The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

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“Arrietty, you’re a part of me now. I’ll never forget you, ever.” – Sho (Shawn)

I have oh so many thoughts on this movie. Mostly good, but also just… blah. I never saw it in theaters but wanted to. Somehow, I never got around to it. But I bought it anyway, because it’s Miyazaki, right? Actually… no. It’s Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki did help write it, but he did not direct it. That’s right – this is the first Ghibli movie I own that is NOT directed by the man himself.

I look at this as more of a bridge piece for Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s final movie as a director, The Wind Rises, is set for theaters in 2014 (it’s of course already been released in Japan). He’s stepping down from the studio he helped create, but to my understanding will still be helping write and animate movies. Enter Hiromasa Yonebayashi. He has been a key animator at Ghibli for years, and this movie is his directorial debut. I’m seeing this man as the one who will be handed the reins of Ghibli (other than Isao Takahata, who of course is important – he just hasn’t done many movies recently – although he’s doing Kaguya-hime next year, YAY!). I have to say I’m a bit worried, but if Miyazaki has faith in him (Yonebayashi IS set to direct Porco Rosso 2, and we know how personal that movie is for Miyazaki), then I do too. If this movie is all I have to judge him on, I have to say he’s on his way to greatness; He needs to learn a few things, and people are just going to have to get over that he’s not Miyazaki, but I foresee good things in this man’s future.

Arrietty is a movie with characters that, at least to me, were already well known: the borrowers. Originally a children’s novel published in 1952 and written by Mary Norton, it spawned four sequels, the latest being published in the 1980s. The stories all focused around a family of borrowers, or small, 6-inch tall people who live in the walls of houses and “borrow” items from the human beings in the house in which they live.

The movie follows not only the idea of the borrowers, but the general plot. The character names are also the same. Arrietty is a borrower, about 14 years old, who lives in a country house in Japan. Along with her father, Pod, and her mother, Homily, they stay out of sight and go “borrow” things that they need that the humans will not miss. In the movie, Arrietty goes out on her first night borrowing and is seen by Shawn, a human boy who has just arrived at the house (we learn he is there to relax before he undergoes operation for his heart). Arrietty feels strangely drawn to the boy, but her parents warn her that once a human sees a borrower, only trouble can ensue.

This proves to be true, not from Shawn, but from the woman who lives in the house (is she a landlord? housekeeper? I’m still kinda not sure). There are some adventures, Arrietty can’t stay away from Shawn, and a strange friendship begins. But it’s not enough. His curiosity and want to help them bring the lady on a mad dash for the little people, and eventually the family has to move from the house to a different one.

The plot is simple. There’s obviously more details, but you’d be better to just watch the movie than for me to explain them. The big thing with this movie is the characters and this world that the borrowers live in. I think that’s part of the reason the books were so popular and why people are so drawn to fantasy stories like this. It’s fun to see what types of things the borrowers use in their home. It’s fun to see how they get around inside the walls. A mouse or a cricket to them is a huge monster. A patch of grass is a jungle. It’s fun to see our world portrayed from a completely different perspective, and that’s one thing this movie does very well.

I wouldn’t have been done well, though, if the detail weren’t as it is. I have gone on and on about detail in Miyazaki movies. But oh dear sweet lord this movie takes the cake. The detail in this movie is AMAZING. Because everything in our world is essentially blown up, the animators didn’t leave anything to the imagination: we see the grains of the wood. We get that to Arrietty and her father, a harmless, light tissue is incredibly heavy and stiff. Every detail is as you would expect it to be if you took a magnifying glass to the things in your house. It’s incredible.

What’s also incredible is how the borrowers get around in this world. there’s contraptions set up inside the walls, with ropes, pulleys, stairs out of nails, etc. Pieces of wall move ever so slightly to allow them into a room. tiny cracks serve as doorways. Pod has knives that come out of his shoes to help him climb. They use pieces of tape (which look incredibly thick to them) to climb up cabinets. I think a lot of kids and adults can find themselves engrossed in this movie because how cool would it be to be a tiny person in a giant’s house??

The world of the borrowers is the real draw to this movie. The characters are… ok. The only one that is really developed is Arrietty, and honestly, she is so good it almost makes me sad that more characters didn’t get more developed in this movie. If they made her so awesome, it was in their ability to make the others awesome as well.

Arrietty is, to put it simply, a confident teenage girl who just wants to be treated like an adult, but at the same time respects her parents and understands the rules of their lives. At the same time, she’s incredibly curious. She’s just starting to experience this world that she lives in, and everything about it that she’s not seen before is so exciting she has to experience it NOW. She almost reminds me a bit of Kiki, but not so gung ho about work. She enjoys her life, and is fine with remaining a kid, but wants to go on the adventures with her father because that just seems to be her personality.

Her dealings with Shawn are very confusing, but at the same time, they are very real. She first realizes he saw her when she’s with her father getting a tissue, and she sees him in his bed with his eyes open and trained on her. She paralyzes with fear and drops the sugar cubes she had in her bag. The next day, he returns them on a stoop by where she enters and exits into the yard. You can feel the conflict within her whether to take them or not. She’s curious, but taking them would mean she’s admitting her existence as well as her trust in him. Her family tells her not taking them is what to do, and she doesn’t. It could have ended there. But Arrietty is so curious and drawn to this boy that she ends up scaling the house to his bedroom window to talk to him. A crow attacks, and he intervenes to save her.

This is almost when she understands that he’s not like the others. But it doesn’t mean that she’ll go full on into friendship with him. The entire movie, it’s still very stand-offish. They have this connection but you can’t get too close, because it’s a rule, and she respects that. Shawn does prove his worth, though, when he rescues her mother after getting caught, and allows them to travel to safety.

Arrietty is such a good, charming character that it makes me sad that Shawn isn’t. I understand why they didn’t develop him a ton: he’s sick, doesn’t have much energy, and is about to undergo an operation to his heart. He’s a kid that’s almost lost everything, and maybe i’m reading “lack of character” wrong. Maybe he’s depressed. Being in a new place with no friends going through what he’s about to go through can’t be easy, and meeting Arrietty almost gives him hope, as well as makes him realize that he can be important and helpful. I think the thing that bugs me about him is that his character is almost left up to the viewer’s ideas. We don’t really know much about him except for what I just said. He’s an ok character, but I feel as if there’s a lot to him we don’t know; the he could have been a bigger character and a better character and still not taken anything away from the focus of Arrietty. I almost would have liked them to get closer. We feel a connection, but it’s not as realized as I feel it could have been. It’s not the connection you get with other Ghibli movies.

the only other characters we get to know are Arrietty’s parents, Pod and Homily, the crazy woman who lives in the house, Hara, and another “savage” borrower who helps them escape, Spiller. Arrietty’s parents are pretty good. Voiced by Will Arnett and Amy Poehler, they’re secondary characters and work well. Pod is strong and silent, and Homily is a bit more animated and worried about safety and the human beings. As a couple, they balance each other out nicely. Hara is the woman who goes to all lengths to prove the borrower’s existence. She acts as our antagonist, and she is a bit crazy. It’s fun to watch them outsmart her. Spiller is a borrower that lives in the “wilds” and not in a house. He’s a man of few words, and acts as sort of?? a love interest? I don’t know, it’s almost as if he’s who Arrietty’s parents wish she’d spend time with. He’s barely in the movie so it’s a bit weird, but maybe they’re planning on making more of these. Dunno.

I know that this is just a movie that’s mainly for kids, and mainly just about showing us the world and showing us what happens to borrowers when they’re seen. I know it’s about that all human’s aren’t evil, but some are. But I don’t know… I finish watching this movie and I just feel…. eh. I feel like nothing happened. It was fun watching it, but I wanted more. I wanted more of the characters. I wanted more of Arrietty and Shawn. It ends, and it’s meant to be this sad goodbye between the two, and you just don’t feel it. I know she taught him not to be afraid, but I want to feel that he learned that. I want to feel that he’s going to miss her. You feel so much in other Ghibli movies. This one has the workings of one, but it’s missing the emotion. It’s missing something with the connection. And it kills me. Because this movie IS good… but it could have been great.

I have one more thing that REALLY bugs me. I don’t know why, but the US version randomly changed the names of some of the characters. Arrietty, Pod, Homily, and Spiller are fine. They’re from the book. But it’s almost like with the US dub, they wanted to try and set this in europe, NOT in Japan, when clearly, this is Japan. They changed the name of the boy from Sho to Shawn and Haru into Hara. WHY????? This is something that really bugs me. This is a JAPANESE movie. It’s SET IN JAPAN. WHY DID YOU CHANGE THE NAMES???? It’s not like people aren’t used to Japanese names from Ghibli: we have Chihiro, Haku, Sosuke, Ponyo, Satsuki, Ashitaka, etc. Seriously. Why the need to change the names Disney?? I actually get mad over this, because I feel like it’s not giving the movie the respect it deserves. It comes from an animation studio that rivals Disney itself and even Pixar. They know that these movies are great. Why mess with it and change something so trivial as names? just to make it more marketable? those aren’t even major characters. they (meaning those at Ghibli as well as Disney) didn’t touch the names of the major characters. Why change random supporting characters to more western sounding names? ugh. I’ll never understand. I think it’s stupid and pointless.

My rant is over, and I apologize. Arrietty is a movie I would say that is worth watching. Is it perfect? no. But you also have to remember it’s not Miyazaki. It’s hard not to compare, but different directors bring different things to movies. It’s still incredibly charming and introduces us to a world familiar but at the same time foreign. I hate to say it, but I almost hope we see more of the borrowers from Ghibli. I would love to see more of her and get more from her family. Definitely a good kid movie.

I give The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) a 3.2 out of 5. Charming, but has its flaws.

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This review wraps up my Ghibli/Miyazaki movies. I really had a blast watching these all again, and reviewing these were among my favorites to write about because they all have so much going for them. I’m hoping this is what my reviews will be like when I do Disney or Pixar. I’m an animation nerd and I’m not afraid to flaunt it.

At the beginning of my Miyazaki movies I ranked them how I thought I would with the reviews. I’m now going to rank them based on what I actually gave them score wise. This should be interesting.

1. Princess Mononoke & My Neighbor Totoro (5 out of 5)
2. Spirited Away (4.8 out of 5)
3. Porco Rosso (4.2 out of 5)
4. Castle in the Sky & Howl’s Moving Castle (4 out of 5)
5. Ponyo & Kiki’s Delivery Service (3.5 out of 5)
6. The Secret World of Arrietty & Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (3.2 out of 5)

Not gonna lie, I’m surprised. Apparently I give the same score to lots of movies, but based on them, I actually agree with this, movie wise. Below is how I ranked them before I reviewed them, strictly on how I, personally, like them:

1. Princess Mononoke (1997)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
3. Castle in the Sky (1986)
4. My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
5. Spirited Away (2001)
6. Porco Rosso (1992)
7. Ponyo (2008)
8. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984 – technically not Studio Ghibli)
9. The Secret World of Arriety (2010)
10. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

Watch them if you haven’t. If you’ve never watched any Miyazaki movies or hate the idea of watching “anime,” please reconsider. I am not, by any means, an anime person. These movies are SO different. every one of them is worth watching the same way every pixar movie is worth watching.

Next I’ll be delving into my Christmas/Holiday movies for the season. And what better way to start than with a transitional movie!

Next up: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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Ponyo (2008)

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“You can’t be busy – you’re five!!”

This, believe it or not, was the first Miyazaki movie I saw in theaters. Previously, I was never in a place to see them, or was never aware of when these movies actually hit US theaters. They tend to come and go quickly, and sometimes they’re not even wide released. This one was, though. Probably because it is one of Miyazaki’s more subdued movies: it’s more like Totoro or Kiki than Howl or Mononoke. It’s a family movie. So how does it rank? let’s take a look!

Ponyo is loosely based off of the story of the little mermaid. Our titular character, Ponyo (although her given name is Boomhilda) is a fish that lives in the ocean in a strange sub-like thing with her father, who is… sort of human? we’ll talk about him later. Anyway, she escapes and ends up getting her head stuck in a jar and is washed ashore, where she’s rescued by a little boy name Sosuke. She licks the cut on his hand he got from rescuing her and it heals quickly. Amazed, he puts her in a pail, names her Ponyo, and takes her to school to show off.

Eventually Ponyo’s father finds she is missing and sends his spirits of the ocean to retrieve her. They do, much to Sosuke’s dismay, but the damage is done. Ponyo wants to be human. Because she tasted human blood, she uses her magic to grow arms and legs. After escaping again and ruining some of her father’s things (she knocks some of his potions in a pot after he just explained that doing so would bring on a new Devonian era), she uses the magic brewing in the ocean to return to land and try to find Sosuke. They reunite, but there’s a problem – because of what she did to her father’s things, the ocean is rising and causing all sorts of problems to the village where Sosuke lives. His mother goes off to help the seniors at the senior center get to higher ground (she’s not worried about where they live because they’re on a cliff), but by morning she’s still not back, so Sosuke and Ponyo decide to go find her and the seniors. Ponyo uses her magic (it’s not as strong now and starting to take its toll) to make a toy boat bigger and they’re off.

Meanwhile, her father appeals to her mother, the Goddess of Mercy, for what to do with Ponyo. They decide that she must go through a test. She cannot be human and magic. They decide to test the boy’s love of her, and if he passes, she can remain human. If not, she will turn into sea foam.

The ending is… weird. well obviously he passes the test and Ponyo remains human, but… it’s weird. I still don’t know if I completely understand one part. But I won’t ruin it.

So that’s Ponyo. This movie has a lot of really great things going for it. The story is familiar to us, but I don’t know if I would have guessed it was based on the little mermaid. So many details are different, and the whole feel to the movie is much different. Instead of an angst-y teenager, we have a little girl no older than 5 years old. Sosuke is the same age. That in itself lends to a very different type of movie, and i think in this case, it really works. In fact, the pure childhood love and the relationship that Sosuke and Ponyo have are one of the major strengths in this movie, and it is worth watching just for that.

Although this movie is called “Ponyo,” I would actually argue that we have two protagonists, and almost that Sosuke is a bit more important. I’ll talk about Ponyo, but I want to talk about our little boy first. Sosuke is, in many ways, a typical little preschool or kindergarden boy. He gets excited about his pets, he makes up things about his fish that he insists is right, and he goes to school. But there are many things that make Sosuke unlike any other little boy i’ve ever met. He lives with his mother and his father is gone a lot because he works on a boat. Sosuke has to be the man of the house, and as such, there is a seriousness to him. He is almost more grown up than he arguably should be. He had to grow up quickly to help his mother while his father is gone. He’s all about following rules. He’s serious to the point where you wonder if he even knows how to have fun anymore. But in this kid’s heart is love; pure love. The things (in this case Ponyo the fish) he gets attached to are cared for with the utmost respect and important. He doesn’t even seem to understand the hatred that exists in people’s hearts. Not even the bitter woman Toki at his mother’s work.

Ponyo, on the other hand, is the complete opposite of Sosuke. She’s naive, excited to the point where sometimes she’s almost manic. Everything is new to her and everything is a game. Everything is the most exciting thing she’s ever experienced. She also very quickly bonds to Sosuke as a fish, even showing a bit of jealousy when he tries to show her to another girl in his class. She’s cheeky, but like Sosuke, has a kind heart. She has a strange sense about her with her magic where she almost knows things before they happen. But to her, everything is fun and everything is a game. As the water rises and they head out on the boat, it could be a dire circumstance, but both she and Sosuke take it all in stride (to her its the most exciting adventure ever!).

I’m not going to lie – a big part of why I don’t like this movie is Ponyo. She’a almost TOO excited to the point where it’s annoying. I feel like they could have toned her down a bit and still gotten the point across that she’s the opposite of Sosuke and she’s teaching him things and he’s teaching her, blah blah blah. That being said, Sosuke to me is the movies saving feature. This is a kid I could watch forever. The two of them balance out perfectly. He’s down to earth and she’s off in her own little world. Together, the two of them do learn to be a bit like the other (sosuke more than Ponyo, but yeah…). You get the relationship between the two of them because it’s so pure and so harmless. It’s friendship. But to kids, friendship is pretty much the same as love, right? You’d do anything for the person.

While the movie really is focused on our two main characters, we have some others around that are also extremely important. First I want to talk about Ponyo’s father, Fujimoto. I haven’t really quite figured out what he is: he looks like a human and has to breathe air, but at the same time it always has to be wet where he walks. When he first tries to get Ponyo back, he walks on the grass spraying the water in front of him. I’m just going to settle by saying he’s some type of ocean spirit God. He’s in charge with keeping the balance in the ocean, although he hates humans and wishes he could return the ocean back to the devonian era when fish ruled the world. He’s not a villain at all, but in the eyes of Ponyo, he is. Fujimoto knows his eldest daughter is his strongest and most magical, but wishes to keep her where he can watch her. It’s the typical “doesn’t want his daughter to grow up” thing. But at the same time she’s only five – I can see his point. His character design is crazy and unique. He wears this amazing blue striped suit and his hair is bright red and all over the place. In the English dub he’s voiced by Liam Neeson, which i think was a nice choice to show that he’s NOT a villain at all.

The other important character is Sosuke’s mother, Lisa (voiced by Tina Fey). She’s upset that her husband isn’t coming home, but tries hard to provide for her son. At the same time – she’s kinda crazy. She’s not afraid to yell at people, drive like a crazy person through a tsunami, or completely abandon her 5 year old son. I don’t think she’d win any parenting awards, but at the same time, she doesn’t bat an eye when her son goes “Mom! Ponyo came back and she’s a little girl now.” I think I’d think my son was crazy if he said that. But not her. She totally goes along with all of this like it’s just another day. She’s a bit crazy, but you can tell she loves her son, and in their life, this is just how it is.

There are some other smaller characters, such as some of the seniors at the senior center Lisa works at, and Ponyo’s mother, a giant spirit Goddess of Mercy. She’s seen as a calm, all knowing beautiful woman. She’s smart, as its her idea to give Ponyo a test, and she understands much better the whole idea of love more than Fujimoto seems to.

The characters are all pretty good. They’re enjoyable and memorable, and like i said, this movie really focuses on Sosuke and Ponyo, and they are a joy to watch. If there has to be a weakness to this movie, I have to say its in the plot. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t understand what in the world was causing the flood and the crazy fish creatures until the 2nd or 3rd time I saw this. I didn’t catch the small conversation Fujimoto was having with himself when he was talking about the vials and the devonian era and what not. I don’t understand why he can’t just reverse it. Does it have something to do with Ponyo’s test? I would almost assume, because everything seems to get back to normal after that. The test in general is almost hard to pick out. Is it the whole trip in the toy boat? is it just the end part when he reaches the senior center?

Oh and yes, lets talk about that, because I still don’t really understand. I think i’m reading too much into this. So Sosuke and Ponyo take their boat trip and find Lisa’s car abandoned. They follow up the road and find the high park area with a bunch of wheelchairs but no seniors. No. they’re all still at the senior center, which is under the water but suspended. the people can breathe under there and Ponyo’s mother and father are there too. The seniors suddenly have more energy and are able to walk and breathe under water. The first time I saw this, I thought “oh my gosh, everyone is dead!!!” I mean seriously, it looks it. there’s stuff that’s said and stuff that is done (Toki tries not to go but is eventually drug under the water and the others tell her just let it go) that make you think that seriously these people are dead. WHAT? I don’t think they really are, but seriously. I don’t know. I really don’t. It weirds me out.

I really want to talk about some of the other things I love about this movie, and they may not be what you think. One, I LOVE the artwork and animation in this movie. It’s different than his others. The backgrounds are much softer, and look as if they were drawn with colored pencils or something like that. it lends really nicely to the whole “seaside” look. At the same time, the detail on the stuff under the ocean is incredible. the fish are beautiful. The creatures after Ponyo starts the devonian revolution are awesome. This is a really beautiful movie (as all his movies are – this one just strikes me because of the different medium).

Two, I LOVE that this movie is super scientific. It has a bit of fantasy to it with the Gods of the sea, but this movie is about balance and fish and biology. There’s names of prehistoric fish thrown out there by Sosuke. They talk about the devonian era. They talk about Biology. I Love this movie strictly because of this. (I was a biology major – rarely are there movies that incorporate this type of thing, and especially as well as this one does).

It’s Miyazaki, so of course there has to be an environmental message. We see a boat dredging the garbage out of the ocean, and as mentioned Fujimoto is very anti-human, mostly because they ruin the ocean with their trash. He kinda acts as Miyazaki’s vessel for his environmental message, but in this movie it is very subdued. Instead, this movie is all about showing the wonders of the environment as opposed to yelling at us for what we’ve done to it. It again is a much softer approach, and I feel as if there is just enough mention of it in a movie where the focus is on these little kids.

I don’t really have much more to say about this movie. It’s Miyazaki’s most family oriented film since Kiki, and it was a nice change of pace. I don’t believe it to be as good as his older stuff, but there are some things about this movie that are really magical, and I bet kids would love it. It does have many more scary elements than Kiki or Totoro, but I see that as just the evolution of our times. Apparently we can’t have kids movies without scaring the bejeezus out of them anymore (that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t open in this review). It’s definitely worth a watch if you have kids. It’s very enjoyable for adults too!

I give Ponyo a 3.5 out of 5.

Next up: The Secret World of Arriety (2010)

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)

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.

 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:

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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)