Special Christmas Review of Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind (1989)


Director and Screenwriter: Hayao Miyasaki

The world around her is desolate. A gas mask covers her face. Nausicaa gracefully soars through the air on a glider. She enters a cave where there is a giant shell of an Ohmu.  It looks like it belongs in a sea bed, domes adorn it as the spirals of the shell slot in on themselves for movement. But it is still, hollow. Whatever had lived inside had long gone.

She climbs to the top, carefully chipping away at one of the domes until finally it comes loose. Nausicaa spins with the dome above her head, a see through umbrella in the cave. She stands above the shell of the Ohmu as white poisonous pollen falls suddenly like snow.  It covers the dome with Nausicaa inside as she rests and waits for it to settle.

In awe of the beauty of the toxic snow.

1*wrdzyZry-R3A1lJZ4Gt46wNausicaa steets away an Ohmu

The origin of Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind comes from the poem: Homer’s Odyssey.  Within this story Nausicaa is a mother figure who guides Homer in his journey. On leaving her, Homer recounts their meeting, mourning the woman that he had left behind. It is one of the first stories of unrequited love. Miyazaki, fascinated with this character, wanted to delve further on who Nausicaa was and chose to expand on a character so briefly touched on in Homer’s Odyssey.

Miyazaki’s cinematic story however, is more straightforward.  Especially compared to his manga in which he based the film on, and which was still an ongoing series as the film was released.  To create a tangible narrative parts were cut, a 7 volume manga written over 12 years would have lasted over 90 minutes and would have a presented a story that would have been too complicated to digest for the average cinema goer.

Nausicaa is unapologetically fierce, strong willed and is revered by her people.  She cares for the Ohmu, and has a unique ability to communicate with them. Throughout, the Ohmu are often dangerously close to invading colonies, or close to becoming violent when threatened, but while most colonies instincts are to attack or to retreat Nausicaa guides them to safety. She understands their panic, their loneliness.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind is inspired by the Japanese folktale:  The Princess who Loved Insects. A tale of a girl who wished to frolic naked in nature and didn’t care for the conventions of tradition, too adventurous and wild to ever want become a bride. The ‘Insect Princess’ was a woman who was happy enough to spend her time watching the wings break free of a caterpillar’s cocoon rather than contemplate marriage or to settle down in mediocrity.

It’s understood Miyazaki wanted to cast a female lead was due to the complexity of Nausicaa.  The 1980’s lead male was a fight-now-talk-later macho man, a far cry from the compassionate Nausicaa who would prefer to understand her opponents that simply kill them.  A contrast then to the lead antagonist of the film Kashana, a woman who fits the mould of the 1980’s fight-now-talk-later macho attitude. Kushana is the general of Torumekia. It’s when Torumekia declares war on the other nations that their plan is to utilise an old destructive power, a giant controlled by a mysterious stone that the true cause of peril shows itself.  The language used throughout of a force of destruction that should never be used again is clearly representative of Hiroshima.

So with an impending attack of the Ohmu that is coincidentally brought about by the abduction of a young Ohmu by the Torumekia army that Kushana has enough justification for raising the giant. With several roars, large terrifying blasts annihilate hundreds of thousand of Ohmu at once. However, Kashana rushed to wake the giant, and in its weakened state it crumbles. Its flesh becomes sand as its bones pierce out with a final flicker of light.  It’s hard not to compare this to the real life warmongering of the Bush/Blair era where Weapons of Mass destruction were allegedly found in Iraq to justify war. Of course history made it clear no weapons were really found, and it was merely a reason to appease the appetite of warmongers. It’s interesting to see the similarities between these events despite Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind predating them by fifteen years.

nausicaa-27-the-giant-warrior-attempts-to-raise-itself-at-kushanas-commandThe destructive giant takes aim on the Ohmu

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind is a non-canon Studio Ghibli. Released shortly before the studio was established.  Created by the studio Topcraft, the same studio that created the Hobbit, it brought along a lot of the animators from Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind onto Laputa: Castle in the Sky, the first film of Studio Ghibli. It may be non-canon but it’s as close to being a Ghibli film as one can be without simultaneously not being one.  With this aside, it still creates one of the most well rounded and relatable heroines in its back catalogue along with one of the most realised dystopian worlds not only within the Studio Ghibli universe but in science fiction as a genre.

The best science fiction stories are those that manage to stay relevant years from when it was released.  George Orwell’s 1984 remains relevant each day with online monitoring, Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World took on new layers when its drug Soma arguably foreshadows the escapison of Social Media, and Nausicaa Valley of the Wind, released in 1984, echoes our own struggles of environmental catastrophe.

