Miyazaki tears us between the sleek, manufacturing brilliance of his creation and the knowledge that these very planes killed thousands of both American and Japanese lives in kamikaze attacks.

Miyazaki was likely moved to make this film not because of the simple pleasures of flight or the moral implications his story suggests, but in the parallels Hirokoshi’s tough work decisions reflect on his relationship with his wife. As Miyazaki depicts it, Hirokoshi and his wife Nahoko were madly in love, but she remained deathly ill and required constant care in a sanitarium.

Their conflicting impulses to stay healthy or stay together resonate as strongly as does his choices in his work, giving up speed and lightweight elegance in order to accommodate guns and bombing payload.

“The Wind Rises” is a movie about failure and choices that can be destructive, and yet it encourages us to allow these turbulent sensations to carry us with a quote opening the film, “The Wind is Rising! We must try to live!” It’s a message that fits in snugly with the dark, surreal lessons of adolescence and environmental communion that dominate his other films.

And while “The Wind Rises” is in many ways standard biopic fare, Miyazaki utilizes animation in a way few directors, animators or otherwise, could dream. The 2-D cel shading allows Miyazaki to play with depth perception within the frame, with people appearing larger than life beside background fliers in the skyline. He draws the eyes in conflicting directions, echoing the moods of the film, by superimposing Jiro’s colorful suits and tranquil shots of green pastures alongside weary, gray train passengers or a charred Tokyo devastated by an earthquake. I wouldn’t trade Studio Ghibli’s animation style for the world, but one wonders what possibilities Miyazaki could envision if given the luxury of new 3-D technology.

And one wonders what other stories we might never see from this aging master if this truly is his last film. Ranking “The Wind Rises” among Miyazaki’s best might be a stretch, but this movie shows a man at the top of his maturity and craft as a filmmaker.

4 stars

Rapid Response: Kiki's Delivery Service

For all the praise given to Hayao Miyazaki for his fantastical imagination, the man is also a master at portraying the beauty of the real world. He shows us the simple themes that teach our children to grow and the thrill of an adventure. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” is Miyazaki’s most modest production, free of most fantasy and anime trappings, and yet it is no less magical.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” was the follow-up to Miyazaki’s masterpiece “My Neighbor Totoro,” a simple but delightful film about a child who discovers a hidden realm of the forest and a magical creature with loveable qualities. What it shares with “Kiki’s,” as well as several of his other films, is that it is a kids movie free of any bad guys. It populates the world with characters who are only polite, caring, heartwarming, plucky and fun, and yet it creates a story with emotional poignancy and drama.

Its title heroine is a 13-year-old witch in training. Her responsibility at this age is to find a city free of other witches to call home for one year and make it on her own. It’s a simple story of a girl growing up and leaving home, with the only magical difference being that she can fly. It takes a lot of growth for Kiki to find the thing she does best and make a living out of it, and her problem is not finding business for her delivery service but sticking to it, putting up with the hardships of the job and learning to bounce back when she’s unable to fly the way she used to. Miyazaki finds a way to illustrate the excitement, struggle and tedium of Kiki’s job, and he does so without manic action or mean-spirited characters.

There’s a scene in the movie that sums up just how adorable this film is. Kiki goes to a little old grandmother’s house to make a delivery. It’s a pie that she wants delivered to her granddaughter’s birthday party, but it isn’t prepared, so Kiki is about to be sent on her way with her agreed upon pay when Kiki decides to stick around and help fix the granny’s oven so she can still make the delivery. She does all of this work with pluck, not magic, and it pays off in spades when she visits the granny again later. The harsh twist is that after frantically delivering the pie through the pouring rain, the recipient is ungrateful and announces to the party, “Grandma sent us one of her disgusting pies again.” It exposes the hardships of life without making a classical villain.

