Tag Archive | Hayao Miyazaki

An Animated Dissection: Thoughts on “Porco Rosso,” 25 years later

In my Animated Dissection columns, I often strive to remember or make note of several films, that I often feel are worth discussing. Some can be well-known films, and some are those that have fallen by the wayside in favor of more popular pieces of work. There will also be some animated films that I just can’t stand…but fortunately, this one isn’t one of them!

Director Hayao Miyazaki may be known for some of his more popular films like My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke, but I have found that one of his more ‘subdued’ films, is one I have often found myself thinking about on several occasions.

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In the years following World War I, pilot Marco Pagot shied away from humanity, and became an anthropomorphic pig, assuming the moniker of Porco Rosso (aka “The Crimson Pig”).

Since then, he has used his piloting skills to become a freelance bounty hunter, flying across the Adriatic Sea, often encountering a number of colorful air pirates.

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Porco Rosso (“The Crimson Pig”)

When not bounty hunting, Porco usually heads off to partake in fine wine and good women. Sometimes, he can also be found at the Hotel Adriano, owned by his childhood friend Gina, one of the last connections he has to ‘the old days.’

Things change for Porco, when his plane is badly shot-up by an American pilot named Donald Curtis. With the last of his funds, Porco heads to Milan, and makes contact with a mechanic he knows named Piccolo. For rebuilding the plane, Piccolo assigns his granddaughter Fio to the duties.

Porco is at first against this, but with all the men Piccolo employs away, he is out of options. Porco gives in, with the hopes that the young girl’s work can help him best Curtis, when they meet again.

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Hayao Adapts Himself

Sometimes, some of Studio Ghibli’s films directed by Miyazaki, tend to be ‘happy accidents.’ That was the case with Porco.

Originally meant to be a 45-minute feature that would run on Japanese Airlines flights, it was to be an adaptation of Miyazaki’s 15-page watercolor manga, titled The Age of the Flying Boat.

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Top to Bottom: Panel from “The Age of the Flying Boat;” the same scene, as depicted in “Porco Rosso

The story is pretty simple, and one can see why it’s 3-part structure, may have been considered an easy piece to become a short feature for an in-flight movie.

Flying Boat serves as the underlying skeleton of the film, though one can definitely see differences in the pieces.

Notable is in the opening fight Porco has against some air pirates. In the manga, they kidnap a young woman, whereas in the film, the pirates kidnap a group of young schoolgirls, leading to a crazy romp as the pirates try to battle Porco in the air, and keep the rambunctious toddlers under control.

There also is the absence of Porco having a storied past, and Donald Curtis is known as Donald Chuck.

The end dogfight between Porco and Donald, also had to adhere to the limits of the printed page. Regarding the big battle, Miyazaki wrote: “If this were animation, I might be able to convey the grandeur of this life-or-death battle. But this is a comic. I have no choice but to rely on the imagination of you, good readers.”

It is notable that when pitching the film to the airlines, they were worried the aerial dogfights might get their proposal denied, but were surprised when the company said had no problems saying ‘yes’ to the material!

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The multi-language opening of the film.

As production carried on, the animation and costs proved to be a bit more cumbersome than originally thought. That was when producer Toshio Suzuki, felt they should actually turn Porco into a theatrically released film.

Even though the deal for the film had been changed from it’s original intent, the airline still would be named as an investor in the film, and would still get to run Porco on their flights. Word is, the deal is the reason for the film’s unusual opening, where a number of little green pig-creatures (a design created by Hayao himself!), ‘type’ out a summary of the film, in several different languages.

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The real-life Marco Pagot.

One could also assume that Miyazaki made up Porco’s human identity, but the name Marco Pagot is actually an homage to a real person Hayao knows (see picture on right)!

The two crossed paths when working on the anime series, Sherlock Hound, of which Pagot (an Italian animator) wrote a number of the episode’s scripts, and Miyazaki directed several of the episodes. Word is that Marco’s wife Gi, may have also inspired the naming of Porco’s friend, Gina.

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A Different Kind of Anime

Compared to the other films Miyazaki has directed, Porco is the only film of his where it’s lead is not a young individual. Instead, Porco is a person who was once an optimist, until war and the world disillusioned him, turning him into the ‘creature’ we see.

Some could almost see the film as being in the same vein as Herge’s Tintin comics, or even Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ Raiders of the Lost Ark, in how it intermingles action, drama, and at times, comedy.

Porco at times, sounds a bit like how George Lucas originally envisioned Indiana Jones, where the professor of archaeology would be a dashing playboy when he wasn’t off searching for lost relics. Though much like how we saw Indy portrayed in his series of films, we are never privy to Porco’s ‘flings,’ and simply follow him through his sea-based adventures.

Porco5Though Porco makes an okay living, it should be noted that a number of air pirates we see, are just as hard-up for funds as he is. When the Mamma Aiuto gang loses the tail on their plane due to a dogfight with Porco, their finances are only able to get them a replacement tail (see picture on right), but not enough money to even paint it, making it’s silvery form stick out like a sore thumb.

Porco himself is also one of the quieter leads that Miyazaki had written up to that point. Often observant and contemplative, he probably speaks the least of all the main characters the director has had. However, it is rather interesting to see how much expression Miyazaki’s animators get out of the minimal movements he has. Plus, for the majority of the film, his eyes are hidden behind the dark shades of his glasses.

Much like how real-world events shaped the work being done on Howl’s Moving Castle’  almost a decade later, events in the area during the 90’s, where the film was taking place, influenced it’s storyline.

When Yugoslavia broke up in the early 90’s, this added an extra tinge of ‘reality’ to the film. Whereas the rise of fascism across the Adriatic in Flying Boat was only hinted at in the adapted manga, we get a small taste of what’s going on in the film, when Porco comes ashore to Dubrovnik.

Paying off the loan on his plane, the bank employee tries to get him to purchase war bonds, but he simply responds that that is something the “humans” can do.

After this, he visits a small shop to pick up some more weaponry and ammunition. Word of a governmental change is on the mouths of several of the shop’s workers, but Porco claims he has no intention to fight in another war.

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Porco at the Ghibli Museum.

Also of great interest, is the ‘curse’ surrounding his transformation into a pig-headed man. After all these years, Miyazaki has never given an explanation for the ‘curse,’ often leaving the mystery to the audience, to unravel in their own minds.

Even the face of Porco with his dark glasses, is an image that Miyazaki likes to ‘doodle,’ just as much as his imagery of Totoro. Porco even shows up at the Ghibli Museum’s cafe in Mitaka, Japan. Known as the Straw Hat Cafe, Porco’s head appears over the cafe’s chalkboard menu, but instead of his aviation goggles, he wears a straw hat.

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Women in Control

With his previous features, Miyazaki largely focused on female leads. From Nausicaa to Kiki, his girls and women often found their optimism tested in the face of adversity, or events that were oftentimes foreign to them.

Though Porco is our lead for this film, Miyazaki makes sure that the girls and women that we see around him, are often some of the more level-headed characters.

Of those we see, the characters of Gina and Fio act as a sort of yin-yang

Gina was a former childhood friend of Porco’s, and was married to one of their friends. However, when we see Gina, she is a widow, entertaining and running her hotel in the Adriatic Sea. She is self-sufficient, and though it seems she may pine for Porco at times, she is not one to just run off with any man.

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This is notable when Donald Curtis finds her in her garden, and in a rather extravagant, “American” way, proposes to her…which leads to Gina laughing heartily, as she hears him claim that he intends to become President one day!

While Gina is the older woman who has lived life and matured, Fio is the young girl, the optimist with unending energy, that often overpowers some of Porco’s own misgivings.

Notable is when Piccolo declares that she will be doing the new design work on Porco’s plane. Porco is at first against this, but she manages to convince him with her enthusiasm, as well as her ‘plussing’ Porco’s plane. Much like the disconnect between some generations, Porco doesn’t wholly understand a lot of what Fio is doing to his plane, but he trusts her enough to figure that the alterations she pushes him to approve, are going to help him out in the long run.

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Another notable scene comes later on, when Fio and Porco encounter the air pirates, who first intend to destroy Porco’s rebuilt plane, until Fio reminds them of the honor of being ‘flying boat pilots.’

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Women also become the only workforce available to Porco and Piccolo, as a number of men have left Milan because of the Great Depression, leaving Piccolo’s relations to carry on the rebuilding effort.

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Beautiful Imagery

Several of Miyazaki’s works reference Europe, and the locales of this film, play out in such a way, that a few of it’s panoramic landscapes may get stuck in your head.

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Most notable to me, is one where Porco decides to head off to Milan. as a Mandolin strums a melody, we see the red plane, but far away, as an enormous mass of clouds seems to dwarf it!

The film at times seems to act as an eye-opening travelogue to the Adriatic,  given all the scenery we visit. Even Porco’s island hideaway looks like the perfect place to get some peace and quiet.

One of the film’s more ethereal moments, comes when Porco tells of a near-death experience he had, near the end of the first World War.

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Seeing a streak of white high in the air, it soon turned out that it was a ‘stream’ of planes, (thousands of them!), and of which Porco soon saw his comrades who had perished in a recent aerial battle, rise to become a part of!

The scene is one of those that seems to ‘haunt’ my memories. It is a vision I have never seen committed to film before: the sight of numerous vintage aircraft, flying in a neverending stream. Are they going somewhere? Are they cursed to forever circle above us, never to be seen? We’ll never know.

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An Ode to older animation

While the Ghibli style is present in this film. it should be noted that it seems the animation stylings of the time, can be glimpsed in a few places.

Most noticeable is in a black-and-white cartoon Porco sees, under cover of talking with a former Italian Air Force comrade.

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The short seems to combine a number of different animation stylings, with it’s characters first seen flying in planes, which may be a reference to the first Mickey Mouse short, Plane Crazy. It’s lead characters seem to be a sort of loose-limbed rabbit character, and a large pig who attempts to abduct the heroine. This could also be some form of homage to Mickey Mouse, and his first nemesis, Peg-Leg Pete.

The heroine of the short, appears to be an amalgamation of Fleischer Studios’ depictions of Olive Oyl from their Popeye shorts, as well as with her ‘glamorous’ facial features, a mix of Betty Boop.

The leader of the Mamma Aiuto gang also may be influenced by Popeye, with his buff physique and spiky beard, he bears a passing resemblance to Popeye’s nemesis, Bluto.

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It could also be said that the final fight between Curtis and Porco, may also be a small homage to the rock-em/sock-em fights that took place between Popeye and Bluto.

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Music of a Bygone Era

When it comes to music, Jo Hisaishi’s score for Porco, is one of the more journey-filled pieces he’s done for his friend’s films.

For the Mamma Aiuto gang and some of the other air pirates, Hisaishi breaks out the brass instruments, making it sound like most of what they are doing, is little more than an ‘aerial circus.’

When the action ramps up, so do the strings, and even at times, the woodwinds. A notable piece is when Porco and Fio escape Milan, as the Italian authorities attempt to apprehend him. It’s a tense scene of escaping through the city’s waterways, with a Shostakovich-like piano melody that plays over the scene.

Throughout the film, a mixture of piano and strings often punctuates Porco’s quieter moments, a trace of wistful melancholy flowing through some scenes. A piece dealing with Porco and Gina sharing time at her hotel, also has the faintest hints of the song “As Time Goes By” to it, as if the composer tried to throw in a little homage to Casablanca.

