Category Archives: Film Analysis

Analysis of Spirited Away

spirited_away_movie_posterSpirited Away is one of my personal favorites, but I wanted to hold off on writing about it until now. It was the first film from Studio Ghibli that I had seen; this was back in 2002, shortly after it was released in the United States. I was ten years old at the time, and to be honest, everything about this film terrified me and put me off of Studio Ghibli films for a good while. It wasn’t until I was thirteen that I decided to give it another watch, and I’m very glad I did; I’ve been enraptured by Studio Ghibli films ever since.

Synopsis

Spirited Away is a 2001 fantasy film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It is, arguably, Studio Ghibli’s most well-known film, and it’s no surprise- it is notable for being the first anime film to win an Academy Award. The story is set in modern-day Japan, with a young girl named Chihiro and her parents in the process of moving to a new town. However, during the course of their drive, Chihiro’s father decides to take a detour and the family winds up in a strange world of spirits.

The resulting tale is very much like Alice in Wonderland, but with a Studio Ghibli twist.

Analysis

Spirited Away is stuffed to the brim with all kinds of themes such as growing up, rebirth, present and past, identity, greed, love, and of course, the environment.

The most prevalent themes in the film, however, would probably be the themes of growing up and identity. Spirited Away focuses on the coming-of-age of the main character, Chihiro, and her transition from a young, whiny, selfish girl to a hardworking young woman. The film opens with Chihiro being upset over the move to a new town. She is portrayed as whiny and petulant; she only has complaints about the move, and when her parents take a detour and come across what appears to be an abandoned theme park, she clings to her mother and gives her parents a difficult time.

Many people have drawn comparisons between Spirited Away and Lewis Carroll’s classic tale, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and it’s really no surprise. Both girls are young and pre-pubescent, and they both end up in a strange world. In Ando Satoshi’s article Regaining Continuity with the Past: Spirited Away and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he compares Alice and Chihiro, stating that they’re both at the point in their lives where they’re about to go through puberty and come into their maturity, and they’re both going through an identity crisis. He also makes the statement that girls’ transitional periods are recurring themes in Miyazaki films. Another film by Hayao Miyazaki that immediately comes to mind is Kiki’s Delivery Service- a film that follows the story of a thirteen year old witch-in-training named Kiki and her journey to come into her maturity, come to terms with who she is, and effectively come into her full powers as a witch.

However, Spirited Away takes the loss of identity a step further. Not only is Chihiro frustrated and unsure of herself at the beginning of the film (she is being uprooted from her old hometown and is moving to a new place; on top of that, Chihiro is on the cusp of adolescence), she literally loses her name when she enters the world of spirits.

The majority of Spirited Away takes place in a bathhouse for spirits that is run by a witch named Yubaba. Yubaba is corrupt and greedy, and she controls her employees by signing a contract with them; part of the contract is to sign away your name. In Chihiro’s case, when she signs a contract to work at the bathhouse, she becomes ‘Sen’. This is Chihiro’s symbolic “death”; her life as a whiny, petulant, sheltered girl is over, and she must now become this new person who is hardworking and strong (her symbolic “rebirth”). Her new identity is that of ‘Sen’, and she no longer shies away from responsibility and hard work, something that stays with her throughout the rest of the film.

The film also contains the themes of greed and corruption. In the beginning of the film, Chihiro’s family comes across what they assume is an abandoned theme park (when in reality, it’s the entrance to the world of the spirits). Chihiro’s parents are immediately drawn to the spirit food; they don’t give much thought to how they’ll be paying for the food (Chihiro’s dad makes the off-handed comment, “I have credit cards and cash”, meaning everything will be okay as long as he has money) and start gorging themselves on it. They transform into pigs, which highlights not only their gluttony, but also their greed.