As mentioned, and like other Studio Ghibli films, Nausicaa shows how the Japanese consciousness is still burdened by the tragedy of Hiroshima.  It has a similar message to Grave of the Fireflies by emphasising the horrors of war and destruction, whilst Grave of the Fireflies showed the realities of war, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind chooses to show the the dystopia.  Along with Laputa: Castle in the Sky they act as a companion piece that showcases both the destruction of war and the balance of environment. Interesting then, that this first Non-canon Ghibli film manages to hold all three films as a joint set, to be left out of canon removes the bridge that showcases the similarities of all three.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind has an environmental and political message.  The world is in ruins, the decaying trees have withered away and become sand, crystalised underground and the Ohmu have become the guardians against mankind, who were the likely the catalyst towards its initial destruction while the world is hellbent of creating conflict rather than looking for peace.  It’s a message that’s clear in today’s environment. We will likely never have our own Nausicaa that will lead us into a utopian paradise. We can only learn from Nausicaa’s compassion, or to learn from Kashana’s mistakes.

Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind is a beautiful film. Both in terms of narrative and its visuals. It acts as the stepping stone for all future Studio Ghibli films to come. Not only confident in its message and direction but also in its identity.  It is a catalyst and an incubation chamber for future creations. It builds on the strong female character infrequently used in its era and never shies away from complicated political issues, all the while drawing from several sources of mythology to create something unique.  Ultimately it is the most integral Studio Ghibli film there is and has the blueprints of its offspring throughout. While Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind warns of dystopia, the rewards of viewing it are paradise.
10 out of 10 Totoros

10 totoroz

Review: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)


Directed by Hayao Miyasaki
Written by: Eiko Kadono & Hayao Miyasaki

“The talents of witches in this film are really little more than those possessed by any real-life girl” – Hayao Miyasaki

After falling asleep on a train Kiki finds herself in Koriko. It looks nothing like her home. It’s more…European. The Rock n’ Roll on her portable radio changes, it’s now a spoken broadcast, and it’s in a different language.

She flies her broom hastily stumbling through winding streets, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with a bus.

And so begins Kiki’s Delivery Service.


Kiki troubles to settle into in Koriko until a woman leaves a bakery without her baby’s dummy.  As the bakery’s owner sees her customer in the distance Kiki hurries on her broom and returns the dummy. Upon seeing an opportunity, the baker Osono, encourages Kiki to set up a delivery business in her bakery.   From there we follow Kiki as she makes several deliveries, with one errand Kiki meets Ursula, an artist who lives in the woods. Meanwhile, a local boy Tombo takes an interest to the new girl in town.

Suddenly, Kiki finds herself a life in Koriko.

Kiki flies with her broomstick over Koriko, her black dress flickering in the wind against the background of an ocean, colourful buildings line the horizon as seagulls fly overhead. It’s a world that never existed and conjured up through the rose-tinted mind of Miyasaki.  His view of Koriko heavily inspired of a fusion of Stockholm, Naples, Paris, Lisbon and Amsterdam. The brick and mortar, the coloured walls, the cobbled streets.

Kikis Delivery Service

It’s almost as if Miyasaki hopes to symbolise the struggle of a traditional and yet evolving Japan through the lens of a traditional yet evolving Europe. Kiki lives in a world where WWII never happened in an alternative utopian history. The coincidence that this film follows from Grave of the Fireflies, a film showing the grim consequences of war makes this a light-hearted companion piece. One, the horrors of reality, the other the calm of imagination.

Miyasaki states this film represents the plight of young girls in Japan as they begin their lives for spiritual independence.  Once upon a time once a young woman found financial and spiritual independence through employment. But as the economic climate changed in Japan employment became more sporadic.   Spiritual independence no longer seemed to connect with employment and the journey to become a fully fledged woman became more of a challenge. Rather than portray Kiki has a problem solver who persevered all adversity with her big heart, as she is depicted in the source material, he instead wanted to show her deal with grief and have moments of hardship to reflect the reality of womanhood in 1980’s Japan.   

Ma in Japanese describes negative space.  Negative space can mean the nothing between two objects yet in Kiki’s Delivery Service it’s better expressed in its empty scenes amongst the problemless problems.  The film is mostly an empty stage, or music,where the silence between notes and the emptiness on the stage are as important as the actors and the instruments.  The mise en scene throughout is an ongoing cinematic expression of Ma

Despite the adventures of a schoolgirl finding love and an inserted dramatic scene near the end of the film involving a crashing blimp (it was inserted for dramatisation despite the original author Kadono’s wishes), Kiki’s Delivery Service never involves dramatic stakes.   However, an event occurs when Kiki loses her ability to fly and talk to her cat Jiji. The loss of her witch powers and the ability to talk to her familiar is a loss of innocence on Kiki’s path to adulthood.  But I guess that’s growing up.