Fio also gets a theme, with woodwinds being the major motif. Her piece is a bit more ‘playful,’ and often enhances a number of scenes where the focus shifts to her.

Notable to me, is the closing song for the film, titled Once in Awhile, Talk of the Old Days. The track has a wistful melody, starting and ending with piano, before eventually building to a plateau with a number of strings, sounding like wind skimming across the mists of time.

I recall going back to my hometown in Iowa 9 years ago for my high school reunion, and the song seemed to sum up my feelings, seeing people I last remembered as teenagers, back when the world seemed more optimistic. The track played in my ears, as the bus took me out of a place I could recall more wistfully from youth, but had changed over time.

That seems to largely be the theme of Hisaishi’s overall score: music that feels like you’re looking back on a time and place. The memories are there, but it’s all a bit hazy from the decades that have passed.

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When one compares Porco Rosso to some of Miyazaki’s more ‘popular’ works, it often seems to easily get lost in the shuffle. Personally, I often feel that I and a select few people, are the only ones who have some love for the film.

One of the things that is most notable, is that it is one of Miyazaki’s shortest films, but the pacing of the film is so good, that it often feels like it is over too soon! I can’t recall ever being bored once during the entire film.

In researching this blog post, I was looking for further information in regards to Miyazaki’s remembrances, or comments following the release of the film.

Unlike some directors who seem to have fond memories of previous films, Miyazaki rarely seems to gush or hold any of his past works in high praise. This is notable in watching the documentary, In the Kingdoms of Dreams and Madness. One of the women in the documentary makes references to Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as Porco RossoPorco is brought up, given that the film that was being worked on at the time (titled, The Wind Rises), also deals with flying machines.

However, when he remembers his older work, Miyazaki merely calls it “a foolish film.”

An interview for Animerica Magazine in 1993, also had him feeling that the film flew in the face of his feelings, that (in his own words), “animation is for children.”

It should be noted that a few years ago, rumor surfaced of a possible sequel to the film. Studio Ghibli is not a studio known for sequelizing, so this news was met with some caution.

A rumored title was Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie, and would have featured Porco taking to the air once again, this time as an aged pilot, during the Spanish Civil War.

No concept art or anything more was ever shown of this, and with the current status of Studio Ghibli seemingly closed off from doing anything other than an upcoming film project with Miyazaki, it is possible that The Last Sortie may join the ranks of many other projects the famed animation director considered, but never worked on.

Personally, I found the end of Porco Rosso had a decent closure to it’s story. Some loose ends were tied up, but other mysteries remained, for one of Hayao Miyazaki’s pieces, that feels like a good memory, I often enjoy coming back to.

Pretty good work for a film that was originally meant to play to weary businessmen.

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Porco Rosso is a product of the early ’90s, of my world views being challenged by real-world events. It’s also the product of my resolve to overcome the challenge and build a stronger way of life, a stronger way of looking at things.” – Hayao Miyazaki, from an interview conducted by Takashi Oshiguchi in 1993, for Animerica Magazine)

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An Animated Dissection: The Growth of “Spirited Away’s” Bou

Even after 15 years, I feel there’s still plenty of things to find in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. At the time of its release, it quickly gained fame for being the first film to unseat James Cameron’s Titanic from the top of the Japanese box-office heap (and it’s held that distinction ever since!).

When I saw the film for the first time, I was mesmerized at all the twists and turns that were presented! This wasn’t a ‘safe’ animated feature, but one where you truly felt that the lead character Chihiro, could very well find herself trapped forever in this other-world.

My observations on the film’s enigmatic No-Face have been one of my most-read blog postings, but it seems that almost every character in the film could be put under the microscope. Today, I decided to look at one of the film’s biggest characters, and how meeting with Chihiro, changed him.

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Once the film’s focus shifts to the Spirit World, Chihiro’s journey surely reminded many Western minds of similar journeys, such as Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, or Dorothy’s to the land of Oz.

bou1One of the more shocking moments in Spirited, comes when Chihiro and Yubaba get into a shouting match as Chihiro demands she have a job. Suddenly, the room is shaken, before a loud cry is heard. Following this, we see a door splinter, as a giant infant’s foot pushes through it! Yubaba rushes to the shattered doorway, and unseen by us, tells someone to be quiet, raising her voice in a ‘sweet’ tone to whomever she’s talking to.

A few days later, Chihiro finds herself in the other room, which is a giant nursery for Yubaba’s baby, Bou. Though he is a human-sized infant, Bou can reason and speak.

bou2After Chihiro hides from Yubaba under some pillows, Bou grabs her arm, demanding she stay in the nursery and play with him. Bou explains that his Mother says that there are germs and things outside of the nursery that will make him sick, which is countered by Chihiro, claiming that staying where he is and doing nothing will make him sick as well.

She attempts to leave, but Bou threatens to break her arm, and alert his Mother if she doesn’t play with him. Chihiro manages to scare him, showing some blood on her hands.

After throwing a noisy tantrum, Bou follows Chihiro out into the main room, where he once again demands that she play with him, or he’ll start crying. As he starts working up some tears, a little paper ‘bird’ that had followed Chihiro, emerges from behind her. It addresses Bou, telling him to be quiet, and calling him a rather ‘rotund-like’ name.

bou3As everyone watches, a transparent figure emerges from the paper bird, resembling Yubaba (and even Bou calls it by his Mother’s name). The figure then chastises Bou for confusing it with his Mother, before sending a wisp of magic at him, shrinking Bou down into the shape of a portly mouse. It also changes the other denizens of Yubaba’s office around, turning her Yu-bird into a little crow-fly, and her three hopping heads, into a recreation of Bou.

Shortly afterwards, the three heads take advantage of their new body, and start trying to squash the mouse-sized Bou. Luckily, he and the Yu-bird manage to get away, clambering onto Chihiro’s shoulder for safety.

bou15The moment takes a shocking turn when Chihiro, Haku, and the two little creatures fall down a pit that Yubaba’s three heads had been trying to push Haku down mere moments ago! In the descent, the Yu-bird attempts to keep Bou aloft, before Chihiro cradles them in her hand, as the descent quickly becomes a wild ride!

The journey ends when the group crashes into the bathhouse’s boiler room, where Chihiro manages to purge a strange black slug from deep within Haku. In a rather gross moment, she ends up squashing the creature under her foot, leaving a black smudge on the boiler room floor. She freaks out at what she’s done, before the boiler room’s caretaker Kamaji, demands she put her thumbs and forefingers together, and ‘breaking’ them with his hand, declaring the bad luck she has received from killing the slug, is now lifted.

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As Chihiro and Kamaji tend to Haku, Bou and the Yu-bird have been watching the little Soot Sprites gathering around the blackened footprint where the slug once was. Bou goes over, and wandering into the center of the group, re-enacts what Chihiro did. After the ‘cleansing’ move (with one of the soot-sprites acting as Kamaji), Bou raises his paws in the air in triumph, and the little creatures cheer!bou5

The little Sprites delight in the game, but when Chihiro calls them to help her, they quickly abandon Bou, who seems a little sad that his pretend-fame was fleeting.

When next Bou figures into the story, is when Yubaba confronts Chihiro, to take care of No Face. However, the conversation is interrupted when the little Yu-bird lifts Bou before her face, with him giving a little ‘Chu!’ sound, and wiggling his ears.

bou7Obviously, Bou is greeting his Mother in his mouse form, but she just wonders why Chihiro has this ‘ugly mouse’ with her. Chihiro is surprised that Yubaba doesn’t recognize her son in this form, and even Bou is hurt by this, first appearing sad, and then scowling at his Mother.

It’s rather low-key compared to the main story regarding Chihiro, but since his introduction, Bou has slowly been developing as a character. He’s a lot more mobile than before, and he has obviously gotten over his fear of germs, shown by his stepping in the remains of the slug. Though that was pretend-heroism, he gets a chance to shine when it looks like No Face may try to take, and consume Chihiro.bou8

Just when it looks like No Face is going to envelop her head with his outstretched hand, Bou jumps forward, chomping into it! This causes No Face to stop, and attempt to swat the pesky rodent, before the Yu-bird picks up Bou, and returns him to Chihiro’s shoulder. It is Bou’s chance to be a hero on his own merits (albeit small ones), and not requesting glory for it.

bou9Soon after, Bou and the Yu-bird make their way outside of the bathhouse, following Chihiro. We see Bou grow curious at a little bug that clings to the side of a train platform, as well as see his attention being drawn out the window of the train-car, as Chihiro and her companions head to Swamp Bottom, where Yubaba’s twin-sister Zeniiba resides. This is all new to him: the immensity of the Spirit World, must surely pale in comparison to the confining nursery he’s largely known throughout his life. Plus, the immensity of the world at his smaller size, must make his journey an even bigger event in his young mind.

bou10Bou soon after shows another example of selflessness (following his ‘saving’ Chihiro from being consumed by No-Face some time ago). When the group finally gets to Swamp Bottom, the little Yu-bird finally begins to tire of carrying the little mouse around.

After landing on the ground, Bou thinks for a moment, and then begins to walk on his own, carrying the tired little creature without any prompting. Chihiro even offers to put him on her shoulder again, but Bou refuses the offer.

Once the group finally gets to Zeniiba’s place, Chihiro asks her to change Bou and the Yu-bird back to their original forms. Zeniiba informs the two that the spell they were put under can be undone if the changed persons wish to change back. However, both Bou and the Yu-bird refuse (for the moment).

From here on in, Bou takes advantage of his little size, getting some exercise (and spinning thread) on Zeniiba’s spinning wheel, as well as snacking on the cookies she has put out for her guests.

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After this, Bou is even seen learning how to knit, as Zeniiba coaches him and No Face. In fact, some of his new-found skills went into the new headband that Zeniiba presents to Chihiro, with the old woman claiming it is a gift made possible through her new friends.

bou12When it is finally time for everyone to leave, Zeniiba addresses Bou and the Yu-bird, happily requesting they visit her again. Bou actually makes contact with his Aunt, kissing her on the nose (“Chu!”), and waving as the Yu-bird carries him away.

Upon returning to the bathhouse, Bou returns to his previous form. Yubaba is surprised that her child is able to stand on his own, but grows even more surprised when Bou chastises her plans to test Chihiro.

bou13Bou speaks positively of his journey, claiming he had fun. Even though Yubaba tells Bou that the test is part of how their world works, he shocks her when he says he won’t like her anymore, if she makes Sen cry.

His being vocal towards his mother regarding caring about another’s feelings, is a great example of showing how much Bou has matured.

One has to wonder if after this, his baby-ish ways we saw in the beginning of the film, are now a thing of the past. Though he does have a baby’s body, surely what he has been through, may very well shape him into not becoming greedy or arrogant like his mother.

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It should also be noted that on a smaller level, the Yu-bird does not change back to its previous form. Maybe like Bou, it too has grown to understand a few things, and may no longer be a spy and lackey to the bathhouse owner.

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And thus, another Animated Dissection regarding Spirited Away has come to a close. Though like I explained earlier, there are still other characters and themes to examine. I wonder what I’ll cover next?

An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 3 – The Witch of the Waste accepts who she is

Though Howl and Sophie are the main leads of Hayao Miyazaki’s film Howl’s Moving Castle, another character who is just as integral to the storyline, is The Witch of the Waste. One theme throughout the entire film, is how every other character has a false front regarding just who they are, and by the end, they have shed these fake personas, and come out stronger, and more accepting over who/what they are.

