Ponyo – DVD Review

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A gentle fable that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.

One of the nicest perks of reviewing DVDs is the occasional arrival of a title that you may well never have sought out on your own. It might be because of the genre or the subject matter, or simply because it slipped under the radar. Master animator Hayao Miyazaki’s PONYO definitely falls into that category: a gentle fable inspired by Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” that beautifully demonstrates the artistry of classic hand-drawn animation.
When we first meet Brunhilde, she’s just one of many tiny goldfish living under the strict thumb of her father, Fujimoto, an unusual Nemo-like figure with magical powers who operates out of a flipper-powered submarine in a quest to “keep the oceans in balance”. He carries a deep mistrust for mankind, and keeps his children as far from human influence as possible. One day, the ever-curious Brunhilde strays from the rest of her family and winds up being trapped in a glass jar that floats to a coastal fishing town, where it’s spotted by 5-year-old Sosuke, who frees the fish but cuts his hand in the process. Sosuke renames Brunhilde Ponyo; she repays his kindness by licking the wound, causing it to heal almost instantly. This forms an unbreakable bond between the two, leading Ponyo to summon up all of her magic to transform herself into a human, separating herself from the sea forever.
The plot might sound paper thin, but Ponyo is as much about the fine details as the big picture. Miyazaki clearly takes great pleasure in illuminating small moments: Ponyo’s excited first reactions to the world in her new human body all center around little things, whether being hot or cold, or squealing with delight at each flavor of the simple meals prepared by Sosuke’s mother. There is a notion that Ponyo is one of Miyazaki’s lesser efforts; this feeling could have its roots in the common ground it shares with the Disney hit of 20 years ago, THE LITTLE MERMAID (based on the same source material), or the fact that the plot has little in the way of the traditional good vs. evil conflict that we expect in children’s fare.
Ponyo is a film about wonder and discovery, and so gentle and sweet that one half-expects it to evaporate before our eyes. Amazingly, Miyazaki doesn’t let Disney’s immensely popular film of Anderson’s tale influence ether the animation or characterization – a much more difficult task than it sounds – but instead creates his own world, as far from the 1989 Disney film as it is from the large mass of cheap-jack Japanese anime (though certain character designs – particularly the gaunt, long-haired Fujimoto, do have their roots in the more traditional elements of the genre).
The story is seen through the eyes of the children, creating a film with somewhat unique worldview. This isn’t a story fraught with danger, nor are there plots to kill or kidnap; when Ponyo’s father comes looking for her, it’s out of love and a genuine fear for her safety among the humans who have been polluting the oceans. Miyazaki also earns points for his tactful handling of the story’s “green” messages: he never bashes you over the head with hectoring diatribes about ecology; a simple shot of the tons of man-made pollution that is drudged up from the ocean floor does it all without saying a word.

Ponyo (2009)
Ponyo rides the waves in the film's most technically impressive scene

Disney’s Blu-Ray is, as expected, absolutely breathtaking. While traditional “analog” animation is never going to “pop” in HD the way that Pixar’s all-digital films will, Ponyo’s hand-drawn images have a depth and weight that few other animated titles can match. Obviously, water imagery plays a central role, and Miyazaki’s use of different variations of the color blue is astounding. The film’s most technically impressive scene – Ponyo’s return to the seaside town riding a series of magical, rolling waves (trust us, it makes sense when you’re watching it) – should be enough to drag Blu-ray resisters happily into the HD arena.
The main audio track is a lossless DTS English dub track, with a French language track present in a lower quality 5.1 mix. Now, we’ve seen other reviews that mention a Japanese 5.1 mix as well (and the disc jacket seems to confirm its presence); however, we were unable to locate it, either within the menu or by cycling through the tracks using the audio button. Unless we hear different from Disney, we’ll have to count this as a very unusual defect. The furor over the dubbing of animation is, for us, one of the ultimate non-issues of home video. While we understand perfectly the desire to preserve the performance of the original actors in a live-action film, we can’t imagine anyone getting their knickers in a twist over dubbed animation. The idea of watching a film with this level of visual artistry and spending most of the time concentrating on the subtitles at the bottom of the screen feels utterly ridiculous to us. Great care has obviously been taken with the English cast, and one would never know that they were not the original voices.
As with other premiere animated titles on Disney Blu-Ray, Ponyo is outfitted with quite a few special features, most of which are presented in HD. We enjoyed the optional opening, “Meet Ponyo,” which briefly outlines the relationship between Disney and Miyazaki’s home, Studio Ghibli – something that’s even further fleshed out in “The World of Ghibli,” an interactive look at some of the studio’s other titles, including Kiki’s Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky. As for the rest:

  • “A Conversation with Hayao Miyazaki and John Lasseter” is exactly what is says, a 4-minute long chat between the Pixar chief and Miyazaki, in which they discuss some of the specific design elements of Ponyo.
  • “Creating Ponyo” features Miyazaki discussing his intentions in making the film, specifically tailoring it to younger children. “Ponyo and Fujimoto” concentrates on the relationship between father and daughter.
  • “The Nursery” focuses on the real nursery that Miyazaki opened at the studio.
  • “Producer’s Perspective” gives an overview of the entire production process.
  • “The Locations of Ponyo” – the longest featurette – takes us on a Ghibli retreat to a small seaside town that helped inspire the artwork and tone.
  • “Scoring Miyazaki” walks us through the scoring process for Ponyo and several other Ghibli titles.
  • “Behind the Microphone” gives us a BTS look at the performance of the English dub track.

