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Blu-ray Reviews: The Castle of Cagliostro & My Neighbour Totoro

This a review of The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979) and My Neighbour Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988), which are each being given their first UK Blu-ray releases by StudioCanal as part of their Studio Ghibli Collection on 12th November 2012.

Hayao Miyazaki is, undisputedly, one of the most accomplished and rightfully celebrated filmmakers currently working both in the upper echelons of Japan’s cinematic climate and, by extension, the field of animation – for which he is particularly renowned the world over for. Bold statements, but ones that stand tall when put in conjunction with Miyazaki’s body of work, itself an impressive amalgamation of technical and thematic ingenuity, the supreme depths of imagination and, above all, audacious excursions in marrying unbridled entertainment with enchanting and culturally viable tales of gallantry and environmentalism.

The genius behind Miyazaki’s work is two fold; what he concerns himself with are stories unaffected by critical or commercial pressures, with plots that celebrate inventiveness whilst rarely squandering the opportunity to be as visually tenacious as possible. They are far removed from Western, mainstream animated cinema – in particular the likes of the derivative output from American studio Dreamworks Animation – simply because they foreground the importance of narrative and staying true to what the filmmaker has to say in contrast to structuring family-friendly content from thinly etched scenarios. Miyazaki doesn’t appear to pander to the masses; instead merely deriving passion projects from his seemingly infinite bank of creativity and allowing his devoted audiences to flock towards his latest animated venture (a successful approach seeing as each film attracts more and more devotees and, indeed, awards recognition).

Of course, this is all retrospectively speaking, and Miyazaki’s is a career formulated upon humble beginnings as a small-time artist and animator for companies such as Toei Animation and TMS Entertainment, the latter of which saw him co-direct six episodes of the Lupin III series with Isao Takahata, who he will later form the Ghibli company with. It is from this television-based show that Miyazaki took the basis and influence for his first feature film which came in the shape of The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) – a pre-Studio Ghibli production that acted as the second big-screen outing for the protagonist Lupin in films which maintained the lineage whilst running alongside the series.

In the film, Arsene Lupin is a wily and charming crook who, along with his partner in crime Daisuke Jigen, roam the land in their Fiat 500 seeking their next thrill. The story starts as their latest heist ends; they rob and successfully flee from a large Monte Carlo casino, only for Lupin to recognise that the heaps of money they got away with are counterfeit notes known as “goat bills”, something he has encountered before. Tracking the fake bills to the Grand Duchy of Cagliostro, Lupin and Jigen immediately become embroiled in a plot concerning Lady Clarisse d’Cagliostro, who is caught within the evil machinations of a Count desperate to extract the secrets behind a hidden treasure to which only she holds the key. Gathering the help of a variety of accomplices: belligerent Interpol agent Koichi Zenigata, a samurai and a cunning female thief with an aptitude for disguise, the flamboyant Lupin battles against a scheming villain and his dangerous henchmen in an attempt to unearth the secrets of the castle and win the heart of a damsel in distress.

Typically humorous and creative, and strung together by Yuji Ono’s jazzy, Joe Hisaishi-esque score, The Castle of Cagliostro is an excellent debut feature for a director clearly establishing the template for the greatness his subsequent career will provide. Collaborating with Haruya Yamazaki for the screenplay, Miyazaki sculpts a world of cartoonish suavity and goofy derring-do, an Indiana Jones-alike jaunt that combines – as what has become customary for the director – a child-like sense of wonder with a predominantly adult sensibility, mainly through the continuous violence and various sexual undercurrents. Similarly, Miyazaki’s ability to implement and evoke mysticism through seemingly mundane settings, something explored more overtly and effectively in ensuing features, is established here; the titular castle in the overgrown city of Cagliostro is a strange mixture of traditional stone furnishings and modern technology. A motionless gargoyle is accompanied by threatening laser protection security sensors, for instance.

What isn’t evident, however, is the director’s affinity for amplifying his characters. Whereas Miyazaki is known for engaging protagonists memorably shaped amidst the overarching narrative structure, here he is somewhat unable to transcend the original material and take Lupin et al any further than their stereotypical surface textures. Although the film isn’t stymied by a faithfulness to the series and its characters, Miyazaki and Yamazaki rarely push the narrative boundaries any further than a simple story of good versus evil sat amongst a daring rescue mission, however fun and neatly animated the end result is.