Miyazaki has a wonderful visual imagination, but there’s nothing fantastical to see in “Kiki’s.” Rather, the real world beauty and pastoral landscapes are the most impressive and truly emphasize Miyazaki’s gift for sharp cinematography. Take a look at the striking low angles during the opening shots that paint Kiki as someone deep and in thought, not a spoiled, excitable brat but someone with room for growth. Notice how he creates the illusion of motion within his films and generates suspense. When Tombo’s bike is careening down the highway, there are lines approaching the bottom of the frame that quickly vanish and reappear whereas another director wouldn’t be so diligent. Even when Kiki prepares to fly on her broom, she doesn’t just take off in a whoosh. We see her hair and dress billow in front of her intense focus. In fact “Kiki’s” flight sequences are not nearly as graceful as those seen in “Nausicaa,” “Castle in the Sky” or otherwise, but they have invigorating and joyous moments of action, especially in the film’s climactic rescue.

“Kiki’s Delivery Service” may not be the best place to start in exploring Miyazaki’s catalog, but it’s a cute, funny and exciting film that is one of his best.

Rapid Response: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

There are a lot of people who enjoy Studio Ghibli films, but a surprising number of them would probably say they don’t much care for Anime, if they can even claim to have really seen it, and I would likely be one of them.

Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” treads that line between Japanese Disney masterpiece and “Dragonball Z” territory more than any of his other films, mainly because it’s based on Miyazaki’s own seven volume manga of the same name. It’s Miyazaki’s second film and his first under the Studio Ghibli name, and although it has the hand-drawn visual splendor and establishes most of the dominant environmental themes that would carry through the rest of his films, it’s an action heavy movie most closely comparable to “Princess Mononoke” or “Howl’s Moving Castle,” lacking the sense of humor and whimsy that made me and so many others love him.

The story is a bit of an apocalyptic mess. For a thousand years since modern day, the human race has been threatened by toxins from the Sea of Decay, an ever growing ecology of monstrous bugs and poisonous pollens that threatens to engulf the whole planet. Nausicaa is the princess of a peaceful safe haven powered by windmills, and her gifts with animals teach of patience and resolve but also a love for nature. She moves about magically on a rocket glider, clinging to it in a pommel horse pose and emerging in and out of mountains and seas of clouds. She realizes that nature itself is not toxic, humans are, and the obvious metaphor that pops up is that when you attack one insect, a swarm of others become enraged and nature destroys you.

These naturalistic ideas are years ahead of their time for an ’80s film, as are of course the visuals. Some of the early images in one destroyed village or all those in the depths of the planet are so foreign from anything on Earth that to have come from one man’s pen and paper is astounding. Miyazaki makes images of towering scope and depth that would be virtually impossible in a live-action film, like the ravenous ohmus with golden feelers, glowing red eyeballs and enormous layers that make it look like a steampunk beetle.

Nausicaa herself is a wonderful heroine. She’s the one youthful, likeable and multi-dimensional figure in the movie, whereas most of the other humans are destructive forces driven to violence by ignorance. They’re not completely villainous in the way you see with most kids movies, but they’re part of an elaborate war of cataclysmic explosions and firefights. The film can get tiring, and you long for “Nausicaa’s” quieter moments that, although they would be beyond the kids, offer some adult magic.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Can a child understand war? Can any of us, really, understand war?

A child cannot grasp why people must die or why violence must destroy everything they know, but they do know emotion, perhaps more purely than we ourselves can express it.

Despite being a cartoon, “Grave of the Fireflies” is not a children’s film. But it envelops us with pain, sadness and loss on a simple level such that perhaps a child could understand and embrace this Japanese film’s otherwise tough, gruesome images.

Isao Takahata’s film is an early masterpiece from Studio Ghibli, which also spawned Hayao Miyazaki and this year’s “The Secret World of Arrietty.” The animated style is a bit rough around the edges compared to its more contemporary siblings, but it shares the natural world’s stark and colorful beauty that wash over our eyes like visual poetry.

The look and feel of this film is bleak and war-torn, but Takahata uses animation as a way of instilling a sense of magic serenity. An early scene shows a radiant red bloom of fireflies rising from a grassy field. The moment is hardly lifelike, but it is stunning.

