The decision to forego talking about such films as Ponyo and Totoro was primarily aesthetic. As lovely as their themes were, their more modern settings fell outside the purview of this weblog. On further reflection, I've come to reconsider that decision. It doesn't serve any higher purpose to avoid the work of a filmmaker who uniquely has more in common with Jules Verne, Georges Méliès, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Camille Flammarion than multitudes who claim direct inspiration but aspire to little more than imitating the appearance of Harper Goff's Nautilus.
Ponyo (2008), the most recent feature film by Hayao Miyazaki, is set in the modern day, in a seaside town inspired by the Southern Japanese city of Tomonoura. Inspired by Hans Christen Anderson's The Little Mermaid, Ponyo tells the story of a little goldfish who falls in love with a human boy, becomes human herself, and the chaos that ensues when nature falls out of balance because of it. The great threat is that by crossing over, Ponyo the goldfish has set forces in motion that will overwhelm history and return Creation to the primordial days of the Devonian Era.
Deep in the ocean, surrounding the magical submarine of Ponyo's once- and regretfully-human father, prehistoric ocean life swims and pulsates. When the seas breach the land, giant bony fish like Dunkleosteus prowl flooded forests. There is a palpable, Vernian joy of science, the power of nature and the majesty of the marine element. Similar themes crop up in the series Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, when the titular character visits a Devonian reef deep beneath the waves of the 19th century Atlantic. Miyazaki was one of the original concept developers for Nadia, which at the time of his involvement was titled Around the World and Under the Sea.
Much of the drama of the piece comes from the internal conflict of Ponyo's father Fujimoto, a Nemoic figure voiced in the English dub by Liam Neeson. Consistently through his body of work, Miyazaki has wrung his hands over humanity's communion with nature. Though the need is asserted stringently, his films do not always end on an unambiguously happy note. Princess Mononoke, for instance, does not totally resolve the problem. In some cases, like the concluding deathmarch of the Nausicaa manga, a cynical Miyazaki contemplates how the best thing for nature might be the extinction of humanity. Much of the trouble for Ponyo is caused by her father's insistance that to respect nature requires one to forsake humanity. On the other hand, his relationship with Ponyo's mother - the ocean goddess called Gran Mamare - is filled with the same unease as humanity's relationship with nature. She seems wise yet flighty, never exactly capricious but almost indifferent to Fujimoto, and she is far more amenable to Ponyo's wishes than he is.
Ponyo is probably the closest film Miyazaki has made to My Neighbor Totoro since My Neighbor Totoro, which can be considered good or bad depending on one's point of view. For those of us outside Japan, whose doses of Studio Ghibli tend to be in fell swoops like this set release, it is a negligible distinction. Within Japan, Ponyo was met with both sighs of relief in the wake of Howl's Moving Castle and with ripping criticism in the wake of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Miyazaki isn't doing anything particularly challenging or original with Ponyo, yet what he is doing is fun, insightful and done well.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is my favorite of Hayao Miyazaki's films. It and my second favorite, Castle in the Sky, are probably the purest distillations of his themes. Where Castle dives into overt fantasy, Totoro is set in a very definite time and place: the rural Japanese rice paddies of 1958, when Miyazaki himself would have been 17. Like Castle, the theme of nature looms as large as the great, symbolic World Tree that overshadows soaring Laputa and the rickety cabin of sisters Satsuke and Mei.
The two girls were brought to the countryside by their father for the health of their ailing, hospitalized mother. Her illness is about the closest thing that Totoro has to a villain. The whole of the drama comes from the daughters' growth and experience, their proverbial "voyage of discovery", as they meet the titular character and cope with their mother's affliction. Any film that personifies the spiritual enchantment of nature falls into some fantasy, but Totoro is still more realistic than many straight dramas by wrestling with the sorts of problems that the viewer is far more likely to encounter.
Nature, as encountered in Totoro does have majesty but does not reach the fever pitch of Vernian discovery in Ponyo. It is closer to a revisionist Shinto ideal of nature, a particular Japanese reverence for nature personified in the god-spirits called kami. Unlike the threatening and sublime forests of Princess Mononoke with its frightening deer-god, this fraction of nature is semi-cultivated and rural farmland. It is perfectly incarnated in the friendly kami Totoro and his Cheshire-Mercurial messenger, the Catbus.
I have already dedicated a specific review to Castle in the Sky (1986). To continue with the comparisons drawn with My Neighbor Totoro, Castle is the more fantastical film. It directly and deliberately echoes Verne while quoting Jonathan Swift, making use of the latter's flying fortress Laputa while indulging in the aeronautic techno-adventures of the former. The World Tree reappears in Castle in the Sky, but is not grounded in time and landscape like it is in Totoro. It is held aloft in a flight of fancy, affirming of environmental values though perhaps slyly recognizing that the simple act of sitting indoors and watching a movie divorces us from the environment.
