Although it tells a mildly fantastical tale of ghosts and a magical mansion, When Marnie Was There is best at capturing authentic childhood experience. Even the sound is right. Maybe it stands out because we’re watching an animated movie, but the ambient noise is uncannily good. When the heroine arrives at her new home for the summer, every creaky floorboard and tinkling wind-chime gives a feeling of “Yes, that’s exactly how that sounds.” Those things are felt more keenly when experienced in a new place, which is the situation for Anna. She’s been sent to the seaside by her frustrated adoptive mother, who suspects a change of scenery would benefit the shy girl. Anna stays with a kindly older couple, but her imagination is captured by the moody house across a tidal flat, where ethereal blonde Marnie offers friendship. (SIFF will screen both the original Japanese-language version, with subtitles, and the dubbed version, with Hailee Steinfeld as Anna and Kieran Shipka as Marnie.)
The Wind Rises (Disney, Blu-ray, VOD) – Hayao Miyazaki is a national treasure in Japan, the director of beloved animated features and a filmmaker dedicated to preserving the art of hand-drawn animation. The Wind Rises, which was released in 2013 and earned an Oscar nomination as Best Animated Feature, was a passion project for the director and a fitting swan song. The grand old man of Japanese animation has retired and this film, not a fantasy or mythical adventure but a delicate biographical drama about an idealistic engineer devoted to making “beautiful airplanes” for a country he knows will use them as instruments of war, is his final feature. Jiro comes of age in 1920s Japan and through him we experience the 1923 earthquake, the great Tokyo fire, and the crippling depression, as well as the growing militarism that takes hold of the country and the culture; at one point, the pacifist Jiro comes close to becoming a victim of Japan’s version of the communist witch-hunt.
The film was both celebrated and criticized in Japan, where some accused the film of whitewashing the militarism that sent the country into occupying Manchuria and then into World War II. Perhaps they felt that Miyazaki wasn’t more strident in his condemnation of that culture but he does surely confront and criticize it, albeit with a tone of regret and resignation. Jiro, who works in the aviation division of Mitsubishi, is an artist who dreams of flight (his eyesight prevents him from becoming a pilot) and channels his love into creating the next generation of airplanes, but is trapped in a military culture that demands he design a fighter plane. Somehow he never loses his idealism and his humanism.
Beloved animator Hayao Miyazaki has announced this as his final feature, which means The Wind Rises ought to be arriving on a parade float of acclaim, buoyed by pastel clouds and pulled by a collection of amazing imaginary creatures. And yes, the movie’s snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature (Miyazaki won for 2001’s Spirited Away) and good reviews. But the valedictory lap has been slowed a bit by puzzled rumblings about the film’s subject, which—while loose enough to allow for fantastical sequences—is rooted in historical reality. On the one hand, a biographical study of engineer and airplane designer Jiro Horikoshi sounds like a great match for Miyazaki’s wistful style: It allows for beautiful flying sequences and perhaps some self-portraiture in its study of a detail-minded dreamer who assembles his creations from a combination of math-based design and pure imagination.
The problem? Horikoshi’s masterpiece was the Zero, Japan’s lethally efficient World War II fighter plane.
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.
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)
The Secret World of Arrietty (Disney), the latest animated film from Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, adapts Mary Norton’s classic children’s book “The Borrowers” in the old school art of hand-drawn animation. Hiromasa Yonebayashi is the director but the sensibility is very much Miyazaki, who produced, co-scripted, and planned the production.
Miyazaki is a living treasure in Japan, a revered storyteller and beloved filmmaker whose work is treated with the same respect as Disney classics in the U.S., and he has long offered strong, brave girls as the protagonists of his stories. Arrietty is yet another dynamic heroine, a teenage girl only a few inches tall who lives hidden in the floorboards of a human home with her father and mother.
She knows of no other Borrowers (as these little people are called, because they “borrow” things the humans won’t notice missing in their nighttime forages) so, despite her own instincts, she befriends the sickly boy who has moved into the house and quietly observed her presence.
The images are marvelous, a lovely example of Ghibli hand-drawn animation and a reminder of the kind of personality that comes through this kind of art, but it is the compassion and depth of character that makes it such a moving film. So rarely do films for kids explore themes of mortality and isolation with such delicacy and depth.
Also new this week is the Blu-ray debut of two classic animated features from Studio Ghibli. Castle in the Sky (Disney) and Whisper of the Heart (Disney), written and produced by Miyazaki and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo.