Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

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Young Sophie: They say that the best blaze burns brightest, when circumstances are at their worst.

Calcifer: Yeah, but no-one really believes that. Come on, let’s be honest.

 Now we get to the first movie that served as inspiration for my blog title. That process literally involved me staring at my movie collection seeing if I could somehow make up a cool-sounding name based on some of my favorites. Somehow, this movie ended up making the cut, and with good reason; it is one of my favorite movies (I have a lot of favorites…) and one of my favorite Miyazaki movies. Although I know, besides my husband, that I am in the minority in saying that, I’m going to attempt to prove everyone wrong in this review. Why is it my favorite, say, over Totoro, Castle in the Sky, or even Spirited Away? It’s hard, but let’s see if I can explain it (This will also be one of the first cases where I’m actually going to rate this movie below what you would expect me to for a “favorite;” I know this movie has flaws, but I love it in spite of it).

 Alright. Well this one is NOT a Miyazaki original. It was a book of the same name written in 1986 by British author Diana Wyne Jones. I have never read the book but I have wanted to since seeing the movie. Apparently they’re pretty different, but the general ideas are still there, and you can see why Miyazaki was drawn to this story. Here’s the movie plot:

 Our protagonist Sophie runs a hat shop. She’s off to see her sister one day when these strange mud-like creatures come after her. She’s rescued by a wizard named Howl. Later, back in the hat shop, the owner of those creatures comes in (she’s called the Witch of the Wastes) and is jealous of her being with Howl, and puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady. (I’m starting to sense a theme with later Miyazaki movies… he sure liked curses!). Not knowing what else to do, Sophie heads out into the mountains, looking for a witch or a wizard who can break the curse. She meets a possessed scarecrow she calls turnip head, which leads her to Howl’s moving castle, which is literally a “castle” that walks (I say castle lightly, seeing as it’s just a bunch of junk put together… it’s not regal looking at all).

 Sophie enters the castle and makes herself at home before meeting the fire-demon Calcifer who is embodied by a fire and is the one making the house move. He recognizes that she has a curse on her and makes a deal with her: if she can find a way to break the curse that Howl has over him, he’ll break the one on her. She agrees.

 Eventually Howl and his apprentice Markl show up and Sophie says Calcifer hired her as a cleaning lady. We learn the castle’s door is a portal and leads to two different cities within the kingdom. There is a war going on, and Howl is summoned to the palace to fight in both cities using his aliases, The Great Wizard Jenkins, and the Wizard Pendragon. However Howl does not want to fight, and somehow talks Sophie into acting as his mother and going to see Madame Suliman at the palace for him. She goes, meets the Witch of the Wastes again, who has been summoned too, and meets up with Suliman, exclaiming Howl is too lazy to come himself. We learn that Suliman has stripped the Witch of the Waste of all her powers, and after Sophie stands up for Howl and his actions, he shows up and rescues them.

 Other stuff happens, there’s a bomb at the hat shop which is now a portal from Howl’s castle, and a climax in which Sophie learns what the curse is on Calcifer and how lifting it can help both him AND Howl. She breaks it, he breaks the curse on her (although had it already been broken?) and everyone lives happily ever after.

 Ok. I’m missing a lot of stuff in that plot that really makes the movie what it is, but I’ll talk about it through the characters. I do want to say that the plot is one of the reasons a lot of people don’t like this movie. And it’s true. It IS a bit hard to follow. It IS a bit boring at times. There are things that don’t make sense. The ending is way too rushed and confusing. You honestly have to watch this movie a few times to really understand it. I think that’s why a lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like a movie they have to think about or watch more than once or figure out for themselves. Unless it’s a movie like Inception. I happen to love it. 

 This movie has so much right at the heart of it. It’s a love story (I would argue it’s actually Miyazaki’s only really romantic movie, even though all his movies have a bit of romance/connection to them), but it’s also like Spirited Away: a movie in which a young girl learns the confidence she never thought she had.

 Sophie, in the beginning, is a mouse. She’s soft spoken, average looking, and believes she really isn’t anything special. In a world where the Wizard Howl is known for eating the hearts of young beautiful women, Sophie knows she doesn’t have to worry: she’s none of those things. So when Howl does show up, it throws her for a bit of a loop. After she gets the curse put on her and turns into an old woman, something interesting happens: after freaking out initially, it turns out to be incredibly freeing. Something about being old and undesirable makes her personality grow and her confidence begin to shine. She starts at Howl’s castle as a cleaning lady because it gives her something to do, but through dealing with him and learning about him and taking care of Markl and Calcifer, she learns to stand up for herself and speak her mind. Something about being old is freeing, and she takes advantage to the point where it actually changes her.

 I’m going to mention Howl first before I really delve into their relationship. Howl is, to put it simply, a selfish, heartless, baby of a man. He’s running from responsibilities. In some ways, he’s really a character you shouldn’t like. But yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but be incredibly intrigued by him the more you learn. He and Calcifer have this arrangement. What is it? Why does Howl act like this? Did something happen? He’s not exactly an open book. He doesn’t talk much about himself, and for much of the movie is pretty much a mystery. He’s got this problem where he’s slowly turning into this strange black winged bird-monster thing. Does this have to do with him and Calcifer? We’re intrigued because Sophie is intrigued. She thinks he’s ridiculous and childish, but something about him still draws her in. She cares about him unconditionally and wants to help him. We do eventually learn the answers about Howl, but in the meantime we’re left with questions about this character, which I think is part of what makes him so interesting. He’s a mystery, and I like that. The first time you watch this movie, you really don’t understand. If you’re completely oblivious to details, like me, then the ending the first time is a huge surprise.

 The more I watch this movie, the more I pick out, and the more intricate and amazing Howl and Sophie’s relationship becomes. It’s not easy to see the first time you watch it. It’s in the small things you pick out after watching this movie over and over again. This movie is about destiny. It’s about seeing through the faults of someone if you truly love them. Sophie has this connection to Howl that is a bit hard to describe. She loves him and wants to keep him safe. She wants to rescue his soul from turning into a monster, because I think somewhere deep down, she knows that he is a good person worth saving and worth loving. Perhaps she thinks that like her, he’s a bit misunderstood. 

 Howl’s actions with Sophie, on the other hand, are completely all about destiny, and I kinda really love it. It’s almost like a bit of time traveling weirdness. I’m going to explain this scene that really puts it all together for you. It’s kinda that “ah-ha!” moment for the movie when you understand everything and get the answers to all our questions. 

 Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD***

 Sophie has to break this thing that’s on Calcifer and Howl so that Calcifer can break the curse that’s on Sophie. The moment where she figures out how to do it is beautifully done and is my favorite scene in the movie. It’s near the end. The castle has just fallen apart because Sophie had to pour water on Calcifer to save the witch of the waste (we figured out that Calcifer has Howl’s heart within him, and she wanted it.) She’s at the bottom of a ravine and the door to the castle is there too. It’s open, leading into a black void. She has seen Howl disappear here before, and decides to go into it this time. After walking through nothingness, she arrives at Howl’s childhood. He’s at a home in a meadow we already know he came to many times as a boy. It’s night and there are shooting stars. After some amazing imagery with absolutely no words, we learn that the falling stars are spirits, and landing on earth is actually killing them. 

 Anyway, Sophie watches as a young Howl outstretches his hands and catches one of these stars. They’re seen exchanging words, then Howl eats the star and brings it out of his chest, along with his heart. To save the star spirit, he sacrificed his heart and essentially gave birth to Calcifer. This is the moment Sophie understands. She knows how to break the thing that’s on the two of them: she has to give Howl’s heart back and hope that Calcifer can survive. Calcifer can be free, and Howl can go back to having a heart, which should stop his transformation into a monster (It’s implied that this is his true form – it’s what he truly is without a heart).

 As she’s in this dream portal thing, the ground begins to give way. As she falls into the void, she shouts out to the boy Howl that it’s her, Sophie. She knows how to help him and tells him to find her in the future.

 BAM! This one scene explains SO MUCH about this movie it’s ridiculous. It explains why Howl acts like a child and is called heartless. Essentially, he IS still a child; he IS literally and figuratively heartless. He used his own heart and as such essentially gave away a part of him. Sophie even remarks when she returns his heart to him that it’s fluttering like a bird, and Calcifer says that its still the heart of a child. Howl literally had no heart. It’s why he was so stand off-ish and somewhat cruel. It could explain how he was so selfish. 

 BUT what I love about this scene is that it explains so well why the rumors came up of Howl being a wizard that goes around eating young girls hearts. HE WAS LOOKING FOR SOPHIE CAUSE SHE TOLD HIM TOO. I remember the second I realized this, probably the 4th or 5th time I saw this movie. In the beginning, when we first see Howl, he shows up next to Sophie and says “There you are sweetheart, sorry I’m late. I was looking everywhere for you.” In the situation and the first times you watch it, it’s just something he’s saying as a act because she’s in trouble with some guys who are trying to take advantage of her. But dear sweet lord it is so much more. He FINALLY found her. He heard her in his childhood and spent the rest of his life looking for her because he knew that she could save him and that she was someone who obviously cared enough about him.

 I think that realization makes this movie so much better. In some ways, it makes Howl’s connection to her deeper. He’s probably already decided that this girl is worth caring about, because obviously she cares about him enough to figure out how to save him. He’s selfish and heartless because it’s a side product of giving his heart to save another. That action alone makes him a much more likable character. Suddenly we realize he’s not heartless or crazy. We realize that he does have a heart, and it’s something that only Sophie can handle because she’s pure and the only person he can maybe even sort of care about.

 Ok. I want to move on to Calcifer, because he’s another extremely important character. He’s the fire demon/falling star that Howl swallowed. He makes a deal with Sophie about her curse: if she can figure out how to break the one on him, she can break hers. Neither of them can talk about their curses, but it’s almost as if he somehow knows that she’s different and that somehow she’ll be the one to do it. Most of the movie he’s depicted as the fire that is in Howl’s castle, but he has remarkable magic, as he is also the one who moves the castle from one place to another. He’s cheeky and sarcastic in the American dub, and offers for a bit of comedic relief. He’s also one to watch, and we realize early on that Sophie is something special, because he actually allows her to use his flames to cook – something that’s remarked on by Markl that only master Howl can do. He’s voiced by Billy Crystal, and in all honesty is a great comic relief character who has some of the best lines in the entire movie.

