Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #5: Over the Moon for Isao Takahata

Whenever the topic of Studio Ghibli comes up, inevitably casual consumers of anime are thinking about Hayao Miyazaki movies, not Isao Takahata movies. I remember having a conversation about Ghibli with one of my film professors, who likes some anime, and he was surprised that Grave of the Fireflies was a Studio Ghibli production. It’s not surprising when you realize that popular image of Studio Ghibli is its accessible family films like My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The somber and very-Japanese Grave of the Fireflies and Only Yesterday don’t fit in with Ghibli’s popular image, and to be fair aren’t as fun to watch (though I’d rather sit through Grave of the Fireflies than My Neighbor Totoro). Takahata is Miyazaki’s senior, but he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of acclaim as Miyazaki. Yet Studio Ghibli wouldn’t exist without him, and I’m thankful that he was able to put out one more film this year, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

On the surface, one might think that Princess Kaguya would have been more suitable for Miyazaki. A fairy tale about a spunky lovable girl seems like the basis for a Miyazaki film, but after watching Kaguya I realized how perfect it was for Takahata. Takahata has never been interested in the fantastical European-like settings of Miyazaki’s works, and sets all of his stories in Japan. His films are approachable for outsiders with enough knowledge, but he is directly speaking to a Japanese audience. He assumes that viewers already know something about The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, and rather than trying to update it for a modern audience, it’s extremely old-school. Life for women in the 10th century (okay, all centuries really) was extremely limiting. Kaguya’s father, obsessed with fitting in with nobility and customs to escape his mountain peasant roots, has Kaguya raised to be a perfect princess. She’s forced to shave her eyebrows, paint her teeth black, and not allowed to be seen by her many suitors. Yet she maintains her playfulness and desire to be in the outside world. The film is sympathetic to her conflict and takes pleasure in seeing her outwit her suitors by making them eat their words and find the impossible objects they compare her to. Kaguya is the story of a young woman wishing to experience a world she is forbidden from due to society’s strict patriarchal rules. The ending is bittersweet. It’s sure to confuse many not familiar with the original folktale, but is successful at articulating what Kaguya has lost.

Kaguya-shot

Two connections with Takahata’s previous works instantly sprang to mind while I was watching this film. One, the artstyle of Kaguya recalls the beautiful watercolor scenery of My Neighbors the Yamadas. Every brushstroke is detailed and gorgeously rendered, and during a dream sequence, comes apart chaotically to represent Kaguya’s inner conflict. It’s the visual standout of the entire film and left me breathless. The Wind Rises looked good, but it never seemed as though Miyazaki was pushing his artstyle. Takahata created a film that cannot be confused with any other Ghibli film and I thank him for that. Takahata’s reverence for the countryside, as seen in Only Yesterday, returns as well. Both Miyazaki’s and Takahata’s films have had environmental elements, but Takahata specifically seems critical of city-life. It works better for me here than it did in Only Yesterday. Kaguya’s nostalgia for the mountain makes more sense when you realize just how terrible and limiting being a noblewoman was back then.

I saw Princess Kaguya while I was taking a history seminar called “Women and Gender in China.” While Princess Kaguya is Japanese, not Chinese, I couldn’t help but compare it to the stories I had been reading in that class. The stories of how society restricted women put me in the right mindset for Kaguya. The professor of that seminar also saw Princess Kaguya the same weekend I did, and we had a great discussion after class about the movie and the original folktale. Rarely do I get to talk about anime in-depth like that with a non-anime fan, and a history professor to boot!

When asked which filmmaker I prefer, Miyazaki or Takahata, I must honestly say I prefer Miyazaki. The man has been able to make more films that resonate with me, and doesn’t have the reputation of going over-budget and taking forever to make movies (The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness features many Ghibli employees complaining about Takahata’s work ethic). However, I have much respect for Takahata. Not just because he was a co-founder of Ghibli, but because he always made a good contrast to Miyazaki. His voice reaches a smaller audience, but that smaller audience appreciates him for it. Miyazaki has mixed feelings toward him, saying he’s “abandoned him as a filmmaker” (again, watch The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness), but the two have a long history together. Takahata discovered Miyazaki. Without Takahata, would Miyazaki have become the internationally-acclaimed director he is today?

I hope The Tale of the Princess Kaguya gets an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. It’s hard to imagine anything beating The Lego Movie, but if Takahata’s potentially final film were able to win an Oscar, then it’d be a great victory for anime fans and a final huzzah for the dying Studio Ghibli.