The extras are rounded out by an assortment of trailers for Ponyo, including several from the original Japanese release.
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Ponyo – Animation Film Review

Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film, PONYO (“Gake no ue no Ponyo” or “Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea”), could be nicely summed up as charmingly innocent. I wasn’t even sure they still made films like it. It’s just a simple slice of pleasant storytelling. And you know what – audiences very much enjoy it. You might think the younger set so jaded and – and, yes, cynical – that they couldn’t or wouldn’t sit still for an animated story of PONYO’s nature. However, one of the greatest pleasures in watching PONYO was to experience the joyful sounds of laughter and “aaaahhhs” coming from both old and young alike. It restores one’s faith in the universal sensitivity within the hearts of that which we call humankind.
I’ve enjoyed—and written about—the laughter of children before while watching “children’s” films, but this felt different. There were no wisecracking donkeys or hip jungle animals constantly reminding us through timely (and one day dated) jokes about our modern society. The characters in PONYO were likeable and refreshing partially because there were really no pretensions involved. In a loud, posturing summer (anyone see the mess that was TRANSFORMERS 2?) this little film is a welcome reprieve. It might make for nice comedown to take in after watching INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS over the August 21st weekend.
I wouldn’t say PONYO is one of Miyazaki’s masterpieces—it’s not quite up there with PRNCESS MONONOKE, SPIRITED AWAY or HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE—but it is so very nice to relax with as to make one wish one could share it with others. As I say, it’s not a complicated story: a five-year-old boy (Frankie Jonas – English version) finds a “goldfish” trapped in a bottle along the shoreline, near where he lives. He’s captivated by the unique little “fish” and decides to keep her, naming her PONYO (Noah Lindsey Cyrus – English version). Ah, but PONYO is not what you’d call a normal “fish.” She is, in fact, the offspring of a powerful water wizard (Liam Neeson – English version) and sea goddess (Cate Blanchett – English version).
As Miyazaki would have it, PONYO is every bit as captivated by the young boy. She winds up falling in (puppy) love with him and so desires to become human that she uses some of her father’s sorcery to make the leap…literally, as we come to see. But the use of this powerful magic upsets the balance of nature and all must be set right one way or another if the world is to be saved from the effects of an ever-approaching moon.
Ponyo (2009)The delicate balance of nature is a recurring theme within PONYO. The imbalance created by Ponyo’s use of a powerful magic needs to be acted upon, but proper care of nature is also brought up several times by the wizard, Fujimoto, in relation to the manner in which man treats the world that surrounds him. So one could say that little Ponyo’s predicament may be a metaphor for mankind’s current state and what we should all be mindful of in our own environment. These points are made in a subtle, friendly fashion. There is no bludgeoning like, oh, say, Oliver Stone might do (I’m sure no one out there thinks Stone’s probable sequel to WALL STREET is going to lightly dance among the tulips).
No, this is a buoyant, happy tale. And the animation holds true to that sense in a lovely way. Some of it is bold, magical & colorful, and some of it is soft, wispy and painterly, even to the point of showing us what look like the master’s brush strokes. It is all truly a restful treat for the eyes. And in Miyazaki’s animated world everything has life to it.
It’s all well supported by Joe Hisaishi’s music score too. Though it stands out just a tad too much at a couple of junctures, it’s a lush work, as inspired by more traditional classical music. It very much fits the lyrical pace and artistry of the film.
Hayao Miyazaki is one the greatest and best loved animators & storytellers that Japan has ever produced, and his country knows it well. He’ll most likely go down in film history as the Akira Kurosawa of animation. In 2002 the Japanese (film) Academy honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. He has essentially become a national treasure, and his films do tremendous box-office business in the Land of the Rising Sun, not to mention elsewhere. Over here he won the coveted Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003 (hint: it was for one of the three I mentioned earlier), and he has won and been nominated for numerous other film related awards.
What this all boils down to is that Mr. Miyazaki’s work is worth taking note of. One will always find something creative, sincere and of merit within it. And though PONYO isn’t his grandest work, it is a sweet breath of fresh air, as soft and caressing as a gentle ocean breeze.
PONYO(Studio Ghibli/Walt Disney Pictures/Buena Vista, 2008/2009; 103 min.) Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Steve Alpert (English version), Kathleen Kennedy (English version), Frank Marshall (English version), and Toshio Suzuki. Executive produced by Koji Hoshino, John Lasseter (English version), and Hayao Miyazaki. Co-Executive Produced by Naoya Fujimaki, Ryoichi Fukuyama, and Seiji Okuda. Cinematography by Atsushi Hisaishi. Art Direction by Noboru Yoshida. Chief Animation by Katsuya Kondo. Music by Joe Hisaishi. Edited By Hayao Miyazaki and Takeshi Seyama. Cast (English version): Cate Blanchett, Noah Lindsey Cyrus, Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Frankie Jonas, Kurt Knutsson, Cloris Leachman, Liam Neeson, Jennessa Rose, Lily Tomlin, and Betty White. Cast (Japanese version): Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi, Joji Tokoro, Tomoko Yamaguchi, Yuki Amami, Kazushige Nagashima, Akiko Yano, Shinichi Hatori, Tokie Hidari, Eimi Hiragi, Tomoko Naraoka, Nozomi Ohashi, and Kazuko Yoshiyuki. MPAA Rating: G – for the whole planet.
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Miyazaki's Ponyo opens on August 14

Advance word says that Japanese anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s latest film – which mixes Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” with Japanese folk tales – is another masterpiece, this time aimed at five years olds. Miyazaki has opted for a simpler style of animation to tell his fairy tale, relying on old-fashioned hand-drawn cells with pastel colors instead of sharply defined computer-generated imagery. “I don’t think high quantities and density of information have any relation with the appeal of animation. I tried 3D and don’t hate it, though I found hand drawing is able to tell more than that.” Says Ghibl World.com: “The animation is so realistic and complex, it is as if Miyazaki’s soul is telling his audience “I will show you my power!!
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CHANGING SAKÉ INTO WINE – Neil Gaiman on Adapting "Princess Mononke" for America

