Studio Ghibli

Ronja, The Robbers Daughter (Amazon Prime)

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ronja-1If you’ve ever seen one of Studio Ghibli’s fantastical animé films such as Spirited Away, Laputa – Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso or Howl’s Moving Castle, then this television show which was originally made in 2014 will look and feel very familiar to you – but with the slightest of twists.

Based on the children’s fantasy book by noted Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking), Ronja, The Robbers Daughter is the charming story of Ronja, the ten-year-old daughter of bandit chief Mattis and his wife Lovis. The early episodes spend time with Ronja as she explores the forest around the castle fortress that she calls home, but it isn’t long before a rival clan moves in literally next door and a feud builds up which is further complicated when Ronja develops feelings for the rival chief’s son Birk. Read the rest of this entry »

Porco Rosso (1992) [Blu-ray]

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Porco Rosso is one of director Hayao Miyazaki’s earlier animated features, and it has to be said one of the lesser works in his canon of films – although that’s less a criticism of Porco Rosso itself than an acknowledgement of just how many all-time classics Miyazaki has been involved with over the years.

porcoAn odd film, in many ways Porco Rosso feels like it’s little more than a small box that Miyazaki uses to safeguard some of his most treasured keepsakes. There’s certainly a lot of familiar elements in it that we know from Miyazaki’s other films, such as his love of aviation that would find a fuller expression in 2013’s The Wind Blows. His love of the environment is also present here, although expressed in some stunningly gorgeous vistas (many from the air) of the islands around the Adriatic and Mediterranean that do away with the need for an overt ecological message such as we get in Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Some of the character designs are also very familiar, with apprentice airplane designer Fio looking the spitting image of the eponymous lead of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Read the rest of this entry »

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

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I have a strange liking for The Castle of Cagliostro, the first feature animé film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who went on to co-found the legendary Studio Ghibli and to make the Oscar-winning Spirited Away as well as Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo.

The Castle of Cagliostro is no where near the quality of those more recent films, of course: you can see Miyazaki taking his first steps down the road that will lead to his masterworks (which also include Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke) and there are some unmistakably Miyazaki-esque touches to the whole affair, but first and foremost this is a typical piece of animé production line output of the 1970s.

The strange thing is, if I’m twiddling my thumbs wondering what to watch and just happen to fancy a piece of anime, then my instinctive response is to turn not to the masterworks, but instead to the relatively cheap and cheerful The Castle of Cagliostro. How come? Because it’s fun and has no pretensions to do or be anything more than purely entertaining. There’s just something joyous about the way it throws itself into things, starting off mid-caper as cocky master thief Arsène Lupin III is ripping off a Monaco casino only to find that all he’s managed to make off with is a load of counterfeit bills. His search for the person behind the fake money takes him to the Grand Duchy of Cagliostro, where the ruling Count is set to marry Princess Clarisse against her will in order to solidify his power. Oh, and there’s hidden treasure to be found as well.

It doesn’t start off particularly promisingly, with the casino raid done in the distinctive crude and angular animé style of the 70s that we know from inferior cost-cutting TV programmes that were used to pad out the children’s hour on UK television into the early 80s. A scene where Lupin hurdles an obstacle has a ‘twang’ sound effect that can’t help but make you wince. But very quickly thereafter the film takes on a whole new aesthetic – a higher quality, more Miyazaki feel. When the getaway car suffers a puncture, there’s a lovely quiet moment where Lupin relaxes (while his sidekick Daisuke Jigen slaves over changing the wheel) looking at the countryside and the passing clouds; later, Lupin takes a look around the picturesque ruins of the burnt-out Royal palace and it’s exquisitely rendered. It’s as though, now we’re in the Grand Duchy itself, we’re free to be in the true Land of Miyazaki and not the world of the TV serials that he had been working on up until this.

Although the tale is a typical one of dastardly villains with jetcopters and of super-daring-do by the heroes, there’s a sense of underlying reality throughout the whole thing that is unusual: the Grand Duchy itself is lovingly and consistently presented to is, with each new setting and angle within the castle adding to the overall sense of the coherent geography of a real place. There’s a continuity, too, to the characters: Lupin himself was a long running character from manga and from previous films and a TV series co-directed by Miyazaki, and his band of friends was well established; there’s also an arch adversary (Inspector Koichi Zenigata) and a clear history between Lupin and the residents of Cagliostro, but none of it is delved into in any depth in a way that might slow down the jaunty progress of current events. It does, though, make it feel as though this is a fully realised world we’re in.

The whole thing is a delight: pure escapist fun, with no underlying messages or morals to observe, no expectations that this is a towering work of art that one has to admire. And that makes it possible for us to sit back and enjoy it just as pure fun, and ironically to appreciate its artistic strengths all the more for there being no expectation. There’s no problem if your mind wonders, no weighty concepts for us to have to juggle in our minds as we watch. And perhaps that’s why I find it more re-watchable than most any other film that I know.

The DVD is pretty standard; not technically part of the Studio Ghibli line-up, it still manages to do a pretty good job of aping that range’s jacket design and standard line-up of serviceable but far from extravagant extras. I guess in years to come it might follow its Ghibli brethren to Blu-ray high definition, but I don’t think the animation here has the edge of quality that will really make it a significant step-up if it does – it was still early days for the Miyazaki hallmark after all. What we have here on DVD is quite fine enough in terms of clarity and cleanness of the print, although the image frame doesn’t quite fill a true 16:9 widescreen ratio and is blocked-off, so that is definite room for improvement in subsequent releases. Although I tend to loathe dubbed films with a passion, the English language version here is actually very good and lip-syncing in animé tends to be perfectly acceptable in any case, as Japanese animators know to leave mouth movements rather crude and vague for exactly this sort of international distribution. The Japanese original soundtrack is available, as are English subtitled; the differences between this and the English dub can be rather intriguing.

The thing is, it’s probably overly generous to give this film four stars – especially when comparing against the rest of the better-known Ghibli output. But it’s so enjoyable that not only do I cheerfully lavish it with such generosity regardless, I find that simply writing this review has made me want to go back and rewatch it all over again. Very, very few films have that sort of repeat value for me, and that makes this a special gem of a film in my book.