Tag Archives: Studio Ghibli

Scouse Ghibli Volume III: The Castle of Cagliostro

Welcome to the third volume of Scouse Ghibli; a critical analysis and exploration into the many varied works of the critically acclaimed Japanese anime movie company, Studio Ghibli. This issue takes a look into the third of three films released before the official found of Studio Ghibli, which is also the directorial feature length debut of the studio’s co-founder and revered director Hayao Miyazaki; The Castle of Cagliostro. Released theatrically in Japan on December 15th 1979, it endured the same kind of legacy as The Little Norse Prince; initially met with obscurity, but later being looked upon as a cult classic, with Animage magazine even voting it as being the best anime of all time at one point. The film also went on to influence various different works of fiction, including Pixar films (John Lasseter of Pixar citing Hayao Miyazaki as a major source of inspiration), various other Disney films, the Batman animated series, and even Capcom’s RPG video game series Breath of Fire. A second-hand rumour even emerged that director Steven Spielberg took the film as inspiration during the development of the Indiana Jones saga, as well as his adaptation of Herge’s Tintin.

The Castle of Cagliostro originally started life a manga series, with the main character Arsene Lupin III inspired by the Maurice Leblanc character of the same name; a gentleman thief able to even supposedly outsmart Sherlock Holmes. Hayao Miyazaki not only directed the film, but he also handled the story and the conceptual design, originally designing it in four parts, but ultimately shortening this in order to reach the desired running time of just over an hour and a half; the average time a film ran at back then. Fred Patten of Streamline pictures was involved in the choice of title for the overseas release of the film, and picked The Castle of Cagliostro on the basis that he thought it to be the most sinister sounding name of the all the other titles considered, picking it in conjunction with the evil count who owns the castle in the story.

The plot follows the adventures and exploits of the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin, codenamed The Wolf. After successfully robbing a casino along with his associate Daisuke Jigen, they find the money they made off with is actually counterfeit. They track the bills to a small country called Cagliostro, where they first attempt to rescue Clarisse, the runaway lady of the local castle owned by the country’s regent, Count Cagliostro. Later on Lupin calls on both Jigen and his friend Goemon, and then leaves the count his calling card in order to lure to the case Lupin’s ongoing nemesis, Inspector Zenigata to Cagliostro. Both Lupin and Zenigata are then later taken prisoner by the count, and form a temporary alliance in order to escape the castle, expose the count’s money-forging operations, and rescue Clarisse once and for all.

In stark contrast to Panda! Go, Panda!, I entered this film thinking that it was going to be a much more serious narrative, with a lot of action thrown in for good measure, as well as a fairly elaborate story about an over-glorified game of Cops & Robbers. Although that was indeed the majority of what I was presented with while watching it, it also had additional elements to it that I didn’t expect it to have; most notably comedic value. There are a fair few funny parts in the film, which keep it a little light-hearted, but not to the point where it takes too much of the seriousness out of it. The film also raises the issues of moral ambiguity in relation to criminality, since although Arsene Lupin is a crook and on the wrong side of the law, he is immediately endearing from beginning to end. You can’t help but like him; especially as his commitments change throughout the course of the film, from finding out where the real money is as opposed to the counterfeit bills he robbed to resolving to rescue Clarisse. It all lends credence to the notion of honour among thieves. Though the film doesn’t portray Zenigata as being the opposite to Lupin, an evil person on the right side of the law, it portrays him as showing a somewhat soft side at times, which again, panders to the film’s comedic element.

The Count is also portrayed as a very menacing villain, lending much credence to the notion that Lupin is simply the lesser of two evils. Though Lupin may be on the wrong side of the law, the Count is portrayed as a much more corrupt and sinister person, seemingly without a conscience, and for whom the end always justify the means, despite how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. Out of all the villains portrayed in many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the Count certainly stands out as one of the best and most imposing.

Overall, because the film had all these additional elements to it as well as what I came to expect, I ended up enjoying The Castle of Cagliostro even more than some of Studio Ghibli’s later works. It’s action-packed, well written and very funny, with some particularly good voice acting from the likes of Bob Bergen as Lupin and Michael McConnohie as the Count. Out of the three features I have reviewed created prior to the founding of Studio Ghibli, I would recommend The Castle of Cagliostro the most, since it has the most depth to it in every aspect, and laid the foundations of the company’s later works perfectly.


Scouse Ghibli Volume II: Panda! Go, Panda!