Over a decade afters its original release, Hayao Miyazaki’s PRINCESS MONONOKE remains a monumental achievement in animation, an enthralling adventure-fantasy whose traditional hand-drawn cells easily outclass much of the soulless computerized cartoons of today. Looking back, it is easy to see MONONOKE as part of a trend toward showing some respect for anime when releasing it for the U.S. market; in an earlier era, Japanese animation was typically re-edited and dubbed down to the level of a kiddie cartoons, but that was not the case here.
When PRINCESS MONONOKE first began appearing at press screenings in the United States in 1998, it was Japan’s official entry in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences category for Best Foreign Language Film, and U.S. distributor Miramax had picked up domestic distribution rights. This was good news to fans of anime in general and fans of Miyazaki in particular, because Miramax was in the habit of setting new box office records for subtitled, foreign language releases, with films such as LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE and IL POSTINO. (LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which came later, continued the trend.)
However, the Motion Picture Academy, against all good sense, failed to deliver a foreign language nomination to Miyazaki’s brilliant animated epic. Without the statuette, or at least the potential of one, to use as a marketing hook on which to hang an advertising campaign, Miramax head Harvey Weinstein opted to abandon a planned release of the subtitled version in favor of taking the time to dub the film into English for release in 1999. Considering the quality of most foreign-film dubbing, especially of anime, this was a sore disappointment to those who had seen and fallen in love with the Japanese version. Thoughts of cartoony voices giving stiff line readings within the audible confines of a tiny recording studio sprang quickly to mind.
Fortunately, the expected debacle did not occur. Miramax hired a big-name voice cast (Claire Danes, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton), giving the American version its own sheen of respectability. Equally important, they hired author Neil Gaiman to write the English-language dialogue, working from a translation of the original Japanese. Gaiman is a noted author in his own right, who has worked in diverse media, including comics (SANDMAN), television (NEVERWHERE), and even records (he collaborated with Alice Cooper on the concept for the album THE LAST TEMPTATION, and also wrote the tie-in comic book illustrating the story). Gaiman captures most of what was apparent in the subtitled version and even clarifies a few points for the benefit of Western viewers—while also making the whole thing sound natural in English, adopting a poetic, sometimes mythic tone in keeping with the film’s visual impact.
Purists might quibble over whether the result matches or exceeds the subtitled version. But it is a testament to the quality of the dub that any evaluation of the new version has to be based on weighing the relative merits of valid artistic choices. Whether or not one thinks English-language performances improve upon the original, one has to acknowledge that they are legitimate acting performances in their own right. In short, the fact that the film has been dubbed is almost no longer an issue: we’re not assessing a clearly inferior product whose only justification is selling tickets to those too lazy to read subtitles; rather, it is a faithful adaptation that was rendered into a new form for the benefit of its audience.
How was this remarkable feat achieved? Below, fantasy author Neil Gaiman explains why he took on the task, how he surmounted the inevitable difficulties inherent in the project, and what he thinks of the final result.
QUESTION: WHAT WAS YOUR INITIAL REACTION TO THE SUBTITLED VERSION OF THE FILM?
Neil Gaiman: I was astonished. I was amazed by the film. I’d never see anything like that before. That was what got me to agree. I had expected to say no. When Harvey [Weinstein] asked me to write it, I wasn’t going to say no outright, so I said, “Send me a video.” He said, “No, I don’t want you to see this on video. I want you to see this on the big screen.” I said, “Oh…okay.” I came to LA., went to a screening room, sat down, fully expecting to come out at the end of the day and say, “I don’t think so, but thank you very much for asking me.”
The film started, and all of a sudden there’s a giant demon creature that turns out to be a giant boar but looks like a spider covered with snake-worms, and I was hooked. I sat there, and sat there, and sat, and came out at the end and said, “I have to do this. I have to be involved. This is so cool, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I love the gods, and I love the animals and monsters and the people. I love the complexity of the people and all the motives.”
DID YOU SEE SOME COMMON GROUND BETWEEN THE FILM AND YOUR WORK THAT MADE YOU THINK NOT ONLY “I WANT TO DO THIS” BUT “I CAN DO THIS”?
I felt I could write these people, but more important I felt I could write the gods, these giant animals, without ever going Disney.
WHAT WAS THE NEXT STEP?
I was given a raw script translation, and I translated the translation into lines that people could say. What they gave me was the subtitles, essentially—slightly expanded, but “here, word for word, is what people are actually saying in Japanese.” That was very interesting, because you’d run into a number of phenomena. For example, some things would be untranslatable. Sometimes you would want to “elegant” the translation. I was trying to explain to somebody the other day: the jokes are really hard to translate, because they don’t—not quite. Why something is funny doesn’t necessarily translate. You have to go and find something that is the emotional equivalent.
SO THERE WAS A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF CREATIVITY, NOT JUST MECHANICAL TRANSLATION.
There was an enormous amount of creativity in the job. If it had just been a matter of taking the script and tidying up the language to make it sound more like dialogue, that would have been easy. The fun for me was that all of these people are different; they have different characters and different voices.
THERE WAS SOME ISSUE WITH MIRAMAX ABOUT RETAINING THE JAPANESE FLAVOR IN THE DIALOGUE, SUGGESTIONS THAT YOU REPLACE “SAMURAI” WITH “WARRIOR.”
That got a bit silly for awhile. “Samurai” they left; we got to keep “samurai.” We lost “sake”; “sake” became “wine.” We lost “Japan,” interestingly enough, and we even lost China—at one point [in the original version] they talk about these guns that come from China.
DID YOU HAVE TO BE REAL CONCERNED WITH SYNCHRONIZATION, WRITING DIALOUGE THAT MATCHES HOW LONG THE CHARACTERS’ MOUTHS ARE MOVING?
It’s not even a matter of how long they’re moving their mouths. It’s a matter of matching exactly. People have been asking if we reanimated it. There are two schools of thought coming out from the film. School of Thought #1 is that we reanimated the mouth movements. School #2 is that they must have made two different versions at the same time.
IN JAPAN, IT’S STANDARD TO POST-DUB ANIMATION, SO CLEARLY IT CAN BE DONE.
What is interesting is that we actually match the mouth movements better than the Japanese one did, only because what would break suspension of disbelief for an American audience is much more than for a Japanese audience, so we had to be closer.
The delight with PRINCESS MONONOKE is we set a new standard for dubs. You get different responses from fans, because you get different types of fans watching it. One are the people who have seen the original Japanese film many times; sometimes they love it, and sometimes they have stuff they miss from the Japanese version, in terms of performances. In the Japanese one, for example, the part of Moro, the giant wolf, is played by a transvestite, a female impersonator; it actually sounds, frankly, like a fairly deep-voiced male actor, although Moro the wolf is a female. So they sort of remember a very deep, growling kind of voice. Now, we have Gillian Anderson, and we don’t try to recreate that voice. There was no attempt to recreate that. There was no attempt to tell Gillian Anderson, “Do it in a deep voice like a bloke” or anything. The idea was, we have Gillian Anderson, and she’s wonderful and astonishing, and she’s really, really good. We did that all the way through. Billy Bob [Thornton]does not sound like the Jigo from the Japanese version. But on the other hand, Billy Bob as this wonderful, sort of used car salesman—this little wild card forever fiddling stuff behind the scenes—is terrific.
YOU HAD TO FILL AMERICAN AUDIENCES IN ON BACKGROUND INFORMATION THAT WOULD BE OBVIOUS TO JAPANESE VIEWERS. FOR INSTANCE, WHEN ASHITAKA CUTS HIS HAIR, IT SYMBOLIZES THAT HE IS NOW “DEAD” TO THE PEOPLE OF HIS VILLAGE.
In the Japanese one, they are talking about other things, and he goes and cuts his hair, puts it on the alter, goes out, and never comes back to his village. As far as most Americans are concerned at this point, he’s just given himself a haircut, possibly because it’s going to be a slightly long trip. You want people to get the same amount of information that they would have got.
WAS THERE A TRADE-OFF? DID YOU HAVE TO LEAVE OUT OTHER DIALOGUE TO MAKE ROOM FOR THESE NEW BITS OF INFORMATION?
Rarely. Mostly no. There was very little that got left out. You change things for effect. At one point they’re talking about women and how they have to stay and guard the town. The captain of the guard says, “Don’t worry about our ladyship. I will protect her.” One of the women in Japanese turns to him and says, “Useless!”—and everybody laughs. Which is fair enough, but it doesn’t take you terribly far in doing the translation. You go, “Why is she saying ‘useless’? Why is this so funny?” So I have her go, “Even if you were a woman, you’d still be an idiot!”—and everybody laughs. Now, we lost the word “useless,” but we had the laugh and the context.
YOU WROTE FOR THE CHARACTERS, NOT THE ACTORS, SINCE YOU STARTED BEFORE CASTING WAS COMPLETE.
Basically, although Claire [Danes] was in there from the beginning. I knew pretty early on that if I wasn’t going to get Minnie Driver, I would get Helena Bonham Carter, and if I didn’t’ get Helena Bonham Carter, I’d get Kristen Scott Thomas, if you see what I mean. It was going to be one of those. Lady Eboshi was going to be icy and British. Actually, Minnie is astonishing. She gives Eboshi a level of ambiguity that is astonishing.
AFTER ALL THE WORK, WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO SEE IT WITH THE NEW VOICES IN THERE?
Wonderful, although the point where it really became great was just seeing it with an audience. That made me very happy.
WERE THERE ANY SURPRISES IN THE AUDIENCE REACTION? DID THEY LAUGH IN ALL THE RIGHT PLACES?
They laughed in all the right places. And in a couple of places I still haven’t figured out why they laugh. It’s like when the heads go flying: audiences always laugh, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. It’s funny and there’s a moment of rejection.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN DOING SIMILAR JOBS?
I can’t ever imagine doing it again. It was wonderful. If Miyazaki asked me to, I probably would, and if a movie came along that was even cooler…but how many of them are there going to be? I’ve been asked a lot since, especially from Japan, where they say, “MONONOKE HIME [the film’s Japanese title] was the greatest Japanese animated movie—we want the guy who did that.” So I get a lot of requests, but I have no real interest in doing it again.
THAT’S QUITE A COMPLIMENT. IT SHOWS YOU DID RAISE THE BAR ON THE QUALITY OF DUBBING.
Let me say, the person who really did raise the bar—I may have done it in terms of script quality, I like to think—but the dub itself is Jack Fletcher, who was the dubbing director. He is the reason why we match the lip movements even more accurately than the Japanese did. He is the one who took every line and… Fundamentally, it’s all my dialogue. Every once in awhile, there are little bits where I go, “How did that happen? I don’t get it.” I was asking them last night, “Why did the little girl in the village become explicitly his [Ashitaka’s] sister? I didn’t think she was in the script they gave me, and she certainly wasn’t in the script I wrote.” And nobody seemed to know where that had come from.
But mostly you got the lines that I wrote, fiddled with very slightly by Jack to make them work, if you see what I mean. Sometimes, you get my dialogue perfectly. One of the reasons I love all the Gillian Anderson-Moro stuff so much is it’s mine, dammit, all mine. Which I really do like; it makes me very happy. At that point, that’s what you’re hearing, because we didn’t have to match lip movements, so you could actually hear the rhythms of my dialogue. That was great.
The hardest thing, as a writer, was coming up with a line of dialogue that was absolutely beautiful, powerful, brilliant, elegant, poetic, fine, and then…only if the character had moved their mouth one more time, I could have used it!

