When people in the United States hear the words “anime” and “manga,” they usually think of gratuitously drawn Japanese schoolgirls, pre-teen boys addicted to videogames in basements and conventions. This is a slim caricature of a unique and beautiful art form; after all, there are good reasons why people obsess over it. Japanese film prodigy, Hayao Miyazaki, is an example of someone who raises the medium to its most stunning heights. Miyazaki, the director, writer and animator of films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, is one of the few non-American animators who has been successful in breaking into international markets, with Spirited Away winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film in 2001. It is no surprise then that this semester, Cornell Cinema has chosen to present “Five by Miyazaki,” a series on his work.
Miyazaki co-founded Studio Ghibli, a film and animation studio, with Isao Takahata after his first big success, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was released in 1984. This is first of the five films that will be shown at Cornell Cinema and is one of the most characteristic of Miyazaki’s auteur style. His films usually deal with themes of the environment, industrialization and harmony between human and nature, themes that are intrinsically compatible with his style of animation. These seem to be heavy subjects to insert into animated movies, which we usually think as “kid’s movies,” but, although some of his films are suitable for children, some definitely are not (Princess Mononoke sports more than a few violent scenes, some in which limbs are cut off).
Nausicaä tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which a Toxic Jungle that consists only of lethal plants envelops the land. People live on its fringes, waiting for the prophesied day that someone will “reunite man and nature.” Nausicaä is the protagonist, a princess who secretly tends to a garden of jungle plants that are rendered non-toxic once grown in soil and water untainted by humans. Oh, and she flies on a glider. And is joined by a fox-squirrel named Teto. Often, Miyazaki’s films scatter their plot and seem all over the place in the beginning. They are always worth the stress, for they come together cohesively at the end. The environmental themes are strong in the film, but they don’t hit you over the head — it’s a story of hope for the versatility and strength of mankind.
Princess Mononoke, another film in the Cinema’s series, was released in the U.S. in 1999. It set the standard for Studio Ghibli’s strict “no-edits” policy for films released internationally. It was rumored that when Harvey Weinstein suggested edits to the film in order to increase its commercial appeal, a producer at Studio Ghibli mailed him a samurai sword with the message, “No cuts.” Miyazaki’s loyalty to the original product exemplifies the idea that his movies are not merely created for entertainment value but that they are, in fact, artistic masterpieces. Princess Mononoke stays true to this form — following the story of prince Ashitaka, whose journey takes him to industrious Iron Town, where the inhabitants make firearms from razing a nearby forest. The town is in a continuous struggle with the forest spirits that inhabit the land. One of them, a giant white wolf, has adopted a human girl, who is nicknamed “Princess Mononoke” by the townspeople. “Mononoke,” which means “spirit” in Japanese, captures the essence of the film. Though it is easy to cheer for the forest spirits, you catch yourself in a moral gray area, typical of Miyazaki, and find yourself also admiring the spirit of the townspeople as they fight for their cause.
Castle in the Sky is another one of Miyazaki’s older films, transporting its viewers to a fantastical world where humans once resided in flying cities. At the start of the movie, only one such city remains, hidden away. The plot is basic for a Miyazaki movie, with a clear-cut protagonist and antagonist, and holds more appeal in its marvelous animation. My Neighbor Totoro, the last movie to be shown, follows in the same vein plot-wise. However, this film’s simplicity is a reflection of its innocence, and is definitely one to show to kids (it’s also part of the Cinema’s “IthaKid Film Fest”). Children or adults aside, Totoro is worth seeing for its stunning cinematography — rendering the Japanese countryside into sublime pans that make you forget, and almost regret, that real life isn’t animated.
Spirited Away, the newest of the five movies featured, is the most successful film in the history of the Japanese box office. This movie is one of Miyazaki’s craziest and most creative, taking place in a bathhouse run and patroned by spirits. It features a girl named Chihiro, whose parents have been turned into pigs — she fits easily into Miyazaki’s eclectic, dynamic and memorable cast of characters. The movie also highlights the haunting music of Joe Hisaishi, who has scored all Miyazaki’s films since Nausicaä. If the poignant plots, dazzling panoramas or inspiring characters don’t do it for you, Miyazaki’s series is worth going to just to hear Hisaishi’s heartbreaking compositions.
“Five by Miyazaki” starts this weekend at Cornell Cinema.