Of course, Miyazaki took many liberties with the characters from Diana Wynne Jones’ story, and the Witch of the Waste is no exception. Much of her involvement with our main characters does not follow the storyline of Jones’ book. Instead, Miyazaki chose to make her a character of age, vanity, and superficiality.

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Much like Howl seems to be close to the village where Sophie lives, there is rumor that the Witch of the Waste is nearby. During her first appearance, she stays hidden within the walls of a small, ornate litter. She is usually accompanied by several ‘blob men,’ who wear brightly-colored clothing and masks. Amazingly enough, no one in the village seems to notice these strange, tall, featureless ‘men.’

When we get our first full look at the Witch of the Waste, she definitely looks a little ‘off’.’ She has the appearance of an older woman, somewhat full-bodied. However, her body looks almost ‘sculpted,’ given that she seems to have a protuberance of neck-flesh under her face.

We can assume she tracked Sophie down, after her blob-men attempted to get Howl on the street in an earlier scene, and reported back as to who she was.

“What a tacky shop,” the Witch says, surveying the room. “I’ve never seen such tacky little hats. Yet you are by far, the tackiest thing here.”

Sophie doesn’t take well to being insulted, and orders this strange woman to leave.

When she leaves, The Witch of the Waste passes through Sophie, casting her aging spell on her. One might wonder why she would do this, but she probably figures that since Howl likes young, beautiful women, aging Sophie into an old woman will put him off her.

The Witch of the Waste then disappears for a good portion of the film after this, but her presence is never far from Howl, or Sophie.

After being taken in by Howl, Sophie finds a red note in the pocket of her dress (most likely placed there when the Witch passed through Sophie). It burns a symbol into a wood table in Howl’s castle, with an ominous message:

You who swallowed a falling star, o’ heartless man, your heart shall soon belong to me.”

Sophie later asks Howl about this, and his association with the Witch of the Waste. Howl claims that he pursued her when he thought she was beautiful. But upon finding out her true form, he ran away. Since then, the Witch of the Waste has been pursuing Howl, trying to ‘recapture’ his heart.

The next time we see The Witch, is when Sophie goes to have an audience with Madame Suliman, the Royal Sorcerer from one of the kingdom’s requesting Howl’s assistance in the current war ravaging the lands. Though Sophie is there to speak on behalf of Howl, the Witch has chosen to personally appear per the royal invite she received from Suliman.

The Witch seems rather pleased to see Sophie, and delighted when Sophie relays that “Howl’s treating her like a house-servant.” When Sophie requests the Witch remove the spell on her, the Witch then explains an intriguing conundrum: though she can cast spells, that doesn’t mean she knows how to cure them.

However, from the moment she steps onto the castle’s grounds, The Witch of the Waste’s demeanor and spirit are tested. Her ‘blob men’ handlers are disabled, and she is required to complete the rest of her journey to meet Madame Suliman, on foot. This then leads to a scene of her and Sophie climbing a large number of stairs. While Sophie is slightly winded by the climb, the Witch of the Waste is even more strained by the ordeal.

Once she gets to the top, her statuesque form becomes stooped, her hair ragged, and the amount of ‘skin’ around her neck area appears to have loosened. In a funny turn-of-events, Sophie enters without the cane she came to the castle with, which has been given to the Witch.

While Sophie is led off to meet with Suliman first, the Witch finds a room with a chair in the center. Looking for relief from her strains, she rushes to it, and breathes a sigh of relief. However, the silence is short-lived, as suddenly a number of large lightbulbs are revealed, and switched on.

The room it turns out, is actually one that the Kingdom uses to gain control of witches and wizards. The room pulls their magic from their bodies, and in their weakened state, it is assumed that they will be persuaded to join with the Kingdom.

With the majority of her powers gone, the Witch’s true age is revealed, imperfections can be seen, and her eyes have taken on a glassy sheen, as seen when she is brought before Madame Suliman, and Sophie.

“There was a time when she, too, was a magnificent sorcerer with so much promise,” Suliman explains to Sophie, “But then she fell prey to a demon of greed who slowly consumed her, body and soul.”

As to who or what this demon is/was, it is never said, but one has to wonder if in some way, it was similar to the effects of what Calcifer had on Howl. Though both Howl and the Witch have very strong magical powers, they have chosen to use them for their own personal (selfish?) purposes. Maybe it could be Suliman claiming the human quality of “vanity” could be that demon?

One has to assume that somewhere in her life, the Witch of the Waste probably began to grow afraid of her age, and when it seemed magic was the only saving grace to the effects of age on her appearance and body, she looked inwardly, and used what powers she had on herself.

We often see this quality in humanity as well. Millions of dollars spent on trying to hide crow’s feet, sagging flesh, and thinning cheeklines. Every other story I pass, it seems there’s some treatment/solution offered, to keep one looking young and invigorated, so they’ll be noticed and attractive to a world that seemingly sees these signs of aging, as ‘deformities.’

The effects of the draining of the Witch of the Waste’s magic has also seemed to age her mind as well. She is quiet after the draining of her powers, but comes out of this ‘fog’ to say a few things, whether latching onto Sophie’s talk about Howl (“I want his heart! It belongs to me!”), or when her attention is drawn by some little things (“what a pretty fire.”). It’s almost like she is in some stages of Alzheimer’s disease, as her memories and coherency seem to come-and-go as the film continues on.

From this point on, the witch becomes little more than an observer for awhile, until the evening after Howl shows Sophie a secret garden. As Sophie helps the Witch into bed, the old woman remarks that Sophie seems to be in love, as she’s been rather quiet for awhile, deep in thought.

When Sophie inquires if the Witch of the Waste has ever been in love, she proclaims she still is. The Witch proclaims how she loves “strapping young men,” for both their hearts and appearances (leading Sophie to give a small look of disgust). She is also cognizant to recognize an air raid siren, and is sure Suliman’s henchmen are looking for where they are.

When Sophie’s mother visits during this time, the Witch becomes a little more active. Opening a draw-string bag Sophie’s mother brought, the witch finds ‘a tracking bug,’ and tosses it to Calcifer to burn up…but it instead, does not agree with his digestion. She also finds a cigar, which she soon takes to smoking. This also seems to make her come alive more, claiming the smoking of the cigar as a “pleasure,” when Sophie wishes her to put it out.

When Howl returns to the house during an aerial raid, both he and the Witch share a small conversation. While she shows slight interest that he has not attempted to run from her, Howl casually claims he’d like to keep talking, but has something else to tend to.

After the cigar is extinguished by Howl, the witch again reverts back to a quiet presence in the background, until Sophie and Calcifer take the moving castle to try and reach Howl. When Calcifer mentions how his powers would be stronger with Sophie’s eyes or her heart, this causes the Witch to perk up.

It is then that she realizes just where Howl’s heart is: it’s the source of where Calcifer is drawing his magic from (aka, the pulsating ‘lump’ that has been attached to Calcifer since we first met him!). This realization then causes the Witch to go for the heart, her greed getting the better of her, as she causes chaos by disturbing Calcifer’s concentration.

In her mad desire to ‘have Howl’s heart,’ it is only afterwards does she realize she has picked up a flaming object, but is unwilling to let go. Sophie then does the logical thing regarding a fire, and throws water on the Witch and Calcifer, whose flame dims to a soft blue!

This move ends up destroying the remnants of the castle, and what magic is left, sends a small portion still marching along, as the Witch laments that her ‘heart is ruined.’

The next time we see the witch, she, Markl, and the scarecrow Turnip Head, are seen atop a wooden flooring, being moved by two legs. As well, the Witch still has not let go of Howl’s heart.

Howl brings Sophie to them, before collapsing. Sophie realizes the only thing that will save Howl is his heart, but the Witch of the Waste is still unwilling to part from it, until Sophie embraces the Witch, pleading to have it back.

“You really want it that badly?” asks the Witch.

When Sophie responds with an affirmative, the old woman finally relents.

“Alright,” she says, handing it over, “But you better be prepared to take care of it.”

This becomes the Witch’s turning point. Though not as major as Howl’s, it is her way of letting go of an old obsession. Her speech to Sophie, almost sounds like she is willing to let this young woman, ‘have’ Howl’s love.

“Thank you,” responds Sophie, kissing the old woman, “you have a big heart.”

Miyazaki’s depictions of forgiveness and even kindness seem to be on a different plane than Western minds. Most people would have assumed Sophie would have held some form of grudge against the Witch of the Waste for all the grief and struggle she put her through. However, in this moment of helping, Sophie is willing to let this action be seen as a sign of apology.

Shortly after Howl’s heart is restored to him, he regains consciousness. As well, Sophie manages to break the curse on another of their comrades named Turnip Head, who it soon turns out, was the Prince, whose disappearance started the war.

The Witch of the Waste even manages to recommend he return to his kingdom quickly to end further fighting of the “ridiculous war.”  She also gives him a wink, saying she looks forward to “his return.”

The final thing we see of the Witch of the Waste, is relaxing in a small garden in the newly-rebuilt Moving Castle. With her magic gone, she seems to have willingly settled into accepting both her age, and appearance…though if her comments to the Prince were any indication, she still has a penchant for handsome young men…proof that not all ‘curses’ can be broken with age and kindness.

__________

Jones’ story marked the first book adaptation Miyazaki had directed (the last one being Kiki’s Delivery Service almost 15 years before), and each time, he puts his own spin on the material, much the way Disney did with Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

This is definitely a change from the way the Witch of the Waste is portrayed in the original story. Though she was banished to the Wastes as mentioned in the film, she curses both Howl and Sophie, and even had plans to usurp the Kingdom, though in the end, Howl ended up killing her. As well, the curse placed upon the scarecrow (dubbed “Turnip Head” in the film), was also the Witch’s doing. But as is the way with Miyazaki’s adaptations, he has his own motivations for the characters and settings. Another example is the castle: Jone’s story depicted it as more of a ‘castle that floated on a cloud, as opposed to what Miyazaki concocted.

One could say that The Witch of the Waste’s “love” is not actually one of being genuine, but more of an obsession based on superficiality, almost a reflection of her own superficiality of keeping her appearance. She has no one she cares for except herself, and her own obsessions. However, it does feel that with the willing kindness that Sophie and the other members of the moving castle have shown her, she is willing to be adopted into this helter-skelter family, and has found a chance to move into a new turning point of her life, just as the others have begun to do.

*And thus concludes a trilogy of character observations in regards to “Howl’s Moving Castle.” I will admit that this post was largely due to a reader who claimed she really enjoyed reading my thoughts on these characters. I have several more regarding other Ghibli films, and I hope to continue to write them. Of all the different postings, I find these have been some of my most-viewed writings.*

Movie Review: The Wind Rises

Growing up can be a funny thing. In the last 5-7 years, I had grown shocked when such popular animators like Andreas Dejas and Glen Keane took their leave from Walt Disney Feature Animation. And then in the fall of 2013, one of the most shocking proclamations was made: legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki claimed he was retiring…for real, this time!

After almost a decade of saying each new animated feature film would be his last, Hayao finally admitted that The Wind Rises was truly the end of the road for him, marking his 11th directorial workand also one that seemed a real departure from his previous works… in a manner of speaking.

