Kokuriko-zaka kara (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Ever since the death of her father during the Korean War, a sadness resides in Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger) that she finds unable to shake off. To keep her mind off the questions and thoughts that plague her, she devotes her time balancing schoolwork and managing grandmother’s business. Her comfortable routine begins to change, however, after she meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), an energetic classmate with whom she believes to have written a poem about her in the school paper. Together, they work to save a clubhouse called the Latin Quarter, student organizations’ meeting place, from getting demolished prior to the 1964 Summer Olympics. The majority think that the building is a simply an eyesore—an embarrassment—to foreigners who will inevitably come to visit.
Since ““Kokuriko-zaka kara,” also known as “From Up on Poppy Hill,” is from Studio Ghibli and directed by Goro Miyazaki, son of the great Hayao Miyazaki, many people expect a high level of fantasy and magic to course through its veins. And since it lacks such qualities, it is unfairly labeled as a mild disappointment—completely overlooking the fact that the story’s magic lies in its realism and that animation is being used to tell a dramatic story with plenty to say about the importance being connected to one’s past but at the same time not being afraid to move forward and continue living.
We get a real sense of the simplicity and elegance of the Japanese culture’s bygone era. I enjoyed that it dares to have a plot that one might consider to be minimalistic. While plot is necessary to push its story forward, I think one of the major goals of the picture is rumination. With Umi in the middle, comparisons can be made, for instance, between her life at home and her life at school. In addition, one can observe the youth’s relationship with adults. When I think about the Japanese culture, “respect” is a word that quickly comes to mind. That word is beautifully canvassed here not just in terms of community but also in how a sensitive topic or issue is addressed.
The hand-drawn images, accompanied by sublime music, open up the material in such a way that we want to know or connect with the protagonist on a deeper level. With each day that Umi wakes up, prepares a meal for her family, attends to school, socializes with her friends, and takes care of whatever chores need to be finished before bed, we get a chance to understand what kind of person she is without the screenplay relying on a supporting character as a sounding board to her thoughts and feelings. There is almost a crippling sadness to her and she deals with it by consistently providing to others. Meanwhile, day in and day out, because she does not give enough to herself and everyone assuming that she is fine since she appears to be very happy on the outside, she is unable to move on from what pains her.
This is why one of my favorite scenes in the film—compelling from the opening credits right up to the very end—lasts about three seconds and only one line of dialogue is uttered. Walking home after buying meat at the market with a snack in hand that was given by Shun, she expresses genuine happiness to herself. (Even though she is running late to prepare dinner.) It is a small but important turning point: a simple thing like a schedule being interrupted allows her a bit of time to feel and really absorb the life she is missing.
I see a lot of movies every year but only about a dozen—maybe less in some years—are able to move me in such a way that they force me to think about how I am living, to ask questions like if I am okay, and whether I like where my life is going. It is a shame that many people prefer to see overt enchantment, especially when it comes to animated movies, rather than experiencing and striving to find the magic in the unexpected.
Kari-gurashi no Arietti (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Shawn (voiced by David Henrie) was sent to live with his aunt in the province because he needed to rest prior to an impending heart surgery. Walking up to the backyard, he noticed something strange: a rustling in the bushes and then suddenly a little person named Arrietty (Bridgit Mendler), a “borrower” about the size of our thumbs, dashing across the green jungle in hopes of being elusive enough as to not to be seen. If recognized by humans, to the borrowers known as “beings,” they were to pack up and move immediately in order not to risk their safety. Based on the screenplay by Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, for all the fantastic discoveries made by the characters in “Kari-gurashi no Arietti,” it was surprising that its entertainment value was only middling. Perhaps it had something to do with its purposefully unhurried pace. In some instances, it worked. When, for instance, Arrietty stopped running around the garden to admire the vast surroundings that we humans take for granted, the material placed me in her mindset. For a lot of us, although there are plenty of things to see in the world, either we choose not to open our eyes to the natural marvels in front of us or we lack the means, financially, for example, to venture outside of our regular spaces and explore. During its slower moments, it was nice that we had a choice between boredom and introspection. In some scenes, its sluggish pacing did not work. A lot of time was dedicated to Hara (Carol Burnett), the household’s helper, suspecting and snooping around the house for the borrowers. The script seemed intent in making her a villain but her intentions weren’t always so clear. Why was she so desperate to catch a borrower? If she captured one, what would she do with it? Did she want fame or money? She had stated that over the years, things around the house had gone missing. Was she blamed for these missing items and therefore wanted to prove her innocence? These questions were not answered because the screenplay seemed stuck in pushing us to dislike her. Even though her hunt had gotten so desperate that she eventually hired pest control to lure out Arrietty and her family, I didn’t see her as a terrible human being. In fact, I was able to relate to her curiosity. If I stumbled upon evidence that there really were borrowers living in my house, I would want to see one for myself even if it meant looking at the back of storage closets and underneath floorboards. What I enjoyed was the film’s keen attention to detail. Although the vibrant colors jumped out in an attempt to snag our attention, I liked looking at the molds and stains on the walls as Arrietty and her father (Will Arnett) made their way to the kitchen to get some sugar and tissue paper. It made me feel like I was their size and I was alert of the little dangers–and not-so-little bugs–that could be waiting around the corner. Even though the scene mostly consisted of walking, it felt like a big adventure because there was a level of danger that threatened the characters and a certain aura of discovery considering that it was our protagonist’s first time venturing into the kitchen. Based on the novel “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton, I sensed that “The Secret World of Arrietty,” directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, held itself back. It wasn’t a rich experience, just an adequate one.
