Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli Isao Takahata

The tangled and vibrant exuberance of Miyazaki’s world are clear, waves of a surreal ocean washing over the audience. But water in moments of stillness, provides a reflective surface too; a mirror we can stare into, wash ourselves with.  Isao Takahata’s Ghibli filmography is not drenched in dynamic surrealism which excites the imagination in fantasy. He uses the richness of the animated medium to create a lower-key of intimacy with the fabrics of the stories he adapts. Here in Takahata’s pools, the characters are enveloped by the gentle unfolding atmospheres, tones and moods which echo throughout impressionistic environments. Clouds of memory drenched in the fog of forgetfulness, flights of imaginative fancy, daydreams lurking in melancholy wishes; the reflectiveness of Takahata’s surfaces pull us into the nature of our imaginations when they relate to the reality of the world around us.

The characters which rise through these surfaces, swimming along its canals are ones which are pure of heart, at least in their intentions. The concerns they face might be deeply personal, such as Taeko’s gentle manoeuvring through her own half-faded memories as she walks a path of re-discovery as to who she is and who she wants to be in Only Yesterday. In an even more impressionistic and incomplete space, we see the family of My Neighbors the Yamadas navigate the intimate familial push-and-pull of existence, as the relationships of the family are knotted together through the experience of the world around them in a series of haiku-style vignettes. Their personal events become spaces for interaction, for reflection and growth of the oldest and deepest kind, as kids, parents and grandparents all move through space and time.

Or perhaps the characters face a more deeply embedded external issue. Seita’s turmoil and exile from the world around him in Grave of the Fireflies, which leads to some of the starkest and most painful consequences depicted in animation, is rooted in the uncaring and unmoved society which surrounds him. A supposedly civilised and right world which allows him and his sister to slip through its’ cracks. In Pom Poko, a whole range of external issues submerge the tanuki as their forest home comes under the threat of redevelopment. With only an ominous and impending danger the group is awash with inter-personal conflicts; debates and motivations which pulls their minds and their bodies in different directions, all the while the pressures of the human world closing off their space, their time. Choosing to stay distant from any one perspective, the events and characters of Pom Poko are viewed through a prism of viewpoints, allowing the audience to understand the events as they affect the world on a macro-level, beyond the micro-personal events of his other works.

Isao Takahata was Studio Ghibli’s wildcard, a man developing new structures of expression and animation which infuriated even his own Studio. Growing bored of cel-animation (the image Ghibli has managed to help transport across the world), his development of an impressionistic incompleteness in the animation of his work threw the Ghibli production process into chaos. So much so, that after work finished on My Neighbors the Yamadas, Miyazaki upon returning to the upheaval declared that Takahata “would never again make a film at Ghibli”. His character and story structure has always deftly sidestepped more obvious concerns, continually refocusing on gentle and intimate moments of expression which culminate in resonating moments uninterested in forced plot or character development which pulse throughout modern filmmaking. For Takahata, to see the world was enough, and the artwork he made reflected a sense of patience and time that is hard to understand, but important to have been exposed to.

And in his long-gestating and long-awaited final film, The Tale of Princess Kaguya, all of these concerns and experiences culminate in a film which turns even the ideas of Japanese animation on its’ head, ideas he helped to formalise with the very studio he founded. The lines of the film are wild and rough, the impressions of the world fade into beautiful watercolour dreamscapes which stream through your mind. It swirls with a sketched immediacy, unconcerned with the precise perfection of traditional cel-drawn animation. Kaguya’s compassionate expressions portray a personal conflict rooted in an anguish, a longing for a past never to be recovered. While her very existence in the world of medieval Japan is a catalyst for a plethora of societal issues: her nature as a princess, as a growing woman, as a lost child, a mythical being. Her human condition is unravelled to us as a tale of beautiful magnificence, and heart-breaking tragedy. The same can be said about the works of Isao Takahata.

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I don’t mean to denigrate the other works of the Studio by addressing them here as a singular grouping, but rather just for the sake of structure and clarity. Here in the realms of Tomomi Mochizuki, Yoshifumi Kondō, Hiroyuki Morita, Gorō Miyazaki & Hiromasa Yonebayashi, we see the worlds of Ghibli expand beyond the auteur visions of the studio’s founders. And here it is important to talk about the cost of that expansion. Animation demands an almost overwhelming surrender to its’ creation, to continually conjure a world which does not exist beyond the frames it is drawn on. That level of demand, of engaged precision must take a tremendous toll on any animator, any director. To direct an actor is a taxing job in itself, but to constantly render that actor to life in every detail of their design even through a team, is a task which must seem relentlessly tough as these films can have be made of over a hundred thousand storyboards (to give examples, Gorō Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill contains over 70,000, while his father’s Ponyo contains over 170,000).

Animation is a brutally time and energy consuming process, and the effects on the creators themselves can be hard. The production of Ocean Waves, a television feature whose ethic was to design at a much  faster rate, still ran considerably over budget and over schedule taking a serious toll on those who designed it. Yoshifumi Kondō, who had spent considerable time working in Ghibli films as a key animator and character design staff, died from an aneurysm at 47 brought on from overwork, as the toll taken on his health finishing production on his directorial debut Whisper of the Heart and his work on Princess Mononoke proved to be too much to bear.  In a different side to animation’s personal cost, Gorō’s fractured relationship with his father has been well documented, as both have spent their lives dealing with the consequences of an artistic industry and process which demands nothing short of total absorption. Besides the familial and intricate personal consequences of Gorō’s childhood and subsequent adult life, their own artistic shadows and ambitions have led to serious production issues during the making of his two features under Ghibli’s umbrella.

Even though this post is more concerned with the artistic expressions finalised in their feature forms, it is important to give respect and understand the consequences of the creation of these works. In animation it is even easier to hide the human cost of these productions, as the work is built into its’ own inseparable reality. The directors’ name shrouds hundreds of staff in the invisible shadows of the work; animators, colourists, technicians and design engineers. This is true of regular filmmaking also, but when there is no physical reality to connect to it can often be harder to see.

What can be said about these works is that the spirit of Ghibli burns as brightly through their veins, even as their visions shift from the autocratic eyes of the animators who created the production studio. Hayao Miyazaki wrote the scripts for both Whisper of the Heart and From Up On Poppy Hill, but both films have a uniqueness about them that goes beyond his work, as Kondō and Miyazaki Jr’s own auteurist visions develop throughout. Ocean Waves shirks off the shroud of the surreal that would later define the studio, a tale of simpler fragile hearts caught in a love triangle at school. Yonebayashi, now at work in his own Studio (Studio Ponoc), developed a duo of films concerned with the same intricate themes often expressed in the founders’ work; the innocence of childhood, the memories and transformation of environments, the fantastical dangers of a fantasy world. But they are also films which express those themes in subtly different ways, highlight subtly different and unique visions of those same ideas.

It is both a blessing and a curse that these films live in the shadow of Ghibli’s two mythical animators. Like Haru in The Cat Returns, there is a double-edged nature to even the gifts and good things in the world. These films will always be judged against the towering filmographies of the studio’s founders, because they have been the one’s to establish that identity, an identity which even they can’t agree on. Miyazaki semi-seriously dismisses Takahata’s work in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, calling it “foolish”. Takahata grew so bored with the Studio’s animating style that he set fire to previous working methods, throwing the studio into chaos through uconventional and painfully slow production processes. The directors working under the Ghibli umbrella have found their own way, perhaps with sometimes less assured footing, to carve their own paths through the gauntlet of the animating process, and they deserve to be commended for it.

What’s even more special is that every one of these films has heights of animation and vision which do more to mesmerise you than most modern filmmaking can achieve. Little gems of artistic perception which glisten in your mind’s eye. The Cat Returns has the moment where Haru and Muta are caught by a spiralling whirlwind of crows. Arietty’s grappling hook excursions through the kitchen carry a beautiful range of emotions associated with adventure. Tales from Earthsea, long derided as unworthy of appreciation, has an existentially mature tone which falls into uncharted territory for most of the Studio’s work. When Marnie Was There has a darkly haunting sequence involving a silo that still haunts my memory. These films, even at their weaker moments still express visions of the world which truly excite the imagination, which use animation to inspire moments of artistic alchemy and to allow entrance to the gates of magic in a way that physical reality-based filmmaking hardly ever crosses through.

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In an interview in 2002 regarding Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki expounded on the concept of “ma”, the moments of visible emptiness before an event or happening, using the time before a clap as an example. This philosophy is embedded into his own works, moments of happening which are like connecting tissue between the skin of his films. They aren’t structural story devices or cogs in a fictional machine, they’re moments where the characters simply exist in the present, to be. This whole experience of working through the Studio’s artworks, has allowed these moments of ma to flourish in a world currently off-kilter and violently oversaturated with media noise. The first time in my life I saw My Neighbour Totoro, it astounded me how a film could be so interesting while having so little happening, and that feeling has only compounded with each new Ghibli perspective I’ve encountered.

The moments of ma have resounded and echoed throughout these months of research and writing in a way that has allowed me to see the world in a way which animators do, as a place filled with a timeless shifting nexus of dreams, played out on a canvas of the world. You can dive into any of these works, and find those invisible resonances. In Only Yesterday, there’s this captivating moment where the whole family gather round to gently prepare and enjoy a pineapple in a quiet silence. There’s nothing overtly said or expressed, but the whole scene has a quiet and moving joy in its’ frames, in its’ heart, that speaks volumes to what those at Ghibli want us to see.

They want us to see life, and they want to see those living it.

– Alex

Studio Ghibli (2/2)

Studio Ghibli (1/2)

 

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“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)