It tells the story of a teenage boy, Seita, and his toddler sister Setsuko in Japan during World War II. Their father is a naval officer and their mother has just been killed in a bombing raid. Seeing the charred remains of Seita’s mother is no pleasant site for the queasy, least of all for children. The animation however makes watching it grippingly possible.

The brother and sister try to stay with their aunt, but she’s cruel and stingy in a time when everyone is rationing for the war. She eggs Seita on to join the army or battle the unbeatable napalm fires, but he can neither bring himself to die, nor to abandon Setsuko.

As they set out to live on their own free of their parents, “Grave of the Fireflies” becomes one of the most powerfully saddening films you’ll ever see about independence, hardship and loss.

By centering on these two children, the story becomes instantly more relatable and heart wrenching. Takahata builds a lovely bond between brother and sister through enchanting musical montages. Whether it’s a scene of the pair sharing a laugh on a beach, doing chores at home or scurrying during an air raid, everything they share is handled artfully as though it were one of their most tender moments.

Can any war film ever made boast so many moments of beauty and levity peppering the film’s otherwise desolate landscapes? Live action filmmakers can learn from how elegiac “Grave of the Fireflies” can be. This is such a sad movie, and yet it’s all so delicate and simple.

Perhaps it’s because animation grants the film a level of emotional range almost not capable with human actors. Whether or not these anime figures with big eyes and even a lack of nipples look lifelike, the faces of Seita and Setsuko have such an engrossing level of expression. Their tears are anything but artificial.

One of “Grave of the Fireflies’” most devastating segments is a pair of quick shots as Setsuko aims to bury her collection of fireflies in the same way her mother was likely buried. A morbid image of a mass grave in the city flashes through Seita’s head, and we’re left with a grim sense of mortality after war.

This is a child who has drawn this parallel. “Grave of the Fireflies” is great not because it is painful and beautiful, but because it is universal.

The Secret World of Arrietty

The Studio Ghibli film “The Secret World of Arrietty” isn’t as strong as Hayao Miyazaki’s movies, but it’s colorful and inventive all the same.

A lot of American children’s films are all about friendship and being yourself. The movies hold your hand and soothe your kids with familiar voices and hypnotizing madcap action.

Only Japan’s Studio Ghibli tosses kids into the dangerous world and exposes them to a lonely, often painful existence before showing them the magic within. “The Secret World of Arrietty” is a touching, but tough children’s film about survival, self-sufficiency and looking the fear of the world right in the face.

After beloved masterpieces like “Grave of the Fireflies” and at least a dozen great ones over the last few years by Hayao Miyazaki, Disney has swept up the distribution of the studio’s output and redubbed their films with American actors so that even obscure animes like “The Secret World of Arrietty” can be seen widely. Continue reading “The Secret World of Arrietty”

Rapid Response: My Neighbor Totoro

After doing an article on animation in the art world and popular culture for my student publication the IDS WEEKEND, I gained a real appreciation for how impossibly difficult animation is. Hand drawn cel animation demands a level of mastery amongst its animators, and it becomes such a shame when the film put in front of it is so ordinary and drab. “My Neighbor Totoro” is by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, and many consider this film to be his masterpiece.

Thousands have seen this film from 1988 following Disney’s re-release of the film in America with English dubbed voices done by Dakota and Elle Fanning, and they’ve responded so highly because it is a charming family film where everything is beautiful, happy and perfectly imperfect, no one is evil and everything is rich with color, imagination and joy.

Watching it, I found myself with a grin from cheek to cheek throughout its 86 minute run, and while it is rich with a carefree comedy, it’s also wonderfully bright and detailed in its animation of the surrounding world.

For those who have seen a Miyazaki film (and those that have often revere him with cult status) know his admiration for the fantastical and the appreciation for the environmental. “My Neighbor Totoro” does have supernatural elements, but it does not immerse you in them immediately the way “Spirited Away,” his other masterpiece, does, and nor does it hammer home with the green message the way it does in “Princess Mononoke,” also a brilliant film.

It makes “My Neighbor Totoro” the perfect film to show when introducing them to anime, to Miyazaki and possibly even to film itself.