Retrospective: Miyazaki's Castle Howls into Hollywood

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article originally appeared on the Hollywood Gothique website on June 10, 2005.]

The premier of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, shown in the English-dubbed version at El Capitan Theatre on Thursday, June 9, 2005, was a rousing experience for fans of animation master Hayao Miyazaki. Unfortunately, the Japanese writer-director was not on the panel discussing the film before the screening, but there was some informative and amusing commentary from moderator Charles Solomon (an animation expert), actresses Jean Simmons and Emily Mortimer, the screenwriting team of Cindy and Donald Hewitt (who provided the English-language dialogue), and a handful of Disney-Pixar people who supervised the dubbing of the film for American audiences.
Some of the interesting tidbits:
The lead character of Sophie, a young woman who is turned into a ninety-year-old crone by a witch’s curse, was voiced by a single actress in the Japanese version, but the American audio track splits the character into “young” and “old” voices, the first by Mortimer, the second by veteran actress Simmons. Simmons was chosen because she could convey not just a mature-sounding voice but a sense of youthful vigor masked by visible age. Mortimer was selected because she could sound like a younger version of Simmons (specifically, the filmmakers listened to Simmons’ old films like SPARTACUS).
The role of the Witch of the Waste was given to Lauren Bacall (whose career stretches all the way back to classic 1940s films like TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT). The filmmakers were worried that the actress, once an icon of glamour, would be insulted by the choice of character, warning her, “This character is a bit despicable.” Bacall’s response: “Darling, I was born to play despicable!”
Christian Bale landed the role of the ambivalent wizard Howl after his agent supplied a voice clip of the actor from BATMAN BEGINS. The casting is appropriate, since Howl (like Bruce Wayne) leads a bit of a double-life, turning into a winged bird-like monster at night.
After completing the dub, the film was screened in New York, with Miyazaki in attendance. To the surprise of the American filmmakers, Miyazaki sat through the dubbed version (he has a reputation for walking out in the past). Afterwards, the Americans asked Miyazaki’s translator to inquire whether he had liked the film. She warned them not to ask unless they wanted to hear the truth “because he’ll tell you, so if you don’t want to know, don’t ask.” The Americans asked; the translator translated; Miyazaki bowed and told them “good job.”
Jean Simmons called the dubbing process a “learning experience.” Unlike American animation, which records voices first and then animates the characters to match, Japanese anime is filmed first and dubbed later. (Perhaps jokingly, Miyazaki told the American dubbers that he uses this method so that he has complete control over how the actors read their lines). The trick, of course, is to get in character while standing in a sound booth watching through a window as the film unspool on a screen in a black room next door.
Under the circumstances, dialogue is difficult enough; almost as tricky is conveying the inarticulate part of the performance — for example, the strain Old Sophie endures when climbing a mountain of stairs while hauling an asthmatic dog along with her. “I never huffed and puffed so much in my life!” said Simmons.
Mortimer agreed, laughing, “It was almost like making a porn film — there was so much gasping and panting!”
By this time, the children in the audience were getting a bit antsy for the beginning of the film. Not surprisingly, in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, this Japanese family-oriented film attracted a fair number of Asian-Americans with young children. (The little boy a few seats down from me was a dead ringer for Toshio from THE GRUDGE; I kept looking around for his ghostly mother Kayako to materialize — the anticipation of which lent the screening an edge it might not otherwise have had.)
The film that unspooled was fairly typical Miyazaki, in all its strengths and weaknesses: it’s beautiful and filled with numerous heart-felt story elements and themes (about greed, cowardice, war, etc), but as is often the case, how these elements connect on a plot level is not as important as how beautifully they are rendered on screen. The film is filled with amusing characters and bizarre images (like a legless scarecrow hopping about on its wooden post), but you’d be hard-pressed to explain the logic of the film’s happy ending (at least three curses are lifted in the last few minutes, but the details of how this is achieved are glossed over).
Ultimately, the film is not as impressive as Miyazaki’s ambitious PRINCESS MONONOKE, but it captures the pastoral beauty and charm that we have come to expect from the creator of LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. That’s more than enough to make it worth seeing.