Unlike his past works,The Wind Rises focuses on a real-life figure: Jiro Horkoshi. While that name means nothing to Western minds, Jiro was a renowned aircraft designer in Japan during the second World War. One of his biggest claims-to-fame, was the design of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In historical terms, it was these planes that would be instrumental in numerous attacks on Pacific targets, including Pearl Harbor.

Airplanes and flight have largely seemed a point of fascination for Hayao Miyazaki, as seen in the majority of his films. Along with crafting his own flying machines for many of his fantasy pictures, his 1992 production Porco Rosso, took place amid the European world in the 1930’s, with numerous aircraft playing big roles in its storyline. Needless to say, it almost feels like The Wind Rises shares some animated DNA with Porco.

In a dream during his childhood, Jiro encounters Italian aircraft designer, Caproni.

At the start of the film, Jiro is a young man who dreams of flying, but is frustrated that his near-sightedness means he won’t be able to soar above the clouds. It is in his own thoughts that he resolves to do the next best thing: if he cannot fly aircraft, he can design them. His dreams soon include famed Italian airplane designer, Gianni Caproni, after he has read about Caproni’s many works. Jiro soon becomes so enamored with the designer, that the two seem to “share” a dream, with the Italian giving Jiro guidance, and showing him aircraft that have not yet been built.

The overall film shows Jiro traverse across almost 30 years of his life, growing from a dreamy young boy, to an employee for the Mitsubishi Internal Combustion Engine Company Limited.

At work, Jiro is constantly being scrutinized by his diminutive boss, Kurokawa. Much like the character of Piccolo in Porco Rosso, much comedy is milked out of these situations, from Kurokawa’s constantly flapping hair, to his quick and snappy demands. Word was, some on the Studio Ghibli staff said the character reminded them of Miyazaki himself.

Jiro (left) shows his latest efforts to senior designer Hattori (center), and his boss, Kurokawa (right)

The process of the company’s airplane construction is also rather intriguing. Jiro’s friend Honjo tells how he wishes for them to develop airplanes that are as advanced as those in other corners of the world, but that by the time Japan has done so, newer innovations will keep them behind. Also as a show that the country is still behind, is that when it comes time to take their latest creations to be tested, a team of oxen are utilized to pull the aircraft.

In the film, Jiro is given the role of a man who seems to constantly be upright and in control of a situation, even when it seems to be falling apart. This may seem odd to some Western minds, but it is the concept of the film’s “hero” being in control that seems to be at work here. It could be that this is a way of Jiro thinking, “this didn’t work, but my greatest masterpiece will happen one day.” There’s a look and action about Jiro, that reminded me of Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, and to a lesser extent, Haku from Spirited Away.

Naoko (left) and Jiro (right) make their way through a freak downpour.

The one concept that has never really been a big part of Miyazaki’s films, has been romance. Or if there is, it’s usually been very subdued. However, the use of it within Rises becomes something that feels rushed, and rather implausible. The meeting between Jiro and Naoko Satomi has its moments, but unlike some of the stronger female characters we’ve seen Miyazaki give us in the past, she comes off as more of a prop to Jiro’s story. While the real-life Jiro did marry in his lifetime, the character of Naoko is largely fabricated. It’s possible she may have been created as a way to showcase the life of those in society outside of the factory walls.

It is also within the narrative structure of the film, that I found myself rather non-plussed. Japan has been known to do non-linear storytelling, but even in concepts like Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, I was still able to not feel jarred as much from the story, as I was during Rises. It feels like the film could have been 3 hours long, but was truncated to only show certain highlights of Jiro’s career.

Another area that I found rather off-putting, was that I never really felt like I connected with many of the people that Jiro is surrounded by. The two most prominent characters that stood out to me, were Mr Kurokawa, and Jiro’s sister, Kayo. Maybe it was because they were two that seemed to get a little more ’emotional’ than some of the more subdued, extra characters. I was expecting maybe more interaction even with Jiro’s co-worker and University friend Honjo, but he seems almost as stoic and deep-in-thought as Jiro at times.

Naoko contemplates by a small pool.

Of course, one thing we cannot discount, is that the tradition of painterly stylings by Studio Ghibli is alive and well in this latest feature. While the film relies once again on computer technology, much of the vehicular flight and movement appears to have largely been achieved by hand. Even in one scene, where smoke is released from a series of plane engines, it curls and swoops in graceful ways that computer simulations can’t replicate.

In each of his films, there seems to be an element that Miyazaki chooses to do differently from his other works, and in Rises, it becomes a notion of sound. Much of the sound of the airplanes we see, are comprised of human vocals making noise. This even seems to carry over into one of the most eye-opening sequences, when Jiro finds himself in part of 1923’s Great Kanto Earthquake. The sound of the event is one of a heavy-breathing, almost visceral human voice. Even in the eventual aftershocks, the Earth seems to ‘breathe’ like that of an angered being.

In the last few years, Studio Ghibli has given itself over to films that seem more real than fantasy. 2011’s From Up On Poppy Hill is almost completely devoid of these flights of fancy, and The Wind Rises also seems to be going down a more ‘mature’ path. Even so, Hayao’s swansong seems a little more “humble” next to his greatest works like Princess Mononoke, or Spirited Away. In a sense, it almost feels like a last great experiment, much in the same vein as Ponyo (which was done without the use of computers).

The real Jiro Horikoshi

In select cities, the film is being released in both an English-Dub, and a subtitled version, which is the first time since Spirited Away that one of Studio Ghibli’s films has had this happen. If you’re a fan of Hayao’s work, then I strongly recommend taking the time to see The Wind Rises.  Though it isn’t as full of previous flights of fancy, there’s a finality to it that almost seems to gel with Miyazaki’s claims that his retirement this time is permanent…and if that is so, he can be credited as one of the few directors that was able to go out on decent note.

An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 2 – Howl learns maturity

As I started writing about Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, I suddenly realized I was doing a great disservice by not analyzing another character who grows and changes in the film: Howl himself!

Though Howl’s outward appearance doesn’t make as major a change as Sophie does,  it is his inner self that changes over the course of the film.

The village where Sophie lives has rumored about Howl for some time. Though noone seems to know exactly what the wizard looks like, Sophier’s co-workers at the hat shop tell how he’s interested in devouring the hearts of pretty young girls (even Sophie’s step-sister Lettie mentions this).

Our first appearance of Howl is as a handsome blonde-haired, blue-eyed young man. Though he doesn’t devour Sophie’s heart, one could say he has almost ‘stolen’ it, given how she seems in an unbelieving daze after their encounter.

Howl doesn’t reappear until after Sophie has been cursed, and finds her way into his moving castle. Though he does have an apprentice (a little boy named Markl), this doesn’t necessarily make Howl ‘mature.’ The castle is helter-skelter inside and out. Dust and cobwebs all over the place, not to mention books and bric-a-brac everywhere.

We soon find that Howl is also a fugitive of sorts: he uses multiple identities across different kingdoms, and different portals of entry to them. With a war going on, each of the kingdoms is recruiting wizards and witches to join in with their battles, but Howl does not take sides, preferring to stay neutral to the kingdom’s various affairs.

Using his magic powers, Howl turns himself into a winged creature, that seems to just pass through the battles, sometimes taking on some of the aircraft or wizards in small skirmishes. However, such use of power is slowly taking a toll on him. Calcifer mentions that the more times he goes into these battles, he loses himself to being unable to regain his human form. One could almost see this as Miyazaki’s way of saying that war can ‘change’ people, sometimes not for the better.

Sophie is one of the first to really make a change in Howl’s lifestyle (for the better). First intentionally (cleaning the entire castle), and then accidentally (messing with his potions in the bathroom). This results in Howl having a breakdown in vanity, when he shows her that his blonde hair has turned reddish-orange, before finally regaining his ‘natural’ black coloration.

In a surreal and dark scene, we see Howl lamenting that unless he’s beautiful, he has no point in living. This causes the room to twist and bend, and a green ‘goo’ permeates through his skin. Sophie considers this to be the equivalent of him ‘throwing a tantrum,’ but also shows how vain Howl has become.

When we next see Howl, he’s laying in bed (in his rather cluttered bedroom). His hair is still black, and from this point on, he doesn’t attempt to change its color again (a first step into accepting who he is, and moving into maturity).

After the ‘hair fiasco,’ we find out more regarding Howl’s immaturity. He tells Sophie about how he once was in love with the Witch of the Waste, but then when he found out she wasn’t beautiful, he left her. As well, he has not answered any of the summons by the different kingdoms in regards to their recruiting him for their side of the war.

Sophie recommends that Howl meet with at least one of the Kingdom’s rulers, and explain his own feelings in regards to the war. Howl feels that such a thing won’t deter the request for him to serve, when he hits on a ‘bright idea.’ He suggests that Sophie pretend to be his Mother, and get him out of his obligation with one of the kingdoms. Naturally, she sees this as just another way for him to avoid responsibility. When Howl sends her off, her expression and tone definitely make it clear that she is disappointed at his ‘solution,’ and is doing this ‘under protest.’

However, Howl gives her some consolation to this plan. Before she leaves, he slips a ring onto her finger, telling her that it will protect her, and that he’ll be following her in disguise.

Going to the Royal Palace of one of the kingdoms, Sophie has an audience with the King’s Royal Sorcerer, Madame Suliman. Suliman reveals to Sophie that Howl was once her most gifted student, one whose powers she felt could lead him to taking her position. However, his heart was ‘stolen’ by a demon, and he left his apprenticeship.

Suliman claims that Howl’s uses of magic now are purely for selfish reasons, and that without a heart, he may soon be unable to control his powers. This is some nice insight into the powers Howl has, as well as the thought that demons exist in this world, and can corrupt the magic of some users.

Eventually, Howl shows up in disguise, attempting to retrieve Sophie. However, his disguise is seen through by Suliman, and she uses her powers to make Howl’s powers manifest. Without his heart, Suliman’s powers bring forth the winged creature inside Howl.

Sophie manages to get through to Howl, causing him to regain focus, and escape with her and The Witch of the Waste (who had also been summoned by Suliman). Using a flying vehicle, Howl sends them back to the castle, while he disappears from sight.

After this, Howl returns late in the evening, transformed moreso into his winged creature form, and dripping blood. Sophie awakens and follows his trail, encountering Howl in a carved-out cave, embedded with toys and children’s things. At the end of them, she finds Howl transformed into a large, winged creature. She tells the winged Howl that she wants to help him, but is met with a response of “You’re too late,” before the creature disappears into darkness. A few moments later, it seems that the encounter was nothing more than a dream, but it may have given Sophie some clues to helping Howl.

Sophie then speaks with Calcifer the fire demon, regarding Howl. Calcifer and Sophie have a deal that if Calcifer’s curse is broken, he can break Sophie’s. However, neither is allowed (per the spells on them) to tell what needs to be done to break the spell. At this point, Sophie suspects that Calcifer was the demon who stole Howl’s heart. He is unable to say yes or no to her question, but when she inquires what would happen if Calcifer was extinguished, the fire demon mentions that Howl will die if he (Calcifer) dies.

Eventually, Howl reveals himself to everyone. He’s in good spirits, and informs his new ‘family’ (which now includes the true-aged Witch of the Waste) that they are moving to a new location, since the link to one of the kingdoms has been severed (to prevent Suliman from finding them).