The loss of her home and Jiji, the loss of a date with Tombo, the loss of her powers. It’s how she deals with those losses that shape who she is and who she wants to become. It’s through her silence we see her will herself into her perceived version of herself. Her determination in delivering a pie that wasn’t even wanted, her will to gain her powers back to help the struggling blimp and her friend Tombo.  We may wonder where this virtuous woman comes from, unaware we have watched her grow throughout the film. Moments of Ma  are captured as she waits for a pie to cook, or as she sleeps on a train, or as she watches an artist paint.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is similar to a candle, it’s a slow burn. But there’s art in the wax. From afar it may look pleasant, sitting well within the holder. But when it’s watched, and the stare is focussed, the flame flickers wildly, and with it the candle melts revealing intricate layers. With each burn of the flint, a new pattern reveals itself. But much like adulthood, our true colours are only shown to those who wish to see it.

 7/10 Totoros

7 totoros

Review: My Neighbour Totoro​ (1989)

Written and Directed by Hayao Miyasaki

‘What does Japan offer the world?’ A proverb is known by Japanese people that had been lost to time resurfaces.

A haunted house of soot sprites chased away with the laughter of the Kusakabe family.

A 4-year-old girl lives a world of whimsy that leads her to magical spirits living in the forest.

Her sister, a mature 10-year-old sits by her mother’s side in a hospital.

Their father sits home and writes distracting himself from his wife’s illness.

And there’s also a catbus.

This is My Neighbour Totoro.

To see how important this film was to Miyasaki we need to look at what he once said ‘Totoro is where my consciousness begins.’

To understand this we should look at Miyasaki’s childhood. As a boy, his mother suffered from tuberculosis. This is directly parallel to the sick mother in the film. At a young age his family would often move to different towns and villages to find a hospital capable of treating the terminal disease causing a lot of distress. In fact, he’s gone on to say that if the girls in the film were boys it would have been too difficult to make.

Satsuki is seen as an anchor and support for her father, an author who often loses himself in his work. She’s 10 years old, a young age to be given the responsibility of caring for her little sister. Through these responsibilities, she’s often shown to be stoic and determined. Mei, however, is the opposite, a carefree excitable 4 year old who ends up on the wrong side of trouble despite her innocent intentions. She often finds herself in situations she can’t work her way out of because of her lack of hindsight.

You can see how the characters of Setsuki and Mei are thought to represent Miyazaki:
Mei, the young and innocent free spirit, and Satsuki, the elder sister who is on the cusp of coming of age can be seen as two sides of the young Miyasaki. Coincidentally Setsuki and Mei were originally meant to be only a single character (as seen in the original promotional artwork).

An unknown 6-year-old girl waits with Totoro in the promotional poster.

As the girl’s father writes and Satsuki goes to school, Mei digs up flowers, pokes tadpoles and explores abandoned buckets before following a trail of acorns that lead her to a wondering tiny Totoro and eventually the more renowned big Totoro. (In the Japanese dub Mei frequently mispronounces words, when she names Totoro she’s actually trying to pronounce ‘troll’.)

Hands full of dirt and a gateway into another world. Watching Mei it felt like watching a reflection of my 5-year-old self. The moment before she meets Totoro captures youth and wide eyes innocence so well. As she walks through the shrubbery, she stumbles down the rabbit hole. It felt I was Mei, on the belly of a forest spirit, hands clasped on coarse fur laughing back at the wide-mouthed Totoro.

An achievement in animation. Totoro comes to life in a heartwarming moment.

My Neighbour Totoro is influenced by various fairy tales. This is shown with its homage to Alice in Wonderland as Mei falls down the tree into the den of the big Totoro. The troll inspiration is drawn from the children’s book Three Billy Goats Gruff and arguably the Japanese folktale The Crab and the Monkey. It’s important to identify (these influences) only to appreciate how originality can be sourced from inspiration. No matter how minor or insignificant it may appear.

There’s a suggestion that adults can no longer see the spirits as Nanny says when she was younger she could see the soot sprites in the house, but as she gets older she can no longer see them. What comes with youth isn’t only innocence but the ability to capture that sense of wonder and see things that are invisible to an adult eye -such as a foraging blue Totoro with his gunnysack full of acorns.

The connection between the children and the spirits is strongly associated with the Japanese culture and its roots with nature. The spirits are not necessary invisible either. There’s a religious connection between the family and the forest as seen when the family pay respects to the ancient tree in the middle of the forest.