Copyright 2005 Steve Biodrowski

Princess Mononoke (1999) – Anime Review

Complex adult animation from anime-auteur Hayao Miyazaki

Feature film animation was once monopolized by Disney; in the era of CGI, other production companies like DreamWorks and Pixar staked a claim to the territory. But fans of anime know that there is another company that puts out consistently high-quality animation that often surpasses the best of Disney: Studio Ghibli, presided over by writer-director Hayao Miyazaki. While much of anime’s fame (or infamy—at least in the U.S.) derives from a sense of puritanical shock at the outrageous, adult aspects (including X-rated sex and violence) Miyazaki’s work has always been more closely aligned to the Disney aesthetic: his films tend to feature cute characters and pastoral beauty that falls within the comfort zone of Occidental audiences, while also including PG action and adventure elements that appeal to teens and young adults, as well as to older audiences impressed with the artistry.
With PRINCESS MONONOKE Miyazaki rose to a whole new level of achievement. The familiar pictorial elements are on display, but not the light-hearted humor of KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. Instead, the adventure strikes a remarkably adult tone, beginning with a frightening attack on a small village by a monster that appears to be a mass of slithering worms in the form of a spider. Prince Ashitaka kills the rampaging beast, which turns out to be a former forest god: a large boar that passes its curse on to Ashitaka as it dies.
His arm starting to show signs of transformation (wispy, worm-like tendrils), Ashitaka leaves his village to search for a cure, his only clue a small metal pellet found in the body of the slain animal. The bullet leads Ashitaka to Lady Eboshi, who runs a mining company that has been deforesting an area rich in raw ore for her irons works. Unfortunately for Ashitaka, Lady Eboshi is not simply a villain whom he can blame for the cursed animal that attacked his village; she is also a beloved leader who not only employs lepers but also buys out the contracts on local prostitutes and provides them honest work.
While Ashitaka is forced to see the good side of Lady Eboshi, the same cannot be said for Princess Mononoke, a feral young woman raised by the wolf goddess Moro. Committed to defending the forest and its residents, she wants only to kill Eboshi, but the film never allows us fully to condone her quest. Consequently, Ashitaka finds himself trapped in the middle of this feud, unable to join fully with either side, yet desperately hoping somehow to find a resolution that will benefit all concerned. In a strange way, the story echoes YOJIMBO, wherein the title character formed alliances with rival factions in order to play both sides against each. But the master samurai in YOJIMBO had no allegiance to either side; Ashitaka, on the other hand, it torn between allegiances to both sides while trying to mediate the flames of conflict. It is a hopeless task: because of his refusal to ally himself definitively with either side, neither one will give him the trust he needs to bring about a resolution to the conflict.
Although the situation seems irresolvable, the audiences never disengages from the story. We identify with Ashitaka’s apparently hopeless quest, even as we despair of his chances for success. We see the apparent righteousness of the rival characters, even as we realize that their conflict will lead to disaster. Amidst this human bickering, the relatively honorable conduct of the forest gods (all in the forms of animals) seems relatively noble, even if the creatures themselves are dangerous and violent.
Miyazaki is making a statement about respect for nature, but he refuses the simple option of making the iron foundry out to be a bastion of evil. In fact, it seems that the conflict lies not in nature versus civilization but in the personal animosity that many of the major characters hold for each other. Ultimately, the film allows us the luxury of identifying with the clear vision of extremists who believe in their own righteousness, but then strips that luxury away from us as they are forced, by the consequences of their own actions, to take stock of their beliefs and revise them in order to go on living.
This description sounds heavy-handed, but the thematic subtext is dramatized in vivid exciting scenes. From the very first frames, Miyazaki proves himself a total master of the medium, manipulating audience responses with ease. The opening sequence of the boar’s attack is as frightening as any horror film. The monstrous appearance of the beast aside, the sequence works because of subtle touches that instill fear: Yakul, Ashitaka’s formerly and courageous-looking red elk (which the villagers ride like horses) goes paralyzed with fright at the sight of the monster. The sudden transformation from noble steed to quivering creature underlines the approaching threat.
Elsewhere, Miyazaki juxtaposes his patented pastoral landscapes with outbreaks of violence that are positively shocking to anyone familiar with his work. The visceral impact of these action scenes ranks with the best work appearing in live-action films today; in American animated films, there is quite simply nothing to compare. Under the influence of the curse working through his body, Ashitaka’s skills as a warrior reach demonic proportions; the arrows released from his bow dismember and decapitate his foes (amazingly, the film somehow avoided an R-rating without any cuts). As with everything else in PRINCESS MONONOKE, the scenes evoke complex responses the audience: on the one hand, his opponents seem to deserve their fate; on the other, we see that the violence is slowly overwhelming the character, who must find a solution before he turns as evil as the demonic boar he slew.
PRINCESS MONONOKE’s English language version attempted to set a new standard for dubbing. Not only do the lines effectively match the characters’ mouth movements’ Neil Gaiman’s English-language script also captures the flavor of the original, loosing little in the translation from Japanese. The English track clarifies a few minor plot points that might not be obvious to Western viewers without sounding too much like added exposition. The voice cast do a solid job, but they do not quite match the zest of the original. Moro, the wolf mother, loses the most: the Japanese language for the character was delivered by a female impersonator, creating a strange combination of masculine strength and feminine delivery. Gillian Anderson certainly does a good job, but some of the weirdness is missing.
PRINCESS MONONOKE is an outstanding achievement. At a time when Disney was struggling to make more adult fare (such as MULAN), and while DreamWorks was stumbling with their Biblical rehash PRINCE OF EGYPT, Miyazaki made a film that sets the real standard, easily equaling and surpassing other achievements in the genre. Fans of Miyazaki’s had no reason to be surprised. What was pleasantly surprising is that his vision reached American shores in relatively unadulterated form, thanks Miramax (who abandoned plans to release a subtitled version after the film failed to earn an Oscar nomination in the foreign language category). PRINCESS MONONOKE may not have catchy musical numbers, or comic relief sidekicks, or computer-generated characters, or fairy tale source material; that is, it might not have any of the elements we associate with animation in America. Nevertheless, it is a true work of art; unburdened with commercial compromises, it succeeds beautifully. It is at once a rousing adventure and a profoundly moving meditation—two elements that sound exclusive but actually enhance each other. PRINCESS MONONOKE is, quite simply, one of the greatest animated films ever made.

DVD DETAILS

The Region 1 presentation of PRINCESS MONONOKE is sparse on bonus features, but it does a fine job of showing off the movie itself, thanks to a bright, colorful transfer that looks great on widescreen TVs and nicely mixed audio tracks. Both the original Japanese dialogue and the careful English dub (written by Neil Gaiman) are provided in 5.1 surround; plus, the well-regarded French dub is available in 2.0. Extras are limited to a trailer and a featurette. The latter is essentially a promotional piece, interspersing footage of the movie with interview snippets of the American cast (Danes, Crudup, Thornton, Anderson, Pinket-Smith) – plus Gaiman and dubbing director Jack Fletcher – extolling the virtues of Miyazaki’s vision.
PRINCESS MONONOKE(a.k.a. “Spirit Princess” [Japanese title translation], 1997; U.S. release 1999). Written & Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. English langauge dialogue by Neil Gaiman. Japanese Voices: Yoji Matsuda, Yuriko Ishida, Yuko Tanaka, Kaoru Kobayashi, Masahiko Nishimura, Tsunehiko Kamijo. English Voices: Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Gillian Anderson, Billy Bob Thornton, Keith David.