Welcome to the second volume of Scouse Ghibli; a critical analysis and exploration into the many varied works of the critically acclaimed Japanese anime movie company, Studio Ghibli. This month looks at the second of three films that were created by the company’s founders prior to it’s establishment in 1985; Panda! Go, Panda! Written by Hayao Miyazaki and directed by Isao Takahata after leaving Toei Animation where they previously worked on The Little Norse Prince together, the project was originally envisioned as an animated series based on the Pippy Longstocking novels. After being rejected the rights to do so by the author of the series, Astrid Lindgren, many of the ideas were reworked into the short movie that became Panda! Go, Panda! It also marked the first time that future Ghibli employee Yoshifumi Kondo would work with both Miyazaki and Takahata on a feature film, who would then later on play a pivotal animating role in some of Ghibli’s most critically acclaimed works.

Though this film didn’t have anywhere near as much of a silent influence as The Little Norse Prince did on anime films in general, it did go on to influence certain design elements and plot threads in later Studio Ghibli films, such as Ponyo, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and My Neighbour Totoro, which many see this film as being a precursor to.

The story of the film follows a young girl called Mimiko, who is portrayed largely as being unusually independent for a girl of her age, and appearing unfazed by many things that would be of considerable concern to most other people. One day, her grandmother heads off to Nagasaki, and Mimiko is left on her own to look after the house. When she makes it back home, she discovers two anthropomorphic pandas have stumbled upon the house and have eaten large quantities of the bamboo that grows around the area. She immediately befriends the two pandas, and invites them to live with her as adopted family members, with the big panda, who she names PapaPanda, deemed the father of the family, and the infant panda, named Panny, as the son. The rest of the film follows the exploits of the three characters and various different predicaments they find themselves in, and how they all pull together as a family to come through to the other side of each one. The film is split into two parts; the first part being about how the pandas settle into life with Mimiko taking care of them, and the second part following their attempts to help a local circus, which has fallen on bad times since coming into town.

Going into this film, I expected a quirky experience with both a strong and heart-warming family feel to it with a fair amount of more mature undertones making it enjoyable for both kids and adults, which can be associated with many of either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata’s works. Unfortunately, this film only provided one of those elements in great abundance, and as a result, the overall experience suffered in my opinion. The first thing I noticed about it was unlike the majority of Ghibli or pre-Ghibli films, the animation, as well as the film’s overall scenery and style, were particularly basic, and much less stylised as the likes of The Little Norse Prince or even Only Yesterday, which had a lot of bland backdrops attached to it. It is interesting, however, to notice some of the Easter eggs this film has, such as Mimiko’s hairstyle being replicated to that of Pippy Longstocking, or the pandas having expressions very similar to both the Totoro and the cat bus from My Neighbour Totoro. Also, when the mother tiger in the circus has a shadow cast over it before it comes out of it’s pen to find it’s cub, it looks quite scary as it glares at the circus tamer, and it was just about the one standout element I found interesting about the film’s animation.

The story unfortunately doesn’t fair any better. In my opinion, it’s the kind of narrative that kids may enjoy, because they’d have a much better time deriving pleasure from the intended humour of each situation that the characters find themselves in. But as an adult, I simply found myself asking too many questions about why it was necessary for the characters to act the way they act in some particularly grave situations, such as when the two circus tamers break into Mimiko’s house, and her and the pandas rejoice at the prospect of experiencing their first burglary.

Overall, I found there being very little to enjoy about this film in stark contrast to many of Ghibli’s later works. The story and the behaviour of characters are questionable at the best of times, and the animation did very little in terms of either breaking new ground or standing out from many of the countless anime films that had either been or would later be. The works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata would show drastic improvement, but I found myself feeling much less impressed with Panda! GO, panda. It’s not the worst film to be associated with Studio Ghibli, but it’s certainly not one of the best either.


Scouse Ghibli Volume I: The Little Norse Prince

“I do believe in the power of story. I believe that stories have an important role to play in the formation of human beings, that they can stimulate, amaze and inspire their listeners.”

Hayao Miyazaki

This is the first volume of a planned monthly series looking at the varied and wonderful works of one of my favourite studios in world cinema; Studio Ghibli. Founded in June 1985 by filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the company have since gone on to create and produce of the most critically acclaimed Japanese anime movies of all time; eight of which currently ranking amongst the 15 highest grossing anime films of all time, with their own masterpiece Spirited Away ranking at number one, having grossed almost $300 million worldwide.