How the film disguises the serious nature of the mother’s illness is a testament to good storytelling, creating whimsy and integrating it with the anxiety and angst of the Kusakabe family. A lot of My Neighbour Totoro is viewed from the perspective of the Kusakabe sisters. By doing this we see the world through their eyes, and are able to see the spirits that would otherwise not be visible to the human eye.

Although the father, Professor Kusakabe, may have once seen the spirits like Mei and Satsuki, here he only sees the old, towering tree. The powerful symbol set within the lush green forest serves as a reminder of how beautiful and mighty nature can be.

The cat bus. One of many spirits only visible to the sisters Satsuki and Mei.

My Neighbour Totoro addresses the cynicism of adults. Wonder is lost with age but should that mean natural beauty should be ignored, or devalued? Or rather should we pay respects to things greater than ourselves and have that humble humility that helps us in our daily quest to become better people? Has our increased attachment to technology soiled our appreciated of the natural world? Do we take for granted things that are given to us and expect more for nothing? My Neighbour Totoro was released in 1988, 30 years later the messages within the film are as relevant as ever.

Miyasaki wanted a proverb returned and rekindled among the people of Japan. To be on the tip of their tongues whenever people would ask what Japan offered the world. ‘The beauty in nature and the four seasons.’ Is what they would reply. After experiencing My Neighbour Totoro nothing is made more apparent than just how beautiful nature can be.

Review: Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco rosso flyer

I’d been telling my staff always to make films for children and then what did I do?!

Hayao Miyasaki

She is visibly ill. She coughs and chokes while on a mission with Porco to save a group of school children from air pirates.  Then she’s shot, and lays fatal on a sandy beach in the centre of a tropical island. Resilient that she has a heart that will beat again, Porco takes her to Italy in hopes to find someone who can save her. Porco’s seaplane, a red 1/48 Savoia may still have life in her yet.  That’s if Piccolo, a specialist mechanic can save her. This is where we’re introduced to Fio, the granddaughter of Piccolo, who has been given the responsibility of repairing Savoia.

Fio is a young woman determined to prove her grit in a world where men have the last say.  Porco is skeptical. A woman working on his plane is unheard of. However, with the waging wars ongoing in the world, it’s the women who are keeping the world together. And it’s Fio, who has the talent and skill able to bring new life to Savoia. With the impending arrival of the Italian federal government arriving Porco has no choice but to bring Fio along, to what feels like an infringement of his independent manhood.


And here lies Porco Rosso’s theme: women in the early 20th century, unsung heroes in a world of loud men hiding behind larger than life personas. But first some background:

Porco Rosso was sponsored by a Japanese airline company.  The project was taken on as a passion project by Hayao Miyazaki.  His love of airplanes is no secret and has been seen in Nauusica, Kiki, and others.  His love of pigs is shown with the main character Porco, along with his love for Italy, this is truly the definition of a passion project. With that aside, it was only intended to be a short 30 minute in-flight entertainment.  Eventually, the project grew, passion rose, and then politics interrupted and the story became complicated.

In the 1920s, Porco has turned his back on Italy, frustrated at the laws, frustrated at the world around him that appears to be growing backward he rejects everything to become a bounty hunter, free from the restraints of oppressive regimes.   This is in comparison to the real life war that raged in Yugoslavia, a country that had been under the oppressive regime of Italy at the time. It’s through these events that a once 30 minute in-flight movie about a flying pig turned into a movie about the political climate of Italy.  But then there’s another underlying issue.


‘Women are great! Don’t be such a pig!’

An important question arose when watching Porco Rosso. The way the characters interact with women is very in tune with how we may depict early 20th century men.  Which begged the question; is this a sexist film or an accurate portrayal of the time period it’s depicting?

The scenes I’m referring to here are i) when Porco goes to repair his plane in Italy and meets Piccolo and Fio. Piccolo tells Porco, a middle-aged man-cum-pig, to keep his hands off Fio.  

  1. ii) When Porco’s antagonist, the American, Donald has a final one on one the terms of his victory are the marriage of Fio.  

The former is an uncomfortable thought, to begin with, but perhaps more of a standard relationship at the time while the later highlights the value on women as property in the early 20th century.

‘Women can’t build planes!’  
It’s said tongue-in-cheek, and reflects less on the 1920’s world it’s set in, but the 90’s environment it was released in.

On the surface it’s anti-Ghibli in its values.

On the surface at least.

Porco Rosso allows you to soak in the extravagance on the white males dream of living on a remote island with nothing but their wits, a bottle of champagne and the lust of the next bounty.  It goes on to show the strong will of women, the efforts they make in war, the resilience and brilliance of Fio who is both able to design, build, and maintain Porco’s seaplane. Make no mistake, despite it’s best intentions and it’s overall positive message Porco Rosso has sexism throughout, but it is no more guilty of this crime than any other film of its era. Released in 1992, Porco Rosso is well aware of the tropes it’s embellishing and asks you not to root for the men, but the women in the story. Done so in a markedly 90’s fashion.

The way Porco Rosso handles sexism and politics in a way only Studio Ghibli is capable of; elegant and insightful, masked by innocence and rose-tinted nostalgia of times gone by when things were simpler, and yet its feministic empowerment may seem outdated in 2018.  Behind the 1920s nostalgia is a social commentary on how poorly women were treated, despite their strengths, how political landscapes shift, turn and ultimately affect the world we live in. Porco Rosso dares to fly in the face of topical issues and shows how to fly above the clouds of everyday sexism.

7 out of 10 Totoros


Review: Only Yesterday (1991)

When to the session of sweet silent thought,
I summon up remembrance of things past,

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste….


Director: Isao Takahata
Screenplay: Isao Takahata

Only Yesterday dances between the present and past of the life of Taeko. Which path she will eventually take at the end of the film slowly reveals itself.

As a 27 year old adult, Taeko has never lived outside of Osaka. The film begins with her at work in a typical office shortly before taking a train to the rural countryside to help her family with the yearly harvest. She reminisces as lost memories trickle back in her mind on the train journey there. It is clear that she is suited for the rural life more suited to her and is even offered a hand in marriage to a family friend.

As a child Taeko pines to visit the countryside like the other children but her parents have no relatives to visit outside of the city. While her friends explore outside Osaka, Taeko instead spends the summer in city spas (onsens), something that is meant for adults and not girls of her age.

Bad at maths and with a flair for the creative, her passion for dramatics in lieu of mathematics troubles her father. In general, her family struggles to understand her and finds her academically slow rather than creatively gifted. There’s a visible conflict in these flashbacks as young Taeko tries to stretch her wings.

As crows pass overhead, adult Taeko recounts the time she was offered a part in her school play. With only the small part of village child #1 she recounts how she made the most of it. Child Taeko says her line “Oh, the crows are returning home” pointing in dramatic fashion and pausing as the crows fly overhead to wave them goodbye, turning a moment that would have felt fleeting into a significant event. Like the passing crows, many of Taeko’s recollections are fleeting and feel inconsequential but have become impactful, pausing in her mind with poignancy.


Screenshot (14)Oh, the crows are returning home….

This film is directed by Isao Takahata. Only Yesterday has his fingerprints all over it, with the animation (set in the 80s) being more realistic, such as the animated facial muscles created by having the voice actors record their lines before the animation. In comparison scenes where Taeko is younger, the animation in facial expressions is less detailed, and the characters themselves have an air of innocence to them that’s captured in the ‘Ma’ of detail. An absence of expression arguably symbolises the ‘be anything you want to be’ idealistic mantra of youth.

Only Yesterday is based on the manga Omohide Poroporo by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone a story centered around adventures and events in the author’s life, some of which may seem disturbing. One event, in particular, was Taeko being struck by her father.

Only Yesterday’s nostalgia is multilayered. Because of the timeframes around its settings we are given flashbacks to a time that might seem bizarre or outdated. For example, when Taeko’s family buy a pineapple – in 1966 most families were only ever introduced to the fruit in cans. Here, they struggle to know how to cut it, and when they do finally serve it they are disappointed with its taste. Taeko’s youth, while easily made to feel like it was only yesterday, really was a very long time ago. While the film itself was made in 1991, it is set 1982 with flashbacks to 1966. The perspective between 1966 and 1982 forces you to consider why Taeko accepts her beating from her father and views it as normal. As we wind forward a decade later (or 3 decades later to this review) the act is now an appalling one but allows us to watch as values have shifted through time. This is also seen with the pineapple; it may seem odd and unusual but at the time this would have been a great delicacy and a rare treat. This shows how perspectives shift with regard to values and possessions and become dependent on which decade you choose to relate to when viewing.

Screenshot (15).pngChild Taeko and friends celebrate Adult Taeko’s decision 

Due to his difficulties creating an overarching narrative, Isao Takahata included Taeko as an adult and her romance, neither of which feature in Omohide Poroporo, and were inserted to create a tangible story. With this added storyline of Taeko in her adult years it is interesting to see that this creates a similarity between Only Yesterday and Kiki’s Delivery Service, with Only Yesterday serves nicely as a pseudo-sequel, if only in theme. While Kiki’s journey involved growing up and yearning for independence, Taeko has completed that journey and is wondering where she is to go now.

