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About ten years ago we rented an animated feature film - whether or not it was on the basis of a recommendation from someone, I can't remember - but whatever the case, once we got the movie home and watched it, we fell in love, big time. We have, quite conservatively, watched that film about a hundred times. Or maybe more. The film I'm talking about is 'Kiki's Delivery Service' (1989).Now, I was used to the Japanese animation that came out of the seventies, specifically for the TV market that had a really cheap and hurried feel to it - very much mass produced. So to say I was amazed at the quality of animation in this film would be something of an understatement. The backgrounds are beautiful and very painterly; the main characters are full and rich and wonderfully drawn. And beyond that, the story was fantastic, a wonderfully optimistic coming of age story with a confident little witch at the helm. The film was ripe with humour and struggle and joy and all the other things that make life grand.We found out that the artist, Hayao Miyazaki, had done some other films, so we immediately went out and got 'My Neighbour Totoro' (1988)- which immediately became a new favourite in our house. While it too, had beautiful scenery and richly drawn characters, its protagonists had quite a bit less control over their lives than the main character in Kiki's Delivery Service did. While Kiki boldly set out on her own at the tender age of 13 to make her new life as a town witch, she did encounter a few minor problems, but for the most part her life was pretty ideal: she immediately got a job, learned her craft, met some friends, found a nice place to live, and was well on her way to her goal. In 'My Neighbour Totoro', the two main characters Mae and her older sister are deposited at the beginning of the movie in a new home far out in the country. Their father is off at work all day at the university while their mother is off in the hospital with an undisclosed illness. The girls are left on their own, and have to learn to cope in their new home, which, it turns out, has a variety of strange beings living in or near it. Whereas nothing in 'Kiki's Delivery Service' could be construed as ominous or threatening, in 'My Neighbour Totoro', the viewer initially has to question the safety of the girls in light of these strange creatures. But, as with Kiki, both Mae and her sister prove to be brave and strong female characters - a theme that runs through most of Miyazaki's work. (And, the creatures all turn out to be good guys!).In addition to his strong female characters and the spirit of optimism that pervades most of his films, other common themes in Miyazaki's work include flying and pigs (sort of an odd combination, but...).I'm sure here in North America, Miyazaki is best known for his Academy Award winning feature film, 'Spirited Away' (2001). Oddly enough, this is my least favourite of his films, as it has much more of a nightmarish quality to it. The main character Chihiro, like Mae and her sister in 'My Neighbour Totoro', is also moving to a new home, but becomes separated from her parents before she gets there - and then everything around her changes and melts into a surreal version of her old surroundings, complete with parents who morph into pigs and giant blobs she has to clean for a living. Like I said, its a nightmare.I prefer the earlier films, like 'Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind' (1984), 'Laputa: The Castle in the Sky' (1986), and 'Porco Rosso' (1992), for their lighter and more optimistic outlooks. There are also a few more Miyazaki films on my 'to see' list: 'Princess Mononoke' (1997) and 'Howl's Moving Castle' (2004). Apparently, 'Tales from Earthsea' (2007) has already been given an early release in France, and will be released elsewhere in March. Rumour has it that Miyazaki is already hard at work on his next feature, which will be based on the Chinese story, "I Lost My Little Boy."Miyazaki works closely with Isao Takahata and most of his work is done for Studio Ghibli. But even prior to Studio Ghibli's inception, Miyazaki was working in animation on feature films such as 'Wolf Boy Ken' (1963), and he continues to draw manga - both 'Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind' and 'Porco Rosso' are based on Miyazaki's manga.When watching his films, there have always been a few things I wondered about - like where exactly did his stories take place? Obviously, there is a large element of fantasy to them, and for some of the films ('Spirited Away', for instance, or 'My Neighbour Totoro') the location (Japan) is pretty clear. But in 'Kiki's Delivery Service'? Just where exactly is that? It always looked like Europe to me. Well, it turns out that in his early years, Miyazaki did location work in Switzerland, Italy and Argentina, and so the influence of those countries is clearly seen in the backgrounds of some of his work. Likewise, I wondered who influenced his work. Apparently, Miyazaki does not like Disney at all (except for some of the early work) - it seems he has trouble with the story lines, primarily. Obviously, Japanese artists have influenced Miyazaki, but he is also a very big fan of Canadian animator Frederic Bac (who did ‘Crac!’). Finally, I always wondered about the nature of the illness of the girls' mother in 'My Neighbour Totoro' - she had been in hospital for at least a year, and the story revolves around her being granted permission to come out of the hospital a number of times, only to have that permission rescinded at the eleventh hour, once again leaving the girls parent less, in effect. We never do find out what ails the mother, but, coincidentally, Miyazaki's own mother was confined to hospital with spinal tuberculosis from the time Miyazaki was 6 until he was 14. And, regarding the flight imagery - Miyazaki's father was the director of Miyazaki Airplane, a company that produced airplane parts. Well. That explains everything!Now, even though I'm a big fan, I have not been able to convince my friend (the Disney fan) to convert to Miyazaki. She just cannot see what I see. I guess something was lost in the translation?
Image from gallarotti.net/