The fourth film to be selected for this round of DVDs is Kiki's Delivery Service (1989). For Western audiences, Kiki was ahead of the curve for stories about teenage witches and wizards learning to use their magical gifts. Where I find Kiki most interesting is the discussion it opens about the Japanese appropriation of Western culture. In a philosophically post-colonial milieu, the question of Western appropriation of non-Western and Indigenous cultures is frequently and rightly asked. When it is asked in the wrong way, however, it still reduces non-Western and Indigenous cultures to foils for the West. They become pawns in the great narrative of Western liberal guilt, their own cultures and self-determination downplayed in order to emphasize how bad Western society has been on the global stage.
Hayao Miyazaki is not a man to be petrified in Western ideals of what a Japanese person should be interested in. He is quite interested in European history and aesthetics for reasons of his own, and that comes out in his work. Indeed, his is an enviously multicultural and expansively global mind: Miyazaki is able to gaze insightfully into his own culture in such films as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke while admiring the most romantic of other people's cultures, such as with Porco Rosso and the European motifs of the Studio Ghibli Museum. Kiki's Delivery Service is another such film, telling the story of a Western-style witch-in-training who settles in the town of Koriko, based on various locations throughout Sweden, Ireland, France and Australia.
With the exception of Ponyo, all these films have been previously released onto DVD by Disney. The question rises as to whether these will be worthwhile investments for the person who has already brought Totoro and Laputa into their collections. As a neat trick, Disney introduced some admittedly lovely new packaging for the whole Ghibli line, which will appeal to the completist who wants to make sure their the whole collection coheres with the Ponyo DVD. What of the content?
The greatest weakness of the original Disney releases were the bonus features. At the risk of being overly critical, it was easy to get the impression that Disney artificially inflated the price point of the films by including a superfluous second disk. On that disk was naught but the entire movie played over again in storyboard form rather than full animation. As a bonus feature, this was questionable to say the least. While providing a certain insight into Miyazaki's creative process, it could just as easily have been gleaned from a thorough book. For die-hard fans of Studio Ghibli, there are a number of perfectly good and definitely preferable things that could have been included instead.
A large part of Studio Ghibli's output will never see North American release. That is the simple fact of the situation. They are not well-enough known to warrant releases on their own, barring the miracle of a "Studio Ghibli Short Films Collection" DVD akin to the one for Pixar. Yet these would make ideal bonus features. The documentary A Ghibli Artisan, Kazuo Oga Exhibition: The Man Who Painted Totoro's Forest - about Kazuo Oga, Ghibli's resident background painter and art director - would be perfect for My Neighbor Totoro. Then there is the short film collection that was released in Japan, and the Kazuo Oga-directed short The Night of Taneyamagahara, the congratulatory Thank You, Mr. Lasseter, and the slice of life Ocean Waves. What of placing Imaginary Flying Machines on the Castle in the Sky or Porco Rosso disks? Including Iblard Jikan as a bonus on Whisper of the Heart is simply intuitive. And while I personally might not buy a DVD of Kiki's Delivery Service for its own sake, including the Studio Ghibli Museum or Scenery of Ghibli documentaries would compell me.
Unfortunately, Disney has continued to simply bypass this wealth of ready-made material, in defiance of years of criticism over the original DVDs. The worst part is the the Region 2 Japanese DVDs distributed by Disney include English subtitles, so the work has already been done. Though not taking this grand step, they have put more work into the bonus features this time around. A fresh series of interviews with Hayao Miyazaki shed light into the creative mind behind the pictures (and I was amused by how much Miyazaki's own home resembles sections of the Studio Ghibli Museum). The storyboards and original theatrical trailers are included. There is also the "World of Ghibli" interactive featurette that is an interesting variation on the "sneak peek" or "coming attractions" part of an average DVD.
The "World of Ghibli" presents an interactive menu map representing the output of the studio as the population of an island. Characters from My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Kiki's Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Howl's Moving Castle, Castle in the Sky, Ponyo and (probably) Whisper of the Heart can be seen, working out their little animations. A cursor lets you choose between the four films of this current run, whereupon you are invited to view a series of introductions to the characters. The purpose is obviously to intrigue first-time viewers into the remainder of Studio Ghibli's films.
For the fan already made, this featurette holds out the possibility of seeing the remainder of the films rereleased in this new packaging format. That all depends on whether fans of Ghibli, new and old, rally behind the new releases. My hope is for the next run to feature Isao Takahata's films: Pom Poko, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and the heretofore unreleased Only Yesterday (understandably, Disney is avoiding his WWII tale Grave of the Fireflies, though to release it would demonstrate incredible faith in both the medium and the American audience). More likely, we would see the remaining four Miyazaki films, which is by no means a bad thing.
The World of Ghibli