Archive for September 15th, 2012

By Bob Clark

Studio Ghibli is known, above all, for the far-flung fantasy films they’ve released over the past 25 years under the direction of esteemed animator Hayao Miyazaki, but even from their very beginning it was only one aspect to their output. The dominant aspect, yes, but along with Miyazaki you had the work of the studio’s co-founder Isao Takahata, whose acclaimed features have mostly dealt with real-world concerns. Most obvious are the bleak portrayal of WWII squalor in Grave of the Fireflies or the dispiritingly nostalgic look at a lonely single woman’s life in Only Yesterday, but even the boistrous comic fantasy of Pom Poko is more grounded in the real world than his colleague’s work, portraying rowdy tanuki in their prankster’s war against the onslaught of human civilization destroying their forest homes in contemporary Japan. There, and in the domestic family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata got a lot of mileage out of the contrast between the fantastic and the mundane, employing a range of caricature and over-the-top gag cartooning that wouldn’t be out of place in a madcap Looney Tune fiasco. Other animators under the Ghibli aegis have either focused on the real world (the little-seen Ocean Waves— little seen for good reason, I’ll add), but apart from the work of its founders, the studio’s greatest success again lay in the combination of the real and the fantastical, albeit in far more grounded terms, in the late Yoshifumo Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart, adapted by Miyazaki himself from the shojo manga by Aoi Hiragi.

That film has quietly become one of the most heralded classics from the Studio Ghibli canon since its release in 1995, a picture of youths in the midst of discovering their potential inside themselves at the same time that they discover it in one another, providing a canny portrait not only of young love but the journey of self-love. The demands and challenges of the real world are never quite as convincing and real as they are here, as they stand in the way of not only a young girl’s burgeoning crush with a boy about to move away to find himself, but also her own slowly gestating personal ambitions to become a writer. In that film, the brief glimpses we see of the fantasy novel she pens as a means to prove herself and test her talent are less moments of freedom from the narrative of the mundane, as they are peeks into the pressure-cooker that world makes of her inner world. The stakes for the successful completion and quality of her writing are so well defined that we can’t merely be washed away by the beauty of the imagery Kondo puts to the screen (though it’s certainly beautiful enough to do so on its own), because we’re so keenly aware of what it represents for her personal goals. As such, the moments of Miyazaki fantasy throughout the film serve self-conscious expressions of the real-world concerns permeating throughout the film, and the self-consciousness helps serve both the way that the film treats the authoring of fantasy writing and the ways in which a young person’s personality comes to blossom in discovering itself. For a somewhat more conventional expression of pure fantasy/real-world combinations, we can look to that film’s spin-off sequel, The Cat Returns.


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