 Also in Howl’s castle we have Markl, who is his apprentice. He’s a small child but practices magic and in the beginning is almost more of a mini-adult. With Sophie there to act as a mother figure (especially when she embodies her old Sophie) he learns to take himself less seriously as the movie goes on. He’s a cute kid.

 We have a lot of minor characters, but the other big one I want to talk about is one of our villains, the Witch of the Wastes. She is the one who puts the curse on Sophie, and the next time we see her is at the palace where Madam Suliman strips her of all her magic, turning her into what she truly is (according to Madam Suliman). She ends up as a decrepit old lady who Sophie takes pity on. What’s interesting about her is that the Witch of the Wastes embodies the ideas of greed and jealousy. She for years has wanted Howl’s heart. In this movie, that means literally as well as figuratively. She isn’t working for anyone but herself, and because of that gets everything handed to her. After she’s stripped of her powers she seems a bit more manageable and less evil, but only until she learns that Calcifer has Howl’s heart, then she goes into a rage to get it, essentially destroying the castle and not only injuring those inside but Howl as well. Seems some things are hard to completely get over.

 Our other villain is Madam Suliman, who works for the king. There’s a war between two kingdoms because one thinks the other kidnapped their prince. Or something like that. Honestly, this is one thing that I really don’t like about the movie. At the end (SPOILERS) you figure out that Turnip head that has been following Sophie around is really the lost prince. The one they’ve been at war over. But honestly? You have no idea this is why they’re fighting unless you happen to listen very closely in the beginning to two people having a soft conversation as Sophie walks by. Or if you’ve read the book. Seriously, that’s it. That’s the only mention they have to why they’re fighting. It bugs me.

 At the same time, though, it doesn’t bug me that you don’t know why they’re fighting. Because as Madam Suliman remarks at the end when she finds out Howl has found his true love, “It’s time to put an end to this idiotic war.” WHAT? I know it’s anti-war man Miyazaki, but if you didn’t catch that they were fighting because of a kidnapped prince, what would this make you think? Did Suliman start this war so that she could get Howl? I just… I honestly don’t know. But Suliman is an interesting one we don’t see a lot of, but I still classify her as evil, and the “villain,” if only for the same reason as Jigo in Mononoke: we don’t know anything about her and she’s trying to hurt our characters. And apparently she can start and stop wars for no good reason.

 Alright. Characters out of the way, I want to talk about this curse of Sophie’s, because it is a bit confusing. The Witch of the Wastes casts it on her because she was jealous Sophie had Howl’s affections. She thinks that turning her old will stop him from wanting her. She starts off extremely old, hunched over, etc. As the movie progresses, there are certain times where she is not as old as she was in the beginning. She’s old but standing more upright. Wrinkles disappear. Most noteworthy is when she’s talking to Suliman about Howl and she goes from really old to as she was at the beginning of the movie right in front of our eyes. Suliman calls her out on it and she goes back to being an old lady. Or the scene where Howl first shows her the meadow he went to as a boy. She’s all young except for her silver hair, but he calls her beautiful and she morphs back into an old lady.

 So what’s going on? I mentioned that Sophie finds the older version of herself freeing – she can speak her mind and essentially be more of herself in that body than she could in her own, young body. The conversions to her younger self happen, I believe, when she’s in the midst of feeling like herself and gaining her confidence. It happens unconsciously, but when someone points it out to her or compliments her, she starts thinking again and turns back into the old lady.

 So does the curse get lifted by Calcifer in the end? Apparently, it is to be believed that the curse was already lifted. Apparently this was one difference in the book and the movie. In the book, Sophie was in fact a bit of a witch herself but didn’t know it. Howl could see through the curse and lifted it for her, but Sophie wouldn’t let him – unconsciously. In the book, that’s what accounts for the transformations back and forth. 

 In the movie, I dunno how much of that could be true. It’s possible Howl could have seen through the curse all along – we see him glance at her as a young girl when she sleeps. But there is nothing in the movie that makes you think Sophie is a witch. Nothing (unless I’m completely oblivious – which wouldn’t be a first time). Obviously it was dropped for the movie (which I actually think is a good thing). I think instead, the curse was all about Sophie finding out how to lift it herself, and in gaining wisdom and confidence she was able to do so, however any steps backward in her progress would reveal the curse again. By the end, she’s comfortable with herself, and Calcifer breaks any of the curse that’s left after he’s freed, and she’s her younger self again (although with silvery hair).

 Alright. I have to talk about the bad stuff, because it does exist. This is far from a perfect movie. I’ve already mentioned the incredibly difficult plot to follow (i’m not even explaining some of the details because that would make it ridiculous). I’m not going to lie – the thing that has always gotten me in this movie is this one part. I don’t know if its because of plot holes or what, but for whatever reason I can’t wrap my head around it.

 The point in question happens after Sophie is at Madam Suliman’s and rescues the Witch of the Waste. They crash land into the castle, and Howl decides to redecorate, making it bigger and adding another portal – this one leads to the hat shop and Sophie’s home.

 I understand why he’s doing it. He’s showing that he supports her, loves her, and wants her to feel like part of the family. But here’s my question: we already know that when the castle isn’t tuned into one of the portals, it just stands as an empty framed building. so… what happens to Sophie’s house? what happens to all the people who did work there? Was she the only one? Eventually her mother shows up (working with Suliman to find Howl), and acts all surprised to see her there. Doesn’t she live there? isn’t that where you, her mother, would expect her to be since you have no idea that she’s with a wizard? I mean we do see Sophie’s mother in the beginning right after she turned into an old woman. Does she live there or was she just visiting? if she did live there, where does she live now?? ugh. I don’t understand!! You never actually get the answers to these questions and it’s a bit bizarre. It’s something that has always bugged me.

 It also bugged me that that place was so short lived. They get there, Suliman spies on them, and then a bomb targets the house. It was supposed to be a enemy bomb – but was it? was it Suliman? Howl tries to save them, but they’re still connected to the house and Sophie decides instead of disconnect them from that place by pulling calcifer outside of the castle so that Howl stops protecting it. WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THAT PLACE!! ok. I really don’t get it, other than to show Sophie that he does care about her (which I guess is an ok point, but wasn’t the other portal to the meadow the same thing??). There is the argument that Howl is setting them up to be comfortable, suggesting that he’s going to sacrifice himself to save them. Sophie even points this out to him, and he doesn’t deny it. I guess this argument works, but I dunno. It still bugs me and seems kinda pointless.

 One more problem that I’ve actually gotten over is the voice acting. For the most part, it’s good. I’ve mentioned Billy crystal. This movie also has Emily Mortimer as young Sophie, Jean Simmons as Old Sophie, Lauren Bacall as The Witch of the Waste, Josh Hutcherson as Markl, and Christian Bale as Howl. For the most part, they all do a good job. Except – geez… Christian Bale. I mean, one of the reasons i’ve gotten over this issue is because Howl IS supposed to be a heartless unfeeling person for most of the movie. But I’m sorry, that still means you have to act. Some lines and their delivery are just SO HARD to watch. It pains me because I could act better. “heartless and devoid of feeling” doesn’t mean “wooden.” Sometimes some of the lines are very wooden. Anyway. I’ve gotten over it because it’s a stupid thing to complain about. And it’s only a few lines that still really bug me or make me laugh because of how… ugh… they are (Calcifer! You hang in there! – hahaha… just watch the movie and you’ll understand). 

 Wow – this review is a lot longer than I thought it was going to be. Part of me feels I have to justify my love of this movie. Other parts of me feel that this is a movie you either get or you don’t. You either like it or you don’t. You either feel the things about it, or you don’t. And that’s ok. 

 It’s messy. This movie and its plot is very messy. Its confusing, and intricate. But unlike Spirited away, which I feel may not even have answers to some of its questions, I view Howl’s Moving Castle more like a mystery: the more you watch and the more you catch, the better it becomes. You just have to let yourself see it. The stuff this movie doesn’t answer do bug me, but they’re just issues, and if you focus on them too much you forget what part of this movie is really important – the relationship between the two central characters.

 It’s worth watching for the characters alone. I’ve mentioned before that a movie can have a horrible plot and good character and I’ll love it. This is one of those movies. Sophie is a joy, and Howl is a character you feel drawn to although you don’t know why. The world of this movie is pompous and like a circus; the music is the same, and it’s incredibly beautiful (I’m actually humming it as I’m writing). Through all that joy, this movie also has this dark side that is almost downright scary at times with the war and Howl’s monster. It’s weird and quirky. The Castle isn’t a castle, but a jumbled mess of junk (it’s pretty much its own character, btw). But at its core is a story about a man searching for the woman who can save him. It’s not necessarily for young kids (they might find it incredibly boring), but it’s worth a watch.

 I give Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) a 4 out of 5. I would deduct more for the uncharacteristic sloppiness of this movie, but I can bring myself to do that because I love it so much despite its flaws.

 Up Next: Ponyo (2008)

Spirited Away (2001)

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Zeniba: Now, try to remember as much as you can about your old life.

Chihiro: For some reason, I can remember Haku… from a long time ago… but I thought I never met him before!

Zeniba: Oh, that’s a wonderful place to start! Once you meet someone, you never really forget them.

We’ve all been there at some point in our lifetimes. that moment when we have to leave the place we call home and travel somewhere new. For many of us, this uprooting first happens as a child. we’re taken away from our school and our friends and thrust into a new situation where nothing is familiar and we know absolutely no one. Whatever confidence we might have said is taken away, and the fear of the unknown becomes the only thing we think about. At least, that’s how it was for me.

The idea of moving is the frame in the story of Spirited Away. Set in present day Japan, it centers around a young girl named Chihiro, who is moving from one town to another with her parents, and is not too happy about it. On the way to their new house, they get lost, go through a tunnel, and find themselves in what they think is an abandoned amusement park. They snoop around and find food cooking, and her parents begin to eat, thinking the park is still open and they can just pay when the cook gets back. Chihiro goes off to look around, finds a bath house, and watches as the sun sets. This suddenly transforms the place from abandoned to teaming with life, although not the life that Chihiro and her parents are used to. This is a place for the spirits of Japan to gather. It is a place to eat the food and visit the bath house, stay, and refresh after a hard day. She returns to tell her parents to go, only to find pigs in their place. After a few strange encounters, she makes a deal with the witch who runs the bath house, Yubaba, and gets a job at the bath house so she can keep an eye on her parents and figure out how to change them back. She gets to know the bath house’s employees, patrons, and has very strange adventures, all leading up to a test that Yubaba gives her in order to return home and turn her parents back into humans.