The new place they move into is moreso a ‘home’ than anything else: in fact, it’s the former hat shop that Sophie once lived in! Howl has even included an extra bathroom, and has given Sophie her own room. It feels moreso like Howl is growing up, thinking of others. He even gives Sophie a little insight into his past, by taking her to a secret garden, allowing her access to come here whenever she wishes.

Howl’s new role as a family protector continues on, as he soon after goes away. The town is evacuated, but Sophie, Markl, and The Witch of the Waste stay behind. Howl patrols the skies, becoming more and more bird-like as the war draws closer.

When Howl finally does return to the new home, it is when it is threatened. Howl manages to stop a bomb from destroying the home, and attempts to help cleanse Calcifer of a deadly ‘tracking bug’ that was snuck into the house.

He then attempts to leave, but Sophie wants him to not fight, and come away with them to seek refuge within the castle (whose main location is situated on the outskirts of the town, away from the firefight). However, Howl claims that he won’t run anymore, and that he is committed to fighting to protect her and their ‘family.’

Unable to stop him from leaving them, Sophie has Markl, The Witch of the Waste, and Calcifer transferred into the castle. Going outside, she can see Howl tearing into one of the kingdom’s flying machines. From the distance, he looks like a roaring monster, most likely a side-effect that war has thoroughly unleashed his inner demons, pushing aside his humanity.

Sophie then severs the castle’s connection to the hat shop, and taking control of the castle, intends to get to Howl (with Calcifer’s help). Her assumption is that if Howl realizes that the hat shop is no longer tied to the castle, and that they are safe, he’ll give up fighting (and most likely quell the darkness inside him).

However, when the Witch of the Waste finally realizes that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, her old selfish desires and vanity surface, and she grabs for it, breaking up the castle, separating Sophie from the others.

After being separated from the others, the ring Howl gave Sophie begins to emit a light, and she goes through a doorway, finding herself in Howl’s past. As she watches, she sees a younger version of Howl in the floating garden, amid a series of falling stars. Each one seems to be a living being, that soon dissipates and dies within seconds.

One of the falling stars lands right in Howl’s hands. As Sophie watches, he seems to talk to it, before ingesting it. After a few moments, a flaming mass emerges through his chest, beating. It is here that Sophie is witness to how Calcifer came to be in Howl’s employ: in order for Calcifer to live, Howl gave Calcifer his heart, in exchange for the ability to use his powers. This revelation gives Sophie the last puzzle piece to saving Howl: In order for Howl and Calcifer to be free of the other, Howl’s heart must be returned.

Sophie then emerges back to the present, to find Howl standing before her, now an enormous, feathery creature. The only vestige of humanity is Howl’s face, which is slowly being taken over. Even his eyes seem dull and blank when Sophie addresses him. Sophie tells him to take them to the others, and silently, the Howl-bird does so.

Upon arriving with the others, Howl collapses, feathers from his bird-form floating away, to reveal his human body. However, he does not move.

Pleading with the Witch of the Waste for Howl’s heart to be returned, the old woman complies. After Howl’s heart fades into his chest, Calcifer suddenly escapes in the form of a twinkling starlight. However, without Calcifer’s power, the remnants of the moving castle fully collapse.

Shortly afterwards, Howl speaks, but complains of a weight on his chest.

“A heart’s a heavy burden,” replies Sophie, as she smiles at Howl’s return.

The return of his heart, is one of the final symbols that Howl has now fully-matured. Now no longer relying on Calcifer for the brunt of his magic abilities, he now has full responsibility over his own magic and actions.

The final scenes show that the castle has been rebuilt. But unlike its previous incarnation of something that a young boy would build, the new castle is smaller, and seems more suited for the new family that Howl and Sophie have brought together. Though it does have a few of the original castle’s traits, it shows a familial compromise that makes it very…homey.

__________

…But wait, there’s still more of the surface to scratch away regarding Miyazaki’s film. In our next part, we’ll look at another transformed character: The Witch of the Waste.

Movie Review: From Up On Poppy Hill

Though famed directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata founded Studio Ghibli with their visions during the late 20th century, the first 10 years of the 21st century opened the door for younger directors to make their mark with the studio.

There was 2002’s The Cat Returns, a pseudo-sequel to 1995’s Whisper of the Heart.

2010 saw the release of the Miyazaki co-scripted, The Secret World of Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s book, The Borrowers.

However, there was one film released between these two, that would be spoken of in hushed tones by several Ghibli fans. In 2006, the studio released Tales from Earthsea, based on the popular books by Ursula K Le Guin. When it came time to develop the film, it was decided by producer Toshio Suzuki, that the reins would be handed to another Miyazaki: Hayao’s son, Goro.

This led to some negativity between father and son, with the elder Miyazaki feeling his son did not have the necessary experience for such a task. Words were not exchanged between either during the film’s production.

Upon release, its reception was a mixed bag, with some entranced, and others who found it lacking in regards to its source material. I will admit that out of all the films produced by the studio, I still am not interested in seeing Earthsea. In some respects, it is to Studio Ghibli, what Cars is to (some) PIXAR Animation Studios’ fans.

Five years after Earthsea, the studio released From Up On Poppy Hill. Unlike the wedge between father and son from the Earthsea production, Hayao co-wrote the film’s script with Keiko Niwa (both also worked on Arrietty), and Goro returned to direct.

Unlike the fantasy world that Goro stepped into with Earthsea, Poppy Hill places its audience in our world, albeit Japan in 1963.

The main protagonist of our film is Umi Matsuzaki, a young high school girl who has also taken on the responsibility of helping take care of her family’s boarding house on a hillside in Yokohama, and looking after her siblings and Grandmother. Along with preparing morning and evening meals for the house’s tenants, Umi also has a morning ritual of her own: raising a set of ‘signal flags’ on a flagpole overlooking the town’s harbor below.

One day, one of Umi’s friends notices that someone at the school has written a poem in the school’s newspaper, about a young woman who raises signal flags on a hill. They briefly wonder who wrote the poem, when their attention is caught by the young men of a dilapedated building on school grounds called The Latin Quarter.

One person whom Umi meets here is Shun Kazama, a young man who runs the school’s newspaper out of a room in the building. In exchange for ‘help’ on an upcoming exam, Umi helps Shun prepare the next edition of the paper. While she assists him, she begins to grow curious regarding the strange building. Though dirty and largely populated by young men, it house the majority of the school’s many clubs, and those inside its walls are trying desperately to save it from demolition.

Poppy Hill is a film that falls into that category of Ghibli films that may turn away most who are more attuned to the magical films made by the studio. However, for those who love Ghibli‘s work regarding films like Whisper of the Heart or Only Yesterday, this will definitely seem like putting on a pair of comfortable shoes.

That could also be a good and a bad thing too. Watching the film, I was surprised how many little moments in the film made me think, “I’ve seen a situation like that in (insert Studio Ghibli film here).”

Of importance to the film’s theme, is not forgetting your past, as you move forward. The film is sandwiched between the aftermath of World War II, and the 1964 Olympic Games, which were held in Tokyo. In our modern world, images of Japan largely are of neon-lit, Metropolitan cities. This film shows us a time before that, with Yokohama’s buildings seeming simple, and not so grandiose. One scene even had me wondering how long many of those wooden structures lasted, before they were torn down in the name of progress.

The Latin Quarter becomes an unofficial symbol of an object caught in the crosshairs of the old and new. In a sense, the place almost feels like a combination of Animal House’s’ Frat house, and the bathhouse from Spirited Away. It’s an impressive structure, but definitely feels like the kind of place that multiple young men would inhabit, given its unclean interior. For this review, I’ve refrained from showing any key screenshots of the structure, as it would detract from experiencing it with your own eyes when it’s revealed on screen.

Character-wise, there are plenty of things that one can expect when they see Umi and Shun, and some things one might not expect. There are quite a number of supporting characters, not to mention numerous members of The Latin Quarter, several of which seem to have been inserted purely for comic relief.

The film is not bad for Goro Miyazaki’s sophomore effort, though online there seem to be a few debates here and there over which Miyazaki is to be credited for the film: Goro for his directing, or Hayao for his co-scripting. I do wonder if Goro is a lover of fading out on a scene. I think there are more fade-outs in Poppy Hill than any other production from the studio’s catalogue.

Poppy Hill also marks the first distribution of a Ghibli film in the USA, that isn’t under Walt Disney Pictures (though Disney is handling international distribution in some markets). Distribution of the film and future Ghibli releases, are being handled through GKids. GKids has been instrumental in recent years, for releasing several foreign animated releases into theaters, including Oscar nominees The Secret of Kells, and A Cat in Paris.

In the end, From Up On Poppy Hill is a wonderful time capsule of a film, capturing youths in Japan at a cross roads in time. Call it blasphemous, but to me, it is not too dissimilar to George Lucas’ American Graffiti, an American film set in 1962, showing American teenagers also at a moment in time betwixt past and future.

“Destroy the old, and you destroy our memory of the past.  Don’t you care about the people who lived and died before us? There’s no future for people who worship the future, and forget the past” – Shun Kazama

*Special Thanks to Eric Prahl, who helped make this review possible.

An Animated Dissection: The Enigma of “Spirited Away’s” No(h) Face

10 years ago, American audiences were treated to the theatrical release of Hayao Miyazaki’s animated feature, Spirited Away (or Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, as it’s called in Japan). Originally released in Japan in 2001, Miyazaki’s unpredictable story about a girl trapped in a world of spirits became a box-office juggernaut in its homeland, becoming the most profitable film of all time in that country, overtaking Titanic’s Japanese box-office grosses from 1997/1998.

Its reception on American shores however, was a little different. Appearing on only 151 screens during its September 2002 release, it quickly sank from sight, but returned to the spotlight over the course of awards season, taking home numerous critics awards, before managing to win the Best Animated Feature Oscar for the year.

Spirited Away was filled with many strange creatures, but there was one that seemed truly enigmatic: the figure/thing/entity known as No Face. When I first heard his name, I thought it was actually spelled ‘Noh Face,’ given that his face seems to resemble masks from Japanese Noh Theater productions.

No Face’s presence and actions have never been fully explained by Miyazaki, and so many people have come up with their own ideas regarding his actions. Given my penchant for Animated Dissections, I have my own thoughts and ideas as to Hayao Miyazaki’s masked enigma, and below, I intend to present them.

*Warning: If you have not seen Spirited Away, I strongly recommend turning back and watching the film before reading onward. A lot of what I discuss will be familiar to those who have seen the film.*
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When we first see No Face, he’s standing on the bridge to the spirit’s bath house, just watching the spirits passing on by. Almost noone pays No Face any mind or notices him, until Chihiro passes him. We see her eyes look at him for a few moments, and he seems to stare after her.

The next appearance of No Face is on the bridge the next day. Chihiro also makes eye contact with him, before attempting to walk past him. As a quick ‘hello,’ she gives him a slight nod, and then rushes past. Though when she turns to look back at No Face, he’s disappeared.

The next time we see him, is after Chihiro returns to the bath house. As she enters through a side door, we see No Face appear briefly, walking towards the entrance, before disappeaering into thin air.

It almost seems that No Face is a creature that does not know who he is, or what purpose he serves in life. We never know exactly when he decided to stand on the bridge, or even how long he’s been there. Though one has to wonder if Chihiro’s little glances and even her polite bow was a trigger of sorts. Kind of like a puppy tagging along behind someone who shows it a little kindness, No Face follows Chihiro onto the bath house grounds.