Yubaba, who runs the bathhouse in the spirit world, is also greedy; she makes comments throughout the film about money and gold, and how much Sen’s transgressions are costing her. The bathhouse atmosphere itself is very corrupt, and this becomes obvious when a spirit called No-Face goes crazy (he feeds off of the greed that pervades the bathhouse. Sen makes the comment that “being in the bathhouse makes [No-Face] crazy”); he tempts the employees in the bathhouse with gold, and everyone in the bathhouse is eager to please him and be at his beck and call because of this wealth.

Spirited Away is laced with environmental themes, much like a few of Hayao Miyazaki’s other films. In the film, a grotesque, smelly spirit that is in need of replenishing visits the bathhouse. The inhabitants of the bathhouse eventually find out that this spirit is actually a powerful river spirit that was nearly overcome by the pollution and desecration of its river (in a scene from the film, the bathhouse spirits are busy removing the debris and waste that coats the river spirit. Among some of the waste removed is fishing wire, tires, household items that were thrown away, and even a bicycle).

The plight of Haku is also an example of the presence of the environmental themes in the film. It is eventually revealed that Haku is actually the spirit of the Kohaku River, a river that has long since been destroyed in the name of human settlement (Chihiro remarks that the Kohaku River is “all apartments now”). Because of this, Haku lost his home and his identity and, with no place to go, came to the bathhouse, where he became Yubaba’s apprentice. It wasn’t until Chihiro returned his name to him did Haku remember his true identity.

Conclusion

Spirited Away can be interpreted in many ways, and there are a large number of themes that are present in the film. This analysis has barely scratched the surface. However, the themes that are most obvious are growing up, identity, greed and corruption, and the environment. Like with Kiki’s Delivery ServiceSpirited Away resonates with audiences because the character of Chihiro is relatable; In a 2001 interview, Miyazaki stated that he aimed to create a film that spoke to girls Chihiro’s age). There are many messages that audiences can take away from the film, as it is rich in detail, storytelling, and depth.

References

Satoshi, A. (2008). Regaining Continuity with the Past: Spirited Away and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature 46(1), 23-29. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved April 25, 2014, from Project MUSE database. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/bookbird/v046/46.1.satoshi.html

Miyazaki, H. (Interviewee). (2002). Hayao Miyazaki [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from Midnight Eye Web Site: http://www.midnighteye.com/interviews/hayao-miyazaki/

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2001). Spirited Away [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

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Analysis of Ponyo

ponyo_movie_posterSynopsis

Ponyo is a 2008 film directed by Hayao Miyazaki. It tells the story of Brunhilde (Ponyo), a young fish girl living with her wizard father and numerous younger sisters under the sea. She is curious about the human world and, on an impromptu trip to the surface, meets a young boy named Sosuke, who she takes an instant liking to, and it becomes her desire to become a human girl and stay with Sosuke and his mother. The film is set in present-day Japan in a seaside town.

Analysis

At first glance, Ponyo seems to be simply a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairytale The Little Mermaid, but while the basic plot is similar on the surface, Ponyo diverges from The Little Mermaid in terms of themes and the progression of the story.

While the tale of The Little Mermaid highlights the theme of self-sacrifice, and focuses on the trials the mermaid must endure in order to obtain a soul, Ponyo focuses on acceptance, devotion, harmony, happiness, and love.

In her article Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, Jane A. Lightburn states that while The Little Mermaid has Christian overtones (mermaids don’t have souls, but humans do; on top of that, human souls go to Heaven after they die; there is also the idea presented at the end of the tale that the mermaid can work to gain passage to Heaven through doing good deeds), Ponyo has no such overtones. Furthermore, while Miyazaki follows the basic narrative of The Little Mermaid, he also draws inspiration from Japanese folktales (in particular, the folktale of Urashima in which a sea princess and a human fisherman fall in love and live together under the ocean). Lightburn points out that this folktale contains the same motif of a mermaid and her human love.