Hayao Miyazaki has gone on to direct, write and produce the majority of Studio Ghibli’s feature-length films, and is today regarded as the Walt Disney of Japan, having garnished critical acclaim for his many works such as Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, My Neighbour Totoro and Howl’s Moving Castle to name but a few. His co-founder, Isao Takahata, has also directed several of their most critically prominent releases, such as Pom Poko, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and Grave of the Fireflies. This feature will eventually cover all of Studio Ghibli’s films, from Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind to the upcoming feature When Marnie Was There, but the first three features will be dedicated to three films that both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata worked on before the company’s official founding.

The first of these three features was a relatively unsuccessful, yet highly influential anime film entitled The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun; or as it was entitled overseas, The Little Norse Prince. The Little Norse Prince took almost three years to create, with production starting in Autumn of 1965, and finally completed by March of 1968, and going on to be released theatrically in Japan four months later in July. The film is considered influential amongst fans of anime, since it introduced many different and new elements to the medium, as well as proposed the idea that adults can enjoy them as much as children. Elements that were portrayed in the film included political, social and mature themes and subjects as well as stylised violence; which made me personally surprised that the film only received a U rating in the UK. Like many of Studio Ghibli’s later works, which this film would go on to inspire, it features themes such as children coming of age and the suffering of loss; universal elements that Miyazaki and Takahata have used many times in order to strike as much of a chord with audiences as possible.

The story of the Little Norse Prince follows a young boy name Hols, who during infancy, had his town attacked by the evil and tyrannical frost king Grunwald. Raised by his father, who fled along with Hols amidst the chaos, he one day encounters a stone giant name Mogue after being chased by a pack of silver wolves. Hols notices that Mogue has an object stuck in his shoulder, and investigates to find that it is a sword, which Hols subsequently removes. Mogue tells Hols that once the sword has been reforged, and when Hols can properly wield it, he will visit him again, and Hols will be proclaimed prince of the sun.

At the behest of his father, Hols and his pet anthropomorphic bear Coro resolve to travel back to their home village and confront Grunwald. However, they come across another village, which has been recently attacked by the frost king, and after earning their trust and being excepted into their populace, the villagers become concerned when Hols befriends a young girl named Hilda, who gradually reveals a deep and dark secret to Hols and the rest of the village.

Relying on a turbulent atmosphere, that goes from delightfully charming and innocent to being compellingly dark and gritty, as well as making use of some particularly well-drawn scenery and environments (something that would become synonymous with Studio Ghibli films), I was quite impressed with The Little Norse Prince overall. It also made me quite surprised that it received such a poor reception even in Japan; let alone in other regions. It has also become so obscure that I was extremely lucky to have picked up a copy in a local shop as opposed to taking to the Internet to buy it, as the version I picked has also since gone out of print following it’s DVD localization back in 2005; almost 40 years after the film’s original theatrical release in Japan.

Locations in the film that stood out to me in particular as being excellent examples of scenery were the Lost Woods, where the film takes it’s darkest twist, with Hols suffering eerie hallucinations of Hilda and the villagers. The abandoned fishing town where Hols first meets Hilda was also very well crafted and present in my opinion, with it most likely being a site of great destruction at one time, now a calm and tranquil place; seemingly to fit how the character of Hilda is being portrayed when the audience is first introduced to her.

The biggest gripes I had with the film were with a feeling of abruptness towards the end, as well as one scene in particular coming up to it’s mid-point. When the silver wolves are attacking the village for the first time, there is next to no animation, but rather a compilation of still drawings, which to me personally suggested an element of laziness on the animator’s part. Another similar scene occurs later on when a hoard of rats attack the village; but this scene is also interspersed with animations of the rats running, so there is a little bit more to it than the previous scene. It would have been a good idea if the animators had chose to apply the same technique to the scene of the first attack on the village, if only to keep things consistent. Feeling of abruptness stem from a sudden change of atmosphere, with things going from experiencing a sense of hopeless to a feeling of sudden and complete projection of empowerment on Hols and the village in a matter of less than ten minutes. I believe if the creators had chosen to draw out one of those two atmospheres a little while longer, then I think the transition would have been a lot more believable than what it turned out to be.

However, despite what criticism I’ve levied against this film, I still enjoyed it for it’s dips in atmosphere, it’s stylised fight scenes, and the creator’s willingness and bravery to push what they could get away with in a cartoon film primarily aimed at young children, and to use this technique to also appeal to a more mature audience in the process. The level of obscurity that this film has garnished over the years is nothing short of critical in my opinion. It’s a silently influential film, which allowed both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata to further advance within the industry, and go on to produce some of the best anime films of all time. The film is emotionally charged, has a powerful atmosphere and is one of Takahata’s better work to date in my opinion.