The next time we see No Face, he’s standing in one of the bath house’s gardens, as Chihiro empties a bucket in a nearby doorway. This time, she addresses him verbally, concerned that he may be getting wet. As she’s called away by her co-worker Lin, she tells No Face that she’ll leave the door open for him. Taking this as an invitation, No Face then enters the bath house. The smile on his face almost seems to look like he’s actually happy that not only has someone like Chihiro talked and noticed him, but she did something for him (let him into this place).

No Face’s next appearance comes when Chihiro attempts to get a wooden token needed for cleaning a tub in the bathhouse. The Manager refuses to provide her with one, before No Face invisibly picks one up, and tosses it to Chihiro. We see No Face appears briefly with only Chihiro seeing him. After she receives the token, she expresses thanks, which seems to be directed towards No Face.

Once the token has been used, No Face appears in the bath where Chihiro is working. Unsure why he’s there, Chihiro’s first assumption is that he’s a guest like the other spirits, and has come to use the bath. However, she is surprised when No Face presents her with more bath tokens. We also find that he has a voice, but only murmurs and gives little sounds of “ah,” almost like he’s shy, or afraid to talk. Even though she’s offered the tokens, Chihiro refuses to take them. We see No Face hesitate for a moment, before fading away, and the tokens clatter to the floor.

At this point, I equate No Face to being almost like a kid trying to gain favor with another. He noted how Chihiro really appreciated that first bath token, and most likely assumed, ‘If she liked just one, she’ll love a whole lot more!’ However, this plan didn’t pan out. It could also be her negative reaction to them that caused him to go away, feeling ashamed that he hadn’t given her what she wanted.

After this, No Face appears briefly in an unoccupied bath chamber, after Chihiro has succeeded in cleansing a large River Spirit, who has left copious amounts of gold behind in lieu of payment. No Face has taken notice on how the majority of the bath house turned out for this guest, and how excited they were that he left gold behind. We see him holding some pieces of gold and ‘thinking,’ before he disappears again.

He then appears later that evening in the same tub that was used to bathe the River Spirit, and encounters a little frog in the employ of the bath house. He lures the frog with the promise of gold (that seems to pour forth from his hands), and swallows the creature. This is the first indication that No Face has any sort of physical mouth, as we see inner gums and teeth as the frog is consumed.

The bathhouse manager hears the commotion, and comes to investigate. He then encounters No Face, this time larger, sprouting frog-like legs, and speaking in the voice of the frog. The manager grows a bit apprehensive that the voice sounds so familiar, but No Face then starts giving plenty of gold, demanding food and a bath, along with having the entire staff of the bath house awoken to serve him. One also has to wonder if maybe some of No Face’s current actions are fueled by the mindset of the frog, who like many in the bathhouse, has a rather greedy nature (after all, he snuck back into the baths looking for missed pieces of gold).

Some hours later, we see No Face sitting in the bath filled with water, as numerous staff keep yelling for his attention, and providing him with food. No Face just keeps demanding more of everything, and sprinkling gold pieces around. Eventually, he leaves the tub, and walks through the bath house, as the manager sings a song about their large and very rich customer. The rest of the staff just smile and eagerly ask for tips.

Chihiro has no idea of what has been going on, and only finds out when she attempts to get to Yubaba’s office to help Haku. Seeing No Face, she thanks him for helping her with the bath token earlier.

No Face brings the procession to a halt when he flings the bathhouse manager aside, then extends his hands out, causing a pile of gold to appear. He happily offers it to Chihiro, but she claims she doesn’t want it. This causes his face to falter, as she then rushes off, causing No Face to let the gold fall to the floor, as the greedy inhabitants of the bath house rush for the pieces.

A pained expression passes over his face, like he can’t comprehend why she does not accept his ‘gifts’ like everyone else. Along with the multiple bath tokens he offered, this is the second time he has been ‘spurned’ by her.

In frustration, No Face then consumes the bathhouse manager, and one of the female employees. This causes the rest of the staff to panic and flee, as No Face grows larger.

After this scene, Chihiro sneaks into Yubaba’s chambers at the top of the bathhouse, where she overhears Yubaba angrily talking on her phone with some of the staff. It is here that Chihiro first hears this thing she’s met referred to as a ‘No Face’ (or ‘Kaonashi,’ in Japanese). Yubaba then leaves to deal with No Face.

Upon meeting with him, Yubaba learns how Chihiro invited No Face into the baths. Attempting to calm No Face, he soon demands to have Chihiro brought to him. The staff manage to find Chihiro, and she is then ‘presented’ to No Face.

This time when we see him, No Face has grown considerably larger, and sprouted extra limbs. The Noh mask is suspended on a neck, and appears to have also grown hair atop it. One noticeable trait is that the mask’s mouth looks ‘confused’ and the face ‘blank,’ and seems moreso like a mask than the creature’s face now. When No Face spoke before, it was without any mask or mouth movements. This time, it is through the mouth with gums and teeth that he speaks. As well, his voice alternates between that of the bathhouse manager, and the frog.

No Face requests that Chihiro try some of the food that is sitting around the room, or take some gold from him.

When Chihiro remains silent, he asks what she would like. When she responds that she would like to leave and go somewhere, he is taken aback. She then says that he should return where he came from, claiming she doesn’t want anything he has to offer.

This negative declaration causes No Face’s neck and mask to withdraw into its body, almost as if it’s expressing pain of rejection. Chihiro then inquires where No Face came from, and if he has a Mother or Father as well. Speaking with the frog’s voice, No Face says that he has noone, and that he is lonely. This declaration is one of the few lines we have in which we learn a little about No Face. It seems he’s a lost being who just wants to belong, and that in a sense, he is ’empty.’ One could see his gluttony in the bathhouse as a means to fill himself up to escape the emptiness, but as we’ve seen, this has provided him with no satisfaction.

It also makes one wonder: if Chihiro had accepted the extra bath tokens or gold from No Face previously, would he have consumed her the way he did the frog?

Almost as a way to counter Chihiro’s inquisition, an arm extends filled with gold, and No Face (using the voice of the bathhouse manager) demands she take it. The arm almost looks like it’s going to grab her, when Bou (Yubaba’s baby, who has been turned into a mouse) intervenes, saving her with his small-yet-heroic act.

This distraction allows Chihiro to present No Face with a small ‘bitter dango’ (aka a bitter dumpling) that she received from the River Spirit she helped bathe. She tells No Face that she was saving it for her parents, but is giving it to him instead. Chihiro already used a portion of the dango to help Haku regurgitate a sickness that was eating away at him from within, so the audience is well aware of what its bitterness can do to a being.

No Face immediately swallows it, but due to its bitter taste, he begins to vomit up a black substance. Still sickened, he turns to Chihiro, and demands to know what she just gave him.

He next charges after her, as Chihiro runs down flight after flight of stairs. Her intention soon becomes clear: lure him out of the bath house, away from where he can do harm or further damage.

As No Face continues to follow her, he begins to shrink in size, losing bits of himself like sticky tar, and even regurgitating the people he swallowed.

Making his way outside, No face has returned to normal. Seeing Chihiro, he follows her along a submerged railroad track. By now, some would assume that No Face is the equivalent of some form of ‘spirit-world stalker,’ but to me, the reason why he follows Chihiro, is that she is the only thing that has so far made any sense in this world. The bathhouse both confused and mentally messed him up, given the mindset of those who worked in the establishment. Once outside of the place, any wants and desires that its inhabitants possessed do not affect his judgement.

Chihiro is one of the few beings that still has managed to keep a level head, and this could be the reason why No Face pursues her even now.

As a train pulls up to a small concrete platform, Chihiro is about to get on, when the conductor (a shadowy figure whose face we never see), notices No Face behind Chihiro. She offers to invite him along, and they board the train. Inside, there are a number of other shadowy figures.

As an aside to our No Face-related article, these figures are another enigma in Miyazaki’s story, as their somewhat see-through appearance seems similar to No Face’s black body. Though these figures are wearing human clothing, one has to wonder if maybe they were humans who also accidentally wandered into the spirit world, and eventually forgot who they were, hence their see-through, non-human features. In the beginning of the film, Chihiro was in danger of becoming transparent as well. Would what happened to these shadowy human figures have befallen her too if Haku hadn’t intervened?

Another little character moment for No Face comes after Chihiro walks away from the train’s door, and sits down on a seat. No Face seems to have a small panic-attack, unsure just what to do. It’s almost reminiscent of him being out in the bathhouse’s gardens, until Chihiro gives him a purpose. This time, she motions for him to sit next to her, and be still. He obeys, and stays docile through their trip.

The train takes the small group to Swamp Bottom, where Chihiro hopes to find a way to save her friend, Haku. No face continues to quietly follow her to the house of Zeniiba, Yubaba’s twin sister. Upon reaching it, a female voice beckons them inside. No Face is apprehensive of its sound, but Chihiro verbally gets him to enter the small cottage. After Zeniiba hears out Chihiro regarding Haku, she takes notice of No Face, and (addressing him by name) requests that he sit down.

It seems in this environment, much like that of the bathhouse, No Face is influenced by those around him. At Zeniiba’s table, we see him politely sipping tea, and eating what appears to be cheesecake. He also seems intent on keeping to himself, not once taking interest in Chihiro and Zeniiba’s conversation nearby. When he finishes his piece of cake, he just sits quietly.

After this, we see No Face working at a spinning wheel, where Zeniiba gives him positive comments on what he’s doing. This is also one of the first times since leaving the bathhouse that the mask on his face has a smile on it.

Once the spinning of thread is done, Zeniiba can be seen teaching No Face how to knit. Unlike Yubaba, Zeniiba is definitely the direct opposite of her sister. While Yubaba is moreso about wealth and more expensive things, Zeniiba is more down-to-earth. Living in a small thatched cottage, greeting her guests by preparing tea, and being more practical in some things. When she gives Chihiro a hairband that will offer her protection, she tells how her friends (including No Face) each contributed to its creation.

Eventually, Haku comes for Chihiro, and as they prepare to leave, Zeniiba tells No Face that he can stay and help her in her cottage. No Face eagerly nods his head, even verbalizing the small “Ah” sound, as a sign that he accepts her offer. It seems like a good place for him to stay, as there seems to be almost no outside influences that could cause him to  pick up bad character traits, and Zeniiba’s kindness and generosity towards him and Chihiro, surely will help him as well.

The last we see of No Face, is him and Zeniiba waving goodbye as Haku takes off with Chihiro on his back. And with that final image, No Face’s journey to find a place to belong, appears to be over.

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And there you have it. My observations and ideas regarding one of Hayao Miyazaki’s most enigmatic characters. Just remember, a lot of what was expressed is my interpretations, and I’m sure there are plenty of other people out there with their own. However, I have not read or found very many online.

When I first read The Art of Spirited Away, there wasn’t that much regarding No Face for character concepts, and the small bit of art that was there, provided these rather shocking drawings:

These images are definitely more colorful than the final images of No Face, and makes one wonder just what some of his original concepts could have been to make him so bright and ornate.

One little thing I was surprised was that upon writing this article, I suddenly found myself opening a door to other observations about Spirited Away that I have also been pondering. Much like my Animated Dissection on Howl’s Moving Castle‘s Sophie, I intend to write some more thoughts regarding certain aspects of the film at a later time.

