Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984), or The Beginning After The End

24 11 2009

Hayao Miyazaki is the crowned prince of family-friendly Japanese animation. His works have garnered international attention to the wonderful things going on in hand-drawn animation today, his art has been acknowledged the world over, and by all accounts, he’s the most accomplished person distributed by Disney at the moment. But did you know how long he’s been in the animation game? Try over 30 years!!! He’s been toiling to perfect his craft for longer than most of us have been alive, and he’s gotten so damn good at what he does that it’s hard to believe that his newer work is still hand-animated. But even back when he started making features, Miyazaki was still amazing. Today’s feature, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, is his first feature, and it is head and shoulders above anything else that was happening at the time. It’s a strong, pointed parable about the damage we’re doing to the environment and the consequences it could have later down the road.

1,000 years after the end of the world, humanity lives on in a fractured state. There are pockets of people left who have learned to live in harmony with nature from the mistakes their kind has made in the past. But in between these pockets lies the Sea of Decay, a noxious condition that covers the rest of the known world. It’s very existence is poisonous to humans, and it has hindered humankind from expanding its territories ever since. In this tattered world, we follow Nausicaa, a precocious young woman who is the princess of the Valley of the Wind, a peaceful settlement ruled by her father. She is trying to find a way to rid the world of the Sea of Decay, but her research is hindered one day when the settlement is visited by a crashing airship. The airship contains a prisoner that Nausicaa rescues, and the prisoner tells her that she is the princess of far away the kingdom of Pejite, and that the cargo the ship was carrying must be destroyed. And then she dies. Awwww…. So the cargo the princess was talking about was from the greedy empire of Tolmekia, as was the airship, and what it was carrying happens to be a deadly warrior embryo, a weapon from the war 1,000 years ago that could threaten the very safety of the earth. Things get crazy when Tolmekia invades the Valley for the warrior embryo, but Nausicaa won’t go down without a fight! She will do whatever it takes to save her family and friends and make sure the Tolmekian army doesn’t try to awaken that evil, evil thing in their midst!

I like this one a lot. Nausicaa is a strong, smart female character who makes it very easy to love her. She has a lot of heroic qualities, but she doesn’t lose her childlike essence, which seems to be a theme of Miyazaki’s work. You don’t need to be an adult to be a hero who cares about people in a mature way, and he also feels the importance of keeping that childlike wonder alive. Now that I think of it, he’s also very feminist, as well. I can’t really think of that many male Miyazaki protagonists; they’re there, but not nearly as prevalent as the women. Nausicaa is really a prototype of what we would see in the future from Studio Ghibli; powerful family-oriented fantasies about the importance of life above power and greed.

The animation is that of a bygone age. You won’t likely see this unique style of drawing nowadays. Anime, like American animation, goes through cycles, and the 80s was a time of incredibly thin, almost gaunt women, a non-descript male anatomy, and doe-eyed little girls with constant triangle-shaped open mouths. There isn’t as much detail here as in newer animation, but there are touches here that are epochal but beautiful nonetheless; some of my favorites are the look of objects either dirty or scored by fire, which use an unmistakable line effect needing an artist’s steady, careful attention. Nausicaa is full of attention; from the exquisitely designed post-apocalyptic Sea of Decay to the pristine Valley of the Wind, from the most insignificant passerby to Nausicaa herself there is so much care given to this film and its look. It’s just so well done.

The American voice acting is a mixed bag. I wish I could’ve been in the booth when Patrick Stewart delivered his performance as Nausicaa’s father. What a voice acting champ! I almost begrudge how he doesn’t really have to steer out of his normal range, but his voice is so damn robust that you can’t really stand against it. It’s a force of nature, and when you consider that his character’s the leader of the tribe tied to nature, it only seems more fitting that his strong, commanding voice make a splash. Alison Lohman’s Nausicaa is a little flat. I’m not sure how old she was when she recorded this, and I don’t want to bash a child, but I will say that there’s not really enough character in her voice to carry such a larger-than-life heroine. Oh, well, she eventually redeemed herself in Drag Me To Hell many years later, so all is forgiven. Uma Thurman is Lady Kushana, leader of the Tolmekian army and a real firecracker. THIS is what I mean when I say you have to have some character. She’s not too hammy, but she really lets loose and has fun being a villain. Kushana is a real bitch and Thurman obliges that aspect of her, so hearing her get into villain mode really put a smile on my face.

Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind is, like all Miyazaki films, a unique experience. You’ll never see something quite like it. There’s something for everyone in the family, and even something for jaded film snobs like me. It still has a lot to say to the people of 2009, even from 25 years in the past, and with a magnificent score by Joe Hisaishi and a burgeoning American voice acting crew, I would be inclined to listen. Even if you don’t normally like Miyazaki, check this one out; it’s pre-Studio Ghibli, so you might find it to be a refreshing break from his upbeat rigamarole. This IS a post-apocalyptic film after all. I give Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 8 1/2 smooth Patrick Stewart line reads out of 10!

Check me out next time, when I dive into THX 1138! Until then!!!