Castle of Cagliostro (1979) – Anime Review

Anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki’s amsuing feature film debut is a fun-filled romp

In CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, superb director and future auteur Hayao Miyazaki made a fine film using established characters. Lupin III is a master thief, created as a manga character in 1967, as by the artist Monkey Punch (Kazuhiko Kata), who was inspired by French author Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin. Lupin III has two loyal sidekicks, a beautiful rival, and he is pursued by the hopelessly frustrated cop Zenigata.
CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, the second Lupin anime feature, is widely regarded as the thief’s best outing, though his exploits continue to this day. CAGLIOSTRO was the first movie directed by Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke), who had worked on television animation for several years, including an early TV version of Lupin, made in 1971-2.
The Lupin in CAGLIOSTRO is more heroic and, despite first appearances, more responsible than Punch’s ruthless bad-boy. Even if you’re not a fan of the Lupin character in particular or of anime in general, you will have a wonderful time with this rousing, tongue-in-cheek adventure. One of the few smart things the Academy of Science Fiction Fantasy and Horror Films (located in Los Angeles) ever did, was to run CAGLIOSTRO when a print of the Roger Moore opus FOR YOUR EYES ONLY failed to show up for a pre-release screening in 1981. Suffice to say, the assembled crowd of Bond fans were far from disappointed by the last-minute substitution. The tone is light, but the film is fast-paced and filled with enough action to match any good live-action movie, veering into cartoon territory with physically impossible antics that go right over the top in a delightfully absurd way.
Some of the animation looks a bit dated today, but it is more than serviceable in the context of the story, and the backgrounds are all beautifully rendered. Some of the character design, along with the overall look, may raise your hackles if you’re not an anime aficionado (in particular, the princess is a blandly rendered, almost generic character), once the story sucks you in, you won’t care anymore.

DVD DETAILS

Manga’s DVD is a perfect introduction to the character. The print is in beautiful shape, letterboxed into approximately a 1.85 ratio. The soundtrack offers Dolby stereo, with a clear mix that makes the dialogue audible over the music and sound effects (which is not always the case with DVD mixes, especially if you’re not careful with your sound system setup). You have three options for the dialogue: Japanese, Japanese with English subtitles, or dubbed English.
The English dubbing is not terrible, but there is far more zest to the performances in the original soundtrack. Also, the English dub adds unnecessary lines. On some occasions, this apparently was done to clarify story points for younger viewers who might not figure them out on their own (e.g. Lupin mumbles some speculation about his whereabouts when he finds himself in a dungeon beneath the castle). In other cases, the additions are simply inexplicable: a formerly silent scene of Lupin and pal Jigen, getting past a routine check by some border patrol officers, now has Lupin introduce his partner as his relative, as if that somehow convinces the officers to accept the disguises they are wearing.
Another oddity: The film retains the Japanese language credits of the original, although the title is given in English. With the Japanese language soundtrack, the closing credits roll in silence; in the English-language dub, the credits are accompanied by the film’s theme song — which is sun in Japanese! Fortunately, a quick finger on your DVD player’s remote control will enable you to switch soundtracks at the crucial moment and thus avoid the awkward silence.
Unfortunately, the disc is short on extras and supplemental materials; there are none specifically related to the film, to the Lupin character, to Monkey Punch, or to Miyazaki. All the disc has to offer are some trailers and music video-type montages of other Manga video and DVD releases (the same ones available on the Perfect Blue disc). It would have been nice to include at least a little background information on the character, for the benefit of uninitiated viewers.
A subsequent “Special Edition” DVD includes a previously unreleased trailer for the film, plus the entire movie seen as storyboards set to the Japanese soundtrack and an interview with the animation director Yasuo Otsuka.
CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO (Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro, 1979). Directed by Hayao Miyzaki. Written by Miyazaki and Tadashi Yamazaki, based on the graphic novels by Monkey Punch, inspired by the character created by Maurice Leblanc. Japanese Voices: Yasuo Yamada, Eiko Masuyama, Kiyoshi Kobayashi, Mako Inoue, Goro Naya, Sumi Shimamoto, Taro Ishida. English Voices: David Hayter, Dorothy Elias-Fahn, Ivan Buckley, Bridget Hoffman, Kirk Thornton.