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“No Face is basically expressionless, but I ended up adding just a tiny bit of expression. It might have been better to make his mask more Noh-like without any expression at all, conveying his expressions by lighting. No Face swallows the bath house workers, and I thought it might have been interesting if he acquired their personalities and ability to reason. This way he might become more human and appealing” – Supervising Animator, Masashi Ando, quoted from The Art of Spirited Away

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Book Review: The Toy Story Films – An Animated Journey, by Charles Solomon

It’s hard to believe that recently, I realized that author Charles Solomon had been keeping me in the loop on behind-the-scenes animation since I was a teenager. His hardcover book The Disney That Never Was (released back in 1995) was at the time, one of the few ways that many of us could see unused concept art and story material from The Walt Disney Archives.

In 2010, Charles also authored The Art of Toy Story 3, which not only showcased much of the film’s concept art, but provided a verbally entertaining story in regards to the film’s journey that spanned almost a decade, making it one of the most satisfying ‘Art Of’ books for a PIXAR production I had come across.

Which brings us to today, with Solomon’s recently-released The Toy Story Films – An Animated Journey. Book-ended with a foreword by Hayao Miyazaki and an afterword by John Lasseter, this 192-page book summarizes the trilogy’s history and work processes.

The first chapter chronicles John Lasseter’s fascination with computer animation, includes these breakdown images of a computer/hand-drawn animation test showing Max from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” (hand-drawn animation by Glen Keane)

The book starts at the beginning, before the name PIXAR was on anyone’s lips. We go back to the early 1980’s at the Walt Disney Studios, where John Lasseter’s early experimentation of putting hand-drawn characters within moving 3-dimensional backgrounds was pooh-poohed, and his plans to use computers to create a film around the book The Brave Little Toaster was canned. John then joined Lucasfilm at the behest of Ed Catmull, where he became one of the first to help show that computer imagery could have a life beyond flying logos, with his work on The Adventures of Wally B, Luxo, Jr, and many other short films in which computer animation was given ‘character.’

We are then led into the early stages of development that would become Toy Story. From this point on, each of the Toy Story films is given its own chapter, which contain plenty of information on story development, along with concept and final art .

Pages chronicling the early development of “Toy Story,” including a concept sketch of an angry teddy bear, who would serve as a precursor to “Toy Story 3’s” Lotso.

Toy Story’s production is chronicled quite well, telling of its original incarnation where studio notes made Woody into an edgy, mean-spirited ‘tyrant,’ and also hearing from various people about items such as the design of Sid’s home, or even the thrill and trepidation of working on the world’s first computer-animated film. Reading over it, I felt like John Lasseter and I were kindred spirits when I read about how he handled his toys as a child:

“I always felt John was a freak and Andy was a freak. No kid treats their toys that well,” counters Andrew Stanton. “I think most boys treated their toys like Joe Ranft and I did, which was play with them until they broke.”

The one area of the book I was most interested in, had to do with my favorite PIXAR film, Toy Story 2. Originally pitched as a direct-to-video feature, it soon was considered for a theatrical release, but was halted when the story being considered was not living up to the expectations of the senior leadership (who had been busy working on A Bug’s Life at the time, leaving a ‘B-Team’ to work on the Toy Story sequel). Due to the 11th hour production schedule to complete the picture to its final form (the final film we know and love was completed in 9 months, which is unheard of!), there was no time even for a ‘Making of’ book to be created in 1999. The breakneck experience is summarized very well, though like most rubber-neckers, I was hoping for more stories of what the artists went through trying to make that film. We get a few examples, but nothing quite as harrowing as some stories I’ve heard out there.

One section in the Toy Story 2 chapter chronicles an experience that makes John Lasseter seem eerily similar to Walt Disney. After a retreat in Sonoma and a frenzied few weeks in their Writer’s Room, John Lasseter called together the studio’s artists, and pitched to them the version of Toy Story 2 they were now going to make. The experience lasted over an hour with John referencing no notes , and the passion of his convictions made everyone in that room fired up to complete the herculean task of turning out a quality product. The experience is reminiscent of Walt Disney collecting his guys after dinner one evening in the mid-30’s, and pitching them the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, before announcing that they would then be making it into a film.

A few pages in the “Toy Story 2” chapter, chronicle the development of one of the most emotional scenes in the film: “Jessie’s Song.”

In the closing pages of the Toy Story 2 chapter, there are a few storyboards and a clip based on the Toy Story gang’s appearance at the Academy Awards that year, where Woody, Buzz, Jessie, & Bullseye were the presenters for Best Animated Short-Subject. Mr and Mrs Potatohead also were in attendance, but just as members of the audiences. Prior to this appearance, an animated segment had been made by PIXAR for the 1996 Academy Awards presentation, where Woody and Buzz analyzed John Lasseter’s Special Achievement Oscar for Toy Story.

Solomon even manages to shoehorn in a few pages that discuss the non-PIXAR-involved Toy Story 3 that was being worked on by Circle 7 Animation. There are several pieces of concept art, and one showing a rather shocking sight: an old human character seeming to talk to the toys! (note: Woody broke the no talking rule in Toy Story to save Buzz, so that gets a pass in my book).

For those who have followed much of Pixar’s history, the book just gives a few new bits here and there to the work done on the trilogy, but for newcomers, it’ll serve as a wealth of eye-opening material. One item that surprised me, were a few words regarding John Lasseter and storyman Joe Ranft’s original idea for a Toy Story 3 after the second film had been released in 1999. In my opinion, I’m glad that Andrew Stanton spoke up about how it sounded when they started work on Toy Story 3 in the last few years.

The book is also filled with plenty of little candid moments that explain how some ideas, are often the result of just a few words. Michael Arndt (screenwriter on Toy Story 3) recalled how they wanted Buzz to be ‘deluded’ in the third film, but in a completely new way:

“People started throwing out ideas like fast-motion Buzz or slow-motion Buzz. I was sitting next to Andrew [Stanton] and as an aside I whispered, ‘Spanish Buzz.’ Andrew immediately slammed his hand on the table; said, ‘Spanish Buzz!’; and it was off to the races.”

One downside to the book has to do if you have oily, sweaty fingers (like myself). The pages have a tendency to ‘collect’ fingerprints, so you might want to give your hands a real good scrubbing, or turn the page and put your hands to the sides.

Sweaty palms aside, Solomon has crafted a wonderful book that summarizes the creativity, determination, and enthusiasm that PIXAR Animation Studios provided to create these films that have been embraced by the world. There is even an epilogue in which several of the crew discuss how they didn’t set out to make characters that would assimilate into popular culture…but it is still a nice thing to have happen to something you pour a lot of time, effort, and heart into.

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“People began to realize that this was a big deal. That we had in fact hit our stride, and this was what we were destined to do” – Ed Catmull, discussing the creation of Toy Story (from the documentary, The PIXAR Story)

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Movie Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

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When it comes to Studio Ghibli movies, there’s a moment that I always wait for within the first 30 seconds. It starts with the following image:

This image is usually followed by a random child’s voice from the auditorium, who suddenly shouts out, “Totoro!!” While some in the audience wonder what the child just said, those of us who know of Totoro and the films of Studio Ghibli usually chuckle, or feel our own mouths widening into a grin as we sit back, and wait to see what the house of Miyazaki-san has in store for us.

Adapted from Mary Norton’s story The Borrowers, The Secret World of Arrietty concerns a family of little people living in a small dwelling under the floorboards in a country house. The three-person family consists of Pod (the quiet, industrious father), Homily (the rather excitable mother/housewife), and Arrietty, their 14-year-old daughter, who has mainly lived under the floorboards, and ventured out into the garden nearby.

One day, Pod decides that it’s time for Arrietty to join him on an errand to ‘borrow’ some items from the humans in the household. Their adventure is cut short when Arrietty is seen by a young boy who is staying in the house temporarily. Soon after, he leaves a cube of sugar she dropped, along with a small note, which causes Pod to consider that they may need to move away, given that they have been seen.

Homily watches apprehensively, as Pod helps Arrietty prepare to go borrowing.

One of the hardest things for Studio Ghibli, is its tendency to mainly release films under the direction of either Hayao Miyazaki, or Isao Takahata (Ghibli’s other co-founder, and director of the animated drama, Grave of the Fireflies). There have been only a handful of productions put out by the studio under other directors, but very few have involved the grooming of young persons to then start directing beyond just one film.

The best of the non-founder-directed films in my opinion, was Whisper of the Heart, directed by Yoshifumi Kondo, and released in 1995. While Miyazaki had a hand in the screenplay, storyboarding, and producing departments, I still feel that Kondo’s vision was what really guided the film to being a wonderful ‘hidden gem’ in the Ghibli library. Sadly, he died in 1998, with Whisper the only film he directed.

Since then, it’s been a rather hit-and-miss track record for Ghibli regarding other directors. Some shunned the rather stiffly-drawn The Cat Returns (a pseudo-sequel to Whisper), and Tales of Earthsea, a film directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, that received largely mixed and negative reviews (Hayao himself also didn’t have very kind words in regards to his own son’s directorial debut).

With Arrietty, Ghibli animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi moves into the director’s chair…and gives us probably one of the finest non-founders films since Whisper of the Heart (though Miyazaki does have a hand in the filmmaking process, serving as co-screenwriter, and executive producer).

The human (bean) named Shawn relaxes in the garden of his Grandparents' house.

The film places us in a country setting, with some lush and beautiful artwork that shows us why the Ghibli artists are some of the best at capturing the natural world.

The world of Arrietty is also very intriguing and ingenious. If you are a fan of miniature items or stories where persons of different height use normal-sized objects, or create their own things, you might be in for a treat. The devices that Pod creates are very surprising. It’s also amazing to see how they treat various things that would seem ‘normal’ to us. When Homily pours tea, due to the density of liquid at their size, it comes out as blobbish droplets. Another surprise is when Pod and Arrietty go on their errand. Arrietty’s first venture into the house after dark is filled with sounds that assault her senses. The hum of a refrigerator, the sound of water going through pipes, even the ticking of a grandfather clock is amplified. It’s these little touches that really make this more than just a ‘shrunken persons’ story.

With the human element of the film (or Beans, as the Borrowers call us), we have Shawn, a young boy who has been sent to the country house for a week. Aside from an Aunt who has brought him and visits him daily, the only other human companion Shawn has is the caretaker, Hara, a little woman who seems to feel there’s something going on inside the house. Character-wise, Shawn put me moreso in mind of Seiji from Whisper of the Heart, with a bit of the calming demeanor of Haku from Spirited Away.

Even though I am a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, I am rather picky when it comes to dubbing, which is often the only way to see many of their films released in theaters stateside. Up until now, Howl’s Moving Castle was the benchmark for me regarding dubs (when Christian Bale can make Howl’s original Japanese voice sound mediocre, then you’ve got a sure-fire winner!). I can safely say that vocals director Gary Rydstrom does a superb job here as well (FYI, Gary was a sound mixer for Skywalker Sound, before he went to work at PIXAR).

Arrietty shows her first borrowing to her mother, Homily.