★★★ / ★★★★
When a spirit that guarded the forest had turned into a demon, in a form of a giant boar, threatened to attack a small village, Prince Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) killed the suffering spirit. But Ashitaka did not leave the battle unscathed. The demon managed to touch his arm and put a curse on him. One of the wise men from the tribe claimed that there could be a possible cure out in the West. However, if Ashitaka left the village, he could never return. “Princess Mononoke,” written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, was branded by fans and critics as a classic. I don’t believe it was as strong as it should have been. While I admired that it used animation not just as a medium to entertain younger children, personified by gory beheadings and limbs cut into pieces, its pacing felt uneven and the way story unfolded eventually became redundant. There was a war between guardians of the forest, led by a giant white wolf named Moro (Gillian Anderson), and humans, led by the cunning Lady Eboshi (Minnie Driver). The spirits were angry because men cut off trees and killed animals for the sake of excavating valuable iron. If the forest died, the spirits, too, would perish. Ashitaka’s stance was the middle, the one who we were supposed to relate to, and it was up to him to try to bring the two sides together. While I appreciated that there was an absence of a typical villain because the characters’ motivations were complex, there were far too many grand speeches about man’s place in the world versus man’s right to do whatever it took for the sake of progress. As the spirits and humans went to war, the story also focused on the budding romance between Ashitaka and San (Claire Danes), a human that Moro brought up as a wolf. It was an unnecessary appendage because the romantic angle took away the epic feel of the battle sequences. Just when a battle reached a high point, it would cut to Ashitaka wanting to prove his love for the wolf-girl he barely knew. The high point, instead of reaching a peak, became an emotional and visual plateau. It wasn’t clear to me why Ashitaka would fall for someone like San, who was essentially a savage being, who claimed that she hated humans, and who considered herself to be a wolf. There was a painful lack of evolution in their relationship. Did San eventually feel like she was more human than animal after spending more time with the cursed Ashitaka? What was more important to our protagonist: being with the girl he loved or the lifting off the curse so that he could continue to live? The deeper questions weren’t answered. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t deny that “Mononoke-hime” maintained a high level of imagination throughout. I especially enjoyed the adorable kodamas, spirits that lived in the oldest trees, with their rotating heads and confused expressions. If it had found a way to focus more on the big picture, without sacrificing details and actually offered us answers, it would have been a timeless work.
Hauru no ugoku shiro (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
In Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” an unextraordinary young woman named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer) with a low self-esteem and a penchant for dressing like an old woman was cursed by the wicked Witch of the Waste (Lauren Bacall). Being in a body of an old woman, Grandma Sophie (now voiced by Jean Simmons) decided to go into the mountains to find another witch or wizard who could reverse her condition. In the unforgiving cold mountains, she stumbled upon a castle with legs owned by the mysterious and slightly vain Howl (Christian Bale). Out of all Miyazaki’s films, “Howl’s Moving Castle” contained my favorite group of characters. Each of them had a defined personality from the sarcastic fire demon named Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a young magician (Josh Hutcherson) who yearned for an adult figure, to characters who did not say a word like loving Turnip-Head and Heen, an old dog with only one facial expression. There was something unexpected revealed about each of them, particularly the villainous witch who cruelly casted a spell on our protagonist. All of the core characters shared one similarity so they had a reason to keep walking forward together. They were all caught up in a senseless war. Since it wasn’t explained to us why a war was happening or which side was fighting for what reason, the violence, burning homes, and people attempting to escape with their lives were that much more compelling. In some ways, the magical world that these characters inhabited served as an escape from the harsh realities of war. With the help of the castle, they had a chance to escape and hide but only temporarily. Eventually, they would step out on a once peaceful landscape and were confronted with flying ships used to drop bombs in beautiful cities by the sea. Unfortunately, when the picture decided to focus on the romantic bond between Sophie and Howl, I began to lose interest. They did have their cheesy moments, but I was more concerned about what Sophie saw in Howl and vice-versa. Sophie claimed to love Howl but for what reason? Did she love him because of his looks? It certainly wasn’t because of his maturity because he threw tantrums like a child. Was their so-called love pre-ordained? There was an evidence of time-travel toward the end of the story. Nevertheless, I could also argue that the heart of the film wasn’t about the romance between Howl and Sophie. The friendship between humans and magical creatures and the sacrifices they made for each other during a time of need would probably make more sense. “Hauru no ugoku shiro” teemed with great detail and imagination but the story always came first. Quirky, funny, adventurous, with just the right amount of dark undertones, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” based on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, will enchant both young and old.