Howl's Moving Castle – Anime Review

Typical Miyazaki, in all its glorious strengths and frustrating weaknesses

Hayao Miyazaki is rightfully considered one of the great artists working in the anime form. Eschewing the hard-edged violence that many American viewers (rightly or wrongly) associate with the form, Miyazaki creates painterly, pastoral visions filled with beauty and eccentric charm. And unlike much of anime, his characters are really animated: they live and breathe and move; they don’t just stand there filling up the composition while the extreme camera angles, moody lighting and striking character design strive to compensate for minimal movement. Moreover, the writer-director is not just a painter of pretty pictures; he fills his films with deeply felt themes (environment, war, etc) that are expressed through the grandness of the visuals. Unfortunately, the narrative thread binding these themes together is almost never as important as important as how beautiful the billowing white clouds look while cresting the snow-capped mountains and throwing their shadows on the verdant valleys below.
In this regard, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is a perfect epitome of Miyazaki’s work, in all its strengths and weaknesses: it’s beautiful and filled with numerous heart-felt story elements and themes (about greed, cowardice, and the futility of war), but how these elements connect on a plot level is subjugated to how beautifully they are rendered on screen.
[WARNING: Minor Spoilers) The story follows Sophie, a young woman who is rescued from being accosted by two soldiers when the mysterious and handsome wizard Howl intervenes, literally flying her through the sky (like Superman and Lois Lane in 1978’s SUPERMAN). Howl has a reputation for devouring the hearts of beautiful women, but Sophie doesn’t feel threatened because she doesn’t believe herself to be beautiful. Unfortunately, being rescued by the wizard is a case of going from the frying pan to the fire, as Howl is being pursued by the minions of the Witch of the Waste. The Witch puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old hag and preventing her from explaining what has happened. Unable to face her mother, Sophie leaves home and stumbles upon the titular castle, where she takes up work as a cleaning lady.
Domesticity takes a back seat when war breaks out and Howl is ordered to report for duty. Howl admits to Sophie that, despite his powers, he is a coward; even his magnificent moving castle is just a way to run from trouble. He sends Sophie to turn down the call to arms. Along the way, Sophie meets up with the Witch of the Waste, who has her powers stolen from her (we have no doubt that the same would have happened to Howl had he reported for service as ordered).
When full-scale war breaks out, Howl finally decides to stop running, but when his defense of the castle brings him to the point of death, Sophie destroys the castle so that he will no longer risk his life. More through luck than design, Sophie manages to lift a curse that has been binding him to the fire demon Calcifer that powered his castle. She also lifts a curse on a missing prince (whose disappearance was the cause of the war). And she herself returns to her youthful appearance (although her hair remains silver-hued.
The film is filled with sweeping visuals that pull the viewer along: the castle tromping across the countryside, a fiery aerial bombardment, Howl in bird form swooping through the skies as he is battered by the enemy. But the logic behind these events is frustratingly vague, and you’d be hard-pressed to explain the logic of the film’s happy ending (at least three curses are lifted in the last few minutes, but the details of how this is achieved are glossed over). Howl seems to recognize that the old woman who cleans is castle is the same young woman he rescued, but how or even exactly when is not clear. Sophie seems to regain her youth when she expresses concern for others, but this carries little dramatic weight, since she was never particularly self-centered to begin with. Apparently Howl’s problem has something to do with trading his heart to Calcifer (in exchange for what?), but the exact nature is never clarified, so it’s hard to tell how Sophie figured out a way to undo the damage.
Perhaps detailed explanations are not necessary. On a simple, primal level, it is clear that the characters are being rewarded for their altruistic behavior, even if the exact mechanism for how this works is never explained: if we know the “why,” the how is unimportant. But in some cases, even this emotional attachment is lacking: for example, there is a throwaway “plot twist” wherein Sophie’s mother betrays her, but this thread is cut before it can develop — it might as well have simply been cut out completely for all it contributes to the story.
The animation is all beautifully done. Miyazaki uses the screen lke a canvas, filling it with breath-taking vistas that are populated by amusing characters and bizarre images: including a legless scarecrow hopping about on its wooden post and an asthmatic dog that befriends Sophie. Both of these are the sort of cute characters that are immediately endearing, lighting up the screen whenever they appear, regardless of story deficiencies. Even if the plot points are not always clear, the visuals tell us what’s happening in a way that feels emotionally right (as when the formerly imposing Witch of the waste is turned from villain to victim, reduced to flabby, diminished version of her former self).
The English dubbing is very effective. Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons seamlessly integrate the two versions of Sophie, young and old. Billy Crystal doesn’t overdo the jokes too much as Calcifer, and Lauren Bacall strikes the properly haughty tone as the witch. In the title role, Christian Bale is suitably enigmatic and ambivalent as Howl, alternating between awesome and alluring on the one hand and childish and craven on the other. Sadly, the look of the character seems to become increasingly boyish throughout the film, until it starts to resemble the familiar cliché of the too-cute wide-eyed anime hero.
Ultimately, HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE is not as impressive as Miyazaki’s ambitious PRINCESS MONONOKE, but it captures the pastoral beauty and charm that we have come to expect from the creator of LAPUTA: CASTLE IN THE SKY and MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. That’s more than enough to make it worth seeing.
HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE(2005). Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Screenplay by Miyazaki, based on the book by Diana Wynne Jones; English adaptation by Cindy Davis Hewitt & Donald H. Hewitt. Voices: Chieko Baisho, Takuya Kimura, Akihiro Miwa, Tatsuya Gashun; English Voices: Jean Simmons, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Billy Crystal, Blythe Danner.

Cybersurfing: HR praises Ponyo

Hollywood Reporter reviews PONYO ON THE CLIFF BY THE SEA, the latest anime film from Hayao Miyazaki (PRINCESS MONONOKE), which screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Their bottom line assessment: “A superb work of Japanese fantasy from animation wizard Miyazaki that transcends age barriers.” The film is loosely based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale “The Little Mermaid,” which previously inspired the Disney film of the same title.

A contemporary Japanese backdrop brings the Andersen story closer home, while the total absence of CGI work — the whole film is drawn by animators — heightens the film’s childlike charm. In Miyazaki’s fertile imagination, the ordinary and magical worlds blend into each other; both are full of marvels. Perhaps his most imaginative representation is the sea itself, which he transforms into a living, pulsating character. On another level, the sea can represent the subconscious mind bursting onto the land above. The tender mother-child relationship of Sosuke and Lisa, and Ponyo and her radiant Mother of the Sea, strikes a deep chord of universality.

Rival anime genius Mamoru Oshii also has a film scheduled for the festival, a “modern parable” titled THE SKY CRAWLERS.