Castles in the Sky: Ten Films from Studio Ghibli

Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli , a retrospective celebrating the great animation studio of Japan, kicks off on Friday, June 22 at The Uptown.

The series features 15 films from Ghibli, the studio created by animation master Hayao Miyazaki, on 35mm film and plays for two weeks at The Uptown. I profiled the series for Seattle Weekly here. As a  companion piece, I offer thumbnails notes on ten standout films in the series. See SIFF Cinema for the complete schedule.

Castle in the Sky

Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984) – Hayao Miyazaki’s second feature and the feature debut of Studio Ghibli. Set on a faraway world of medieval castles and massive airships and splintered kingdoms, the story from Miyazaki follows an adventurous young princess who discovers the secret of the toxic jungle that spews poisonous pollen and breeds giant angry insects and the cure for her world, still recovering from a global war 1,000 years ago that almost destroyed the planet. Miyazaki’s fabulous images are full of a sense of wonder and his animation style is glorious and graceful. It’s a simple tale with a plucky heroine that became a hallmark of Miyazaki’s later films, and the themes (and even some of the story elements) would be revisited with greater complexity and resonance in Princess Mononoke. (Thursday, June 28)

Castle in the Sky (1986) is a grand adventure from Miyazaki’s private mythos, the odyssey of an orphaned girl with a magic crystal and a courageous young engineer’s apprentice is set in a world of magnificent flying machines and sky-born cities. Chased by a wacky pirate family and shifty, suspicious government agents, it all converges on the legendary floating castle of Laputa, an ancient civilization in the clouds which holds the key to great power. (Friday, June 22 and Monday, June 25)

My Neighbor Totoro

My Neighbor Totoro(1988) is Miyazaki’s first genuine masterpiece, a gentle film of magic and imagination about two young sisters befriended by forest spirits (among them a friendly, and perhaps imaginary, giant blue hedgehog who introduces them to the wonders of nature) one magical summer. While the fantasy and whimsy captures the playful imagination of children, a powerful undercurrent of emotional crisis grounds their experience: their infirm mother is recuperating from some unexplained illness in a local hospital. There is not a more tender and respectful exploration of the emotions and fears and resilience of children, nor a more delightful flight of childhood imagination. A masterpiece of modern animated fantasy made for children and adults alike. (Saturday, June 30 and Wednesday, July 4)

Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) takes place in a magical variation of our own world. Strong, plucky young heroine Kiki has turned thirteen, the age when witches leave the nest for a year of solo training. She’s ready to take on the world with her broomstick and her best friend Jiji, a cautious but supportive black cat (a tiny wisp of a feline) if she can only get her flying under control. Miyazaki’s gentle rhythm and meandering narrative capture the easy pulse of real life and Kiki and her flight obsessed pal Tombo are marvelous models of courage, drive and self confidence. Their adventures have as much to do with real world situations, such as fear of failure and blows to her self esteem, as with the lyrical flights among the birds and over the forests and city streets. A wholesome, life affirming picture that doesn’t speak down to kids or up to adults. (Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24)

Porco Rosso (1992), set in an imaginary post-World War I Europe, follows the adventure of a flying ace who has been turned into a pig. Hardly leading man material, he’s still an unusually charismatic lone wolf (boar?) who patrols the skies and battles a band of sky pirates. Miyazaki applies flamboyantly caricatured figures and a more slapstick approach to this lighthearted comic swashbuckler. (Monday, July 2)

Pom Poko (1994) – Directed by Isao Takahata, this environmental drama about a small community of magical shape-shifting raccoons trying to hold off a development encroaching on their habitat is right out of the traditional Studio Ghibli style, complete with lovingly detailed characters. The scenes of the raccoons attempting to replicating human form and behavior is often hilarious, but the undercurrent of the comedy is serious, a plea to save the vanishing wilderness of Japan. (Saturday, June 30)

Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke(1997) – There’s magic in every frame of Miyazaki’s fantasy, grounded in a rich and complex mythology painted in moral shades of gray, a yin and yang within both man and nature. His figurehead is Mononoke herself, a wolf child as original environmental guerrilla leading the charge against her blood kin, the humans, in an elemental world of animal tribes and spirits and Gods imagined as magnificent giants and enchanting imps. Filled with an awesome sense of wonder and magic and an apocalyptic scale, this is environmentalist epic as blood and thunder adventure and animation for adults in the very best sense of the term. (Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24)

My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) – This sly and clever comedy about an endearingly dysfunctional middle-class family, directed by Isao Takahata, is as different from Miyazaki’s lush, dense, epic storytelling as could be. Drawn in the spare, airy, sketchy comic-strip style of the newspaper gag strip that it’s based on, it plays like a series of blackout gags woven together with imaginative metaphors brought to visual life and punctuated with lovely haiku (read by a gently compassionate David Ogden Stiers in the English language version). Yet Takahata’s bobbing rhythm and deftly composed character journeys (as well as a delightful score) give it the feeling of a full realized, lighthearted symphony of human behavior in all its eccentricities. They squabble, goof off, avoid housework (“domestic goddess” mom has a decidedly creative approach to avoiding it altogether), and bait one another, yet show a kind of family camaraderie that you don’t often get in movies. A genuine treat that (references to food aside) translates beautifully to suburban America. (Tuesday, June 26)

My Neighbors the Yamadas

Spirited Away (2001) – Many consider this to be Miyazaki’s masterpiece. It’s a fantasy of a scared little girl with a timid soul who stands tall in a magical and scary world, and it is imaginative, compassionate, and empowering, and all the more amazing for refusal to brand characters in simple extremes of good and evil. It’s too easy to call this a Japanese Alice in Wonderland. Miyazaki’s imagination comes far closer to the woolly weirdness of L. Frank Baum than Lewis Carroll, let alone Walt Disney, and his young heroine Chihiro is full of the kind of spunk and personality that girls are rarely allowed to show as animated heroines. It became the biggest cinematic hit in the history of Japanese movies. (Friday, June 29, Tuesday, July 3 and Wednesday, July 4)

Ponyo (2008) – Part Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” part ecological fable and part children’s fantasy come to life, this gentle storybook film presents Miyazaki at his most simple and sweet, the storybook storytelling of Totoro rather than the complex eco-mythologies of Mononoke or Nausica. It has the hand-drawn simplicity of a storybook in motion and the innocence of fairy tale with a happy ending. (Thursday, July 5)