I was originally unsure about Amy Poehler being used for the voice of Homily, but it soon sounded right as Amy hit a number of Homily’s nervous rhythms to a ‘T.’ Will Arnett gives Pod a gruff assured sound, mixed in with little grunts or asides (Pod is sometimes not as vocal as Homily is). There is a mature playfulness that Bridgit Mendler gives Arrietty that keeps her from getting too close to the ‘loud-and-happy’ trap that some voice actresses can fall into with anime dubs. Probably of all the voices, it is David Henrie as Shawn that comes off sounding a bit too ‘mature’ for his appearance. My guess is the character of Shawn is around Arrietty’s age of 14, but he sounds moreso like he’s in his late teens. One nice little bit of casting is Carol Burnett as the housekeeper, Hara. She doesn’t have a lot of lines, but she does some wonderful little things with her voice that had the audience cracking up.

The music also helps with a magical and memorable tone to the film. Those who are fans of Jo Hisaishi’s Studio Ghibli scores may seem a little disoriented, but if one gives themselves over to the music of composer/songwriter Cécile Corbel, they will find a musical journey into territory that sounds both ancient and country-like in tone.

According to Cécile’s webpage (http://www.cecile-corbel.com/en/home.html), she is a big fan of the celtic harp, which is heard in a number of areas in the film. Her bio also mentions that Cécile is inspired by tales, ancient melodies and fairy moods, which are the basis of her musical world. That line alone proves that she was a perfect match for The Secret World of Arrietty.

For those worried that we may get another auto-tuned remix for the Radio Disney crowd like the song at the end of Ponyo…you can breathe a sigh of relief. We do have Bridgit Mendler providing the final song in the credits, titled Summertime. It feels a tad out-of-place in the general scheme of the film, but nowhere near as bad as what one might imagine.

Arrietty playfully relaxes with a little pillbug.

Probably not since Spirited Away have I been afraid that a great little gem of an animated film will fall through the cracks. Like many works by Studio Ghibli, it feels like a tone-poem at times, which may make some sugar-induced children antsy. However, it’s a rare film that I found to be short-and-sweet, relaxing, and definitely more calm amid the months when action movies are released endlessly in hopes of snaring bored movie-goers.

It’s interesting to note that it’s been 10 years since Spirited Away introduced many in the U.S. to the world of Studio Ghibli. Very little advertising was done, and it only showed on 151 screens. This weekend, Arrietty will have the biggest stateside opening for a Ghibli film, on over 1300 screens. A few weeks ago, I was surprised when I wandered into my local Disney Store, and a preview for Arrietty was playing on their main viewing screen! We’ve come a long way since 2002, and as my friend Donna wondered…is it only a matter of time before the likes of Totoro or Jiji may be sitting on Disney Store shelves next to Woody and Mickey?

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Author’s Note: I would be remiss if I did not thank my good friend, Donna Bohdanyk, for helping me obtain a pass to see The Secret World of Arrietty. Thank you Donna, for being a great friend, and for allowing me to introduce you to the world of Hayao Miyazaki’s work over 10 years ago.

An Animated Dissection: Howl’s Moving Castle, Part 1 – Sophie’s Aging Journey

In 2004, Hayao Miyazaki released his follow-up to Spirited Away: an adaptation of Howl’s Moving Castle, based on the story by Diana Wynne Jones. Much like his adaptation of Kiki’s Delivery Service, Miyazaki took the basis of the story, and made it his own.

While some viewers mentioned that there seemed to be a large anti-war statement in the film(it was made during the first few years of the Iraq War), one of the more memorable bits for me was the curse/spell placed upon the lead character, Sophie. The basis of the film and the original story by Jones, is the fact that the lead heroine is cursed to be an old woman, and how this affects her journey. While this may seem straight-forward in the original story, Hayao Miyazaki chose to use this as a storytelling tool in a way few could possibly imagine.

Analyzing the film once it came out on DVD, I have come to the conclusion that there may be an undertone about accepting yourself for how you are, and not being judged by society’s standards. Many in Asia often wish to emulate the Western world regarding fashion, style, and beauty. One book I skimmed through called Aesthetic Surgery, showed a man who went through several surgeries so he could moreso resemble Keanu Reeves.

In 2010, there was an article about a Chinese girl whose boyfriend was obsessed with Jessica Alba, to the point he wanted her to dress like Alba, and wear a wig. After breaking up with him after one year, she became so desperate to get him back, that she considered getting surgery to resemble Alba. There never was a solid conclusion to the news story, but my guess is if they didn’t report on any results, then the girl saw reason and decided not to do something so extreme.

In regards to how vanity and appearance seem to fit into Howl’s Moving Castle, let’s start our journey.

In the opening scenes of Howl’s Moving Castle, we are introduced to Sophie. With her brown hair and brown eyes, Sophie seems to look rather ‘plain.’ In one scene before she leaves to visit her sister, she poses in front of a mirror wearing a hat. She tries to look sunny and cheerful, but her expression turns dour as she considers her appearance.

Her trip to see her sister is rather uneventful, as almost noone seems to notice her. Aside from some soldiers in a side alley who seem more than ready to take advantage of her, Sophie is surprised when a handsome man with blonde hair and blue eyes (aka Howl) escorts her away, and then leads her on a stroll through the air (note: some have equated the sensation of love to ‘walking on air’).

From here, we find ourselves in the town’s bakery, where Sophie’s step-sister Lettie works. Much like Howl, Lettie also sports blonde hair and blue eyes. It almost seems that these are the traits one needs for attractiveness, or an image of rare beauty. This is exemplified perfectly in our introduction to Lettie, as we see her surrounded by many men. If you look closely, there isn’t a blonde male among the group.

Lettie manages to get away, and goes to speak to Sophie, who still seems to be in a slight swoon over her encounter with the mysterious man she met. What’s interesting to note is that throughout the entire scene with the two sisters, no one seems to take notice of Sophie. Every other person seems to just acknowledge Lettie or greet her. Even Lettie’s outfit is much more colorful than her sister’s.

After returning to the hat shop, Sophie is surprised when a woman enters. After examining the shop, the woman proclaims both it and Sophie as ‘tacky,’ leading Sophie to demand the woman leave. It is then that the woman reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste, a powerful sorceress who then casts a spell on Sophie, aging her into a 90-year-old woman.

Sophie is at first upset by these changes (as would anyone, I imagine), but when she wakes up the next day, she has gotten over them. In a strange manner to some, Sophie doesn’t seem to mind her appearance, even commenting that her choice of dress now seems to suit her better. Even with these changes, Sophie takes leave of the hat shop, and embarks on her own adventure.

Sophie’s 90-year-old appearance stays the same for quite some time, even after she finds Howl’s castle, and encounters Howl, his assistant Markl, and Calcifer the Fire Demon. Being a Demon, Calcifer sees through the Witch of the Waste’s spell, of which an added side-effect is that Sophie is unable to tell anyone about her curse.

The first time we see any change in Sophie’s appearance comes after Howl returns one evening, and sees her asleep. Here, she has reverted back to her youthful features, yet Howl never speaks of this aloud, or reveal what he’s seen.

Sophie’s appearance while awake continues with the appearance of old age, until she vists Court Sorcerer Madame Suliman, at Howl’s request. Eventually, Sophie speaks positively and defends Howl, and as she does so, without realizing it, she ages back to her own appearance. However, this is quickly ‘remedied’ when Suliman guesses that she secretly loves Howl. It appears that her emotions and caring for Howl just may be the key to breaking her spell…but, is it actually enough?

In a pseudo-dream sequence, Sophie reverts to her younger self, and encounters Howl, who appears to have become a large winged demon. This is the only instance where we hear his knowledge of her curse (“You, can’t even break your own spell”). When Sophie tells him that she loves him in the pseudo-dream, he claims she’s too late, and flies off. As the dream ends we see Sophie isolated in the darkness, her appearance old once again.

The next day, Howl decides to create a new location for them to move to…which happens to be the former hat shop where Sophie once lived. Sophie is shocked to see the old shop again, not to mention a bedroom Howl has provided for her, where she used to make hats before. She briefly reverts to her younger self, albeit with silver hair, but it isn’t until he reveals the location of what appears to be a floating garden, does she seem to almost completely let herself go.

At this point, she seems so happy and content, that one has to wonder if Howl possibly knows of a way to break her spell. After all, he’s returned her to a familiar place she knows (the hat shop), and has given her a gift of the garden as a place to go to whenever she chooses. However, the moment is broken when Sophie starts to lose faith in herself, feeling she’s not pretty, and only good as an old cleaning woman.

It is in this moment that Howl admits that she is beautiful, but her doubt has taken hold so tightly, that she reverts all the way back to her 90-year-old appearance.

After the events in the garden, Sophie’s appearance back in the castle and the hat shop appears to not be so old. I would say her age is closer to 60 or 70. It could be that this is a sign that maybe what Howl said to her has started to have some effect on her.

Eventually, the town is evacuated as the war nears its borders, but Sophie and the denizens of Howl’s castle stay behind. However, the war soon comes close to endangering her new ‘family.’ This time, Sophie’s age reverts to her younger appearance.

From here on out, Sophie seems more concerned regarding her ‘family’s’ safety, and her thoughts and worries about her appearance are all but forgotten. What’s really nice to see is that during these transformations, Miyazaki has made it so almost noone remarks about this. Even Markl, who so far has seen Sophie in several varying stages of age, seems unperturbed.

Sophie has rarely done anything major on her own, but when Howl saves the hat shop from being bombed, and then flies off to protect it from the myriad bombers and planes flying overhead, Sophie springs into action, breaking the connection of the castle with the hat shop, which causes the castle to collapse into myriad pieces. This is just one step in Sophie’s plan: with the connection severed, she attempts to get Calcifer to restore the castle, and take them to Howl, in hopes this will prevent him from getting hurt in the attack…or that his magic will make him more monster than man.

It is at this point, Calcifer asks Sophie for part of herself to help him complete her request. As Howl gave his heart to Calcifer as part of their deal, the fire-demon needs something of Sophie’s in order for him to do her bidding. Though Calcifer suggests her eyes (one assumes that the more valuable a portion of a person, the stronger their power over Calcifer is), Sophie instead gives him the braid of her hair. After it has been removed, the remainder of her now shoulder-length hair fans out. This could also be seen as another symbol of Sophie casting aside some of her vanity, or at the very least, achieving a new level of maturity. Miyazaki used this type of symbolism in Laputa: Castle in the Sky, when the young protagonist Sheeta has her pigtails shot off by the villain, Colonel Muska.

The final piece of Sophie’s journey, comes when she reunites Howl with his heart (freeing Calcifer, and breaking his spell connecting him to Howl). And in turn, Sophie is freed from being ruled by vanity, or feelings of outward appearances.

This moment comes when Howl admits that her silver hair is beautiful. Instead of being disturbed or disbelieving of this statement, she embraces Howl, and claims she loves her look too.

Some messageboards I’ve been to have wondered why Sophie’s hair did not turn back to its original brown color. My theory is that this is a side-effect of the curse the Witch of the Waste placed on Sophie. In Miyazaki’s worlds, some curses will not leave you 100% complete once they have been lifted.

One example is Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Though the curse that was consuming his arm is lifted at the end, scars still remain, almost as a reminder.

In the end, Sophie has triumphed over her negative feelings regarding her appearance, and through her journey, has met someone to whom she has helped as well, and gained a new and magical family in the end whom she cares for, and who has grown to care for her, regardless of her appearance.

…But wait, it isn’t over yet. Sophie isn’t the only one who made a change. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post, where we examine the evolution of Howl.