Studio Ghibli (1/2)

 

Studio Ghibli CoverStudio Ghibli

“What you show in a movie is one hundred per cent of the reality that you impose on the audience. They cannot imagine anything else, so you have to balance everything.”

This is a quote from Mathieu Kassovitz, being interviewed about his seminal 1995 film La Haine in the latest edition of Sight and Sound (May 2020). He was making a point about the characters in his film, but the quote stuck with me as I made my way through the entirety of Studio Ghibli’s feature filmography, alongside three significant documentary releases related to the studio (these are Isao Takahata’s The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals, Mami Sunada’s The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness and Akira Miki & Hidekazu Sato’s Isao Takahata and His Tale of Princess Kaguya).

Animation is an art form which demands a surrender to it, both in it’s making and it’s reception. There is a single scene in Pom Poko (1993, Dir. Isao Takahata) where the tanuki/raccoon-dogs are watching the television, and some tempura prawns are dropped into a frying pan. This is the only moment in their fictional works which is a scene captured from real life. Every other frame, every other character, every other motion and movement and atmosphere and tone, is a created work of animation, be it hand-drawn or computer generated. The realities of these works are ones which have sprung to life from drawings, designed by a small army of artists over several decades. They have animated life into these frames, into these scenes, into these stories. They have asked you to surrender to worlds which are vividly not real, and often delightfully surreal. The works are not constrained by the limitations of the physical world around them; every image is malleable and designed in a way few directors and designers could ever have control over.

So when you can have anything to show, what do you see?


 

Of course, infinite possibilities do not make a film. It is the very narrowing and precise decision making which leads to these sculpted pieces of artwork. To fashion a world, a place, a story out of thousands of blank pages and frames with no lead shed, no ink spilt on them. Studio Ghibli’s roots are firmly grown in Japanese soil, in an industry which uniquely supports the release of animated entertainment in which is allowed a much greater tonal range of emotional and intellectual maturity. It’s founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (alongside producer Toshio Suzuki) had already been long at work in Japan’s animation industry before the studio’s creation. Both had intertwined, maturing careers and both were becoming grounded in the artistic visions they were looking to express through their work.

With Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki), the groundwork and more importantly the financial capital existed to create the studio itself. The ideas then developed from the funding, alongside significant (and stressful) delays of Takahata’s documentary mentioned above, before Castle in the Sky (1985, Dir. Miyazaki) became the first official release of the company to save Miyazaki from going bankrupt. What would then follow would be a path which continues to stretch forward today as Miyazaki continues to work on a new film (scheduled for release in the coming years), twisting and winding through some of the most breath-taking animation ever put forth into cinema. Throughout the scenes in Sunada’s loving documentary, all three founders express their understanding in how the others shaped this future they drew up together, how this studio which came to define their artistic legacies has been caught in the feedback loops of each other’s impressions on one another, and their impossible imaginations.

Studio Ghibli Hayao Miyazaki

It is easy to mythologise the Ghibli story, especially as their creativity swirls with abandon through the threads of each and every work. At least to the outside world, what spins at its’ phantasmagorical core is the works of Hayao Miyazaki, perhaps the most recognisable face aside from Totoro associated with the company. Here lies a backbone of dazzling and fantastical animation, of invented worlds dripping with cel-animated detail. The characters are filled with a sense of dynamism in their environments, often enhanced by the intricate and elaborate vehicles they use to get around.

True, most of these vehicles are aerial in nature, and Miyazaki spends a great amount of time and care detailing the fluid motions of characters cutting, gliding and arcing through brilliant blue skies. From Nausicaa’s sleek glider to the WWII-esque planes of Porco Rosso to the dazzling flight of Haku the dragon in Spirited Away, the image and pursuit of flight courses through the skies of his works. But the animated motion spills all over the earth too; in the castle jankily grumbling along in Howl’s Moving Castle to the little put-put of Sosuke’s toy boat in Ponyo, there is a respect and richness in depicting the ways characters move from place to place. Filtering anything from action set-pieces to deep meditative reflections on the nature of flight à la The Wind Rises, the magic of movement and motion drives through the frames. Miyazaki has even said himself, what is animation without movement?