I will be honest. This is one strange movie. that being said, it’s also so engaging in its uniqueness that you can’t help but be drawn into this world and what this little girl is going through. Every individual looks different. Every spirit and its design is unique; some are noticeably based on real Japanese spirits, while others I couldn’t place. The animation is amazing. The characters are strange and wonderful at the same time. They are memorable not only for their personalities but their designs. This is another thing that Miyazaki does well: he is so creative that sometimes it makes my head hurt. The fact that this man can come up with so many movies that are so different is something that I can’t wrap my head around. I’ve heard that everyone has at least one story in them worth telling. Well… Miyzaki has like twenty of them. This one definitely takes the cake for the MOST original. As such, it is the most unique and most strange.

It is also the most Japanese of his movies. Princess Mononoke and Totoro are as well, but this one… i dunno, it almost feels more Japanese. Each spirit represents something, whether it be a river, vegetable, or belief. The idea of the bath house in general is very Japanese. The clothes are Japanese. The animation is very Japanese. I think maybe that’s why westerners like this movie: It gives an idea of Japanese culture and beliefs through this strange story that they may not understand, but love it because it’s unique and has characters that are so mezmerising and deep and they are immersed into this world that is so unbelievable but so engaging at the same time.

Let’s start talking about some of these great characters. Our protagonist is a young girl named Chihiro. I have to admit, I’m actually not a fan of her. At least at the beginning. I think that’s actually the point, but oh my goodness is she a whiny little brat. She needs help with everything. She whines whenever she opens her mouth. She has no confidence whatsoever. You can tell she’s smart, and she has it in her to be confident, but she for whatever reason cannot access it. Essentially that is what this movie about. It’s about a girl discovering what she’s capable of and pushing herself to the brink for those she cares about.

She is, as Miyazaki does so well, a wonderful representation of a child. She’s innocent and naive. She almost assumes the best out of everyone (the character of No Face as well as Haku are a good examples of that). She’s not drawn into such “adult” matters as believing rumors or greed. Instead, she knows that some people are trying to help her, and that is enough reason for her to trust them and love them. She sees a character standing out in the rain and assumes the best of him and leaves a door open. She’s a kid. There is no reason for her to think ill of anyone unless they do her harm.

She is also a strong female character. If anything, she shows the progression so well INTO a strong character that in some aspects, she might be the best one Miyazaki’s ever written. The transformation she goes through is amazing. She goes from a whining little brat who has issues asking anyone for help or telling anyone what she needs (instead of asking) to being a girl who can stand up to a monster that everyone else is afraid of, and going on a journey to an “evil” witch’s house to save the person she cares about. She grows and changes so much during her time in the bath house that at the end of the movie she is almost unrecognizable.

There are a lot of characters in this movie. Most have smaller parts, but many help Chihiro on her path. One of these, possibly the most important, is Haku. He is a spirit (he can shape shift from a man to a dragon – his dragon is beautiful) who forgets his real name and can’t find his way home. He explains to Chihiro that this is part of the way the witch Yubaba controls you – she takes your name. She does to Chihiro, turning her into Sen. The longer you’re at the bath house, the more you forget. He almost acts as her friend, confidant and mentor through the movie. he saves her from disappearing into nothingness when she first arrives, and he’s the one who tells her what to do to keep herself from getting in trouble with Yubaba. He looks out for her, and as a result their bond is very strong. It’s one that is remarked on having existed since before she got there (“I’ve known you since you were very young” he says to her at one point). 

At the same time, Haku is also Yubaba’s “henchman.” Sen (I’ll refer to her as that from now on considering she goes through most of the movie being called that) even at one point asks another character if there’s two Hakus. He’s charged with doing Yubaba’s dirty work, according the the other characters, and he’s someone you can’t trust.

This is kinda who I was talking about when I mentioned rumors up above. Whether they are true or not (they kinda are – Haku does end up in trouble because of a mission he was on for Yubaba), Sen doesn’t care. She knows he helped her, and she’s willing to look past all that because she knows deep down he’s a good person. If someone asked her why, could she explain? I have no idea – probably not, but she doesn’t care. She knows he’s good, and is willing to do anything for him. That’s more than a lot of us could do. Because you’re following Sen during this, you almost get the feeling from Haku that he does these things because he has to – because Yubaba essentially owns him. He doesn’t remember his name or his home. What else could he do?

The most trying part of Sen and Haku’s relationship comes when she finds him hurt, having been the recipient of a curse from Yubaba’s sister, Zaniba. He was sent there by Yubaba to steal her magic seal, and as a result she cursed him. To save him, Sen journeys out to Zaniba’s to return the seal and finds that her love of him cured Haku of his curse. It’s pure love. It’s the love of a child, and it is unbelievable to watch.

Let’s talk about our “antagonist” for a moment – the witch Yubaba. First of all, her character design is nothing like you’ve ever seen. She’s got an amazingly huge head, giant eyes, and you can see literally every wrinkle on her face. She is unbelievable. Put that awesome design aside, you have a strange, zany, almost crazy witch who runs the bath house. She cares about making her patrons happy, is upset that Sen’s parents ate the spirits’ food, and acted accordingly. She has no reason to view humans as her friends, and is incredibly smart and tricky. Like Lady Eboshi in Mononoke, I have a real problem calling her a “villain.” Yeah, she’s causing trouble for our main character because of what she did to her parents, but you can see why. We hear about what she’s doing/done to Haku, and as a character she does seem a bit “shifty,” (she leaves on strange missions and has her accomplices patrol the bath house area), but you never actually find out why she’s going out, why she’s patrolling, or even why she wanted her sister’s magic seal. You kinda get the feeling when Sen gets to Zaniba’s that it’s literally just a sibling fight. Nothing more. So while some of the characters (and certainly our main one) view her as a villain, I don’t know if calling her one is fair to her. She’s running a business, wants to protect it and the other spirits, and has an extreme weak spot when it comes to her gigantic infant child (yeah… that kid is just.. yeah.). I do think she has it in her to be evil, but in the amount of time we have with her and in her dealings with Sen, we don’t really see too much.

There’s three more sort of important characters I want to touch on. The first is Lin, who acts almost as Sen mother/friend in the bath house. She’s her partner on jobs they have to do, and is in charge with showing her the ropes. As a character she’s very abrasive, opinionated, but at the same time does feel sorry for Sen and does show a bit of compassion when she’s missing her parents and dealing with Haku. She also acts as our entrance to the bath house life, which is like a whole ecosystem in itself. We learn how things work through her, and Sen learns a lot through her.

The second character is Kamaji, the boiler man. Again, super cool character design. He’s a skinny human-like character that has four pairs of arms with three fingers each, and a giant bushy mustache and huge sunglasses. He’s the person Sen first goes to to ask for a job before he sends her to Yubaba. But he gets her back, lying and saying its his granddaughter and that she’s tough. He understands the love she feels for Haku. He’s an interesting character, even if there’s not much to him. He heats the water for the bath house. (I do have to say though that his little soot sprites that throw the coal into the fire are so freaking cute/hilarious).

My last character that I want to talk about is No Face. This guy, again, could i guess technically be called a “villain,” but again I don’t know if that would be fair to him. He’s a strange black see through spirit wearing a white mask that is first seen outside the bath house by Sen. She sees him again when its raining and leaves the door open so he can come in out of the rain. Once in the bath house, though, he sees what happens when a rich patron pays a generous tip, and decides that gold is the way to get people to like him. He produces gold out of his hands to Sen, who does not want it. However everyone else goes into a frenzy. No sooner do they appease him, though, then he starts eating people, crying out that he wants Sen. I think her actions confuse him. Everyone else is crazy over gold, and here’s this girl who won’t have anything to do with it.

Anyway, Sen manages to get No Face out of the bath house, and he calms down, even regurgitating the people he had eaten and changing back from a monster to his original design. Sen exclaims that the bath house is bad for him, and he goes with her on their adventure to Zaniba’s, eventually staying there with her.

I’m not going to lie – I still don’t know if I know exactly what No Face is or what he’s supposed to represent. I’ll give it my best shot though, at least right now. What I think is that he represents are the embodiment of certain feelings we’re all prone to having: in the beginning, he’s the innate fear of being disliked. He’s shy, doesn’t talk, hangs outside the bath house. Once he learns what gets people excited and what gets people to like him, he acts upon it. But then once he is well liked, it goes to his head and he turns into a monster. We can’t all get exactly what we want all the time – it will always get to us and turn us into monsters. It’s only when we can distance ourselves form the things that are toxic that we can get back to ourselves and then be ok with ourselves. He’s the embodiment of fears that are so personal yet so universal to us all. Sen confuses him because she doesn’t appease his greed and monstrous personality. She, like most children, see him (and all of us) only for the good. It reminds him of what was good, and meeting Zaniba reaffirms that everyone has a place, and you’re ok being yourself. You don’t have to appease everyone all the time. Nor should you want to.

I dunno. Just my thoughts. I still haven’t figured it out. But then again, I dunno if we’re supposed to.

This animation is some of Studio Ghibli’s best. The bath house is beautiful. The detail in Yubaba’s office and rooms is incredible. I mentioned the character designs already. I don’t think anyone else in the world could have come up with this stuff. Miyazaki is truly one of a kind, and his attention to detail in every little thing, even landscapes, is unbelievable.

There is one scene in this movie that always makes me cry. Not because it’s sad, or even overly happy, but simply because of the animation. It is beautiful. It happens when Sen is going back to the bath house from Zaniba’s and she’s riding on top of Haku as a dragon. She wanted during the movie to help him with his problem (his name and his home), when it comes to her. she tells him that she remembered a time when she was little and lost her shoe in a river. she went in after it and almost drowned, but the river carried her to safety. Since then the river has been paved over, but she remembered the name of it: the Kohaku river. It is at this moment that Haku remembers. his scales give way and suddenly he’s a man again and the two of them are falling through the sky. IT. IS. BEAUTIFUL.

I don’t really know what else to say about this movie. It’s the movie that introduced the world to Miyazaki, and went on to beat out Pixar and Monsters, Inc at the Oscars for Best Animated Feature (an honor I still completely agree with despite loving Monsters). Suddenly, Studio Ghibli was on the radar. And it’s been awesome ever since.

I give Spirited Away (2001) a 4.8 out of 5. I’m deducting a few bits of points because I’m still not sure about some of the stuff that happens. That might be the point, but I don’t know. It bugs me that I can’t figure parts of this movie out.