Tonari no Totoro (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tonari no Totoro” also known as “My Neighbor Totoro” has been on my Netflix queue for about six months so I was so happy when it finally arrived in the mail. It must be noted that this review is based on the dubbed version so some of the dialogue might have been lost in translation. Written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the film had a very simple story with a big heart. It was about two sisters (Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning) who recently moved to the countryside with their father while their mother (Lea Salonga) stayed in the hospital due to an undisclosed illness. The girls, since they were still at a young age, could see dust sprites and spirits, one of which was Totoro, who was supposed to be a troll but he looked more like Snorlax to me (yes, the Pokémon) because of his lax nature but incredibly cute proclivities. The whole movie was basically how the sisters used their imagination as an escape from the ennui of the countryside and dealing with their mother’s illness. I enjoyed that it was simple because the sadness in the core’s story easily appealed to adults while the cuteness appealed to the kids. I’ve read some critiques saying that the movie was slow and aren’t as grand as other Miyazaki projects. In some ways, I agree but at the same time I think those people have missed the point. The movie was supposed to be from a child’s perspective. When you were a child, didn’t everything appear so simple? There’s no taxes to pay off, no job to go to, and no fear of taking an exam that can determine your future. It was all about running around in the outdoors and getting caught up in pretend play. I loved the fact that the younger sister’s qualities reflected real life; she constantly mimicked her older sister, was always in “me” mode and she didn’t quite yet grasp the idea of danger. Details like that elevated this film for me because it showed there was some thought under the sugary cuteness. However, there were some underdeveloped characters that I thought were interesting but were never really explored. For instance, the boy who seemed to like the older sister and the grandmother who once could see the spirits when she was a child. I especially wanted to know more about the latter because I felt like she had a lot of wondrous stories that she could potentially tell the girls (and to us). “My Neighbor Totoro” offers a healthy dose of great imagery (such as when Totoro stood in the rain with the girls) and is obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a masterpiece but I appreciated the innocent feel it had. Characters going on great adventures isn’t a must for animated films to be interesting. And that’s one of this picture’s important messages: adventures can happen right in your backyard.
Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
Porco Rosso (1992)
★★★ / ★★★★
I really enjoyed Hayao Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso,” also known as “Kurenai no buta” and “Crimson Pig,” because it’s unlike the rest of his animated films that are more rooted in fantasy. Although the main character is half-man, half-pig, the movie does a good job commenting and exploring the fact that he’s more human than most of the other characters, especially the pirates and Porco’s American rival in the sky. Its story was a nice surprise because I thought the film was going to be about his journey to remedy the curse that had taken a hold of his body after fighting in World War I. It turned out that Porco was not unhappy with his appearance so we simply got to enjoy him interacting with different kinds of beings, taking strange jobs, and trying his luck with women. It doesn’t have a core story, which strangely enough, I enjoyed because there were many scenes when comedy and heart are at the forefront. However, I wished that I saw this film in its original language with subtitles instead of the dubbed version. I’ve aware of the fact that sometimes dubbing takes away layers of complexities from the original material either due to the language barrier and a culture’s own bias when it comes to what is acceptable for children to see. There were definitely scenes that made me question the subtle differences with what was being said and what was being enacted. Still, I think “Porco Rosso” is still fun to watch (which is probably geared more toward boys because of the many masculine images involving pirates and battles in the sky) despite its flaws because of its energy and it tackled universal emotions. And what I thought made this one special was that I could easily imagine it to be a live action movie, minus the half-pig angle, because it’s that connected to the characters’ humanities. What it lacks in darkness (as I come to expect in Miyazaki adventures), it makes up for romanticism and sometimes dry sense of humor. The animation may not be as “great” as today’s animated flicks but this one might take you by surprise.