But there is also a stunning array of characters which move through his pieces, creating the movement and motion of fiction. Characters caught in deep, torn rifts in their societies like Nausicaa and Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, characters which strive to ride the currents of war into a better future for us all, even as they shoulder the psychological and physical sacrifices which come with it. We have characters wrapped in innocence unravelling into worlds which create external dangers and internal existential anxieties. Chihiro must navigate a bizarre and serpentine spirit-space in Spirited Away, rapidly coming to terms with a dream world with a dream logic.

In more muted ways, Miyazaki explores the lingering edges of adult life. In Porco Rosso, the melancholy ghosts of love, war and existence lurk beneath a shiny, more playful surface. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki’s witch powers vanish in a period of absence which sends her into a deep inward and existential crisis, as the abilities which helped defined her are no longer there to support her, to give her definition and meaning to her own self. Even the relatively innocent world of My Neighbor Totoro lurks the very real dangers of any child exploring unmonitored by the secure eyes of adults, it’s frames filled with an emotional resonance and care that few films ask us to entertain. And while his films are renowned for their rich and three-dimensional female protagonists, his curious grab bag of reluctant and sometimes haunted dreamers, boyish adventurers and staunch idealists fills his male characters with a depth and sensitivity which remains in some way uniquely his.

Regardless of gender, his worlds and their inhabitants navigate spaces rich in dynamic motion, waves of ideas crashing against the boundaries of the screen like Ponyo running on the cascading tsunami. The worlds of his films stretch and expand to accommodate multi-layered landscapes overflowing with layers of tone and atmosphere. In Princess Mononoke, Irontown is given a range of scenes to flesh out and enrich its inhabitants and their position in the world, with ethical complications only enhancing the moral tone of the film, not diminishing it. Or on a structural level, Howl’s castle becomes a shifting magic box throughout the film, the space and the body continually reinventing itself inside and out. It entertains the viewer through lively animation but it possesses an emotional growth as well, as the castle which has been Sophie’s home (and ours) evolves, rises and disintegrates with time. If anything, the spaces of Miyazaki’s films are navigated by adventurous and complicated explorers, brimming with the tensions of childlike innocence against the knife-like edges of an adult world cutting through the mist.

Miyazaki’s visions of the world have come to define the public perception of a business and artistic endeavour which was not always destined to succeed. The working ethos mentioned had always been “If this one succeeds, we’ll make another one. If it sinks, we’ll just close down.” The production of the some 144,000 frames and additional work of Princess Mononoke in 1997 was the most expensive anime feature production ever at that time, and it would have sent the studio into ruin if it had not succeeded, and was nearly the end of Miyazaki’s career after he announced his decision to retire after its’ release (he did not). This was some 12 years after the studio was founded, and here they still are on a knife edge of a nexus between artistic vision, cultural impact and financial concerns. Miyazaki’s work runs a gauntlet of visceral and illuminating tonal ranges. His unbridled joy, his deep rooted pessimism, his harmonious connection to nature and his troubled connection to humankind.

To try and truly sum up what makes his work so rich and vibrant is a fool’s errand. His work is a visual forest, filled with colossal trees of emotion and soaring aerial displays of character, motion, the lifeblood of animation. Perhaps you might get lost in this forest. Perhaps you might find what you were looking for.

– Alex

 

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

The Animatrix (2003)

Animatrix_High

­ In 1999, The Matrix (Dir. Andy and Larry Wachowski, now Lily and Lana Wachowski) was “the thing.” Before the heavy dominance of the superhero world, action and sci-fi reigned supreme at the mainstream box offices. And for a time, The Matrix series was a big part of the zeitgeist. Its impact spanned both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and the disciples of this film spirit are legion (something producer Joel Silver actually predicted during its production). So now, after fifteen years since its final instalment, I thought it might be nice to do a retrospective of the series.