Next up: Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

Princess Mononoke (1997)

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“There’s a demon inside you. It’s inside of both of you” – Ashitaka

 

“These days, there are angry ghosts all around us – dead from wars, sickness, starvation – and nobody cares. So you say you’re under a curse? So what? So’s the whole damn world.” – Jigo

This review is going to be the death of me. I started writing it before Totoro, and I still can’t get it right. This is my third time starting it. By the time I post it, who knows how much of the original review will still be standing. 

 Why am I putting so much time and effort into this review? Because I LOVE this movie. I respect this movie. It is perfect. It was such an important movie to Miyazaki, and it was his self-proclaimed masterpiece (he was actually planning to retire in 1997 after this movie – thank goodness he didn’t!). You can see the love, detail, and time that went into this movie. I’m taking so much time on this review because I want to do this movie justice; it deserves that. Even then, I’m afraid what I have to say won’t be enough. 

 Mononoke is Miyazaki’s environmental epic masterpiece. This movie did what Nausicaa couldn’t. It took all his ideas that he had spent years exploring and turned it into an amazing movie with beautiful animation, complex characters, messages that aren’t completely in your face, and a plot that is as complex and beautiful as everything in it. 

 Before I discuss the plot, I want to explain a bit of historical context, because it is actually important in this movie. You can still watch it without knowing these things, but knowing a bit of Japan history adds to the realness of this movie and might help you understand motivations of some of the characters a bit more completely. This movie is set in feudal japan (the Muromachi period to be exact: 1337-1573; probably near the beginning) at a time when the emperor was beginning to have an influence over the people, industry was taking over, and the native tribes of Japan were being integrated into the general population or hunted to extinction. Although this stuff is mentioned in the movie, you’d have to be at least knowledgeable in Japanese history to recognize the names and the time frames people are talking about.

 Very simply put, this movie centers around our protagonist, Ashitaka, as he tries to undo a curse that has been put on him by one of the Boar Gods (turned Demon) of the old forests. To do this, he must travel to the old forest to the west, where the Boar God (named Nago) was “infected” and plea to the forest spirit to lift his curse before it destroys his body and his soul. Once he travels there, he finds himself in the middle of a raging feud between an industrial settlement called Irontown and the old Gods of the forest and their human “child” San. He finds himself straddling both sides, all the while attempting to rid himself of the curse that is slowly taking over his body. The hatred between the two sides rises into a full on battle, and there’s a plot to kill the forest spirit and bring his head back to the Emperor. 

 The plot, for the most part, seems pretty straight forward, and to a point, it is. But at the same time, it’s extremely complicated, because there are all these characters, and each of these characters wants something so badly. There’s more going on then the stuff in the big central plot, but to be honest if I explained EVERYTHING this review would be so incredibly long. I could explain every little part of the plot, and the plot itself would last about three pages. I would love to do that, but it detracts from what this movie is really about.

 I will say this only once: This is NOT a children’s movie. This is very much an adult movie. It’s bloody, violent, deep, and as a kid, you wouldn’t understand much of it. The first time I saw this movie I was a teenager, and I still didn’t quite “get” it. I pick more out of it every time I watch it, and I love it the more I watch it. 

 I’m going to start by talking about our characters. This movie has no shortage of extremely deep, complex, intriguing characters. What I find the most interesting in this movie from Miyazaki’s others is that while there are arguably villains and “good guys,” the line between them is very fine. In the beginning of the movie, you go “oh ok, I know what’s gonna happen – she’s going to be our villain.” and it’s true… to a point. As the movie progresses, you realize that everyone is a villain and everyone at the same time is not. Miyazaki managed to paint humanity realistically instead of ideally. They’re just all people trying to survive: pushed to the brinks to do what they have to do to stay alive. Every character in this movie has good qualities and bad – even our “villain.” So here we go. This is going to be fun.

 Our protagonist, as I mentioned before, is Ashitaka. He is the last prince of the Emishi people, a tribe that will eventually die out. He rides a red deer named Yakul, and when the God turned Demon Boar Nago attacks his village, he attempts to calm it first before he will kill it. He speaks throughout the movie with respect for the forest and for the Gods, but at the same time, when he is in irontown, he does not judge those that are there (except maybe their leader Lady Eboshi – we’ll talk about her next). I must admit that he does act selfishly during the film, but it’s understandable – he’s trying to rid himself of a curse that will kill him. He is hesitant to involve himself in either side of the feud, instead attempting to do what he came there to do: “See with eyes unclouded with hate.” As the movie progresses, it’s even a sort of running conundrum with the other characters, as they typically remark “just what side is he on anyway?” Ashitaka is on no one’s side. he’s on his own. He’s doing what he can to survive, and doing what he can to attempt to teach others about hate while trying to get the curse lifted. In the english version he’s voiced by Billy Crudup, who I think does an amazing job. He delivers every line with anguish and conviction. By the end of the movie he’s tired, and it easily comes through. He’s great, and the character is great and very interesting.

 Next I want to talk about Lady Eboshi and Irontown. Lady Eboshi is the woman who runs irontown, a place where they produce the iron balls for guns, canons, and construct rifles and other things. It’s a place of forward thinking industry and progress. When we first meet her, as i mentioned before, you go “oh ok, she’s our villain.” She is confident and full of herself, and you could see her being a bit crazy. but… is she the villain? most people who watch this movie might say yes, she is, even when all is said and done. But I don’t. Here’s why: sure, she is destroying the forest. Yes, she shoots at the Gods. But to be fair, they typically attack first. She is part of the way Japan is moving – toward industry. In her mind, the forest and the old Gods that live within it are no longer a part of her life. to her, they’re not even “real.” Instead, they’re just giant talking animals that try everything in their lives to destroy what she’s trying to do and hurt her people.

 Lady Eboshi is a tough woman. She takes a hit and keeps on fighting. She’s willing to sacrifice some in Irontown for the safety of the masses. In lots of ways she is very unforgiving and could easily be seen as a villain. But at the same time, the people of Irontown LOVE her – she has rescued women out of the brothels and lepers to come and work for her. She is respectful to them, and has a good sense of camaraderie with those in her town, despite the fact they are working for her. Her men and women would do anything to protect her. She is, in fact, a good person. Again, she is just trying to survive. She is trying to do her job, and in her mind, full scale war against the forest is the only way she can see to do that. Hatred has entered her heart when it comes to the forest and the Gods. Instead of trying to work together to find a solution, she sees that as a lost cause, and she is apt to destroy them.

 So yes, that may not be the best way to handle the situation, but in a lot of ways, you can’t blame her. The forest Gods are unforgiving as well, and many times they attack unprovoked to protect their forest. There are many forest Gods we see in this movie. We see Nago, the demon Boar in the beginning. We see much of Moro, the wolf God, and her pups. We see the ancient Boar God Okkoto and his “children,” although they are much smaller and lack the ability to speak. Just like the Emishi people, they are dying out, growing smaller and stupider, as Okkoto puts it. We see the Gorillas, although they are not involved as the Boar and the Wolves are. They, like Eboshi and Ashitaka, are just trying to survive. A threat has come upon their forest, and they are acting to protect it. Okkoto acts as the completely insane one – his heart is set on revenge and he believes the only way to get over this is by killing all the humans. Moro, on the other hand, is a bit more reserved, and she is smarter. She despises the humans as well, but knows full fledged war won’t get her what she wants. Part of this might stem from the fact that early in the movie she gets shot and carries an iron ball in her shoulder (this is also what was pulled from Nago). She knows she is not for this world, and almost refuses to get involved. Her pups, on the other hand, get involved. A big part of that, though, has to do with San.

 San is who this movie is named after. Mononoke-hime in Japanese (the name of the movie) translates literally into “The Spirit Princess.” San is Moro’s adopted human daughter. She’s like the Tarzan of this movie, but doesn’t have any want to think of herself as human. In fact, she despises humans and aligns herself quickly with Okkoto and his tribe of boar. She is like them – she wants nothing more than for the humans to leave her forest alone. She’s stubborn and Naive, feisty and strong. But she too, is blinded by hatred. She wants to personally murder Eboshi, and probably would have had it not been for Ashitaka in their first meeting. At times, she doesn’t know what to feel about him: he’s a human, but he understands the forest, and Yakul trusts him. She at one point tries to kill him but can’t. he’s the connector between her world and the human world, and it can be argued that he makes her more “human” as the movie progresses. not to the point she wants to live in Irontown, but he helps her calm her rage, and by the end of the movie, the two share a deep connection and understanding and is incredibly believable.

 Next I want to talk about Jigo. I would call him a minor character. There are a few more minor characters in Irontown I could mention, but their existence is there to remind us that they adore eboshi, but at the same time learn to respect Ashitaka as well. Jigo is another story. He’s an old monk that Ashitaka first meets on his way to the West. Jigo tells him to go to Irontown. Later, we see him in the forests near irontown and learn that he has been hired by the Emperor to decapitate the spirit of the forest and bring him his head. What kind of symbolism this is – geez, not hard to guess. “Show me that the forest and the native people have been tamed and that industry is supreme!” Yeah. Anyway, needless to say our climax for this movie is when he actually does succeed, and they must deal with the repercussions. Jigo is actually who I would call the villain of this movie. Although he’s not really in it that long, and he’s not really a bad person per se (again, he’s just doing his job), he’s really the only person that you don’t get to know well, and as such he just seems a bit more slimy than the rest. He comes with men dressed in bear and boar suits to trick Okkoto, and they use him to lead them to the sacred pool where the forest spirit lives. I feel like Eboshi would never stoop this low, even though she wishes the Gods gone.

 The forest spirit is the last “character” i’m going to talk about. He’s not a central character, but then again he is. He’s the main God. He’s who Ashitaka pleas to to get rid of his curse (but he doesn’t.) He’s the one who takes life from those who are suffering (such as Moro and Okkoto). He makes the trees grow and the flowers bloom. He is sort of in the background of the entire movie – the ever watchful God who knows not good from bad but just has his own set of rules to live by. Could he have stopped his head getting blown off? Probably. But that’s not what happened. Was it to teach a lesson? Did he know that his demise would mean peace for the others? Who knows. In the movie he’s depicted as a sort of deer like animal with a human-like face and feet of a bird. It’s strange in the english version, and this was one of the most difficult things to translate because this creature is in Japanese mythology. He has a specific name that is hard to translate into english. So instead we got the kinda bland “forest spirit.” Honestly? I think they did a really good job. We get who he is and what he does. We get that he’s important, benevolent, but harsh. 