Another interesting point that Lightburn brings up is the comparison between the land/sea and fantasy/reality. Ponyo and her ocean world represent the creative subconscious of the human mind, contrasted by Sosuke and his life on the land, which represents the outer, conscious human mind. This comparison ties in nicely with the theme of harmony and happiness (when these two worlds meet and balance each other, harmony and happiness is achieved).

While Ponyo may contain some of the more traditional elements of a fairytale (a trait not shared by many of Miyazaki’s other films), the film contains some themes and motifs that are prevalent in all of Miyazaki’s works. In his review of Ponyo, Funda Basak Baskan points out the presence of strong female characters, which are apparent in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films: Ponyo, who is headstrong, adventurous, and stubborn, Lisa, who can be a bit eccentric at times but is powerful and daring, and Gran Mamare, the goddess of the ocean who serves as a maternal figure as well as a protector.

Ponyo, like other Studio Ghibli films, contains environmental overtones; the character of Fujimoto is concerned with keeping balance in the sea and views humans as destructive to that balance. Miyazaki also takes great care in showing the amount of trash that litters the ocean (a scene to note would be one of the early scenes in the film, in which Ponyo is nearly caught in a net and gets stuck inside a jar).

There is also the absence of a distinct “bad guy” character, a trait shared with many of Studio Ghibli’s other works. Baskan points out that Fujimoto, at first glance, might be considered a villain, but he is only a concerned and overprotective father who is also very concerned with keeping balance between humans and nature.

Conclusion

Ponyo is a deceptively simple tale of acceptance and love (in order for Ponyo to become a human permanently, Sosuke’s love for Ponyo must be true and unyielding), as well as balance (the balance of nature and man, as well as the balance of the subconscious mind with the conscious mind). Hayao Miyazaki’s penchant for storytelling shines through in Ponyo; it’s obvious that this story was intended for children and on the surface, it is simple enough for children to enjoy. However, there are many layers contained in Ponyo that makes for a deep and engaging tale if one takes a harder look at it.

 

References

Baskan, F. B. (2010). Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (Gake No Ue no Ponyo) (review). Marvels & Tales 24(2), 363-366. Wayne State University Press. Retrieved April 12, 2014, from Project MUSE database. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/marvels_and_tales/v024/24.2.baskan.htmlLightburn, J. A. (2010). Through the Eyes of a Child: Aspects of Narrative in Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Foreign Languages & Literature35. Retrieved from http://kyouyou.agu.ac.jp/contents-data/GokenKiyou-35.pdf#page=96Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2008). Ponyo [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

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Analysis of Howl’s Moving Castle

howl's moving castle posterSynopsis

Howl’s Moving Castle is a 2004 fantasy film by Studio Ghibli, adapted from the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones.  The film, like the novel, is set in a world where magic is a common phenomenon and used by many magicians.  Howl’s Moving Castle revolves around Sophie, a young hat-maker who encounters the titular wizard, Howl.  Because of this encounter, Sophie gains the ire of the Witch of the Wastes and is cursed into a 90-year-old by the Witch.  Sophie then finds herself working for Howl as a cleaner in hopes of finding a way to undo this curse.

Analysis

The central focus of the film is Sophie’s metamorphosis from a shy and unmotivated person to someone who is more confident and loving. However, the film also makes a point in developing its other characters, especially Howl. Kathryn Hansen’s analysis, “Physical Metamorphosis in  Howl’s Moving Castle” argues that the physical transformations the characters undergo in the film reflect the character development. Sophie’s transformation into an old lady is the best evidence for this.

Throughout the film, Sophie gradually changes from a hunched ld lady to a more dignified and younger self whenever she experiences moments of self-confidence and assurance because of her growing relationship with her new companions. In the end, she is able to break the curse by herself, signifying this newfound self and her love for Howl. Meanwhile, Howl is also changed by Sophie’s acts of love and becomes more selfless and courageous, as opposed to the vain wizard who was trying to run away from his responsibilities in the beginning of the film.

