Poster - The Story of the Yanagawa Canals
Behold, Studio Ghibli's only live-action feature film! The Story of the Yanagawa Canals (Yanagawa Horiwari Monogatari) is a 1987 documentary directed by Isao Takahata and produced by Hayao Miyazaki (who financed the project with revenues from his Nausicaa comic). It aired on Japanese television (NHK, I think), and has been released on home video. It has never been seen outside of Japan, and I doubt many Westerners even know it exists. In that sense, this is the great "lost" Ghibli film.
The Story of the Yanagawa Canals is a three-hour documentary that chronicles the vast and immensely complex network of waterways and canals in Japan's Yanagawa region. Takahata explores the region's history, the evolution of the canal system, its importance to the ancient culture, and the symbiotic relationship between man and nature. In the 20th Century, these waterways fell to disrepair and pollution, as post-war Japan quickly embraced a new, Western mindset. Do you remember that scene in Spirited Away when a polluted water spirit gushes out an immense pile of trash and debris? Yeah, this is the real-life version.
Indeed, this is a Studio Ghibli movie in thought, word and deed. The environmental themes are obviously present, as are the many questions about the modern world and its values. What has become of ancient Japan, and what has been lost in this mad rush to embrace the modern, Industrialized world? This, I believe, is THE central theme to the Ghibli movies of Takahata and Miyazaki, a nostalgia that sharply questions modern cultural values.
Despite the length of the movie, Yanagawa Canals is broken into concise chapters, which makes this a perfect movie for watching in segments. I could easily see PBS airing it in three, one-hour segments. I really wish they would, in fact. This is a terribly fascinating subject about a part of Japan few Westerners know about. We're captivated by the canals of Venice; how about this? The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, the stories of life among the rivers and canals are captivating, and there's the drama of a modern town learning to repair the connections to its past. There are also several animated sequences in the film.
I bought the DVD some years ago, and this is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films. The disc not only includes English subtitles, but a complete English-language soundtrack as well! This was a real surprise for me, and whoever was responsible did a perfect job.
I'm happy that I was finally able to find a movie poster after all these years; I wasn't sure if one was ever made. Where can we buy a copy for our collections? I have no idea. We'll have to keep searching the Google and the eBay, and keep our fingers crossed.