Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Yoshifumi Kondô, 1986)

Ahh, this is more like it. After my last Ghibli film, I was rather deflated so I was very glad to come back to this, a much better offering. It still has that environmental message but this time more expertly incorporated into the story, with the sense of wonder that Only Yesterday aimed for and missed.

We open with a raid on an airship by strange bee-like aircraft as pirates try to take a necklace belonging to a little girl. This girl, Sheeta, is being ‘protected’ from the pirates by a handsome secret agent but, at the first opportunity, she knocks him unconscious and tries to escape from both the pirates and her protectors/captors and falls from the skyship in the process.

Down on the ground Pazu, a young engineer’s apprentice, sees a light descending slowly from the sky and runs to investigate, finding the unconscious body of Sheeta slowly descending. Rescuing her, he takes her back to his accommodation. When she wakes, she tells him the necklace she wears is made of a levitating crystal which is linked to the mythical floating city of Laputa, and that her family name includes reference to that city. The pirates want the crystal to find the city and loot its treasures; the government want to find it to eliminate a possible source of threat and, maybe, to take any weaponry they find. Sheeta and Pazu try to elude the pirates and the government and find Laputa before any harm can be done to it.

Shot through with strong anti-war and respect-the-environment messages, this has a strong narrative, exciting set-piece scenes, a lot of humour and a sense of wonder. There is an ‘alternative Victorian’ aesthetic to the airships and flyers that reminds me of Michael Moorcock’s fantasy novels, while Laputa itself has echoes of the Atlantis myth and there is an air of Silent Running about it, when it is finally discovered.

This restored my faith in the Ghibli studios.


Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)

Only Yesterday
Well, this was a novelty. A Ghibli film I didn’t like. Ok, there were parts I liked and parts I hated and, overall, I’m quite ambivalent about it but it’s far and away the weakest one I’ve seen so far, and that’s despite a conceit, and also some scenes, I loved.

The story is set as a schoolteacher, Taeko, in her late twenties travels to her annual summer holiday in the countryside where she works on a farm. As she travels, and then as she works on the farm, memories of her ten-year old self haunt her imagination, manifesting almost as a real presence in her modern life. Some of these are very clear echoes, with thematic links between then and now, but others are more idiosyncratic and cryptic in meaning. The memories of her childhood were the most charming thing about the film, often funny but also insightful, charming and moving. It’s her adult self that’s problematic. As a child, Taeko is feisty, individualistic and bright (though with believable gaps and flaws in her understanding); as an adult, she is a bit ‘thin’, and all too placid. Her friendship, and hesitant romance, with a local farmer is the only drama we see, and that’s all too often side-tracked by some overt preaching about organic farming.

It’s that preachy tone to the film that really grated. There was constant repetition of the mantra of the countryside being better than the city, and of organic being the ‘way forward’ and ‘old ways’ being the answer to all Japan’s problems. Because harking back to a mythical golden age, with simplistic and unworkable solutions is always the answer to the world’s problems! As always with Ghibli films, much of the animation was gorgeous, in this case mostly the landscapes, but the people! There was a repeated attempt to show the unalloyed, simple happiness of the farming community but their smiles were so uniformly and simplistically portrayed as to make them look like gormless automatons.

Most of Ghibli’s films have an environmental consciousness about them, and frequently a message to impart, but no others I’ve seen are so blunt or wrong-headed in delivering it, or willing to screw up the telling of a story as sacrifice to it

Ocean Waves (Tomomi Mochizuki, 1993)

Ocean Waves
Another Japanese animation but it’s back to Ghibli. This studio has become a byword for quality animation, in terms of both rendering pictures and storytelling, and they’ve not let me down yet (though The Castle of Cagliostro was a let-down by their very high standards). In fact, this offering is a little different from the others I’ve seen, each of which have had a fantastical element very strong in the mix. By contrast, this film is quite mundane in its setting, a young man discussing his transition from school to university and friendship and first love en route. There are no talking animals, no magical curses, no ethereal spirits, witches, other worlds or disguised royalty, just ordinary young people trying to get by.

It’s lovely.

It has that nostalgic, bittersweet slightly sad yearning that I got from (the book) Le Grand Meaulnes, Alan Bennett’s 1972 TV drama A Day Out or Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, though it is not dark like any of them. It also picks up on the complexity of relationships, how young people grow and change, sometimes in ways that confuse and enrage one another, and how, still, early friendships can endure. The passage of time, of a significant if not enormous span in people’s lives, is lovingly depicted, and overall felt real to me.

It has, of course, the attention to detail and visual beauty you’d expect from Ghibli. I’m sure that, lacking as it does all the magical stuff, it won’t be so attractive to younger children, who will probably find it boring. I’m not even sure it will speak to the age group it’s portraying; but, to me, it was one of the very best I’ve yet seen.