Another focus of the film is the war that is already happening when the film begins. In Devon Gordon’s interview with Miyazaki, “A Positive Pessimist”, Miyazaki expresses his disdain over U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, further noting that his version of Howl’s Moving Castle is affected by this war.

In the film, the kingdom that Howl works for is currently in war with another country and is recruiting all the magicians it could find to bolster its forces. This is a contrast to America and its rallying of flags whenever the war with Iraq first broke out. Furthermore, the steampunk-inspired technology present in the film is there to emphasize the militaristic nature of the kingdom.

At the center of this conflict is Howl. Howl works against his former teacher, who practically has more power than the king, by sabotaging the kingdom’s forces in order to avoid this war. His efforts can be seen as a commentary of a world that doesn’t want this senseless war that could claim many innocent lives.

Conclusion

Howl’s Moving Castle is a film that emphasizes change. All the characters change for the better, ending the film in an optimistic note, especially regarding its anti-war subtext. The main antagonist’s decision to end the war after seeing her former pupil’s and Sophie’s efforts encourages change through pacifistic methods and reflects Miyazaki’s pacifistic stance towards war.

 

References

Physical Metamorphosis in Howl’s Moving Castle. (n.d.). Retrieved April 6, 2014, from

https://film110.pbworks.com/w/page/12610275/Physical%20Metamorphosis%20in%20Howl%27s%20Moving%20Castle

Gordon, D. (Interviewer) & Miyazaki, H. (Interviewee). (2005). A ‘Positive Pessimist’ [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from The Daily Beast Web Site: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2005/06/19/a-positive-pessimist.html

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (2004). Howl’s Moving Castle [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

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Analysis of Princess Mononoke

kinopoisk.ruSynopsis

The film, Princess Mononoke, is set in a world reminiscent of historical Japan with elements of fantasy: demons exist and gods are in the form of large animals. It is a fantasy film that follows the quest of Prince Ashitaka as he attempts to remove the curse that was placed on him by a boar demon. Forced to leave his home, he comes across a settlement called Iron Town, in which the head, Lady Eboshi, and a wolf-girl named San, are at odds with each other. Iron Town needs the forest in order to make their living; however, San does not like the human presence in the forest and tries to protect it. Prince Ashitaka finds himself in the midst of this conflict.

Analysis

The environment is the overlying theme in this film. The conflicting visions of the forest gods and Iron Town and their inherent inability to coexist reflect the real life struggles of society to live peacefully alongside nature in an increasingly industry-driven, technological world. The effects of human settlement and industry on nature in the film are seen starkly in the suffering of the forest gods. Some are driven mad with hatred and resentment, and become demons.

Iron Town symbolizes industry, expansion, human growth, ambition, and greed. Lady Eboshi is a very driven, ambitious head of Iron Town. She sees the forest as a means for human expansion and industry. Her actions upset the forest gods, who are negatively affected by the human presence in the forest. San and the gods of the forest want to eliminate human presence from their forest completely. They only see negative things in humans and are blinded by their hatred for them. Ashitaka, as an outsider, is unbiased by either side in the conflict. He sympathizes with both sides and also sees the errors of their ways. He eventually helps them to coexist, but not before a heavy price is paid for human greed- the death of the Forest Spirit, the entity that the very wellbeing of the forest depends on. The Forest Spirit’s death is destructive not only to the forest, but to the town that depends so heavily on the forest for its industrial growth.

Man and nature slowly learn to peacefully coexist as both attempt to rebuild and recover from the destruction wrought by the Forest Spirit’s death. The film ends on a hopeful note, showing that coexistence between man and nature is possible despite the worst of circumstances.

Conclusion

Princess Mononoke contains a very environmentalist message; despite how dark the film gets at times, it shows the audience that man and nature are able to coexist peacefully. It doesn’t attempt to demonize humans; although Lady Eboshi is shown to be ambitious and greedy, she is a multi-faceted character and has compassion for her fellow humans (as seen when she cares for the lepers who would otherwise have no chance at a life). As humans are not portrayed as the “bad guys”, the forest gods aren’t shown to be perfect, either. They are subject to the same flaws of humanity; like humans, they are short sighted and they are blinded by their hatred for humanity.