 Ok. Enough with characters. I want to talk about this curse that Ashitaka has growing upon him. In the movie it manifests itself on him as this strange brown and reddish rash that starts on his hand and spreads until near the end of his movie, where it’s over most of his torso as well. It was a curse spread from Nago, the Boar God, to him in his last words hoping that he would die a horrible death full of hate, much like he did. Here’s the thing about this curse though. When we see Nago first, he’s a demon – he has these red tendrils growing out of him to the point where we can’t even tell he’s a boar. The Emishi people pull an iron ball from the boar, and its believed that this is what caused him to turn into a demon. But here’s the thing: Moro gets shot as well, and we see her eventually fade away into nothingness. She does at one point say that she doesn’t wish to turn into a demon as Nago did. So we never see her grow these tendrils. Okkoto, on the other hand, wounded from the battle, eventually gets these same tendrils. Did he also get shot? We don’t know. He’s injured, but who’s to say it’s from a rifle? It could have been from the bombs. Yet he has these tendrils, just like Nago did.

 Ready for what I (and possibly the rest of everyone?) thinks? It’s hatred. it manifests as those tendrils if you let the hatred overcome you. At one point, Ashitaka’s rash manifests into ghost tendrils, and he remarks “See? this is where the path of hatred has led us!” It happens at a time when he’s fed up with everyone and lets the hatred overcome him. It’s seriously cool. The mythos and rules and everything are so deeply rooted in this movie that it somehow intuitively makes sense, even if you watch this movie and go “wait, so what was that again?” 

 I DO want to talk about the dub, because it is widely held not only to be the best of the Miyazaki dubs, but possibly the best dub ever done. As I’ve mentioned in some other reviews, sometimes when a movie is taken out of its original context, some of the meaning of the movie is lost in translation. This movie (and I have seen the Japanese version of this movie as well) is as close to Miyazaki’s original intent as it possibly could be. It’s a testament to the respect that Miramax and Neil Gaiman gave to this movie. I know I’ve talked about Neil Gaiman on here before, but he is such an amazing fantasy writer, and he takes his subject so seriously that I can’t imagine anyone better to have written this movie. He made sure the lessons, context, and feel of the movie stayed the same. It’s truly amazing. It’s also an interesting thing to point out that this IS a miramax film, not a Disney one. There’s an interesting reason…

 Miramax, at the time (dunno if it still is) was owned by Disney. They have the rights to all of Miyazaki’s movies, and in 1997 when they got this movie, they attempted to edit it down, taking some of the more violent parts out (namely, the parts where Ashitaka’s cursed arm makes him superhuman, literally shooting the arms and heads off of people). Miyazaki would not have this, and told them if they couldn’t release it in its entirety, they shouldn’t release it at all (I don’t actually know if this was what was said, but I imagine something like that going down.). To compromise, Disney shuffled it to Miramax, it’s more adult movie oriented studio. They left the parts in, released it, and I believe it did okay here. it definitely wasn’t as big of a hit in the US as it was in Japan, where it was nominated for the equivalent of a Japanese Oscar (it was kinda a big deal there to for animation to be nominated, much like Beauty and the Beast when it was nominated here). 

 On the animation side, this movie is beautiful. this was the last cell drawn animated movie for Miyazaki (at least for a while), and it shows. It’s not as fluid as some of his later movies, but it is oh so incredibly beautiful. It’s watching movies like this that make me miss hand drawn animation. But then I revel in the fact that Studio Ghibli is still doing them. the details are beautiful, the landscapes are vast. It feels as if you are actually part of a real world, as opposed to being in a “movie world.” Like this would actually be places you could go. I have to mention the music too, because it is incredibly epic. I’ve only bought a handful of instrumental music from movies, and this is one. It’s beautiful, epic, and helps the movie convey the emotions it does so well through other means. 

 I could literally go on and on about this movie. I could show you clips of things I love, or discuss how well Miyazaki tied in the ideas of anti-war and environmentalism. But Honestly? I feel as if this is good enough. If anyone is interested, this video review of Princess Mononoke, I feel, is pretty thorough. I watched this and it honestly made me think more about the movie. It didn’t necessarily change what i thought about it (actually it made me realize I’m not the only one who thinks all the stuff I just wrote), but It’s very good. It’s long, but worth the watch if you’re a fan.

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/hZ5ZgvrWbwI.x?p=1 width=”720″ height=”433″]

 It touches on a lot of the same things I talked about, but goes a bit more into depth as well as giving you a look at the movie. You can tell she loves this movie as much as I do, and honestly I can say that of a lot of people. This is one of my island movies. (as in – if you were stranded on an island and could only take 5 movies, what would they be?) It may be my favorite movie of all time. It’s long and serious, but as soon as I finish watching it, i want to turn around and watch it again. Writing this review almost a month after I watched it makes me want to watch it again. Watch it and find out for yourself why this movie has such avid fans.

 I give Princess Mononoke (big surprise here..) a 5 out of 5. I really can’t find anything wrong with it. It’s perfect and flawless. And that cannot be said of many movies.

 What I find interesting is this isn’t the movie that made Americans fall in love with Miyazaki. That’s next.

 Up Next: Spirited Away (2001)

Porco Rosso (1992)

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“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist.” – Porco Rosso

This movie took me a really long time to see. I had heard of it through previews on other Studio Ghibli movies I own, and honestly didn’t really have any want to see this. A Pig flying planes? It seemed a bit odd (although apparently this is more odd than anything in Spirited away or Howl’s Moving Castle?? I dunno how my brain works sometimes), and I’m not into planes, and there seemed to be a LOT of planes in this movie.  It didn’t matter that it was Miyazaki. It didn’t interest me.

 Enter one of the websites I waste my time on: thatguywiththeglasses.com. It’s a video site where they have a lot of different contributors, including the Nostalgia Critic, Nostalgia Chick and Jesu Otaku. The last one reviews anime and whatnot, normally stuff I don’t enjoy. But at one point not that long ago, she did a whole month of Miyazaki movies (one of her videos I actually am going to link to… next review). I watched the review of this movie, and I was sold. Suddenly, I had to watch this movie. So I literally went on Amazon and I bought it, right then right there. I’m normally not a person to buy a movie without seeing it first (either in theaters or netflix) but this one i just had to. And now? wow. pleasantly surprised. 

 This movie is SO much more than just about planes. I honestly don’t know why i thought it would JUST be about planes. It is Miyazaki after all! The characters are great. The humor is great. it went from being completely obscure to a movie I can watch over and over again and not get sick of. Much like Castle in the Sky, this movie is just pure fun (although it is also extremely serious at times)

 Our titular character, Porco Rosso (literally: Crimson Pig), was a human during WWI, but had a near death experience and woke up under a curse as a pig. Now, he pledges his abilities to no country, instead turning to the life of a bounty hunter, helping capture pirates in the Mediterranean sea. Yeah, this movie is set in Europe. It’s a nice change. 

 Anyway, the air pirates that Porco has been thwarting have apparently decided to join forces and come after him. Instead of dealing with it, Porco decides to fly to Milan to get his plane fixed. On his way, he gets into a dogfight with an American pilot hired by the air pirates, Curtis, who shoots Porco down, believing him to be dead.

 However of course Porco is not dead. He gets to Milan to have his old friend Piccolo fix his plane, only to learn that he is not doing work anymore, and instead is having his granddaughter Fio tend to the plane. Porco isn’t sure about her inexperience, but she is persistent and eventually proves to Porco that she is, in fact, a brilliant engineer.

 While in Milan, the italian police get word he is there. He has abandoned his post as a soldier, is a war criminal, and they intend to arrest him. He must leave, but the plane is not 100% yet, so Fio talks herself into going with Porco. They manage to get out of Milan and back to Porco’s hideaway island, only to have the air pirates along with Curtis  descend. They intend to destroy his plane and destroy him.

 Fio manages to talk them out of their plan, instead claiming that they need to retain their honor and put it to a proper dogfight instead. Curtis challenges Porco to a duel, the terms being that if he wins, he marries Fio, and if Porco wins, Curtis has to pay off all the debt he owes for his plane.

 The next day the duel gets underway, Curtis and Porco attempt a dogfight, but eventually both their guns get jammed. They end up in a fist fight in the shallow water, which is only broken up after Gina (our love interest that you’re only sort of now hearing about) shows up and gives him the courage to win.

 But Gina came with a warning as well: the Italian air force heard what’s happening and is planning on coming to intercept the pirates as well as Porco, arresting them all. He puts Fio in Gina’s plane, tells her to take the girl away, and he and Curtis agree to distract the italian air force. Before he leaves, Fio leans over and gives him a kiss on the cheek, and Curtis notices something different about his face…

The end.

 Hayao Miyazaki has said that this movie is very personal. He sees himself as Porco, and this is, in that way, a movie about him. Read into that as much as you wish. I just think it’s something interesting to mention before I get into it.

 As a personal movie, I believe Porco (or Marco – that’s his actual name – Gina’s the only one who calls him that though) as a character to be one of Miyazaki’s most complex, deep, dark characters. Technically, he is an anti-hero. He is selfish, and would rather work of his own accord. He essentially abandoned the Italian air force to go off and do his own things, and now finds himself a bounty hunter, a sky robin hood, working to keep the pirates away from the civilians. At the same time, he’ll interact with the pirates. They all know each other and you swear that if Porco was more social, he may actually even be friends with them.

 He speaks (at least as Michael Keaton voices him) in a monotone, drawing, low voice. He’s self-deprecating, almost enjoying bringing people’s attention to the fact that he is a pig, and he uses his appearance and his curse as an excuse for everything. He knows he’s being punished for the way he lived his life, but instead of trying to do something to fix it and change it, he would rather sit and wallow in his own self-hatred. 

 The way he got into this mess and got his curse is also really interesting, and almost proves that the universe had something else in mind for him and his life. As he tells Fio, he and his buddies were fighting in WWI when all of a sudden his plane was drawn toward the clouds and above them was a “stream” of planes, each rising toward the heavens. His buddies were there (including Gina’s husband), and he saw them, but then sank back below the clouds. Obviously, it’s a near death experience, but it almost puts all this guilt into his head. why was i saved when those better men died? It weighs on him in all the things he does, and in the relationships he chooses to have. His relationship with Gina, the wife of his dead best friend, is stand-offish, even though it is clear she is in love with him, and he quite possibly has feelings for her. The other friends he has are all business, like his plane guy, Piccolo. It’s only when Fio comes around and almost forces herself into his life that he is able (still reluctantly) to change and look out for someone else other than himself. She softens his heart just enough to make him realize that life might just be worth living.

