Best of 2012: Castles in the Sky (addendum)

Further to my previous post about the Studio Ghibli season at the Cinematheque, A couple of shifts got moved around at work and I found myself with a Saturday off on which three films were showing, three I had not seen before. Pom Poko, Porco Rosso, and Only Yesterday. Score!

Where to begin with Pom Poko… So, there’s a Japanese animal called a tanuki, which is a raccoon dog (not an actual raccoon). The tradition in Japanese culture is that tanuki, along with foxes and “some cats” can transform. So Pom Poko is about a bunch of tanuki trying to save their home forest from a human urban development, using their transformational abilities. This transformation motif manifests in the animation where the tanuki appear in three distinctly different appearances based on mood, even before they start transforming into humans and objects.

Anything stand out to you about this image?
Anything stand out to you about this image?

It opens as a narrated documentary, with a visual style that is probably the most cartoonish of all the Ghibli films, and the story initially seems similarly whimsical and silly. But as I will explain, this veneer of child-like simplicity masks one of the most devastating animated films ever produced.

I should probably mention at this point that another part of the Japanese tradition is that tanuki have giant testicles. That’s right, giant transforming balls. And in this film, an otherwise family film, there are balls everywhere. In the English dub they changed them to “pouches”. But in this, the subtitled Japanese original, they are explicitly balls. And for the first few minutes of the film you’re looking at the screen and wondering if they’ve actually gone to the trouble to draw testicles on these tanuki. And you think, surely they wouldn’t right? Not in a kid’s movie? And then they not only address the testicles specifically, but they do it in such a way that might be the greatest reveal in the history of storytelling.

Anyway, Pom Poko is ultimately about the futile struggle to keep the forest from being destroyed. As such by the film’s protracted ending, despite the liberal lashings of humour and Japanese weirdness throughout, the film (almost out of nowhere) becomes pretty dark and upsetting in its second half. It is pretty heavy-handed about it too, more so than it maybe needs to be. Lots of dead tanuki, mass suicide, the futility of life, oh it’s all here. And what more could you expect from Isao Takahata, director of the world’s most depressing war film Grave of the Fireflies?

Still, a genuinely enjoyable surprise.

The second of the night was Porco Rosso, which is regarded as one of Miyazaki’s classics. In this film, set between the two World Wars, an Italian pilot has become a bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. He also happens to be a pig, for reasons that are never fully elaborated on. He is Porco Rosso, the Crimson Pig.

If you cover up the pig's head here, this would look like a completely natural Mediterranean café scene.
If you cover up the pig’s head here, this would look like a completely natural Mediterranean café scene.

The film involves a lot of dogfights between Porco and his nemesis the famed American pilot Curtis. Given how this film is placed in real world history, and the relative realism of its setting – even going as far as to address fascism – it’s odd that the main character is a pig and nobody finds that especially weird. But hey, that’s the magic of animation.

There’s a loving amount of detail in the aviation scenes, but for some reason, Porco Rosso didn’t click with me as much as Miyazaki’s other work. It’s a simple revenge tale in some respects, though told well. The characters are all fairly well realised, particularly Porco himself, who is aloof and distant even to the two women in his life, club-singer Gina and young mechanic and initially unwelcome flying partner Fio.

After that there came another Isao Takahata film, Only Yesterday. I went into this film with almost no knowledge of its tone or content, and came away completely in love with it.

The film is a drama, in which 27 year old Japanese woman Taeko narrates her working holiday on a farm, flashing back to her life as a 10 year old in the 1960s. It expresses a mixture of nostalgia and the strange constant wonderment of being a child. It is animated with incredible realism, and some of the farmland backdrops in particular are absolutely stunning.

Taeko is perhaps the most personally relatable character I have ever seen portrayed on screen in any genre or film medium.
Taeko is perhaps the most personally relatable character I have ever seen portrayed on screen in any genre or film medium.

There are so many moments in this film that I loved, it would be hard to pick out favourites. But there’s a scene where the Taeko’s father brings home a pineapple, a fruit the family has never seen. They put it aside because they don’t know how to eat it. Eventually they discover how to eat it, so the mother cuts the pineapple while Taeko can barely contain her excitement at this new experience. The family all sit down with a slice of pineapple each on a plate. They begin to eat, and the anticipation on their faces turns to disappointment…

I think part of the reason Only Yesterday resonates so deeply with me is that I am almost 27, and the character of Taeko is considered “weird” by her family, as she tries to find a place to fit in. I was also moved by the reflections on childhood, both good experiences and bad experiences that build one’s character. There’s a vivid sentimentality here that is well-pitched and never becomes mawkish. The director resists the temptation to show Taeko’s entire childhood, mentioning other events in passing, but only actually flashing back to that one time period.

Between the beautifully understated visuals and the subtle and realistic storytelling, this film instantly became my favourite Studio Ghibli work to date. It seems clear that Takahata is a very different storyteller to Miyazaki. I love them both.

So hey, thanks to my work, and thanks to the Cinematheque, and the mysterious shufflings of the Universe, for aligning in such a way that made for a fantastic evening’s entertainment. Hooray!

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