Princess Mononoke sets itself apart from other films with the same message by not attempting to pin the roles of the villains and the “good guys” on either side. Both sides have their redeeming qualities, but they are flawed. Both sides are capable of coexisting peacefully with the other; there is no “good side” or “bad side”.

 

References

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (1997). Princess Mononoke [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

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Analysis of Grave of the Fireflies

grave of the firefliesSynopsis

Grave of the Fireflies is based on the semi-autobiographical short story by Akiyuki Nosaka. The film is set in Japan during the final months of World War II, and tells the story of two siblings—an adolescent boy named Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko—their efforts to survive during wartime, and their eventual deaths. The film opens with a dying Seita sitting on the floor of a train station. The rest of the film is told to the viewer through a flashback narrated by Seita’s spirit.

Analysis

Grave of the Fireflies is probably Studio Ghibli’s darkest film. At first glance, Fireflies might seem to be an anti-war film (something that director Isao Takahata has denied fervently), but there’s more to it than that. Grave of the Fireflies serves as a reminder of Japan’s recent past during a time when younger generations of Japanese may have forgotten, or can no longer recall, the devastation of World War II.

In her article Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies, Wendy Goldberg argues that while Fireflies offers a realistic picture of suffering during World War II, the film is also critical of “blind patriotism that masks selfish impulses during the war and, afterward, Japan’s inability to confront this past.”

Seita is a prime example of this blind patriotism. He looks up to his father (who is a naval officer in the war) and mentions throughout the film that his father will punish Japan’s enemies and bring them to justice. Even as his world literally goes up in flames, Seita holds onto his delusion that everything will turn out okay in the end.

His naiveté and pride end up shutting him away from the rest of society. After the death of their mother, Seita and Setsuko come into the care of their distant aunt, who possesses selfish impulses as well as the same blind patriotism as Seita. She singles Seita out and resents the fact that he and his sister get special treatment because their father is in the navy. She accuses Seita of being complacent and not supporting the war effort, and praises those who do.  Eventually, Seita grows tired of her criticisms and sets off on his own with his sister in tow, believing in his own capabilities to care for the two of them.

Seita and Setsuko make their home in a cave shelter where, despite Seita’s best efforts, Setsuko dies tragically of malnutrition. With his sister gone, Seita’s only source of hope is his father’s return from the war. However, he finds out that his father is likely dead, and that Japan has surrendered unconditionally, which effectively snuffs out the last of his dreams.

The reality of war and the destruction it brings dawns on Seita too late. Not long after Setsuko’s death, Seita dies in a train station, one of many children who were lost during the war.

The symbolism of the fireflies in the film is hard to miss. Fireflies only live for a day, showing the fleetingness of life and the ultimate hopelessness of a war that cannot be won.

Conclusion

Grave of the Fireflies is not so much an anti-warm film as it is a reminder of Japan’s dark past. While the film tells of the tragic deaths of two children, Seita and Setsuko aren’t the only ones to die during the war. Grave of the Fireflies seeks to paint a realistic picture of the horrors of war and how the events of World War II end up shaping Japan’s future, even to this day.

References

Goldberg, W. (2009). Transcending the Victim’s History: Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies. Mechademia 4(1), 39-52. University of Minnesota Press. Retrieved February 18, 2014, from http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/mechademia/v004/4.goldberg.html


Takahata, I. (Director). (1988). Grave of the Fireflies [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

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Analysis of Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Castle in the Sky (1986) 1To kick-start our journey into the world of Studio Ghibli films, I decided to write about a film that I, honestly, didn’t know much about until early last year when I watched it for the very first time- Laputa: Castle in the Sky. This movie was recommended to me by a friend of mine, and after a few months of putting it off, I sat down and watched it. As with every Studio Ghibli film I had seen thus far, I was very impressed, not only with the rich setting and engaging plot, but with the themes that jumped out at me.
 