 Porco is a really amazing enjoyable character even though he is so… unlikeable. But he’s not the only character that makes this movie worth watching. My other personal favorite (and probably most people’s) is Fio, Piccolo’s granddaughter. She deserves a place on the list of Miyazaki’s strong female characters, no doubt about it. Not only is she an amazing engineer and completely redesigns Porco’s plane, but she is extremely fearless. She wants to go with him and have adventures, she stands up to a huge herd of air pirates without batting an eye, and talks to them with the authority of someone much older than she is. She’s smart by suggesting the duel as opposed to letting everyone destroy Porco’s plane because she knows it will save Porco’s life and his plane. she can stand her own with the creep Curtis, even when he falls over her. She’s amazing and funny. Her love of Porco is different than that of Gina, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. If anything, the connection and the relationship that forms between the two is odd in some ways, but completely believable in others. She’s the one who makes him realize life is worth living. She’s the one who makes him realize that someone can care about him.

 Our other characters are memorable as well. Curtis as the american pilot is a slimy, self-centered man who talks about being an actor and tries to flirt and marry every beautiful woman he meets. At the same time, he’s not a full on bad guy. He’s still enjoyable, and at the end he learns almost as much as Porco. In the end, the two of them that were at odds with each other work together to save the masses of air pirates and other people. I do have to mention that in the English dub, I really wish they would have picked someone other than Cary Elwes. We all know him, right? Wesley from the Princess Bride… Robin Hood in Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He has a british accent. In this movie, he’s from Texas. I’ll let that sink in a bit………… Yeah. Cary Elwes doing a Texan accent is NOT that great….

 The rest of the air pirates are hilarious. Brad Garrett voices the leader of a band of pirates that looks just as funny as they act. Again though, we get the feeling that these aren’t necessarily bad people. They’re just doing what they do. In fact, in the beginning when his crew kidnaps some school girls from a cruise ship, they make sure that none of them are hurt, they keep them together (“we don’t want to separate them from their friends!”) and don’t do anything to act incredibly evil to them. In fact the girls end up taking over their airship with their shenanigans, obviously not afraid to be with pirates. If anything, this is a natural occurrence and they even remark that it was fun after Porco rescues them. 

 The last character I’m going to talk about is Gina. It may not be too hard to tell that I think she is possibly the weakest character in this movie. that doesn’t mean she’s not interesting, just with the characters we have, she’s just kinda… blah. Maybe that’s the point. She’s pining for Porco, trying to get him to understand her husband dying isn’t his fault and that she’s moved on. They’ve known each other for years, since they were kids, and she owns a club on an island where she just waits in her garden for Porco to realize he’s ready to move on. In some ways I envy her, because she’s patient and is willing to just wait for the guy she truly loves. But like I said. She’s blah. I really can’t describe it. Maybe it’s because the other characters are so unique. She’s almost the most normal. I think that’s what they were going for with her, but I dunno… to me, she’s just kinda stuck in there as a semi-useless love interest. Although she does warn them about the air force at the end, so I guess she’s not completely worthless.

 The ending is interesting. After Fio kissing Porco on the cheek and Curtis makes a remark that his face looks different, it leads one to ask a bit more about this curse. Did Fio break it? was he even under a curse at all? Could he have looked like a person instead of a pig of his own accord? There is another time when he and Fio are on his island. She is sleeping, wakes up, and sees his real face. But was it, or was it a dream?

 My personal opinion is that the curse was of his own accord. He was feeling sorry for himself and selfish and guilty and self-depricating. There was nothing in his life to live for anymore, and he felt as if every minute of every day was a reminder of what he did: he survived when better men should have. The “curse” is him becoming what he thinks of himself. In the end of the movie, he forgave himself and realized that he has something to live for. In a way, this movie is almost about someone getting over and dealing with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Kinda interesting. But yeah, that’s my opinion. 

 The action in this movie is great. The dog fights with the planes and the air pirates are very well drawn, as are the details on all the buildings in Italy and along the mediterranean. You really do feel like this is Europe, and it’s beautiful. The humor in this movie is unmatched in his other movies. I really do feel like this one might just be his funniest. It’s almost like it found that perfect balance between serious antiheroes, funny characters and one liners, and action and adventure.**

 If you haven’t seen it, don’t be like me and wait years and years because you don’t think it’s quite “your thing.” This movie is a hidden gem and might be one of the most underrated of his movies here in the United States. I know it’s my husbands favorite Miyazaki movie, and it is definitely close to the top for me. I wish I would have seen it earlier.  I definitely recommend this movie. It’s not even too bad for kids, even younger ones. They may think it’s a bit boring though. Except for the fighting scenes.

 I give Porco Rosso a 4.2 out of 5. Although I love it, there are a few parts that bore me, and like I said, Gina to me is a very weak character in an otherwise amazing movie.

 Up Next: Princess Mononoke (1997)

 

** Side note: This movie is actually getting a sequel sometime in the next few years. Even though Miyazaki is retired as of 2013 (sad!!) he is helping to write a sequel for Porco Rosso and getting Hiromasa Yonebayashi (one of his key animators since ’97 and director of The Secret World of Arriety (2010)). Should be interesting. I really want to know where they’re going to go with it.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

“We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.” -Ursula

“Gigi, I’ve decided not to leave this town. Maybe I can stay and find some other nice people who will like me and accept me for who I am.”  -Kiki

Kiki was Miyazaki’s first major success at the box office. Although Totoro was popular, it gathered more steam once it had come out on VHS and was run on the tv. Kiki was popular the minute it came out. Why? It’s cute. It has an easy story to follow. There’s not really a villain. It’s very kid friendly. It has characters that are memorable. Plus, it’s about a kid doing amazing things. And she’s a witch that can do magic. (seriously, why has this movie not made a huge comeback??) What’s not to love?

This was the second Miyazaki movie I saw. We bought it on VHS sometime in the 90s, and I remember that this was the moment I realized that the animated tv show of Little Women that I loved was Japanese animated. I know that has nothing to do with the Kiki movie, but it’s a random fact. anyway, i liked it, but it didn’t hit me like Totoro did as a kid. Even now, it’s probably one of my least favorite Miyazaki movies. But like I said before, asking me to pick my least favorite Miyazaki movies is like making me pick my least favorite Pixar movie. It’s still better than 90% of the movies out there.

Kiki is a really simple story. there’s not really a villain like i said before, there’s no war or action (or very little). It’s just a coming of age story: a girl finding her place in the world, quite literally.

Kiki is a 13 year old witch in a world where this type of thing is apparently pretty normal. when a witch turns thirteen, she sets off on her own to a city/town/village to find what she is good at and make herself a valuable member of society. Along with her companion talking cat Jiji (it’s a boy – in case that’s not clear) she lands in a beautiful seaside city, and after some searching, eventually settles on starting a delivery service, running it out of a bakery of a nice couple who are letting her stay. We follow Kiki as she attempts her deliveries as she learns a little about people, life, and how to make friends. through growing up, she learns, arguably, how to be a kid.

The most of a climax we get is a dirigible getting ready to crash into town (think the hindenburg) and Kiki has to help get the people out. It is pretty intense for younger kids. Actually, it’s kinda a perfect conflict for little kids.

Just like Castle in the Sky, if I had to pick a word to describe this movie, it would be this: Happy. Oh my goodness this movie is just happy. In some ways it is more of a feel good  movie than Totoro is. Part of it is just the way this movie is set up: since there IS not villain, there’s no real seriousness. That’s not to say the movie doesn’t take itself seriously, but instead, there’s no overarching hatred of a character or situation. It’s just Kiki figuring things out about life and about people.

I want to talk about our protagonist for a minute, especially because she is part of the huge reason this movie is just so happy. Miyazaki’s one for making great female characters, and I would throw Kiki in the mix. She’s a step above Sheeta and Satsuki, but a step below Nausicaa. She’s young, confident, independent, and strong. But at the same time she’s naive, shy (around certain people) and one track minded. She’s a real person and a real kid, but one that has flaws and acts arguably older than she really is. If anything, Kiki is a girl who really isn’t great at anything. She’s good at things, and she tries extremely hard, but she’s not amazing at any one thing. She’s still trying to find her niche. She’s the kind of person who is set on doing what she’s supposed to do, is willing to help anyone, and pays attention. At the same time, she doesn’t really “enjoy” what she’s doing, in that she is so focused on work that she forgets to have fun. In spite of that, she has the most infectious personalities ever. She puts a smile on everyone’s face she meets.

The only other major character that’s not just a side character is Jiji, Kiki’s cat. Voiced by Phil Hartman, this little black cat acts as a conscience and also a bit of comedic relief. He’s plucky and sarcastic, and he’s a good balance to Kiki’s upbeat nature. In the English dub, he has some pretty good one-liners, and it does make me wonder what kind of jokes he makes in his native language.

There’s a few other characters in the movie, but no one too major. There’s the pregnant woman and her husband who run the bakery. She’s nice, and he doesn’t really say anything at all the entire movie. She motivates Kiki and takes care of her almost the way a mother would. The other smaller character would be Tambo, a boy who has a crush on Kiki and thinks she’s the most amazing person in the world. Where Kiki is super serious, Tambo is the opposite. He knows how to have fun, and spends a lot of his free time tinkering with his flying machine, a bike with a propeller on it. He attempts to teach Kiki how to have fun, and tries to get to know her despite her one-track mind. He finds himself on the dirigible at the end, and Kiki must save him as well as the others.

Probably the most interesting thing about this movie is how Kiki learns her lesson. As I mentioned above, her one major “flaw” is that she is almost too serious about her job. She ends up working herself so hard that she ends up losing her magic. Suddenly she can’t fly on her broom, do other magic, or even talk to Jiji. It’s only after she spends some time with this woman named Ursula out in the woods (yeah I forgot to mention her….) that she can almost relax and find her magic again.

It’s a part of the movie that actually doesn’t last too long, but it’s a good reminder to all of us not to work too hard, because we’ll lose the part of us that makes us unique and just work ourself into oblivion. Again somehow Miyazaki manages to work in the environment. Ursula is almost a bit of a hippie, living out in the woods in a log cabin. She draws crows and cooks with herbs she finds in the forest. But she manages to stay relaxed and knows who she is. She’s a good person for Kiki to meet.