Regardless of your opinions on The Matrix series, the ethos of The Animatrix is one I wished existed more in film. The Wachowski’s, riding high off of the cult of long trench coats they had established with the series first instalment, set their sights higher for the rest of their stories. In the creation of its’ second and third instalments, they managed to birth this surreal side project. To create an anthology of tales to do with the world of The Matrix, but not specifically relating to its main canon of Neo. Oh, and they would all be animated, each done in a different style by exceptional animation directors from the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Shinchirō Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Peter Cheung, Mahiro Maeda, Takeshi Koike and Andrew R. Jones all contributed to the project.

It’s interesting when looking back at it, to see the path the Wachowski’s carved out with this series. Because honestly projects like these in cinema, especially today are practically non-existent. The genuine example of vision here is so bold I’m kind of awed by it. Ideas in film today are so psychotically and irrationally guarded, it’s amazing to see the wildly different directors continually chewed up by the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a rainbow coloured sludge. For the Wachowski’s to offer up their baby so to speak, to the whims of other visionaries and not just through contractual obligations, but through active enthusiasm and engagement (they collaborated on each film and wrote four of the nine total scripts, one being a two-parter) is fiercely brilliant, even if it had been a colossal failure.

Fortunately, the films themselves are not colossal failures. What really gets me is the range shown, the range of ideas and the range of how much they engage with the world of The Matrix. While all are connected in some way, some are much looser than others. In particular Beyond (Koji Morimoto) about a girl looking for her cat in a house where the physics of reality (read: computer simulation of reality) stop working, is not interested in “waking up from the conspiracy”. In fact if you didn’t know it was officially part of The Matrix canon, it could very well exist without that connection, and that goes for a few of these short films. But they don’t just stand on their own; they fly.

To start, the animation styles on display here are a brilliant showcase to the world of animation. Everything from 3D CGI of western animations, to classic anime styles, to stylised pastiches of film genres, to experimental and wild animation that tears and drips out of the screen. Honestly, the project deserves to be seen just for that. It’s just wild that a project like this contains so much aesthetic variation, even if that was the intended emphasis. The animation style in a film like Matriculated (Peter Cheung) is just one I don’t have any reference point to compare to, beyond the extremes of The Holy Mountain (1973, Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky). What an insane but cool comparison point to have! Animation has always been able to transcend the limitations of reality, and this anthology is a testament to just how far animation has been able to do that.

And the films themselves take the material of The Matrix, something they’re all fans of, and pull the ideas and themes they’re interested in and mould them into their own films. Like comic book writers taking a long-standing character, and putting their own mark on them, the world of The Matrix becomes fertile soil for these films to grow from. While I appreciate some more than others, all of them contribute a unique spin on what makes them tick when they connect with The Matrix. Program (Yoshiaki Kawajiri) is a special example of this. One only connected through the concepts involved (i.e plugging into a simulated reality), it shows what clicked in Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s mind when he built his own personal relationship to The Matrix series and ideas.

Ultimately, The Animatrix is not essential viewing in regards to The Matrix series. Besides some limited promotional screenings, it never showed in cinemas and was released direct to video/DVD. While it provides context (some of it definitely important) to the main films, those main films still function without The Animatrix. But to skip by it is a mistake for every other reason not regarding to The Matrix. Short stories are underappreciated, and anthology tales like these have the opportunity to add texture to that world, but more importantly they are original, arresting at times and beautiful to look at. They are the work of some fine animation directors experimenting in a world under the supervision of its’ original creators, a working environment unheard of in cinema. This series of films is a beacon, and one you’d do well to pay attention to. Just make sure you’ve seen The Matrix first to really get the juice out of this one.

-Alex

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The Animatrix (2003)

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

my_entire_high_school_sinking_into_the_sea

Poor people don’t have time to make animations which look like Disney films. This isn’t a dig at any of the marvellous and varied selection of PIXAR and Disney animated motion pictures which have filled our lives since the first fully digitally animated feature Toy Story (1995, Dir. John Lasseter).  What it explains is just the fact that the work required to fully render an animated motion picture on the level of detail and quality of the highest quality animated films of today requires a small army of concept artists, graphic artists and digitally trained animators, alongside an entire team to keep them all running along. If time is money, then animation on that scale is notoriously and obscenely expensive.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea (2016, Dir. Dash Shaw) is removed from that world of animation. That does not mean it did not cost tremendous amounts of money to produce, or that the time put in by Dash Shaw and his team of cohorts is any less valuable than that of a different more well-funded studio. It merely is not a film that is interested in replicating that same aesthetic that is funded by the wealthiest of animation studios.

