Tag Archives: anime

Gake no Ue no Ponyo (Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Japan 2008)

Sosuke and Ponyo approach a tunnel – reminiscent of Spirited Away?

Ponyo finally gets its UK release this week, eighteen months after Japan. Why do we have to wait so long? Miyazaki Hayao has to be one of a handful of major directors from the last 25 years, yet he isn’t properly appreciated in the UK – other than by the growing number of anime and manga fans.

A moan first in that the UK distributor Optimum seems to have forced arthouse cinemas into a position where they will have to show afternoon screenings in the American dub. Evening shows can use the Japanese soundtrack with subtitles. This seems to me a lost opportunity. What better chance is there for progressive parents to introduce their offspring to the joys of subtitled films from around the world than via Studio Ghibli? The problem lies with adults not children. Get them used to subs as young as possible when they are adventurous and willing to explore. A lot of fuss seems to have been made about how closely Disney have worked with Studio Ghibli on Ponyo but I’m sure that we’ve heard this before for Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. I’m sticking with the Japanese dub.

Ponyo takes us back to Miyazaki’s masterpiece My Neighbour Totoro (1988). That film was in some ways a nostalgic look at 1950s rural Japan which by the 1980s had for many disappeared into urban sprawl – taking with it several of the redeeming features of Japanese family life. Although ostensibly a narrative for small children, full of wonder and delight, My Neighbour Totoro is also stuffed with cinematic references and adult themes about rural/urban differences and the support of close communities. Its simple drawn animation style manages to create images that resonate for viewers of 1950s Japanese films. It also establishes Miyazaki’s grand themes – about ecology and the narrative possibilities of (young) female-centred stories.

Ponyo celebrates the Japanese affinity to the sea and foregrounds Miyazaki’s concerns about the pollution in the waters around Japan. It also appears to be somewhat biographical in terms of Miyazaki’s own family experiences. The narrative is a version of the Little Mermaid, retaining several features of Anderson’s tale, but transforming it through Miyazaki’s authorial concerns and stupendous artist’s imagination.The mermaid equivalent here is a rather special goldfish, the daughter of an underwater wizard and a sea goddess, ‘Granmamare’. The fish escapes the confines of the wizard’s realm and ends up in the possession of a small boy, Sosuke, who is playing at the water’s edge. The fish licks a tiny wound on the boy’s hand and the taste of human blood has dramatic effects which will in turn lead to the emergence of a little girl after a series of spectacular events. ‘Ponyo’ is the name given by the boy to the fish. Ponyo’s attempt to become human destroys the balance of sea, sky and land and threatens the existence of the coastal community (and by extension the rest of the world). Like the Little Mermaid, Ponyo will be faced with a choice which also involves something that only Sosuke can provide. The choice must be made if the world is to be saved.

One otherwise clueless US critic is reported to have written that the film is only suitable for those under 5 or on hallucinogenic drugs. Well, those two groups might indeed enjoy it most, if only because they won’t be worrying that it isn’t appropriate for grown-ups to enjoy animation. But anyone with any aesthetic sense whatsoever is likely to just drink in the wonders of Miyazaki’s imagination and the skills of his animators. I wish I understood why traditional anime look so stunningly beautiful but CGI bores me rigid. Most, not all, western animation seems to depends on narrative – the images themselves, as images, are not that interesting. Miyazaki creates stunningly beautiful images for riveting stories. There is at least one frame in Ponyo that recalls the woodblocks of Hokusai and Hiroshige.

A view of the school and old people’s centre on the coast road.

Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai

I’ve chosen the print by Hokusai above because of the angle, the effect of the hats worn by the peasants (cf the umbrellas in Ponyo) and the imaginative way in which Hokusai presents the sea. Miyazaki has similar ideas in Ponyo. The Hokusai image is one of ’10 additional prints’ added to the ’36 Views of Mt. Fuji’ in the early 1830s. Ponyo is set further south on the Inland Sea.

The triangle formed by the cliff-top house where Sosuke and his mother live, the ship at sea carrying the boy’s father and the school/old people’s centre is the centre of the world Miyazaki has created. It neatly represents the social concerns about an ageing population, an economy that still needs the resources of the seas and that perennial fascination for Miyazaki, the self-reliant children, seemingly confident because there is a community of supportive adults who are there when needed. Jonathan Ross, in one of his more lucid comments on Film Night, made the perceptive comment that in Ponyo, Miyazaki (writer and director) spends time on everyday incidents involving children and adults – such as sharing a cup of soup – in which this sense of a community of all ages, not just parents and their own children, comes across so forcefully.

In short a film for small children and adults of all ages – and for cinephiles who will really appreciate a maestro at the top of his game.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Japan 2006)

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

Makoto at home (eating a 'pudding').

I first saw this film advertised as a DVD release in Sight & Sound, the main highbrow film magazine in the UK. It’s unusual to see an anime advertised in this way (although DVD distributors have got more savvy recently). My first thoughts were that the film must have a reputation on a par with the Studio Ghibli output and I rented it on this basis. I now realise that this is a well-known property in Japan and you can read the history on Wikipedia, which also carries some useful links. Beware, however, if you do go to Wikipedia that there is a full synopsis/spoiler that could ruin your enjoyment – I found the film’s narrative development to be quite surprising and I’m certainly glad I didn’t know what would happen.

The ‘property’ was originally created by the veteran Japanese science fiction writer Tsutsui Yasutaka in 1967 and it is interesting that he should choose a teenage girl has his protagonist. A manga ‘prelude’ based on the original, but updated, was published in Kadokawa Shoten’s Shōnen Ace magazine and then bound into a novel in May-June 2006 and the anime released in July of that year. The anime version proved to be a sleeper hit in Japan and has finally surfaced in the UK and US on DVD after occasional (and generally well-received) festival screenings.

The appearance of this story in a shōnen manga series strikes me as odd because shōnen implies a readership of adolescent boys – the equivalent for girls is shōjo manga. This probably just shows that I have an awful lot to learn about manga!

Makoto is the tomboyish 17 year-old at a Tokyo high school (the narrow streets and river walk suggest the ‘old town’ part of the city, but it looks like a spacious school with large grounds). She has a younger sister and two male friends at school with whom she plays baseball after classes. She also has an aunt – a youngish woman of indeterminate age who works as a picture restorer for art galleries. Makoto calls her ‘Aunt Witch’ and this appears to be appropriate when she is unfazed by Makoto’s revelation of her ability to time-leap.

In many ways, this anime strikes me as the perfect teen movie. I found it at once beautiful to look at and intriguing, but I confess also at first quite difficult to follow. Partly this was because of the jumping backwards and revisiting scenes that takes place in most time-slip stories, but also because I do find teen fiction difficult as I simply can’t intuit the language and the nuances of teen communication. (I was watching the Japanese version with English subs.) When I realised the full import of what was happening, I found the narrative to be engrossing and deceptively multi-layered. I’m sure that I didn’t get all of it and there were the usual mysteries. As some of the anime fan-bloggers have admitted there could be a few more ‘answers’ – but holding back some information makes for a more effective cult narrative.

It is partly science fiction, largely a teen movie/high school film, a ‘coming-of-age’ story (without a sexual relationship) and a sensitive romance element which I found affecting. Surely this must be a shōnen with a sizeable shōjo audience?

I was most taken by the drawn backgrounds (see still above) which are beautifully realised and reminded me of Miyazaki’s work. The action was sometimes very slow (I wondered if my DVD player had paused) and this allowed the eye to wander around the very detailed mise en scène (e.g in Auntie Witch’s apartment with its books and woodblock prints). By contrast, I found the characters to be all drawn as tall and thin with barely any body shape. The combination of richly detailed background and stylised characters gives the film a quite distinctive look. The music too, was at times similar to that in Miyazaki’s films. There are some songs as well, but I feel inadequate in analysing the use of music in anime. The narrative of course speeds up for the action sequences which I found original and effective. Having the hero literally run and leap in order to travel in time worked well in terms of the story.

There is an excellent review on AnimeNewsNetwork.com from which I learned that the Miyazaki references are understandable since the film was made by a Studio Ghibli refugee, Hosoda Mamoru, with other collaborators who also have Studio Ghibli experience. ‘Line artist’ Sadamoto Yoshiyuki is also very experienced. The Anime News Network Review emphasises the attractiveness of the central characters as more than simply generic characters, quoting the almost Buster Keaton-like antics of Makoto who begins her time travelling in order to put right some of her ‘accidents’. This review finds the final third of the narrative less successful – this was the part that gripped me most. Perhaps this is the distinction between those audiences with genre knowledge and outsiders like me?

I would heartily recommend this film and it would give students based outside Japan, not only an interesting narrative/genre case study, but also an insight into aspects of Japanese culture that still remain mysterious in the West. (The main one being the representation, as the Anime News Network review suggests, of the “wistful buoyancy that only the Japanese seem to be able to associate with high school”, when in reality, the Japanese education system seems to put so much stress on results for seemingly middle-class students like Makoto.)

Watch the opening here (I’d urge you to buy it, but if you can’t there are more YouTube clips available):

Global Media for A Level students

On March 20, I presented materials for studying ‘Global Media’ at the OCR A Level Conference in London. The materials related to:

  • Slumdog Millionaire as a ‘global film text’
  • Otaku culture in Japan and the associated media forms of manga, anime, videogames etc.

All the materials can be downloaded as follows:

Slumdog Millionaire (Word)

Manga (Word)

Manga 2 (pdf)

Otaku culture (pdf)

Presentation (pdf)

In addition, on this site you can find entries on anime. Explore the ‘Animation’ category on the left.

Princess Mononoke (Japan 1997)

Mononoke hime (Princess Mononoke) is perhaps Miyazaki Hayao’s masterpiece. It combines his two main themes – support for feminist ideas and concern over the ecological disaster that faces the planet. It is also the Miyazaki film with the most direct relationship with Japanese history and culture.

The setting is during the late Muromachi period in Japan, possibly in the early 16th century. Most of Miyazaki’s other films are set in indeterminate historical periods with various anachronisms (e.g. flying ships in Victorian Europe etc.) Princess Mononoke is by contrast remarkably consistent. The chosen period is the ‘pre-modern’, a time of great change when the Japanese population was growing rapidly and local wars over land and resources were quite common. But it pre-dates the first appearance of the Europeans and also the major wars of the end of the 16th century when the Tokugawa shogunate gained control and stabilised/stratified Japanese society. Miyazaki argues that in some ways this period was similar to our contemporary world – in which we still have a chance to change before the future is mapped out for us.

The setting also has a meaning in terms of Japanese cinema in which films have traditionally been defined as ‘contemporary’ (gendaigeki) or ‘period films’ (jedaigeki). Princess Mononoke is clearly a jedaigeki, but unlike many such films it doesn’t focus on the slightly later Tokugawa period and it doesn’t focus on samurai warriors and their lords (daimyo). Instead it gives precedence to artisans and to confrontations with the natural world.

“The reason for these settings is to depict characters more freely, without being bounded by the existing commonsense, preconceived notion, or prejudice in the existing period dramas.” (Miyazaki Hayao on www.nausicaa.net)

One feature of the Muromachi period that interested Miyazaki was the greater freedom for women in these more anarchic times. In this respect, the film is similar to the jedaigeki of the great master Mizoguchi Kenji, whose women are active in films like Ugetsu Monogatari (1953), but generally suffering. Miyazaki’s women are often both active and successful achievers. Although Princess Mononoke (‘Princess Ghost/Spirit’) is the named character of the title, the protagonist of the story is actually the young prince, Ashitaka, a rare example of a male protagonist in a Miyazaki film.

Ashitaka is a prince of the Emishi, one of the original peoples of the main Japanese island, Honshu, who were eventually conquered and assimilated by the Japanese around the 10th century AD. However, the history of the Emishi and their relationship to the Ainu, the other group of indigenous people of the most Northerly Japanese island, Hokkaido, has still not been resolved. Perhaps for Miyazaki what is important is that Japan was once a much less ‘mono-ethnic’ culture.

There are several groups of characters with various inter-relationships in Princess Mononoke. This is one of the great strengths of the film. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The humans are fighting the spirits and the gods of the forest. They are of course also fighting each other. The iron workers in the forest are led by women and are in many ways progressive, yet they threaten the natural world. The ‘princess’, San is quite unlike the the feisty but generally pleasant young women (shōjo) of most other Miyazaki films. Instead she is violent and angry, but also loyal and protective towards her adoptive mother, the dog/wolf god, Moro. In his early discussions about the film, Miyazaki suggested that San would be resemble a clay doll figure from the pre-agricultural period.  With her blood-stained face she is clearly not a ‘princess’ from Western stories.

Japanese culture
Western commentators have sometimes referred to The Lord of the Rings or the Tales of Narnia in trying to introduce Princess Mononoke. I’m not sure that this helps. Japanese culture is much more accepting of spirits as part of everyday life and although the action in Princess Mononoke may be fantastical, it is rooted in a much more realistic context (only the Shishi – the spirit of the forest – is a Miyazaki invention). The film has a universal appeal certainly, but this doesn’t mean that we can view it in the same way as Western mythological stories. Miyazaki has created a story that should concern us all, but it takes place firmly within the context of Japanese history and popular culture.

Roy Stafford, 27/10/06

(These notes were written for a screening of the film during the 2006 Bradford Animation Festival.)