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Happy Anniversary: Three From Studio Ghibli

by Ethan Alter February 21, 2012 11:40 am
Happy Anniversary: Three From Studio Ghibli

This holiday weekend saw the release of The Secret World of Arriety, the 17th film from the revered Japanese animation house, Studio Ghibli.

Founded in 1985 by a trio of anime mainstays, including producer Toshio Suzuki and directors Isao Takahata (who helmed the exceptional 1988 animated film, Grave of the Fireflies) and Hayao Miyazaki (whose list of classics includes My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service among others), Studio Ghibli is often thought of as the Japanese version of Walt Disney, both due to the consistent quality of their output and an impressive track record of commercial success. (It's only appropriate, then, that Disney has served as Studio Ghibli's North American distributor since the early 2000s.) Neither of Ghibli's founding directors helmed Arriety, instead handing off that assignment to longtime house animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Miyazaki did co-write the screenplay (which is based on the enduring children's novel, The Borrowers), but the strong reviews indicate that it continues the Ghibli tradition of crafting enjoyable and imaginative hand-drawn tales (unlike most American animation studios, Ghibli has yet to release a computer animated feature) that delight audiences of all ages. With Arriety currently playing in theaters, here's a look back at three of the studio's past features -- all of which were directed by Miyazaki -- that are celebrating anniversaries in 2012:

Porco Rosso (1992)
After back-to-back features starring young kids (Totoro and Kiki), Miyazaki grew up a little with Porco Rosso a fanciful tale of a World War I flying ace who underwent a human-to-porcine transformation as the result of a curse. Set in the '30s, the plot finds the newly christened Porco Rosso (that translates to "Red Pig" in Italian) making a living shooting down air pirates for bounty hunting bucks. Along the way, he recruits a young woman named Fio to serve as his chief mechanic because of her way with flying machines. But Porco doesn't have any romantic feelings for his new assistant; he's drawn to the lovely owner of an island hotel, who is also being wooed by one of the pig-man's chief rivals, American flyboy, Curtis. The two agree to an aerial duel to settle their dispute once and for all, even as the Italian Air Force closes in to capture the Red Pig once and for all.

The son of an airplane parts manufacturer, Miyazaki grew up around aircrafts and subsequently developed a passion for flight that pops up in the majority of his movies, from the windriders in 1984's NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind to the bird form assumed by the wizard Howl in 2004's Howl's Moving Castle. Porco Rosso is perhaps the purest manifestation of the filmmaker's fascination with aviation, as he crafts some of the best dogfights ever captured onscreen, in either live action or animation. But the movie's standout scene has to be the dreamlike moment when an exhausted Porco (in his human form) pilots through a cloud and catches a glimpse of a fleet of planes that were downed in battle climbing up and up into the sky, en route to a heavenly final destination. Porco Rosso may not be Miyazaki's best film, but it's arguably his most personal.

Princess Mononoke (1997)
Five years after Porco Rosso, Miyazaki with this stunning historical fantasy, which became Japan's highest grossing movie until James Cameron's Titanic sailed past it. The movie follows the adventures of a young warrior from a rural village who is stricken with a curse -- one that grants him super-strength before it will claim his life. While scouring the countryside searching for a cure, the boy makes a pit stop at a town that's locked in a battle with forest creatures led by the titular "princess" -- a human girl that was raised by wolves and now commands their army. When he's wounded in of the skirmishes, the boy is taken into the woods and healed by the Forest Spirit that lives amongst the trees. He then watches as the town's human residents prepare for one more battle with the natural world, this time with the intention of slaying the seemingly all-powerful Forest Spirit.

Bloodier and darker than any of Miyazaki's movies to date, Princess Mononoke was acquired by Miramax (which at that point was still run by Bob and Harvey Weinstein) and celebrated author Neil Gaiman was brought in to pen the script for the English-language version (Claire Danes, Billy Crudup and Gillian Anderson were among the American actors that lent their voices to the dubbed cut). In the interest of securing a more family-friendly PG-rating, Harvey Scissorhands wanted additional cuts made to the movie as well, but Miyazaki understandably didn't agree and, fortunately, he won that battle. Unfortunately though, the movie didn't get the promotion it deserved and, as a result, the domestic box office returns were disappointing. It still hasn't gotten its proper due, to be honest; while Disney has re-released all of Miyazaki's other movies in special 2-disc editions, Mononoke is still only available in a single-disc version that was released in 2000 (at least it offers both the English and Japanese-language versions of the film). What better way to mark the movie's 15th anniversary than a gorgeous new Blu-ray transfer? Get on that, Disney.

Spirited Away (2002)
I'm cheating a bit here, as Spirited Away was actually released in Japan in 2001 and took the all-time box office record back from Titanic. But 2012 does mark the 10th anniversary of Spirited Away's U.S. release and if I had to pick only one Miyazaki movie to take with us to a desert island, it would be this one. While en route to their new home, pre-teen heroine Chihiro and her parents stumble upon an abandoned amusement park and Mom and Dad unwisely stop to snack at a food stall. Instantly, they're transformed into pigs and their precocious daughter has to take a job at a popular bathhouse for the spirit world while figuring out a way to reverse the spell. Besides the spunky, brave Chihiro, Spirited Away is packed with such memorable characters as the boy/dragon Haku, the witch Yubaba who runs the bathouse, her enormous infant son Boh and, best of all, No Face, a solitary, almost childlike spirit that who consumes select guests and employees and assumes their abilities.

Compared to Porco Rosso and, particularly, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki's loosest narratives (though Totoro still takes the crown for least amount of plot) but it contains some of his most indelible images and moments. My personal favorites include Chihiro watching the amusement park spring to life again as night falls and the spirits make their way to the bathhouse; the sequence involving the "stink spirit"; and Chihiro and No Face's ride aboard a train filled with shadow people as it glides silently along underwater tracks passing postcard perfect pastoral scenes (I'm getting chills just thinking about it). If there was any doubt before, Spirited Away was the movie that solidified Miyazaki's reputation as an animation master and also introduced him to a wider audience in America, thanks to a strong publicity campaign spearheaded by Pixar mastermind (and self-proclaimed Miyazaki devotee) John Lasseter. The film also deservedly beat out several high-profile American animated offerings (including Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch, which is a great movie in its own right) to win that year's Best Animated Feature Oscar. Ten years later, it's lost none of its primal power or beauty and likely won't twenty, thirty or even fifty years on.

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