Only Yesterday pulls us into the life of Taeko and asks the question: what will bring you happiness? Is it in the place you’ve always been or are you in a stone’s throw away from the life you want? Have you been limited by people who don’t understand you, and are they stopping you now? If Only Yesterday has one message, it is to get out there, live the life you want. Don’t let anything hold you back.

8 of of 10 Totoros

Review: Grave of the Fireflies (1989)


Written (screenplay) and directed by: Takahata Isao

‘Why do fireflies have to die so soon?’ 

Tombstone of the Fireflies as it’s known in Japan begins as a ghost apparition of the teenage boy Seita looks over his dying body. Slumped in a subway among other belittled boys of his age by the indifferent passers-by, his lips dry, his body exhausted, his head falters to the floor as he finally collapses. A warden pries a fruit drop tin with a faded label away from his dead hands and throws it into a field.

Here, Seita is joined by his sister Setsuko. She clutches his hand as they walk off together among a field of emerging fireflies. A red hue occupies the screen as we join the siblings on a train. Setsuko eats a fruit drop from a tin, the label as new as the pair embrace in each others company.   It’s unclear if the train is going to war or an afterlife.

Abruptly we’re taken to Kōbe, a Japanese city under attack from passing American B-59 bomber planes. All too often we are shown the atrocities of the Second World War, the horrors of Hiroshima, however here we’re shown the wooden and gentle suburban homes engulfed in flames from dropping bombs. There’s no atomic devastation here but a thousand paper cuts, a bleed out that would lead to the death of the Great Japanese empire.

hqdefaultSeita and Setsuko ride the train to an unknown destination.

The bombing leaves Seita and Setsuko’s mother mortally wounded. Her body wrangled and badly burnt, bandaged and left without professional care. In a pop-up hospital in a nearby school, Seita looks over his mother before her death, her fatality is confirmed by a maggot trailing her face. Two men carry her into a large pile of dead. Nonchalantly disposed of by incineration by the desensitised villagers, her ashes to be intertwined with strangers for eternity.

Seita and his little sister Setsuko are made to live with their relative, an aunt who takes them in. Her generosity soon wavers and slowly the relationship breaks down.  Encouraging Seita to sell his mothers Kimonos for a one toh of rice (toh is an old measurement which has something to do with the amount of rice that a property is worth.) The rice gradually goes and soon so does the love and tenderness of the aunt. Eventually, she becomes frustrated with Seika’s laziness and his lack of contribution to the household. This leads to a conflict where they no longer eat together, and soon after Seika abandons his aunts household altogether in favour of an unused bomb shelter. Taking Setsuko along with him they create a new home together.

This is an integral scene and a turning point in the film. A nameless aunt (assuming this is intentional as to help edge the already hardened approach she take on Seita), takes the rice for herself and then expects more from Seita. Nothing in her assertion is wrong however she is rude and abrupt and is often hostile towards Seita. Showing no let-up of allowing their innocence to prosper. This is shown is a small scene before Seita eventually decides to abandon his aunt’s haven. While playing piano she comes along and shouts at Seita. Begrudging him for his happiness while a war is afoot.

Collecting fireflies for Setsuko they illuminate their bedsit. Seita imagines a show from the flies, creating a military parade with their lights. Leaping up with imaginary canon fire he takes his shots into oblivion. He turns to see Setsuko, sleeping; the daunting reality of guardianship still lost on him. It feels as if the film deliberately wants to show us just how immature and how out of depth Seita is in this situation and how little he truly understands the impact of his actions.

It’s clear Seita is irresponsible. Watching as he refuses to swallow his pride and apologise to his auntie makes Seita an ambiguous protagonist. While we want to root for his pride and feel happy for him and his sister fleeing their cruel aunt, the eventual neglect he shows for Setsuko, despite his good intentions makes for an irredeemable character. His reckless actions, showing no remorse for the other victims of war in his village as he pillages their homes during raids shows just how self-centred Seita is. His lack of compassion for his community reflects this.

But it must be remembered that Seita is only 14 years old. A boy who has had his home taken away, his mother burned in a pile of ash, and given guardianship of his little sister, all amid the chaos of a losing war. Seita’s choices come from panic and confusion and a lack of world wisdom. Which ultimately shows the micro tragedies that are often overlooked in the grandiose war. While buildings explode and economies crumble the people and community implode and cease to function the way they wish to.

While good intentions are meant, war places those in situations where they have little means to handle their environment. Some actions will end up with regret.   Seita‘s actions were irredeemable and led to the death of Setsuko, but his actions could arguably be understandable within the confines of war and whether or not we should believe he can be redeemed depends on how we believe war can affect the judgement of a young man.

