May 06, 2018

Studio Ghibli's early 90s "modern" era

I wish Studio Ghibli had done more films with contemporary settings. Obviously they're known for doing fantasy really well, and I would never argue that they don't deserve that reputation, but my favourite Ghibli era is that window in the early 90's when they dabbled in more down-to-earth 'modern day' stories -- mainly Whisper of the Heart, Only Yesterday and Ocean Waves. It was probably the peak of their efforts to become a well-rounded studio instead of just being Hayao Miyazaki's backing band -- it's when they started hiring people as full-time employees rather than freelancers for project-specific short-term contracts, and tried to nurture younger talent. Before that they weren't really financially established enough to risk giving the reins to less experienced staff, and afterwards they increasingly became the "Miyazaki-brand fantasy factory" especially once that brought them a bigger audience in the rest of the world. Not that I can blame them-- I don't know if any of Takahata's movies ever made a profit. But artistically I think Ghibli's 'B-movies' are some of their most interesting films.

I just learned Pom Poko was the number one movie in Japan of 1994, and the Japanese submission for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. So Takahata didn't always flop financially!]

None of them are directed by Miyazaki, so they're less publicized and consequently I didn't get around to seeing them until after I'd gone through the "main" Ghibli canon. Miyazaki's fantasies are so synonymous with Ghibli that the rest of the catalogue almost feels like the work of a different studio. I wish people were more aware of these great slice-of-life films, but fantasy always seems to be an easier sell in animation. Of course Pom Poko is nothing if not a fantasy film, but it also has some beautiful scenes of urban life. And Whisper of the Heart was written and storyboarded by Miyazaki, and he was a producer on Only Yesterday, so I don't mean to say he wasn't part of these films too. I think in general he was so critical and resentful of modern culture that he avoided focusing on it in most of his work though.

Anyway, this whole post was just an excuse to share some frames I like from Pom Poko. Enjoy!




Jasper said...

Yeah, I recently watched Ocean Waves (certainly the one with the least Miyazaki/Takahata involvement) and was thinking about the stylistic trends in these 90s contemporary films. One thing I notice is a nice greenish pallet to a lot of the background paintings. Actually, I got the same feeling about the backgrounds in the "Farewell to Nostradamus" Lupin special, no surprise that Ghibli was an assistant studio on that.

Unknown said...

Great post, man! I haven't seen too much of Ghibli's more realistic works. (The only Takahata film I've seen is Princess Kaguya, which is good but really pushes how long you can invest in a character being sad for 2 hours straight. I was impressed by it, but I get the feeling I'd like his other stuff more, especially Chie and Yamadas.) I'm pretty sure you're correct than much of Miyazaki's "childlike fantasies," are more a result of his disinterest with and unhappiness towards modern life. They're still really charming, though! Despite my love of Miyazaki's more escapist stuff (I will always stand by my claim that Ponyo is utterly brilliant) there is a profound beauty in seeing everyday life depicted in anime. The KyoAni and Makoto Shinkai stuff is nice and all, but I do gravitate towards a lot of the shots you depict, the serene, but slightly grungy everyday life- pretty precisely because it isn't all polished between each cobblestone.

One of the most ignorant complaint I sometimes hear about non-fantastical animation is that it's a waste to animate something that could easily be filmed in-live action. This is just as absurd as saying that landscape paintings should have to justify not being photographs. All art is fantasy, worlds created out of someone's mind. And when someone recreates everyday life around them, you get to see how they see trees, or leaves, or people talking. What kinds of people do they focus on? What is the weather like? Do they paint the weather as sunny? Moody? Does it rain occasionally at random, or does the weather merely reflect character emotions? These works are fascinating because EVERYTHING in animation needs to be created by hand, and every detail is placed deliberately. Everyday life in animation is the purest form of exploring how an artist sees the world. And that's totally worthy of drawing attention to. Thanks, dude!

Aaron Long said...

Jasper: I didn't realize Ghibli helped out on the Lupin Nostrodamus movie, interesting.

Steven: I suggest checking out Takahata's Only Yesterday. It jumps back and forth between a simplified and minimalistic 60s setting and a more realistic, detailed 80s setting in a way that enriches both. I haven't seen Jarinko Chie, but Yamadas is indeed great.

I didn't mean to suggest I don't like Miyazaki's fantasies, he's made some of the most fun movies ever! I love pretty much everything of his, but especially his first few features.

I've gotten more interested in documentaries, and doc-style storytelling, over the past few years (stuff like Sean Baker's films, the Office, Trailer Park Boys, my own sister's film work) and I've come to appreciate realism, or at least mundane qualities, in animation. One of the big things I love about Masaaki Yuasa is that, while his stuff is crazier and more pushed than anybody else's, it's also more interested in the minutia of daily life and the experiences that connect us all. So seeing scenes of as you said, grubby grungy everyday life, have a lot of appeal for me.

I do feel like (at least for myself) 100% realism is kind of a creative dead end in animation as it brings you closer to the uncanny valley and takes less advantage of the medium-- you can't really capture the way things really ARE, but capturing the way things FEEL is one of my biggest goals. Grounding everything in a believable setting can be really helpful in that. As we've discussed privately in the past, weather is an underused tool in animation. People tend to use 'rain=sad, snow=Christmas" and that's about as far as they go, but I love having weather show up in ways that are irrelevant to the story just because for me it captures the feeling of real life better. Sometimes it's just raining.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the recommendation! I'll certainly give it a look when I get the chance. That's cool that your sister makes movies! Any you'd recommend checking out?

I totally agree with your complaint about 100% realism. It kinda defeats the point, at least in terms of what I find appealing. For me, when animators or storytellers depict everyday life, it should be like a poem- selected details that reveal something about the way the creators see the world. Anime does have quite a bit of this, from the autumnal forests of The Eccentric Family to the dusty suburbs of Beck: Mongolian Chop squad. (Or Ping Pong, which is one of my recent favorite examples.) American cartoons have a bit of this too, such as the gorgeous, moody evening skies of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" or the shifting cityscapes of the MTV cartoon Downtown. By contrast, depicting exact realism kinda undercuts this- there's no room to selectively depict what you find important or how you see it.

Lol, I didn't mean to imply that you didn't enjoy Miyazaki's stuff. Disliking a Miyazaki work is quite a rare feat indeed, even if his motives for making them may not be as optimistic as the works themselves. One thing I gotta give the guy is that he's one of the few who realized that as a human emotion, joy was inherently worth depicting as an end to itself. So many Western storytellers still haven't figured that out!

As a game developer, I'd really love to experiment with some of these principles in my own game projects. Video games depict a lot of beautiful vistas, but it always feels at service of something larger, which is kind of a shame. Just off the top of my head, I really liked the world of Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. It's got these pretty yet lived-in environments with nice bits of clutter and characters shuffling about their individuals three-day stories. And much of the game is just walking around and interacting with them and their lives. It's ostensibly in service of the overarching plot with Skull Kid, but the focus is really on the weird little stories along the way. Night in the Woods and The Last Express also offer some imperfect- but still really interesting and admirable- takes on this sort of interaction as well.