Studio Ghibli

The Cat Returns

16/03/20

When the world goes mad, when cinemas across the UK close their doors, and when all major film releases are pushed back for months, what does a movie reviewer do for entertainment? Well, the recent rash of Studio Ghibli films, streamed on Netflix, seems a promising source to explore.

We’ve seen many of the big hitters, of course, but here’s something we missed on its first release in 2002. Directed by Hiroyuki Morita (who directed Akira and The Ghost in the Shell), The Cat Returns tells the story of Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki), a shy seventeen-year-old schoolgirl, whose life is completely upended when she saves a cat from being run over by a truck. It turns out that he’s no ordinary moggie, but Prince Lune (Takayuki Yamada), the heir to the magical Cat Kingdom. What’s more, he’s determined to reward Haru for her good deed, even though showering her with mice isn’t as well-received as he expects.

This features the usual enchanting hand-drawn animation and a storyline that owes more than a passing debt to Alice in Wonderland – indeed, there are whole sequences here that pay homage to Lewis Carroll’s most famous book and the similarities are too marked to be accidental. While Alice finds her way to Wonderland by following a white rabbit, Haru follows podgy white cat, Muta (Tetsu Watanabe), and ends up in an equally bewildering destination.

Much like that story, the plot here meanders into some very eccentric backwaters and doesn’t make very much sense, but that’s not really a problem. I love the character of Baron (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a super-cool cat who sports a sharp suit and bowler hat and has more than a dash of 007 about him – and Tetsurô Tanba’s Cat King is also entertaining, a clumsy buffoon, intent on marrying his son off to Haru (I know, weird, right?).

While The Cat Returns may not be top flight Ghibli, it’s nonetheless quirky and inventive enough to make an hour and fifteen minutes pass in the blink of a cat’s eye. And right now, that’s a bonus.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney

Ponyo

16/08/18

During the month of August when the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing, we don’t have a lot of time to visit the cinema – but when we saw that Ponyo was showing at the Cameo Cinema, we had to make an exception. We’ve only recently started to discover the joys of Studio Ghibli and this is, quite appropriately, the one that got away. This quirky ‘boy meets fish’ story has so much to recommend it – gorgeous visuals, a powerful ecological theme and an almost overwhelming cuteness that’s never allowed to tip over into full-blown mawkishness.

Scientist/magician Fujimoto (rather disturbingly voiced, in this version, by Liam Neeson) lives deep beneath the sea in a Nautilus-like submersible, where he conducts a series of mystical experiments. When one of those experiments, a little red-headed fish, goes exploring, she is swept up by a dredger net and carried far away. She eventually gets washed ashore where she hooks up with a boy called Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and, when she licks a drop of blood from his hand, a weird transformation occurs…

There’s something of the selkie myth to this tale, but as ever it’s shot through with that unique Hayao Miyazake world view. Odd though the story is, it’s an absolute joy to watch. The animation of the water itself is a particular delight, at times recalling Hokusai’s famous watercolours and, while this might not be quite up there with the likes of Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke, it’s nonetheless a charming and spellbinding film.

If the opportunity occurs to see this – particularly on the big screen – don’t miss your chance.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

06/05/18

Studio Ghibli may be defunct, but here’s the first release from its successor, Studio Ponoc, and it’s apparent pretty much from the word go that the resulting film couldn’t be more Ghilbli-esque if it tried. All the familiar tropes are here. A moody young girl with low self-esteem? Check! Stranded in an unfamiliar neighborhood while her parents are away? You’ve got it! A cheeky but handsome boy she at first hates but grows to care about? Oh, yes! Sumptuous representations of the countryside?  All present and correct!

Which might give the impression that Mary and the Witch’s Flower is nothing but a pale imitation of what has gone before and I certainly don’t mean to do that. Suffice to say that the film is very much in the great tradition of Japan’s leading animation studio and, of course, that should be no great surprise, because its director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi (of When Marnie Was There), was one of Ghibli’s most acclaimed animators.

MATWF is based on classic 70s novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a book that was clearly a huge influence on  the work of a certain Ms Rowling, and tells the story of young Mary (Hana Sugisaki), who is currently living with her Great Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Otake) and doing her best to fit in with a rather dull day-to-day existence in the countryside. A chance encounter in the woods leads her to discover the titular flower, said to be able to grant its possessor incredible powers and, shortly thereafter, she finds an ancient broomstick, which – once activated – takes her off to the mysterious Endor College, a school for witches…

As a calling card, Studio Ponoc really couldn’t have done much more to assure Ghibli fans that its towering reputation is in safe hands. There are the kind of gorgeously lush settings we’ve grown to expect, elements of adventure, comedy and suspense and, of course, that all-important atmosphere of magic that will entrance viewers of all ages. There’s also a choice of viewing. Those who, like me, prefer to watch it in the original language with subtitles, can choose to do so – but there is also a dubbed version on offer, voiced by Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent.