But sometimes when unhappiness is so great it’s difficult to appreciate a good thing and be grateful for what you have. This can be seen with Seita. Despite having a place to stay and a roof over his head his anger and unhappiness about his situation ultimately led him to seek independence, his pride overcoming rationality in the face of adversity.

Grave of the Fireflies was based on a novel written in 1967 of the same name. The author Akiyuki Nosaka wrote it as a semi-autobiography for his sister Keiko after she died from malnourishment. To him, it was a form of an apology after feeling responsible for her death. This can be seen throughout the film in the portrayal of Seita. His pride turns into arrogance to the point of disbelief but within the portrayal of a teenage boy it’s almost natural he would act in such a way. He would believe in his heart he would be doing the right thing, just as Nosaka would have believed he would have been doing the right thing.

Nearing the end of the film Seita tries to buy more rice. However, the farmer struggles to feed himself and the amount of rice Seita is given is sparse. This leads to Setsuko to tears. She’s hungry and the sores on her back have worsened. Gone are the days where they can use the salt of the sea to ease the pain. Food is needed, and urgently. All Seita has to calm his sister down are the fruit drops. As he passes them over Setsuko calms down until she believes there’s none left. Starting the waterworks all over again. Seita, the big brother, grabs the tin from his little sister and bangs the bottom until the hidden fruit drops fall on his hand. Setsuko licks the fruit crumbs from her palm and puts the last drops away. And so the tears vapour. A key element of the fruit drops is the relationship between Seita and Setsuko. They’ve been the calming balance that’s brought them peace throughout the turbulence in the film. It’s only later after there is no food left, and Seita fails in feeding his sister that she resorts to sucking on marbles and eating balls of dirt in a delusion of real food. Moments later. Soon after her death when Setsuko’s body is burnt we discover Seita stores Setsuko’s ashes inside the fruit tin that brought her and her brother together. The sweetness that brought them together in hardship inevitably became Setsuko’s tomb.

Screenshot at Feb 21 18-39-45.pngThe fireflies create a light show in the airraid shelter.

Grave of the Fireflies message is clear. War is bad. War will make you do stupid things and not because you are a soldier. You do not need to be on the battlefield to lose your common sense.   Interestingly enough, Japan had been at war before, but this was the first time they had been attacked upon so vigorously, and it is why they often see 1945 as their year of ‘war’ and its horrors. And what is often overlooked in Japans aggression within the war prior to this. But with that in mind it’s important to keep in mind that bad decisions can often be easier to spot with the fortune of hindsight.

When I first watched Grave of the Fireflies I wondered how the use of fireflies would be used other than aesthetics. And the answer was given plainly.   Upon their first night in their new home of the air raid shelter, Seita and Setsuko gather fireflies and set them loose in their bed for light. The next morning the fireflies are dead. Setsuko gathers them up and places them in a makeshift grave and asks her brother ‘why do fireflies have to die so soon?’   In the closing scenes of the film we see the mirage of Setsuko play along the grave. Her question is answered. Some creatures are just too bright to live so long in a world that’s so dark.

10 totoroz

10 out of 10 Totoros

Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986)


Director and Screenwriter: Hayao Miyasaki
Producer: Isao Takahata

“Many people of my generation see the miners as a symbol; a dying breed of fighting men. Now they are gone.’
Hayao Miyazaki.

A floating airship is ambushed by air pirates in pursuit of a crystal in possession of a mysterious girl, Sheeta. Chased out of her room she drops unconscious into the clouds below.  Pazu, a determined boy working in the mines of his local village watches as the girl slowly falls from the sky above, a magic crystal around her neck levitates her body allowing Pazu to run to and catch her, unaware of her lineage as heir to an ancient floating city in the sky. Sheeta wakes and the two quickly become friends. Pazu tells of his fascination with the floating castle from a sepia photograph his father once took. His father was beguiled of his discovery by sceptic villagers leaving Pazu determined to prove his father’s discovery was real. With the air pirates in pursuit of the crystal and with intervention by the military with the presence of a fierce antagonist, Muska, a chase begins to the legendary castle in the sky.

In the presence of the military we’re introduced to a fallen robot with missing limbs leaving only one working arm and leg. Thought dead the robot lays dormant in the military dungeon until Sheeta is captured and uses a spell on her crystal that her grandmother taught her to wield whenever she’s in peril. Upon this begins my personal highlight of the film. The robot awakens, perching on its broken and working limbs it spider-crawls to the door destroying everything in its path to reach Sheeta. This scene was destructive, fun, and incredibly emotional. The robot clumsily shows it’s a friend to Sheeta by tapping the emblem on its chest, the same emblem that’s enshrined on the crystal around Sheeta’s neck. An odd bond is formed as the robot fights off a bombardment of missile fire from the military. Looking indestructible the robot looks to have saved the day. However a powerful missile lands and ultimately ends the life of the heroic sentinel leaving Sheeta to be rescued by Pazu and the Mama Dola, the leader of the pirates. This is the opening of the film. Immediately it sets up an epic journey akin with Treasure Island. The film wastes no time catching its breath and rushes immediately onto the next plot beat. Watching was an adrenaline rush that encouraged me to rush off on my own adventure and reminded me of similar films such as the Goonies with an epic encounter sweeping our protagonist on a grand journey.