Something I really love about Studio Ghibli films is that there always seems to be a tangible message behind every one of them, and Castle in the Sky is no exception.
 

Synopsis

Laputa (named after the flying island in Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift- a SparkNotes summarization of the book for quick reference can be found here) is a once-great floating city in the sky. The city was technologically advanced in its prime, and its inhabitants were able to coexist harmoniously with nature. The Laputian people lived peacefully until they were forced to flee the city due to an unnamed catastrophic event. Castle in the Sky is set many years after Laputa was deserted, and it is no more than a myth in most people’s eyes.

In the film, a girl named Sheeta is sought after by pirates as well as the military (led by Muska, an extremely ambitious man with his own agenda); both groups are after the crystal necklace in her possession, as they all believe it is the key to finding Laputa and unlocking its secrets. In a desperate escape attempt, Sheeta falls from an airship and—literally—lands in the arms of Pazu, a hardworking youth whose dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps and see Laputa with his own eyes. The duo are then swept up in a fierce race to reach Laputa before the military and save it from being used as a tool for military advancement or a means to satisfy greed.

Analysis

Director Hayao Miyazaki envisions Laputa in the film as an “ecotopia” (or ecological utopia), defined by oxforddictionaries.com as “an ecologically ideal region or form of society”. While Laputa is technologically advanced, much of its technology is closely intertwined with nature (this becomes increasingly apparent as the characters explore Laputa, which is actually built around an enormous tree that serves as a base for the entire city). In fact, the Laputians had such an intimate relationship with nature that their robots (which are proven to be highly indestructible and highly effective as tools of war) are tasked with guarding and protecting nature.

In the article The City Ascends: Laputa: Castle in the Sky as Critical Ecotopia, Anthony Lioi asserts that the “default mode” of the robots is not that of destruction, but of caretaking. The robots only show their destructive capacities in response to human brutality. From this, viewers can assume that Miyazaki is trying to make a point: technology and nature can coexist peacefully. The reason the two have not been able to yet is because humans see nature as an obstacle to be overcome, not as something they can live alongside. This is hinted at when Muska is in Laputa’s royal chambers; he is disgusted and horrified by the plant roots that cover the walls and encase the giant crystal that is much like the “heart” of the city. Muska keeps commenting on how he plans to burn the roots to get rid of them, and that they don’t belong in a place like the royal chambers.

Towards the end of Castle in the Sky, Sheeta and Pazu chant the “spell of destruction” in order to save Laputa from the greedy hands of Muska. The entire city is not destroyed, however; on the contrary, Laputa simply sheds its weapons platform, leaving the rest of the city intact. After this, Laputa ascends even further into the sky where it is impossible to reach while Sheeta and Pazu look on from the safety of their kite-plane.

Conclusion

Laputa: Castle in the Sky is a film that leaves viewers with the message that while we as a society are not yet able to coexist peacefully with nature, it is possible. Laputa is not destroyed; it continues its existence even after its weapons are gone. It ascends further into the sky, seemingly unreachable, which can be reminiscent of the idea that Laputa is an ideal that we should strive to achieve someday. We are unable to achieve this ideal at the moment, but it doesn’t mean we never will.

References

ecotopia. 2013. In OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from http://oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/ecotopia?q=ecotopia

Lioi, A. (2010). The City Ascends: Laputa: Castle in the Sky as Critical Ecotopia. ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, 5. Retrieved from http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v5_2/lioi/

Miyazaki, H. (Director). (1986). Laputa: Castle in the Sky [Motion Picture]. Japan: Studio Ghibli

Sparknotes Editors. (2003). SparkNote on Gulliver’s Travels. Retrieved February 15, 2014, from http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/gulliver/

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