Ghiblies Episodes 1 & 2 (2005 Review)

June 24, 2005

You can never really call yourself a serious Studio Ghibli fan until you've discovered Ghiblies. For those of you in Japan, this, of course, is nothing new. You've been aware of this great movie studio from the very beginning. The rest of us in the West, however, have only discovered its existence in fits and spots during the past decade. Only now, as the Ghibli DVDs are steadily released in Europe and the Americas, are we becoming aware of its greatness.

I've often claimed, over the past couple of years, that Ghibli is the best movie studio in the world. Anywhere. Animation or live-action, it doesn't matter. This is the studio that has steadily churned out one masterpiece after another, modern classics that are both entertaining and challenging. Previous generations have been blessed with the Neo-Realists, the French New Wave, the genius of Renoir, Ray, Kurosawa and Ozu. For me and my generation, lost in the post-Star Wars Hollywood haze, there is Studio Ghibli. You lucky ducks.

It's so much tougher to work backwards, starting from Mononoke or Spirited Away and working our way back. I feel that I'm still just a student, learning lessons handed to you ten or twenty years ago. I think that's why I enjoy watching short films like Ghiblies. They may be apart from the "official" Miyazaki and Takahata canon, but it offers great insights into the immense talent behind the two old masters.

Have I mentioned yet how fortunate the Japanese people are?

For those who don't know, Ghiblies was a twelve-minute short film produced for television in 1999, as part of a show about the famed movie studio. This was one of the studio's minor productions that pop up from time to time. Included among these is a series of spots for the Japanese TV network Nippon Television called Nandarou; a short called Sora Ino no Tane ("The Sky-Colored Seed," animated and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo), Miyazaki's On Your Mark music video; a wonderfully nostalgic series of ads for House Foods in 2003 (again by Miyazaki); and various short films for the Ghibli Museum.

Ghiblies is something of a loose parody of the film studio, a series of breezy and lighthearted segments that detail the daily lives of the staff members. Careful eyes will spot characters based on actual members of the studio, and the temptation is there to try and name everyone who pops up on screen. One person is clearly Toshio Suzuki; another one may be Takahata, but a quick video clip (showing "the model" from behind, eating a doughut) isn't all that clear. It's probably not too important for anyone but the most hardcore trivia hounds.

Ghiblies (pronounced with a hard 'g') very much looks like a television production, with animation and artwork that is very quickly jumbled together, with an almost improvisational feel. It's really a continuation of the visual style of Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas. That great picture was criminally overlooked when it was released in 1999; for some baffling reason, Japanese audiences decided to spend their time with the first Pokemon movie and The Phantom Menace.

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that one. I have half a mind to fly over there and hit people over the head with a fly swatter.

Bad toad! Bad toad!

Thankfully, Takahata's Yamadas look is continued in Ghiblies, Episode 2. This film appeared in 2002 as a double feature with The Cat Returns, and is given the full production values of any feature-length Ghibli movie. For my money, this is the better of the two films, far more visually ambitious, far more imaginitive, far more Ghibli-esque. Not that I don't appreciate Hiroyuki Morita and his team, as Cat Returns is a good picture, but Episode 2, in my mind, deserved the top spot on the bill.

What this film does is demonstrate the studio's spectacular creativity with computer-aided animation. They still haven't completely moved into the CGI-animated style of Pixar, for example, and they likely never will. What Studio Ghibli has done is integrate hand-drawn animation with computers. They've always taken a slow, cautious approach to computers, learning how to integrate the modern technology with their traditional skills. They dipped their toes into the water with Pom Poko, On Your Mark, and Whisper of the Heart, but with Mononoke they finally committed wholesale, and Spirited Away continued to meld the two worlds.

It's such a seamless approach that I doubt many Westerners are even aware of it. It's interesting to listen to critics praise Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle as a triumph for traditional, hand-drawn animation, seemingly unaware how skillfully they involve computers. It's simply a different approach, and I'd suggest that American studios that want to cash in on Pixar's success should look to Studio Ghibli as an example of how truly diverse computer animation really is. There's still a lot of virgin territory.

That's the real greatness of Ghiblies Episode 2. There is such an amazing variety of visual tricks and styles throughout the various segments. I'm reminded a lot of Richard Linklater's Waking Life, which also possessed a vivid energy, fusing a variety of animation techniques with thoughtful conversations about daily life.

The moods in these segments run length from comedy to awe to weepy nostalgia. One segment involves a wonderfully funny visit to a restaurant where the employees have to endure scalding-hot curry or else pay double; as the case with all things Ghibli, it's the girl who comes out ahead, shaming the boys and looking good while doing it.

One segment is a quick music-video montage quite unlike anything the studio has ever created. Another story quietly tells of a character who gets stuck on the train when a pretty girl falls asleep on his shoulder. Still another shows the characters at the end of the day, shlepping home.

The best segment in the film, and also the longest, is a wonderfully poetic look back on childhood and first loves. The memories are prompted when one character is asked about his first love, and like Taeko-chan in Omohide Poro Poro, the memories come flooding back.

This was actually done before, in the first Ghiblies short, but the technology and the skills of the artists have greatly expanded the palette. We see a stunning point-of-view shot, from the boy's bicycle, as he rides past a girl at a shop, and there are other equally amazing shots inside a schoolhouse.

What we're seeing is a mixture of two-dimensional characters over a three-dimensional landscape, all painted in storybook watercolors. It's the perfect realization of the watercolor paintings used when Miyazaki and Takahata create their movies, and it's all so alive. There's nothing, absolutely nothing in America, to compare this to.

And this childhood segment possesses all the trappings of Takahata's stories, from the shifts in visual style to the personal flashbacks. Even the Ozu rose petals make an appearance. It just has that magic, that personal intimacy. Previously, I speculated that Takahata was involved somehow, even if he was standing over the animators' shoulders and handing out advice. However, upon closer inspection, I become more aware of director Yoshiyuki Momose's long involvement with Studio Ghibli. He was involved in Grave of the Fireflies and Omohide Poro Poro, continuing to the present day as animation director on Howl's.

Momose has created a number of short films at Ghibli (which can be seen on the Short Short DVD in Japan); in Ghiblies 2 he is pretty much in charge. However, I still do not know the extent of his creative control on this project, whether the animators were allowed to run free on each segment, or if there was some greater planning involved. I'd still like to know who was specifically responsible for what, because there's a great amount of variety in art styles and narrative.

Ghiblies Episodes 1 and 2 are the sort of things you would expect to see in an art-house animation festival, never from the country's biggest film studio. But it's that spirit of experimentation, of creating art for the artists first, and the general public second, that has made Ghibli the finest moviemakers in the world.

The first Ghiblies film is unavailable on video or DVD, but you can find it over the internet if you're resourceful. Ghiblies Episode 2 appears on the Japanese DVD for Cat Returns, and there's talk that it may appear a year or two down the line in the States. I wouldn't hold my breath just yet. But we can always hope.


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