Of castles, spirits, pigs and young girls

January 23, 2011

A diversion into popular culture today – but one with a different take on storytelling than the usual.

In the UK, one of the leading high street music/video stores is HMV. It is apparently in substantial financial difficulties – resulting on Friday in rumours that staff were going round the shelves removing all DVDs from Optimum Releasing. This meaning that, of all my teenage music sources, none are left – Virgin, Our Price and Tower have all preceded HMV in disappearing from the High Streets into the bargain bin of history.

Nostalgia aside, this means that browsing High Street customers are unlikely to discover one of the delights that Optimum have brought to the UK – Studio Ghibli movies.

Ghibli movies cropped up in conversation at dinner on Monday evening as – just as Dave stood up to present – someone asked about non-US animation. And they cropped up on Friday again when my eight year old daughter, given a free hand at choosing a film for us to watch together, went straight for the Ghibli DVDs they’ve watched for years.

For the uninitiated, Studio Ghibli movies are wonderful, moving pieces of animation – mostly for children and young people, but with themes and characterisation that work wonderfully well with all ages. By deliberate choice (mine, and subsequently theirs), my daughters have watched far more Ghibli films than Disney – something very positive, given the much better depiction of young girls in Ghibli pictures. They often revolve around coming of age in some fashion, themes of romantic nature versus over-development (often the evils of development), but never less than engagingly. They are more considered forms of storytelling than the flash-bang action of many Disney films.

One area in particular that they improve over Disney fare is that Ghibli characters are archetypes – in the sense that we understand the term – rather than the stereotypes/Jungian archetypes that Disney seems to favour. We can see something of ourselves in every character. Bad guys are always recognisable in some sense, good guys have real-life flaws (as opposed to flaws introduced to drive the story arc).

For those new to the Ghibli world, here’s a quick rundown with recommendation of where to start…

My Neighbour Totoro – fabulous for young children. The Catbus and Totoro are wonderful nature-spirit creations, along with the dust-spirits. For some bizarre reason, this was a double bill in the cinema with Grave of the Fireflies (see below).

Pom Poko – raccoons versus human developers on the outskirts of Tokyo. I would say that it was for children again. But if you watch it with them, aim for the English dubbed version – that talks about “raccoon pouches”. No, raccoons don’t have pouches – watching the film you’ll never see such creativity with scrota. (Yes – they’re exactly what you think…) Bizarre but watchable.

Kiki’s Delivery Service – a young witch breaking out into the world on her own. Losing powers and regaining confidence in different ways – in some ways reminiscent of Philip Pullman’s depiction of coming of age in His Dark Materials. Also good at depicting the developing of relationships between genders at a young age.

Howl’s Moving Castle – an adaptation of a children’s story by the wonderful Welsh writer Dianne Wynne Jones. Crabby fire demons, alpine-style towns and villages (seen in most Ghibli films) and sulky wizards.

Princess Mononoke – superb. Modernisation and corruption against nature, but with richness of animation and characterisation. Bloody and not for the youngest children (watch a pig god being devoured by black worm-like corruptors). It was a breakthrough film in the UK among aficionados of animation. (It doesn’t hurt that the English script was developed by Neil Gaiman.)

Grave of the Fireflies – adults only. Not for language, violence or sex, but just for the power of this thing to move you. It’s one of the most powerful anti-war films. It begins with a death and then flashes back to the start of the story – the Kobe fire-bombings. Two siblings – an elder brother and his younger sister escape and struggle to survive. Bizarrely, it was released with My Neighbour Totoro – that’s up there with pairing a (henceforth unseen) true-to-the-source-material film of Winnie-the-Pooh with Schindlers List!

Spirited Away – the best of the bunch. Structured a little like Alice in Wonderland, but with a richer story and imagination and without the logical/mathematical allusions. Loss (and recovery of) identity is a repeated theme. Instead, there are wonderfully vivid characters, a bathhouse for spirits and demons. Corrupted river gods, transforming dragons and a young female hero moving (geographically and developmentally) into new life. It won the second ever Oscar for Best Animation – and is a visual feast. If you don’t start here, finish here!

There are plenty of others in the Ghibli canon – flying pigs, castles in the air, devastated future earths and a weak version of Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea books, but it’s such a rich take on storytelling that it bears repeated visits. I haven’t been able to go back to Disney princesses since.

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