Mary Stewart would, I’m sure, have been thrilled with this delightfully inventive adaptation of her classic book. It’s sure to captivate a legion of animation fans.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Spirited Away

 

01/04/18

Spirited Away is the fifth – and, for us, the final – film of The Cameo’s Ghibli retrospective (they’re showing Howl’s Moving Castle next week, but we are otherwise engaged). And it doesn’t disappoint, demonstrating once again how animation can be deployed to tell a wide range of stories. Over the last few Sundays, we’ve been treated to tragedy, comedy, epic adventure and fairy tale – and now this, a delightful coming-of-age story, clearly targeting an older audience than either My Neighbour Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, but nowhere near as violent and passionate as Princess Mononoke, nor as politically charged as Grave of the Fireflies. This is a ‘tween’ piece, I’d say, and very good it is too.

Chihiro (Rumi Hiiragi) is ten years old and, in the opening sequence, she’s moody and glum. She lies morosely in the back seat of her parents’ car, clutching onto a farewell card and bouquet, refusing to take an interest in the town they’re driving through, even when her mum (Yasuko Sawaguchi) points out her new school. They’re moving house, and Chihiro is not at all happy to leave her old life behind. When her dad (Takashi Naitô) takes what he’s sure will be a shortcut to their new house on the hill, they soon get lost, and things take a decidedly unexpected turn.

From hereon in, we’re in Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz territory, as the family wanders innocently into what they think is an abandoned theme park. Though initially tentative, Chihiro’s parents – on sniffing out a tempting buffet – become emboldened by greed, and begin to gorge on the feast they find. Chihiro is more cautious and hangs back, nervous about the consequences. And she’s right to be, because – before her very eyes – her parents are transformed into pigs, and she runs, frightened, not knowing what to do.

It soon becomes apparent that she’s trapped in the spirit world, and that her only means of escape is to follow the advice of her newly-acquired friend, Haku (Miyu Irino), and work for the witch, Yubaba (Mari Natsuki), to earn her freedom and save her family. And, just like Alice and Dorothy before her, she encounters a series of strange and memorable characters as she tries to find her way back home; like theirs, too, her journey is more meandering than linear, her quest a secondary element of the narrative, far less prominent than the colourful details of a wondrous ‘other’ world.

It’s gorgeously animated, of course. There are interesting themes – greed and environmentalism being perhaps the most obvious – and some truly awesome imagery. It’s beautifully done. If I don’t like it quite as much as the others I’ve seen, it’s because of that winding plot: a series of sparkling vignettes loosely patched together, rather than a compelling story arc.

Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. This retrospective has really opened my eyes. I’m a Ghibli convert, and I’ll be seeking out more of the studio’s back catalogue (any recommendations gratefully received). And we’ve already booked our tickets for its progeny, Studio Ponoc’s first feature film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

Kiki’s Delivery Service

18/03/18

Our Studio Ghibli initiation continues apace, as we find ourselves – for the third week running – taking advantage of The Cameo’s most welcome retrospective. It’s snowing today, but that doesn’t appear to have deterred anyone from venturing out, and the audience figures seem very healthy for a Sunday afternoon. There’s a lovely atmosphere in the cinema, a sense of nostalgia and shared pleasure. It’s a delight to be here.

Based on the novel by Eiko Kadono, this screenplay by director Hayao Miyazaki is as delightful as even our brief acquaintance with Ghibli has led us to expect. Kiki (Minami Takayama) is a witch and, as she’s just turned thirteen, tradition has it that she must leave home and seek a town in which to complete her witch training. She’s sad to leave her family, of course, but keen to assert her independence, and she sets off in high spirits, determined to forge a new life in a big town near the sea. She strikes lucky, landing a job in a bakery in a bustling city, and accommodation with an ocean view. She and her sarcastic cat, Jiji (Rei Sakuma), settle in happily, and Kiki uses her broomstick skills to set up a speedy delivery service.

But this is a coming-of-age story, and adolescence – it turns out – is as tough for a witch as it is for anyone. Kiki is tongue-tied and embarrassed when Tombo (Kappei Yamaguchi) invites her to a party; she’s self-conscious about her clothes; she becomes withdrawn and depressed. Worse, she loses the ability to understand what Jiji says (although this may have more to do with Jiji’s own growing up, as he falls for local cat, Lily, and fathers kittens with her) and then finds she can no longer fly. Still, we’re not kept in the doldrums for long, as we learn – alongside Kiki – that if we’re patient, rest, take care of ourselves, and allow our friends to help us, that our spirits will revive and we’ll become ourselves again.