The Night Out: Ponyo (2009), or Do A Voice Or Go Home

22 08 2009

Oh, anime. One of my most beloved art forms. It has the power to capture my imagination from start to finish, a feat not easily accomplished. Compared to American animation (what’s left of it, anyway), Japanese anime has so much to offer in terms of culture, innovation, and pure imagination. And forget about Inuyasha and Bleach when I’m talking about anime. I mean films and series’ that offer something more than trite cliches and banal anime teen action. Movies like Grave of the Fireflies, Paprika, and the ultimate anime movie Akira have something that American animators can learn from in terms of pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. Hayao Miyazaki is an anime director who knows how to innovate. His family-friendly features for Disney are among some of the best titles out there. Today’s feature is his latest work, Ponyo, or Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. It’s geared towards the younger audiences, but fans of animation will marvel at seeing a hand-drawn feature back on the big-screen again. And while it’s not his best work, Miyazaki shows that he is a true visionary when it comes to making a world of his own.

It begins in the ocean near a tiny Japanese village. A strange man in a submarine is doing experiments in the water when his daughter, a tiny fish-like creature with a face, leaves the boat and finds herself floating to shore amidst some garbage. She finds the surface to be a fascinating place where she meets a human friend named Sosuke who picks her up and takes care of her after getting stuck in a piece of trash in the sea. They bond very, very quickly, and although Sosuke is five, and the fish-like creature is a fish-like creature, they really grow to care about one another. He names her Ponyo and promises to protect her forever. But shortly after that promise is made, Ponyo’s father comes to rescue her from the human. Sosuke is heartbroken, but Ponyo is downright infuriated! Through sheer power of will and some unnamed magic she possesses, she grows legs and arms like the humans and tries to go back. Her father imprisons her on the boat, but that only makes it worse. She goes on a rampage trying to escape, and eventually she does, but not before undoing the balance of nature by knocking over all of her father’s strange and exotic magical elixirs and giving the fish in the sea access to them. Everything goes haywire, and nature runs amok. Ponyo turns into a little girl with the magic from the elixirs, and her desire to be with Sosuke again causes a mini-typhoon! Will she reunite with her human friend, calm the rage of the sea, and put balance back to nature, or does her father have something else in store?

This is a very kid-friendly time to be had for all. This is as G-rated as you can get without it being a Baby Einsteins video. Everyone is drawn very soft and round, there’s little to nothing offensive or scary, and the message is pleasant and seriously uplifting. Everyone has a good time here, and it’s all done with some of the most beautiful animation I have ever seen. Miyazaki makes the strokes of a pencil look like a knife on cake icing; everything is so smooth and soft. No sharp edges for the toddlers to poke their eyes out with! It seems like the supreme work of a child. This is what a child imagines, but cannot create with his or her inadequate skill. Miyazaki seemingly translates that image ontot he screen, and it is simply breathtaking.

The story is somewhat derived from The Little Mermaid, but mostly derived from the magical, mystical Japanese mythos that Miyazaki has in his head. All of his movies seem to focus on the magic that happens in small, close-knit towns. There’s always about 50 people that live in a Miyazaki village, and they’re all either characters or extremely friendly passers-by. In Ponyo, there are a lot of characters, but mostly just generic friendly people who have names like Noriko, The Young Mother, and Karen, and they always have something cheerful and encouraging to say. It’s really not as derivative as that might sound. It’s a rather pleasant experience, and makes one forget the conveniences cities offer for a moment and makes one long for the simplicity of small-town life.

Everything about this movie is great; until it scampers into North America. Simple, stupid Americans don’t like to have subtitles in their movies for fear of having their brains catch on fire, so we had to have an English dub track. And Holy Mother of Fuck, is it awful! Almost every voice actor failed me in some way, and the reason for this is that the main cast is CELEBRITIES. Nobody here is a professional voice actor, which would have been nice, but rather someone with a recognizable name that they can put in big lights on the marquee so Americans will flock to it like zombies to a shopping mall.  We have Miley Cyrus’s little sister Noah as Ponyo, who nearly surpasses her sister in the annoying department. Sosuke is played by Frankie Jonas, the Konas Brothers’ little brother. He was all right, but he didn’t bring anything to the equation that couldn’t have been added elsewhere without the ridiculous price tag a Jonas Brother would probably fetch. I don’t mean to rag on children, but these kids should not have been in this movie. They should have been at home, playing games or trying to live a normal life.

But they shouldn’t be singled out, because even trained pros had a hard time here. Liam Neeson totally jumps the shark (HA!) by giving his 50-something, grizzled European voice to a 30-something sea wizard with long red hair and what looks to be tattooed-on makeup. He doesn’t even try to do a different voice besides his own, and it seems unnatural for a voice like his to be coming out of this guy:

Julianne Moore is Ponyos father in Ponyo!

Julianne Moore IS Ponyo's father in Ponyo!

Tina Fey similarly un-acts as Sosuke’s mother. She doesn’t change one octave, one note. It’s like listening to a weird, weird episode of 30 Rock. Cate Blanchette is the ONLY person to do an accent or a different voice. And she only has like 7 lines! Kudos to her, boo to the rest of the adult cast, and a hearty GO TO YOUR ROOM for the children.

Ponyo is an amazing movie that takes me to places I’ve only dreamed of. It’s a journey that everyone should take, young or old. You might think anime is for the kids and under-developed teens, but you’ll find that, with Ponyo, anyone can enjoy it, and probably will. I found it to be one his most beautiful creations, and a thoroughly joyous film. It’s not very sophisticated or intelligent, but we needn’t be so erudite all the time to take pleasure from life’s simple bounties; imagination. I’d give it a 9 1/2, but the version I watched was marred by lazy celebrities, so I give the North American version of Ponyo 8 long-haired Irish dandies out of 10. Kampai!

Tomorrow is another mystery movie! I don’t know what I’ll see! Tell me what you’d like me to watch, and I’ll watch it. Until then!