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 22.37.27.pngThe robot soldier tries to communicate with Sheeta moments before his demise. 

Beyond this is the social commentary regarding the acceptance in technology. The castle, covered in flora and greenery emphasises the tranquillity of the isolated castle however but hiding underneath is a sinister power. This power is overcome with the spoils of nature in the absence of humanity.

There is no time spent spoon-feeding these messages but instead an interwoven backdrop of throughout the film for the audience to observe but not to be overwhelmed with political commentary. Avoiding this heavy handed narrative approach allows for greater immersion and helps envelopes the audience inside the universe Miyasaki has created.

Paza and Sheeta are our main protagonists. Pazu, the miner boy immediately shows his grit, resourcefulness and kindness within a matter of minutes. Sheeta begins her journey has a timid young woman and grows into a bold courageous character of great strength. The two central characters feel so equally important and who resonate with each other so well. Cleverly, their relationship is close and fringes on romance but always remains innocent. The charm of close friendship without the need to resort to romance is part of why Ghibli is able to create whimsy and never anchors itself to the real world.

Castle in the Sky was inspired by the floating island, Laputa from the novel Gulliver’s Travel. However with a twist, rather set in the future Castle in the Sky sets its floating island in a post industrial revolution with the island only spoken of as myth. For inspiration Hayao Miyazaki visited Wales during the UK’s turbulent period in the 1980s while the final coalmines were seeing foreclosure and the unions were hot in dispute. This political and scenic landscape provided inspiration for the coalmining village in Castle in the Sky. Contrasting starkly with idyllic paradise of the mythical floating castle.

Our protagonists first look at the paradise in the sky. 

What’s interesting about this film is Pazu’s abandonment of his mining town to go in pursuit of adventure, or for more prosperity of the otherworldly floating city that once was lined in riches. You can frame this in a variety of ways. First, is this symbolism for Pazu abandoning his mining heritage in line with the Unions eventual lost battle keeping the mines open, has Paza sought out something greater, or is he pursuing an idea over dealing with the practicalities of a failing mining town? Secondly, is this film showing us failed capitalism? Poignant for the 80s, a time where the American Dream of ‘if you try hard enough you will get your riches’ entrenched a generation.

The reality is that there was never any intention to make a real political point within this film but it’s difficult to look away from the messages when you read into the background of the film. If we remove ourselves from this message what’s left is a story of love, friendship and adventure. This has been the first instalment in Ghibliview and Laputa: Castle in the Sky sets a high bar for the rest of the films to come. I’m curious as to how the future instalments hold up politically socially and whether the story will contain more depth.

And that is my main critique of Laputa, the lack of depth in storytelling. While it does have a political dimension and a linear, albeit exciting story its lack of time given to character exploration is a small negative and yet somehow I feel adding this would have hindered the films enjoyment. It’s nit-picking at best for a film that I found hugely enjoyable and exciting to dissect.

 8 Totoros

8 out of 10 Totoros

Welcome to Ghibliview


For the next 20 weeks I will be reviewing each film from the Studio Ghibli collection providing some background information to each film and offering my own personal insights after viewing.

I aim to discover what makes Studio Ghibli so special.  Is there a perfect mix of colour palettes, music and storytelling that equates to the magic onscreen?  Or is it Western nostalgia painting a picture more beautiful than what’s actually there?


-Each film will be marked out of 10.  1 being the lowest grade and 10 being the highest.

-Films will be watched with original Japanese dub and English subtitles however English Dub may be used time to time at my own discretion.  The American dub was produced by Disney and it is very well done.

-Each review will be produced weekly to bi-weekly (update: whenever I can get round to them.)

-I will be referencing Studio Ghibli by Michelle Le Blanc and Colin Odell. This will be a guidebook that will hopefully offer me further insight into each film.

-I will be going into a large portion of these films blind- Research will be done after I’ve watched the film rather than prior to avoid spoilers.

-I will mention whenever I’ve previously seen a film. (update: sorry this hasn’t happened.)

-Stray facts will be attached to each review to give a deeper knowledge behind each film.

What’s Next

My first review. Stay tuned.