In fact, everyone in the movie meets Kiki for a reason. That’s like real life, isn’t it? I like to think that everyone in your life you meet for a reason. they all teach you something. Kiki’s Delivery Service makes me think that Miyazaki believes that too.

Some of the only things I don’t like about this movie are some of the things that make it really endearing. The lack of a villain. The lack of action. Some of it is just things that to me, don’t make for a movie i can watch over and over. Another issue i have, however, is one that has to do with the dubbing. All in all,the voices in this are pretty good. I mentioned the late Phil Hartman as Jiji, and he is awesome. Kirsten Dunst does a good job as Kiki. Janeane Garofalo is enjoyable as Ursula. The one voice I really don’t like though is Matthew Lawrence as Tambo. I don’t know why. I felt like Tambo should have this really playful voice, and Matthew Lawrence is just… being Matthew Lawrence. You don’t feel it. You can’t think of him as this character. You just think of him as him, or as Jack on Boy Meets World.

The only other issue I have I actually didn’t know I had until I learned about the dubbing. Now it is sort of common that when dubs get transferred into other languages, the company takes a bit of leeway and will add in lines in places where maybe there was no speaking in the original. This might be done to get across something they think the audience won’t get, or to add in useful information. This movie does that in a few places with Jiji. BUT THE LINES THEY ADD IN DON’T MATTER. It’s literally just Jiji’s jokes. why? why? why? I dunno. The one that really bugs me is at the very end and Kiki’s just saved everyone and Jiji is walking up to her. In the original he doesn’t say anything until he gets to her. In the english version, he talks literally the entire way up to her. And it’s not anything important. It’s just Jiji talking. WHY? I have no idea.

I’m not going to say too much more about this movie. This is the last in what I guess I would call completely family friendly Miyzaki movies for a while, meaning that with this and Totoro, anyone can watch them. We’re going to get into more serious Ghibli fanfare soon, or, as I call it, the golden Era. Really excited to do the next four movies.

I give Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) a 3.5 out of 5. I wasn’t a huge fan as a kid, still not really. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good movie. Still enjoyable.

Next up: Porco Rosso (1991)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

This is the movie that introduced me not only to the world of Miyazaki, but Japanese animation as well. I was 3 or 4 when I first saw this movie, and my sisters and I, upon first watch, were hooked. It was on a lot when I was a kid. I know this movie like the back of my hand. As such, my notes for this movie while I was watching consisted of one sentence written in all caps. PERFECT FAMILY FILM. Lets see if I can explain why.

Side note: My husband actually hates this movie. He says it’s boring. He fell asleep during it the first time he watched it. He says that nothing happens. And… he’s right. There really is not a huge plot. Here, you want it?

A dad with two young girls, Mei and Satsuki, move to the country to a new house. It’s never really said why, but their mother is in the hospital, so maybe to be closer? Don’t try to make sense of this movie… this is one you just experience. It’s a slice of life. Anyway, the girls have some adventures in the woods near their house, starting with when they find dust sprites in the attic. They then find the forest spirit, a Totoro, in the big tree that grows next to their house in the woods. Trouble ensues until one day when their mother is supposed to come home from the hospital and doesn’t, and Mei disappears. Satsuki goes searching for her with the help of Totoro and the Catbus (I’ll explain later). They find her and everyone is happy.

That’s seriously the whole movie. It really isn’t much. There really is no plot. It’s just kids, arguably, being kids. And that is what makes this movie so incredibly great. It doesn’t need fancy plots or action to keep a kid’s attention. It just does through its magic. That’s it.

There is so much about this movie that is just part of my life. There is so much about this movie that is so much of everyone’s life. The hesitation with moving to a new place and the excitement in exploring a new house, backyard, town, and forest. Dealing with meeting new friends. The anger felt when your sister doesn’t listen to you. The fear when you realize she’s gone and you have to be the adult because your father is still at work. This movie just gets kids. It gets what they’re feeling, because we’ve all felt it. It’s a movie about growing up. It just happens to have forest spirits in it as well.

Let’s talk about those guys, because they are, of course, what a lot of kids remember about the movie. Totoros are forest spirits, and in the movie there are three: the little white ghost one, the blue one that carries acorns, and the giant grey one. In case you don’t know what Totoros look like, here you go (The girls are in this picture too):

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You’ve probably seen one in a movie and not known it. There was one in Toy Story 3. Totoro is the symbol for Studio Ghibli. It’s as recognizable to Japanese children as Winnie the Pooh or Mickey Mouse is to us. Along with those three guys we also have the dust sprites (aka dust balls with cute little faces), and my favorite, the Catbus. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Here:

Image

It’s creepy but at the same time extremely cool. It’s like Miyazaki went into a kid’s head and created a character based on something an actual kid would draw. So cool.

All these creatures actually do have personalities, even though they don’t really talk. The largest Totoro is the one we see the most, and he listens quietly as the kids talk to him, finds happiness and fun in rain drops hitting an umbrella, and is responsible for making everything in their forest grow.

I do want to mention before I start talking about the characters that there are actually two english dubs of this movie. One done by Streamline and the other by Disney much later. I have only ever seen the Streamline version and this is the one I own. I can’t bring myself to watch the Disney version. The other one is just such a part of my childhood, I think watching Dakota and Elle Fanning voice Satsuki and Mei would ruin it for me. So I don’t know which dub is better. I don’t know if they changed wording between the two. I just know the one I grew up with, and the one I’m reviewing now. Ok, good.

The sisters, Mei and Satsuki, are extremely realistic. I don’t know if I can think of any other depiction of kids, especially two sisters, that is this good. They’re sisters and everything that comes with it: they fight, play, laugh, hate each other and love each other at the same time. Normally in movies when there’s siblings, you see a bit of arguing, but a lot of the time they’re either depicted as being best friends, or mortal enemies that never speak to each other or evil step sisters.  In this movie, their relationship is very real (and I can speak from experience: I have two sisters. I’m in the middle so I know what its like to both be the older sister and the younger sister and to have an older sister and a younger sister.) Satsuki, the older one, is embarrassed when Mei comes to her school and requests to sit in with her. At the same time, Satsuki knows she has to look out for her with their mother in the hospital. She doesn’t quite believe Mei when she said she found a Totoro, but excited and a bit scared when she does finally meet him. The two sisters argue and fight constantly about stupid things. Then they’ll turn around the next minute and play with each other. Like I said, they love and hate each other at the same time.

Mei, the younger sister, is so good it’s scary. I remember watching this movie later in life and going “yeah… that’s about right.” She’s full of life but extremely annoying to her sister at times. She follows everything Satsuki does because that’s how much she idolizes her sister and that’s how excited she is. She’s a little imp that runs around and tries to catch dust bunnies and follows Totoros into the forest. She’s not afraid of anything. She has temper tantrums where she literally doesn’t talk to anyone and just has a sad/annoyed look on her face. She doesn’t understand why her mother isn’t there, but knows something is wrong.

Satsuki, on the other hand, is the older sister that has much more responsibility. With her mother in the hospital her father looks to her to help out, and she does willingly. She’s mature but at the same time super innocent. She loves to help out but also knows how to have fun. She doesn’t believe Mei about the Totoro but is still interested and when she finally sees him she’s smitten. She is, arguably, the one in this movie that grows up too fast, because she has to. In some ways, this movie is all about her and what she goes through losing her sister. It’s about growing up and not being able to see those spirits as you once saw them (because supposedly adults can’t see the Totoros).

We don’t get to know dad much, but he seems like a fun dad who tries hard to balance work and being a single parent (which in Japanese culture is actually saying a LOT). He plays along with the girls and their “imaginations” with the Totoros, encouraging them to pay tribute to the spirits of the forest and saying that seeing one is good luck. The only other characters we get to know are a grandmother and a little boy that live down the road. The granny is typical old lady who occasionally watches Mei, and the boy is a hilarious little Japanese boy who is afraid to talk to girls and almost has a little crush on Satsuki. They’re both minor characters but they add to the atmosphere of this family having just moved to town.

For the first time I’m going to pull in a quote from another critic that I found on the Wikipedia page. I feel it sums up exactly what this movie is about. This is Roger Ebert’s take:

“..it would never have won its worldwide audience just because of its warm heart. It is also rich with human comedy in the way it observes the two remarkably convincing, lifelike little girls… It is a little sad, a little scary, a little surprising and a little informative, just like life itself. It depends on a situation instead of a plot, and suggests that the wonder of life and the resources of imagination supply all the adventure you need.”

That quote says it perfectly. I’m not going to go into any more depth with this movie. It’s just one you have to experience.  There’s no ending to give away or any villains. It’s just life. The life of these two girls, and we get to experience it. Were the Totoros real, or were they just imagined? Who knows. I like to think they were. But even if they were just imagined by the girls, why does it matter? It’s a testament to creativity, and the way I know I lived my childhood.

That, in a nutshell, is Totoro. It’s perfect just the way it is, and it’s not trying to be anything except what it is. If you find it boring, maybe you just need to open yourself up and remember what it was like to be a kid again. Have a little imagination, and maybe a Catbus will show up on your roof and take you to a Totoro spinning on a magical top.

I give My Neighbor Totoro (1988) a 5 out of 5. Cause I just have to.

Up Next: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)

Dola: Gotta start talkin’ like a real pirate!

Sheeta: I’ve been practicing! Um… Harrrrr, matey! Shiver me timbers!

Dola: Keep practicing…

“The earth speaks to all of us, and if we listen, we can understand.”  – Uncle Pomme

Onward we move. The next in our adventures in Miyazaki world is 1986’s Castle in the Sky. This was the first movie actually released by his animation studio, Studio Ghibli. Unlike Nausicaa, which was based on a manga (comic) written by Miyazaki himself, this one is an original story. Let’s dive right in.

During the credits we get a bit of backstory to our world. People used to live in these giant floating cities. Then, there was some sort of unspoken, unpictured catastrophe, and the cities were all but destroyed. People were forced to live back on the ground, and only one city remained: Laputa. But it disappeared into the clouds and was never seen again.

Then we open on an airship, where a girl named Sheeta is being kept prisoner by a man named Muska. The airship gets attacked by pirates, who are also looking for the girl, and in their struggle to obtain her and this strange amulet she has around her neck, Sheeta ends up falling off the airship and goes careening down towards the earth. She passes out just as her amulet lights up and slows her fall.

From here we cut to a small town in the mountains, where we’re introduced to our other lead character, Pazu, a boy who works in the mines and lives alone. He sees Sheeta fall out of the sky, catches her, and takes her back to his house where she rests and awakens. They talk about the amulet, and she didn’t even know it could do that. He shows her all the cool stuff in his house, including a picture his father took of Laputa, the lost floating city. He mentions that he’s going to be just like his father and find it one day, if he can ever get out of the town.

Eventually both the Pirates, led by a woman named Dola, and Muska and his soldiers find where Sheeta is hiding and chase them throughout the town. Pazu and Sheeta manage to get away but fall into a mine, where they run into a strange old man named Uncle Pomme, who, upon seeing Sheeta’s crystal light up, tells them that it is made of a rock called Aetherium – the very same rock that was used to keep Laputa aloft.

They come out of the caves and are captured by Muska. While Pazu is thrown into the dungeon of his hideout, Sheeta is taken to a room where Muska reveals who she is: she is of the royal line of Laputa, and as such is one of the only people who can help him find Laputa. He makes her activate the amulet, and it shines a beam of light – the direction Laputa is supposed to be in. He threatens Pazu, who ends up returning home to find Dola and the Pirates. He talks them into helping him rescue Sheeta, and they’re off.

Meanwhile, Muska shows Sheeta a fallen battle robot with the same mark on it as on her necklace: the mark for Laputa. He explains why he wants to find Laputa: it was known to house many more of these robots, and as such is an incredibly dangerous thing to keep in the Sky. He aims to destroy it so it and the robots will not be a threat to anyone in the future. Not sure what she believes, Sheeta in her cell recites a prayer her grandmother taught her and accidentally turns on the Robot, and it begins to destroy Muska’s base while hunting for her to protect her. The pirates and Pazu come and rescue her, but not before Muska can snag her amulet.

Aboard the pirate airship, Pazu and Sheeta find themselves fitting in, traveling in the same direction the amulet was pointing in. They are going to attempt to find Laputa before Muska can. It turns out it’s in the middle of a giant thunderstorm, and Pazu and Sheeta get separated from Dola and the gang before crash landing in their little glider onto a city completely devoid of humans.

As they explore, they find that one robot is active: however this one is not aggressive as the other was. Instead, he is taking care of the forest that has started to grow on Laputa, taking care of the plants and the animals (bonus points if you can find the little cat-squirrel thing from Nausicaa!). They wander more and find that both Muska and Dola have also landed, but the pirates now find themselves captives.

Muska’s soldiers begin stealing the treasure that awaits them on Laputa, while Muska himself heads toward the city’s center. He captures Sheeta once more and takes her with him. Pazu frees Dola and the gang before pursuing Muska.

Inside the city center, its revealed that the floating city was a center for knowledge and weapons. Muska also reveals that he too is of the royal line, and uses the amulet and knowledge of Laputa to start the weapons and destroy the soldiers he came with: instead of destroying the city, he’s set on ruling the world. Pazu attempts to rescue Sheeta, he gets the amulet, they are reunited after a bit more crazy from Muska, and the two kids recite the prayer of destruction, which begins to tear Laputa’s center apart.  As the kids are reunited and escape with Dola and the Gang, we see Laputa, being held together by the roots of the giant tree residing inside it, floating off into orbit around earth.

The end.

If I had to use one word to describe this movie, it wouldn’t be hard to think of. Fun. This movie is just pure FUN. There’s pirates and flying cities and airships and robots and humor, adventure and mystery. This movie literally has a little bit of everything.

As I mentioned in my last review, Miyazaki tends to have the same themes in many of his movies. They are 1. Strong female characters, 2. Flying contraptions, and 3. The environment. This movie has all three.

If it’s lacking in one, I hate to say it, but it’s in the female characters. We have Sheeta, who is our main female protagonist. She’s ok, but I wouldn’t say she’s necessarily the strongest character Miyazaki’s ever written. She’s just a girl, plucked from her home and thrown into a situation she didn’t know how to get out of. In all honesty she’s probably my least favorite character. There’s nothing really wrong with her, she’s just kinda too normal. She’s not overly strong, or confident. She doesn’t really go through a huge change throughout the movie either. Instead, she relies on Pazu. That’s not bad, it just doesn’t epitomize the “strong female character” that some of Miyazaki’s earlier and later movies depict.

One that does, however, is Dola, the head of the Pirate gang. She is absolutely awesome. She’s stubborn, doesn’t take any crap from anyone, and oh my goodness she is just great. Her “gang” are mostly her sons, and her husband is even on the ship, but you can tell she runs the show. It’s almost a running gag that she’s not really a woman, because she doesn’t do the things that women typically do. She is constantly there to tell them that yes, women can do these things. Why wouldn’t they? The whole pirate gang are great, because they start out as villains, searching like Muska, for the amulet, but end up as good guys that actually end up caring about these two kids searching for this lost city. Sure, they’re also in it for the gold and treasure, but that’s kinda to be expected. they’re pirates.

I’ll talk about the other characters in a bit, but I want to go on to number two on my list, the flying contraptions. There is only one other Miyazaki movie that takes the flying machines to extremes as this one and has them almost as their own character. It is front and center in the plot of the story. We have pirate airships and huge airships with undulating wing-things. We have small basket gliders. And of course we have the huge floating cities. I love that there’s actually a substance that keeps the cities afloat as opposed to having the city just have a bunch of propellors or something. It’s great.

Third on the list is the environment. Although it’s not front and center with this movie as it was with Nausicaa and how it is in some of his others, his ideals about the environment still manage to sneak their way into this movie. In this movie, it’s all about the consistency of the environment and how it can outlast even war, technology, greed, etc. The trees and everything that grow on Laputa end up everywhere. There’s a scene where Muska and Sheeta get into the bowels of Laputa and find the throne room destroyed by the roots of the tree. Muska freaks out and remarks “it’s everywhere, look at it!” and starts to rip the roots out of place, claiming that nature is ugly and disgusting. Meanwhile, at the end, it’s the tree that survives, along with that kind robot who takes care of the forest. Not as in your face, but it’s there. It’s also black and white: the villain resents nature, while the good guys find it as refreshing and interesting that a forest grew.

Alright, how are the other characters besides our females? MUCH better than in Nausicaa. Muska is a pretty amazing villain. He’s slimy, self-centered, and really doesn’t ever seem to have any sort of epiphany about how what he’s doing may not be the best idea. He’s evil through and through, and I think that’s a great villain for this movie. He literally doesn’t care who he kills or what he has to do if it means he can rule his very own floating city and use robots to kill whoever he wants. He doesn’t care who he hurts, and that’s kinda awesome. He goes from sort of not that crazy to flat out crazy crazy crazy dude. that’s fun to watch.

Pazu is also really kinda amazing. I sort of adore this character due to how optimistic, kind and determined he is. He’s had this dream his entire life based on a story from his father to find Laputa, and this adventure just sort of falls in his lap. Not once is he upset about it, or scared. If anything, he just enjoys the trip the whole time. But not at the cost of his friends. He’s determined to rescue Sheeta, then determined to rescue Dola. He’s not afraid to stand up to Muska, and in the end he just seems happy that he was involved in what he was. I know some people who don’t like Pazu or claim that he’s just being selfish most of the time, using Sheeta to fulfill his dream, but I don’t see it like that. He started helping her before he knew she was connected to Laputa. I think that thing just sort of fell in his lap. It was his destiny.

Another thing I love about this movie is the friendship that forms between Pazu and Sheeta. In the beginning all the way up to when they’re on Dola’s ship, you really don’t know why Pazu is so determined to rescue Sheeta (again, i think this is why some people might think that he’s acting selfishly – using her as a ticket to Laputa). But once they’re on Dola’s ship, there’s a few conversations that occur that show you that they really do have this deep connection. They’re separated because on the ship women are separated from the men, and Sheeta ends up sneaking up to the glider Pazu’s on his watch. They missed each other. It’s kinda adorable. And it’s never anything more. It’s just two friends on an adventure, and it’s fun to watch.

There are a few issues I have with this movie, even though I love it. The first is that this movie does actually take a bit to get going. Not that it’s bad in the beginning, but things really pick up, at least for me, when the duo get onto Dola’s ship. Everything before really is set up, and it’s done well, but for me it just seems to drag a bit.

The other issue that I have is one that isn’t an issue that arrises with the story, but instead with the dubbing. I’ll talk more about dubbing (both good and bad) on other reviews, but with this dub, there is a scene that really just did not translate well, and it honestly makes it a bit awkward.

Before I talk about the scene, I have to explain something first: the original Pazu and Sheeta in the Japanese dub were originally about 8 or 10 years of age. When they went and dubbed it in english, they decided for whatever reason to make the kids older, like 13 or so. Ok… now that you know that….

The scene in question is one on Dola’s ship. They’ve just arrived and Dola told Sheeta that she needed to go work in the kitchen, peel potatoes and all that jazz. As the scene progresses, more and more of Dola’s sons go into the kitchen and offer to help. In the english dub, this gets seriously awkward, because the words they chose really make you think like they are all attempting to flirt with this girl. Apparently though in the Japanese version, it isn’t like this. First of all, she’s 8, and the guys are just trying to get out of working on the ship and would rather help the girl. All the blushing and whatnot that happens during the scene? That’s really just Japanese animation. It has nothing to do with flirting bashfullness or whatnot. So bad on you dub!!! You made things awkward!!

Here’s a few other good or bad things about this movie:

~ Have I mentioned that this movie is really hilarious? Cause it is. There’s a scene where men rip their shirts just with the sheer force of their muscle. There’s also slow motion punching. It’s awesome.

~ Mark Hamill is the voice of Muska. That’s right. It’s like Luke Skywalker joined the Dark Side.

~Little tiny James Van Der Beek and Anna Paquin are Pazu and Sheeta. They do a good job. But he will always and forever be Dawson and she will always and forever be Rogue in my head. or the little girl teaching a bunch of geese to migrate in Fly Away Home.

~Although I gave away everything in my plot, it really is done well. You don’t see half of the plot twists coming.

I would definitely recommend this movie to people. It might be a good one to start with, especially if you have boys or if you want something a little more light but older. It’s one of my favorites, just because it’s just so much fun. Give it a watch and see what you think.

I give Castle in the Sky (1986) a 4 out of 5.

Up Next: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)