Good.


My mum, when she briefly flicked her eyes onto the screen I was watching the film on, asked me why I was watching “a kid’s film” so late at night. Now I usually want to move straight onto the film and its contents but a brief digression is needed here. The history of animation, bar some outliers, has been almost exclusively wrapped up with entertaining children. Many reasons for this I imagine, the one I like to think of is the long history of illustrations in children’s books. Kids love pictures. But the very fact is, animation is starting to grow beyond that. Perhaps it has always been beyond that, but I think in the mainstream consciousness the boundaries of who can and can’t watch “cartoons” is slowly disintegrating, or at the very least becoming way more flexible.

But if this film floats on a sea of animation history, let’s focus on the high school floating in it, the film itself. What does Dash Shaw want to talk about? A lot to be honest, in a film people have termed ‘mumblecore’. The term amuses me a lot, it’s basically just shorthand for films which have verbose and idiosyncratic dialogue at this point and is definitely much more useful for critics and potential audiences than it is for the makers of the films themselves. I think they just want to make films about people as real people as opposed to stock characters or idealised ones. My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is about that, a fictionalised version of Dash and friends as their high school fractures off a cliff and sinks into the sea. They climb from layer to layer of this semi-allegorical high school, encountering loose political allegories and dangerous sharks.

More than that, they come to terms with the weird lessons of growing up, of checking your ego and of accepting the roles you give yourself. All this while not dying as the high school sinks. Honestly it’s not hard on first glance to mistake this as a weird remake of Poseidon (2006, Dir. Wolfgang Petersen or if you prefer the original The Poseidon Adventure: 1972, Dir. Ronald Neame) but set in a millennial high school. It’s definitely floating in a couple of inspirations, a cynical person would say it’s a Wes Anderson rip off. What a dumb criticism to make.

This is not a film which has the deepest darkest depths, high school students haven’t lived long enough to inspire that kind of focus. They wear their personalities on their sleeves, their desperation or delusional arrogance is one most people know all too well already. They grow, they realise they should try not to be cruel to each other and they do it with a far more subdued and surreal energy than most other exposés of high school life. That’s down a low-key but still very enjoyable voice acting cast. Still, you may have seen stories like these before if you’ve watched a lot of films, but that’s okay. Just because you’ve seen something similar before doesn’t ruin your experience of something new, in fact it usually enhances it.

I guess what made me talk about this though, is the boldness of Shaw’s low-key animation style. It is bold, it is simply drawn but wildly experimental and self-aware. Most importantly, it’s vivid. In a world filled with insanely detail and scarily lifelike CGI, it feels so comforting to have an animation which looks like a picture, a drawing. Something which has no interest in photorealism, and just is far more interested in exploring the bounds of what it can do as a picture, not pretending it isn’t one. Some of the colour sequences in it are just fantastic to be a part of, to see with your own two (or one) eyes. It’s animated style is one which does somersaults, electric somersaults exploding with colour and which delight you, even if nothing in the film threw me into the depths of feeling and emotion I could never recover from.

But then this film isn’t supposed to, I don’t think. This is the theme I’ve only just discovered now, is that almost all of this writing has been about what My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is not. It’s not expensive, smooth-edged, army built animation. It’s not a Wes Anderson film. It’s a testament to my failure that I’ve barely spent any time talking about what the film actually is. And that’s one of the points of the film! It’s not that big a deal to just be what you are, and once you get past that you can just appreciate everything for what it is.

My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film. That’s what it is, and so much more.

-Alex

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My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (2016)

Ghost In The Shell (1995)

Ghost In The Shell

At one time, Ghost in the Shell (1995, Dir. Mamoru Oshii) inspired the zeitgeist. It’s part of the genesis of both The Matrix series done by the Wachowski’s, and garnered great praise from Hollywood darling James Cameron. In its homeland, it was both a massive cultural project (it was the most expensive anime movie made in Japan at the time) and a high point in a long lineage of anime movies. It helped give birth to the more modern version of cyberpunk, and has inspired countless acolytes of its aesthetic of sleek machines made into flesh in industrial landscapes, and of its thematic centre of transhumanism. This is a very fancy paragraph trying to explain that Ghost in the Shell is tremendously important in the history of cinema.

But why?


This is a strange, strange film. Before everything that came after it, The Matrix and such, it must have been even stranger.  It’s a film which on its surface should be filled with conventional, easy to digest cinema. It’s got naked robots and guns and conspiracies and far out sci-fi and everything which seems perfectly marketed towards the male 13-17 age bracket. It’s style is that kind of techno-futuristic vibe that doesn’t play to more obvious, eye-catching design. I’m talking sci-fi’s like Tron (1982, Dir. Steven Lisberger) filled with vibrant and bright colours. The style of Ghost in the Shell is layered and dense and sometimes stark in its contrast and sometimes muted. Honestly the range of this film I think is what’s captured my imagination and that’s what I’m gonna end up coming back around to.

The range of its style to go on then, is not just in its design, but also in its tools. The merging of 2D and 3D animation tools really does bring the best of both worlds into the fold, and the animation itself is just exquisite. It’s not exact to deconstruct the cinematography of the film since it was not shot in front of a camera, but all films are viewed from a position, and the positioning of this film is often beautiful to behold. More must be said of its soundtrack, quite simply unlike anything I’ve heard in a long time. It’s main score is so at odds with the dark synthesizer sounds we have grown accustomed to after decades of sci-fi scores. Kenji Kawai’s score genuinely feels otherworldly, so unlike any modern sounds you might encounter that it’s a better way to transport you to this alternate cyberpunk future than any visuals.

All of these elements would make Ghost in the Shell more than worth your time. But what sends this film into a near blinding ascent is what it wants to show you. It’s an explosion of themes, stories and issues from start to finish. It’s characters are part of a complex nebula of imagined limits imposed by their world, cyberware enhancements and identity crisis’ caused by total biomechanical replacement. Human beings are robots and robot beings are human, or something along that line. And all of this trapped in an elusive search for the Puppet Master, a character who is as abstract and nebulous as the future world shown to the audience. Major Motoko Kusanagi is a robot who looks human, who isn’t sure if she/he/it(?) has any human left in them, and that seems both very human and profoundly inhuman.

This film is tying me in knots. It’s a work which blurs the boundaries which separate our world now, that is intentionally difficult to wrap your head around. It is an experience equivalent to floating down a river, looking for a rock or something to cling onto to anchor yourself, but everything keeps slipping through your grasp. I guess this comes in part to me having less of a grounding in Japanese and Asian culture through which to view the film, I definitely feel less comfortable talking about this film than others in the past. But it’s intentionally opaque, it delves into imagined subjects which seem to have no clear answer, no clear right and wrong and no clear justice.

Art never has one interpretation, no matter how much people try to limit it. Everything gains new meaning with time whether we like it or not and it’s easy to get wrapped up in viewing a film from where “you are now”, whether that’s 2007,2017 or 2077 and beyond. But the ideas Ghost in the Shell puts up are both very old and very new, they’re packaged in a fully realised and never fully explained breathing world but the quest for meaning, for survival and for evolution is a tale as old as time.

Ghost in the Shell asks something of you, it asks you to engage. It’s not a film that can sweep over you and wash away, it clings to you, grasping at the edges of your mind. It’s deeply stylised cyber aesthetic, it’s complicated social and sexual politics, it’s existentialist rumination and meditative qualities. It’s haunting score at least. It creates a world which asks questions, questions people are still trying to determine. It’s a film which seeks to elevate you, which bypasses the more primal instincts haunting the action genre, and asks you for more than just doing.

It asks you to think.

-Alex

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Ghost In The Shell (1995)