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Eric’s 12 Days of Anime #4: The Wind Rises, Ghibli Falls

You’re not a REAL anime fan if you tell me you don’t like any Studio Ghibli movies. Okay, that’s a lie as the whole “real anime fan” concept is bullshit, but most anime fans will admit to loving at least one of the prolific studio’s films. For many fans, their first anime was probably a Ghibli film. The studio has been around for nearly 30 years, and one of its co-founders, Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement from filmmaking after the release of The Wind Rises.

The Wind Rises is as final as a film can be from a filmmaker. Using real history as a metaphor for Miyazaki’s career, The Wind Rises is clearly a personal statement. Aside from Porco Rosso (btw, in the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Miyazaki recently called Porco Rosso “a foolish movie” because it was made for adults instead of children), it is Miyazaki’s only film made specifically for adults. Aside from the film’s dream sequences with an Italian plane designer, the film is lacking in the fantasy and whimsy that Miyazaki is famous for. Honestly, the only audience that I can see loving The Wind Rises is one that is obsessed with Miyazaki as an auteur. To outsiders, The Wind Rises is a slow-moving, not-all-that-fun-to-watch biopic with decent animation. As Miyazaki’s final statement on his film career and his obsession with work, it becomes much more engaging.

This is technically a 2013 film, but I didn’t see it until February of this year, hence why I’m including it in this blog series. Next to Terror in Resonance, The Wind Rises is the anime I had the most frustration with this year. As a final film for Miyazaki, it’s essential to watch, but as a historical film, hoo boy is it problematic. The film’s protagonist, Jiro Horikoshi, was the real-life inventor of the Zero fighter plane, the plane used by Japan in World War II. Given Japan’s war crimes towards Korea and China that even today it refuses to address, making a film about the man who invented a killing machine was already controversial. Miyazaki is openly anti-war, both in his previous films and in real life, so I expected The Wind Rises to handle the controversial subject accordingly. Amazingly, The Wind Rises doesn’t seem all that concerned with the consequences of the war, as at the end of the film, Jiro is more concerned about the planes being destroyed than the lives destroyed by the planes. It’s all okay though, because Jiro’s imaginary Italian boyfriend and dead wife tell him to move on with his life.

Some have interpreted the ending of The Wind Rises to be anti-war, but it’s hard to take it that way when the film refuses to show the consequences of the war. The film is more concerned with Jiro’s obsession with building planes and how it leads to him neglecting his dying wife. The closest we get to the film having a discussion about the consequences of building planes for the Imperial army is a discussion between Jiro and his imaginary Italian idol. They use the pyramids as a metaphor, explaining that it was built with slave labor, but they’d rather live in a world with pyramids because they’re impressive, even if they were built with less-than-moral means. It’s a discussion on what limits there are to making art.

Miyazaki’s fascination with planes has always been evident. Flying machines have been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, and Miyazaki’s father helped create planes for World War II. The contradiction of Miyazaki being anti-war yet loving the Zero fighter plane is discussed in the Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. Miyazaki loves the craftsmanship of airplanes. He denies being a plane otaku, but humorously in the same documentary he’s caught playing with a toy airplane with Hideaki Anno. I think Miyazaki clearly understands the consequences of the Zero, but instead chose to focus on Jiro’s inner conflict because he resonated with it more. As a result, The Wind Rises is a deeply personal film, but one that almost completely ignores the politics that Miyazaki is known for.

I was pretty disappointed in The Wind Rises when I saw it this year. I can’t say I love it now, but I’d be a fool to dismiss it entirely just because I took issue with its portrayal of history and sluggish story. After seeing The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, I have a lot more respect for Miyazaki as an artist. I don’t agree with everything he says, but he’s bold with his statements. He’s a grumpy old man, but some of the stuff he says is really true. Lot of anime fans hated his comments on otaku ruining anime, but he’s got a point. Anime is catering to the obsessives these days, and as a result we’re getting a lot of garbage. Mind you, we’re also getting a lot of great anime among the trash like Kill la Kill and Space Dandy, but Miyazaki still has a point. We did get dreck like Mahouka and Cross Ange this year. Mahouka, with its right-wing nationalist bent, would definitely be the kind of otaku anime that Miyazaki would hate.

The Wind Rises deserves criticism for its problematic content, but as a final film for Miyazaki, it’s fitting. It doesn’t hold up with his best work, and I think Porco Rosso is easier to swallow as far as personal films go, but it’s as final as a film can be. Miyazaki has had a long, interesting career with an equally interesting personal and political life to match. I imagine we’ll still be talking about him for long time after his retirement.

Day 5 preview: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and the other Ghibli co-creator, Isao Takahata.