After making his name with The Castle of Cagliostro, as well as applying his newfound gift for animation with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) – the former of which is charged with founding Studio Ghibli after its commercial success – Miyazaki went on to direct what is acknowledged as one of his most defining masterworks; My Neighbour Totoro (1988).

A heart-warming parable about the endurance of childhood and family, the film takes place in the 1950s and depicts the Kusakabe family reuniting when a university professor father moves his two daughters, the ten-year-old Satsuki and her inquisitive younger sister Mei, into a rickety old house in rural Japan to be closer to his wife and their mother, who is a patient at the local hospital recovering from an unnamed illness. Believing that the house is haunted, Satsuki and Mei set about exploring their new home by meeting the neighbours and investigating their echoey house and its bushy surroundings. Away from the bustle of the city, the two sisters quickly discover a mysterious and hidden world of nature, spirits and magic, presided over by gentle woodland creatures known as Totoro’s, who reside in a large nearby camphor tree and provide a friendly and enchanting alternative to the girls’ current familial turbulence.

Without over-stressing the sentimentality, Miyazaki has created in My Neighbour Totoro an almost flawless evocation of the innocence of youth and the dexterity that comes with harnessed imagination. With the characters of Satsuki and Mei (played by Dakota and Elle Fanning in the English dubbed version), the director moulds an almost dreamlike sense of subdued spectacle through an observational approach, offering extended sequences of his characters being children and discovering their new surroundings. Tinged with a calm and uplifting realism, the film is structured around a delicate and positive foundation based on situation, exploration and the desire for understanding, consciously manoeuvring away from standardised genre conventionality where conflict and threat lead to the drive for adventure. Satsuki – wise and industrious beyond her years – and Mei do go on their own voyage with the mercurial Totoro creatures (and an eight-legged CatBus), but, most importantly, they learn very adult life lessons along the way.

Enhanced by the gloriously hand-drawn watercolour backgrounds, which add a colourful distillation of the bucolic simplicities of a homespun climate, the film is an accurate representation of rural Japanese life that contrasts with bustling metropolitan areas. In one of the (sometimes frustratingly) short featurettes that accompany the Blu-ray disc, Miyazaki himself states that he wanted to avoid influences from Japanese folktales when rendering the location, instead opting for a more relaxed representation of surroundings not unlike the Sayama Hills, one of his references for the film’s design. “I wanted the movie to represent what I saw as a kid. In other words, the village in the movie was how a city kid would view a village”, he says.

Fifteen years in the making, My Neighbour Totoro brought about a change of pace for children’s entertainment, proving that a story based on peace, tranquillity and innocence was tantamount to imitative, action-orientated films that sacrificed humanity in favour of crowd-pleasing detachment. Miyazaki says that he wanted to forego those that believed his project wasn’t deemed as entertaining enough for audiences and prove that this type of film could be successful, and though it only really found its core audience through TV syndication and lucrative merchandise sales, My Neighbour Totoro finally found the admiration it rightfully deserved.

Special features:

The Castle of Cagliostro

  • Picture in Picture
  • Trailer

M Neighbour Totoro

  • Storyboards
  • Creating My Neighbour Totoro
  • Creating the Characters
  • The Totoro Experience
  • Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli
  • The Locations of Totoro
  • Scoring Miyazaki
  • Behind the Microphone
  • Textless Opening/Closing
  • Original Japanese Theatrical Trailers
  • Studio Ghibli Collection Trailers

Review: Ernest and Celestine

(Benjamin Renner, Vincent Patar, Stéphane Aubert, 2012)

Marrying perfectly judged humour with incessant imagination, Ernest and Celestine is an absolute joy; a French animation that transcribes Gabrielle Vincent’s wholesome children’s books into an almost faultless 80-minute burst of unabashed delight. First-time filmmaker Benjamin Renner joins forces with the distinguished duo behind that glorious stop-motion oddity A Town Called Panic – Vincent Patar and Stéphane Aubert – to great effect, bringing together a film that celebrates creativity through its story of a friendship that does battle with seemingly insurmountable odds. (Continue reading here)