Monday, February 06, 2012

Studio Ghibli on Film, Week One: Only Yesterday, Howl's Moving Castle, and Kiki's Delivery Service

A theatrical distribution deal for catalog titles is generally not a big deal, but the Studio Ghibli animated features are not just any catalog titles; they're a uniquely high-quality collection of animated films that are as evergreen as any collection of pictures that size. When Disney acquired the distribution rights a decade ago, it seemed like a good fit: Aside from having similar sensibilities, Disney has made a lot of money on exploiting their catalog.

The thing is, part of that milking has been keeping those animated features out of theaters, and large studios in general are not great about handling repertory features. A small outfit like GKIDS, who is now handling theatrical distribution of these pictures (while Disney keeps home video rights), can concentrate on keeping the prints in shape and circulating.

That's what they're doing right now - Boston is, as far as I can tell, the third stop on their rounds. I'm somewhat surprised that the Museum of Fine Arts is where they stopped, but I suspect that they'll return some other time, to the Paramount or the Brattle or Coolidge, but likely in a more limited program, probably limited to the more familiar titles. Which is fine; seeing Kiki's Delivery Service and Howl's Moving Castle on the big screen, and on film, is a huge pleasure. But so is seeing Only Yesterday, a movie that I basically knew existed by diving a couple layers deep into the IMDB after seeing another movie. That's exactly the thing Disney can't really handle (even without the fact that health-class topics are a big part of one segment, putting it halfway between the Disney and Touchstone brands).

Sadly, I'm only going to get about halfway through the series - the movie scheduling gods have decided to make it hard for me to get to many of the times as they conflict with work, the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, and my Japanese classes. Not that I regret spending time on any of them (well, maybe work, but it pays for the other stuff), but I can't help but look at two or three other screenings and wish things were working out differently.

Omohide poro poro (Only Yesterday)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2012 in Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Castles in the Sky, 35mm)

Though Studio Ghibli is best known for the fantasies of Hayao Miyazaki, the more grounded creations of Isao Takahata are, in may ways, equally striking. Movies like Only Yesterday are a unique variation on the "nostalgia film" genre, and few do the combination of animation and realism better than Takahata.

In 1983, Taeko (voice of Miki Imai) is twenty-seven years old, has lived in Tokyo all her life, and recently turned down a marriage proposal. This seems bizarre to both her co-workers and her mother, as does her decision to spend her vacation working on her sister's in-laws' farm. But Taeko's always been a bit of an odd girl, as we can tell from her memories of 1966, when she (voice of Youko Honna) was ten years old, was good at writing but not so good at math, and envied her her classmates who got to go away for the summer.

Though made years later and released in its native Japan in 1991 (in America, it's been held up in limbo as part of Ghibli's Disney distribution deal), the 1983 segments still tend to seem like "the present", despite how Taeko uses the past tense in her narration. This is mostly because Takahata shifts his technique a bit between periods: 1983 fills the screen, with both the city where Taeko starts and the country rendered in such detailed clarity as to almost appear three-dimensional; 1966, meanwhile, has only slightly more stylized character designs, but has much less fully-realized envrionments. Colors are faded, and the backgrounds often don't reach the edge of the screen, leaving the action surrounded by white space. Taeko recalls her childhood better than most, but those moments aren't as strong in her mind as this vacation.


Full review on EFC.

Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl's Moving Castle)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2012 in Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Castles in the Sky, 35mm)

When I reviewed this for EFC on its American release six and a half years ago, I mentioned being interested in seeing the English-language version. That's what I wound up with on Friday, quite unexpectedly - only two screenings in the series were announced as dubbed, and this wasn't one of them. It's a clear example of how even with a great voice cast and careful attention to lip-sync, seeing a movie like this just isn't quite right. As I've been learning in my Saturday afternoon Japanese language classes, that language and English have very different rhythms, with a typical Japanese sentence containing more syllables in more rapid succession.

In retrospect, maybe I was a little over-enthusiastic in my 2005 review, but even toning the hyperbole down... This is a really good movie, with more creativity and amazing things in any given five minute period than most fantasy films have in their entire running time. I suspect that it's going to need another couple close watches for me to really work out what's going on in every moment, especially with how Sophie changes age. But I also strongly suspect that it will be well worth it.

Full review on EFC.

Majo no takkyƻbin (Kiki's Delivery Service)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 February 2012 in Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Castles in the Sky, 35mm)

To describe any one movie by Hayao Miyazaki as his best is incredibly difficult; there are arguments to be made for both the complexity and maturity of his later works and the simple joy of where he started out. Kiki's Delivery Service is a part of the former group, and certainly one of my favorites of his work, a sweet, funny, beautifully told coming-of-age story for any age.

Kiki (voice of Minami Takayama) has just celebrated her thirteenth birthday, and in witch families like hers that is the traditional time for a girl to set off for a new town, where she will spend a year living and training on her own. Kiki and her black cat Jiji (voice of Rei Sakuma) land in a pretty coastal town, where she puts her flying skills to use as a courier. Her first customer, Osono (voice of Keiko Toda), lets Kiki have a room above her bakery, and Kiki makes a number of other new friends: Ursula (also voiced by Takayama), an artist who lives in the woods; a sweet old lady (voice of Haruko Kato) and her maid Bertha (voice of Hiroko Saki); and Tombo (voice of Kappei Yamaguchi), a flight-crazy boy her own age who develops an instant crush on the new girl.

But adolescence is a tricky thing; as one grows older, takes on more adult responsibilities, and grapples with new feelings, one stops believing in magic. Kiki is a nice girl, and she's landed with a pretty nice foster family, but like all teenagers, her confidence gets eroded by little things, and she envies the girls who wear stylish outfits while she is stuck in her drab, traditional black dress. Miyazaki's plotting is elegant in this regard; each new delivery and task Kiki faces is calculated to make the audience proud of the character but also plants a little more doubt in her mind. It winds up as both a character arc that rings true and a metaphor for one's body going haywire.

Full review on EFC.

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