If that sounds saccharine, it shouldn’t. The story is smartly told, and not overly sentimental. Not everything is resolved. Madame’s ungrateful granddaughter, for example, remains just that: not a character in need of redemption, simply a selfish girl. But it’s utterly adorable, just heart-warming and beautiful and a perfect way to spend a Sunday.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

My Neighbor Totoro

11/03/18

After the harrowing Grave of the Fireflies, the next film in the Cameo Cinema’s Studio Ghibli season comes as a slice of light relief. My Neighbor Totoro is the enchanting story of two intrepid young girls from the city, Satsuki (voiced by Noriko Hadaka) and her little sister, Mei (Chika Sakamoto). In the opening scenes, we watch as the girls move with their father to a dilapidated house in the Japanese countryside in order to be closer to their mother, who is ill in hospital (with what, exactly, we are never told).

The old house harbours some fascinating secrets, including the little creatures called ‘Soot Spreaders’, who haunt the dark corners of each room and scatter away whenever humans approach; but Satsuki and Mei seem to greet such visitors with interest and delight, rather than dread. If there’s a central message here it seems to be ‘embrace the inexplicable’ and that’s exactly what the girls do, encouraged by the enthusiasm and positivity of their father. They soon make friends with Granny (Tania Kitabayashi), an old lady who lives nearby and even with Kanta (Toshiyuki Amagasa), a teenage boy who initially appears to be unfriendly but who proves to be a friend when push comes to shove. The girls also discover that the nearby forest is home to a collection of mystical creatures, not least the strange shambling clawed beast known as Totoro, who, unlike most monsters, turns out to friendly and helpful.

As in ‘Fireflies,’ this story perfectly captures the essence of a moody but resourceful  little girl (Mei) and her interplay with Totoro provides much of the humour here. Their antics are often laugh-out-loud funny. The storyline has strong echoes of Alice In Wonderland, particularly in Mei’s pursuit of a rabbit-like creature down an underground opening and in the form of a Cheshire Cat-headed magical ‘coach’, summoned by Totoro to take the girls off on fantastic adventures. Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, this is a delightful film that has genuine appeal for all ages. It’s also quite beautiful to look at – some of the gorgeous woodland vistas captured here would not look out of place on the walls of an art gallery.

Utterly beguiling. The Cameo’s season continues on Sunday 18th of March with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Get those tickets booked now!!

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Grave of the Fireflies

04/03/18

I like to think that I have a fairly broad knowledge of most things cinematic but if there’s a weak spot in my armoury, it’s definitely animation – and in particular, the large body of work created by Japan’s Studio Ghibli. This is not intentional, merely the fact that such work is hard to find on the big screen, which I feel is the best place to view it. But The Red Turtle, Ghibli’s co-production with Michael Dudok de Wit featured in our ‘best of 2017’ selection, so I was definitely in the market to see more of it – and then I heard that Edinburgh’s Cameo Cinema were planning a Ghibli retrospective. Perfect.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) is set in Japan towards the end of World War 2 as Allied bombers move in to decimate any last traces of opposition. (Yes, Walt Disney this most emphatically is not). A teenage boy, Seita (voiced by Tsutomu Tatsumi) is faced with the tricky task of looking after his little sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), when their mother dies after a devastating bombing raid. Their father, a battleship commander, is nowhere to be seen and they have no way of contacting him. In the aftermath of the war, even finding food is a major problem. At first, the two youngsters move in with their aunt and uncle, who are ready to fulfil their familial obligations, but resentment soon begins to smoulder and Seita and Setsuko eventually decide that they will be much happier looking after themselves…

As an introduction to Studio Ghibli, this is an inspired choice. The film is curiously bleak, shot through with an almost overwhelming sense of melancholy, yet for all that, there are moments of genuine enchantment here. The characterisation of  Setsuko is particularly engaging, effortlessly capturing the bewilderment of a little girl cruelly torn from her parents, yet still capable of finding wonder in the simplest of things. And of course, every frame looks absolutely sumptuous. I also loved the circular narrative of the story. When we first encounter the two youngsters, they are vintage ghosts, haunting the streets of modern city – and there’s the clever device of a sweet tin containing marbles that only begins to fully make sense as the story builds. The film’s overpoweringly sad conclusion will wring tears from all but the most stoic of viewers, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s easy to appreciate the love and care that has gone in to every frame of this lovely and haunting film.

The Cameo will be screening a Studio Ghibli classic every Sunday afternoon for the next five weeks. Next up, My Neighbour Totoro. Can’t wait.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney