Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jump Cuts: Studio Ghibli Edition

Full reviews aren't right for all films - particularly ones that seem past the point of timely comment. These films are better off with bite-size opinionating. Let's call them "Jump Cuts."

Since the mid-1980s, Japan's Studio Ghibli has set an international gold standard in animated cinema with its distinctive style blending the fantastical and the mundane, and its painterly devotion to the medium as a fine art. Under the creative auspices of writer-directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, the Ghibli stamp all but assures a level of quality rivaled only by Pixar Studios. Indeed, it's possible to say that Ghibli predicted Pixar in redefining the animated feature film, refusing to condescend to audience expectations and blazing a trail for modern animated masterpieces of wit and empathy.

Still, the Ghibli braintrust must have taken a considerable leap of faith in green-lighting Whisper of the Heart (1995), a tender coming-of-age story from Yoshifumi Kondo that contains almost none of the studio's trademark whimsy, and prominently features John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (in two languages!) as a thematic touchstone. Kondo's only directorial feature before his untimely death in 1998, Whisper is a straightforward tale about a teenage girl who struggles to make important decisions about her future. It's a parable about hard work, self-confidence, and the effort to give the things in our lives the proper weight. There's a bit of strange business with the backstory of a cat figurine that stands sentinel in an old man's curio shop, but outside of a dream sequence or two the film is refreshingly grounded. Sadly, some ending revelations undermine Whisper's commitment to realism; it's nonetheless a moving depiction of the often confusing adolescent years.

The bittersweet lessons of youth are a key inspiration for Ghibli's filmmakers - some would say that it's the studio's only focus, but that assumption undermines the pure cinematic joy of Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1988). The film that first propelled Studio Ghibli into the global consciousness, Totoro focuses on a university professor and his two young daughters who move into a country house while their mother recuperates from an unnamed illness. The sisters discover a number of Japanese folk spirits living in their backyard including the titular creature, a rotund, vaguely feline version of Sasquatch calibrated for maximum cuteness. These close encounters may distract younger viewers from the movie's darker undertones (another classic Ghibli strategy), but symbolize all the family's hopes and anxieties so well that you may forget that the film has no conventional villain and little conflict. Despite having
all the stakes of a nursery rhyme, Totoro is an immensely charming and bewitching portrait of that initial collision between the demands of reality and the expectations of childhood imagination.

The latest Ghilbi film to be distributed stateside, The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), could be described as a callback to Totoro: it also involves a curious youngster's retreat to a rural homestead and his attempts to parley with the strange creatures hidden therein. In fact, it's more accurate to call Arrietty an inversion of Totoro as it's told from the perspective of the creatures themselves - tiny people known as "borrowers" who survive off the scraps discarded by human "beans." Based on a popular British children's novel of the 1950s, the movie is an unexpectedly tense examination of the clandestine existence led by the teenaged borrower Arrietty and her parents, Pod and Homily. Despite the danger it poses to her family, Arrietty forges an unlikely friendship with a sickly, bedridden boy who is depressingly ambivalent about his prospect for living a longer, healthier life. It may be asking too much of the audience to ponder such distressing questions of mortality in a movie with a comically evil housekeeper voiced by Carol Burnett, but director Hiromasa Yonebayashi makes up for it in the deliciously detailed way he explores the borrowers' way of life. Every possession, every movement is perfectly scaled to present the unique challenges and possibilities of such diminutive folk. Chances are you'll find an Easter egg in every frame. It's that quintessentially Ghibli spirit of play, seeping into heavier matters and providing that little spark of creativity that lets us cope with life's persistent letdowns.

No comments:

Post a Comment