Tsunderin: So far on our journey through Ghibli’s film library there have been quite a few films that MadameAce and I have disliked. And whereas my dislike for a film will certainly color my desire to see it in the future, I don’t think there has been a movie so far that I would outright not watch ever again. That all changes today. Today, we review The Secret World of Arrietty: the only Ghibli movie that I will go out of my way to never watch again.
Tsunderin: Perhaps the only thing stronger than Miyazaki’s drive to write love stories with an unconventional twist is MadameAce’s drive to not actually watch the films until a month has passed since the last Ghibli film review. However, she finally got around to watching Ponyo, another unconventional love story, and though I doubt she’s very happy about it, she can save the complaining until her part.
Ponyo is unconventional in how polarizing it is: people I know either love it or hate it. And while I know that I encourage artists of any medium to experiment and do things out of the box, there’s something about this film that just doesn’t work.
Last year I made a post about Studio Ghibli’s upcoming movies and finally the time has arrived where I can talk about one of them in more depth. A couple weeks ago, the trailer for The Wind Rises was released and wow, I think it’s going to be a film that crushes our hearts. Maybe not quite Grave of the Fireflies level, but close.
Read Part 1 here.
Tsunderin: Another unfortunate thing this film also does is put Sophie on a pedestal, and not just because she’s the protagonist. There’s no denying that Sophie is a rather good female character. The problem arises when every other female character is not so good. The Witch of the Waste is a good antagonist until it’s discovered that she doesn’t really have a motivation behind her actions, or at least not one strong enough to keep her from falling in cahoots with Sophie’s gang in the second half of the film and becoming a plot device rather than a character. And though Madame Suliman has the motivation of duty driving her actions, again there’s no real strength there because the audience never sees her again after that one scene. We never have the chance to put together whether or not she orchestrated any of these attacks against Sophie to punish Howl for his insubordination. All she leaves is an imposing image and a threat that boils down to just, “you better help me, Howl. >:(”
Tsunderin: Within the Ghibli library, I would argue that there’s a specific trifecta of films that stand out as the Ghibli films to the general, movie-going American audience. There’s the breakthrough hit, Princess Mononoke, the award winner, Spirited Away, and the one everyone loves, Howl’s Moving Castle. Seeing as we’ve already discussed two of them, I think it’s pretty obvious which one is the topic of today’s discussion. (That and it’s also the title of the article. Duh.)
While this film perpetuates much of what audiences have come to love about Miyazaki’s directorial style, it also takes many risks with its script, one of the most looked over or ignored being that this movie is based on another person’s work. Author Diana Wynne Jones penned the original Howl’s Moving Castle in 1986, but to fans of Jones’s work, Miyazaki’s Howl is only sibling by name and nothing else. We’ll get into that later, however.
For now, let’s start at the charming little hat shop in a stereotypical, adorable European town—in Jones’s novel, the setting is the imaginary kingdom of Ingary, which I can only assume looks just about the same—where our protagonist, Sophie, works. Sophie, finding herself unexciting and bland, especially in comparison with her more vibrant sisters, has resigned herself to living a quiet life of solitude and hatting, until she is suddenly scooped up into a political and magical plot by the womanizing sorcerer, Howl. Well, it doesn’t start out that bad, but he does rescue her from some of the henchmen belonging to the nefarious Witch of the Waste before dropping her off back at home. Unfortunately, the Witch is madly in love (lust?) with Howl and also extremely jealous. Taking Sophie’s five minute interaction with the sorcerer as competition, the Witch curses Sophie to live in the body of a ninety-year-old woman for the rest of her life.
As Ace and I have been going through these movies—some for the first time, some for a review—the trends and tropes that are specific to a particular director really start to stick out. For all intents and purposes, the more trope-y of the two directors is certainly Miyazaki, but again I feel as though that has more to do with his intended audience than his lack of creativity or inability to simply write a different story.
For a younger audience, it’s certainly easier to equate a message or a lesson with a certain set-up, and with so many of his films being about coming of age, Miyazaki had to have known that. Reading our previous review on Spirited Away, you’ll remember that I’m not particularly fond of the “everyone’s gotta be in love” trope and Ace’s peeve is the “strong females have short hair” trope (from the Princess Mononoke post); however the trope I’m going to discuss today is a little less overt and has much less to do with the perception of gender. Rather, it’s much more intertwined with the actual emotional state of growing up.
Usually, character-wise, the set-up of a Miyazaki coming of age film is laid out as follows: protagonist has lengthened exposure to one person (the friend/love interest) while strengthening familial bonds or creating bonds with their pseudo-family, then a smattering of secondary friends and acquaintances (with the ‘antagonist’ usually being a situation rather than an actual person). However, to add a dash of the fantastical even in a completely normal setting, and to set the tone of the protagonist’s maturity journey, Miyazaki employs a character that is readily found in many other forms of media: the animal sidekick.
Tsunderin: After the confusing, unemotional mess that was Nausicaa and with a whole roster of films now under his belt, Miyazaki decided to try his hand at another, more ‘user friendly’ environmental film—which was probably needed more than ever due to Pom Poko. Indeed, the ten year hiatus of sorts was beneficial because it helped Miyazaki learn to zero in on his message, bring it out, and not hit people over the head with it. For these reasons, as well as the gorgeous art, Princess Mononoke is considered a masterpiece, even transcending the cultural barrier—Mononoke is much more Japanese in feel than, say, Porco Rosso or even Nausicaa—so much so that it’s even gotten its own musical. But what is it about Mononoke that has captured so much of the world?
Tsunderin: Whereas Only Yesterday was the Ghibli film I wanted to see the most, Whisper of the Heart is indisputably the Ghibli film I love the most. I barely know any people that remember this film, let alone talk about it, but I think there’s something beautiful in its understated glory. Perhaps my love for this film is what helped me love Only Yesterday: the films share a soft-spoken nature and a realistic message about growing up and deciding your own path. But look at me already digressing before I say anything about the plot.
Tsunderin: One upon a time many years ago, Adult Swim was hosting something they called the ‘month of Miyazaki’: a month of showing Miyazaki—I can’t remember if they threw in some Takahata to shake things up—films ass-early in the morning. I was bound and determined I was going to watch every single one. Every. One. I started out well, made it through Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, but the film that followed them just couldn’t keep my attention at all and I conked out.
After giving it another shot though, I’ve found that Porco Rosso has really grown on me. Perhaps the reason I didn’t like it was because of the deeper intricacies that went right over the head of younger me or the fact that it didn’t star someone particularly likable (not as likable as Miyazaki’s previous heroines/heroes, at least). Or maybe it was because it starred a pig, because seriously, what would even make you think of that?
Tsunderin: Realizing that he must have hit a sweet spot with his previous small-scope, through the eyes of a child film, Miyazaki once more set forth to capture another important point in everyone’s lives through his next film, Kiki’s Delivery Service. The target this time: coming of age. It can of course be argued that Castle in the Sky was also a coming of age story, but that part of the plot was overshadowed by a larger storyline as opposed to Kiki’s. Success of such things either relies on a series of stories in which the characters have a chance to grow slowly and more robustly, or a narrow focus. Again, Miyazaki chose to go with the latter.