With the UK release of From Up on Poppy Hill (2011) due next month there has never been (if ever there wasn’t) a better time to review some of the Studio Ghibli’s early films. Fortunately many of these have been remastered with additional extras for viewing at home either on DVD or on higher-definition Blu-Ray which accentuates the detail of the artistry of the cel animation. It is the silver anniversary of Grave of the Fireflies (1988) and approaching that for Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), two very different but very special films, and both are released on Blu-ray this week.
‘Why do fireflies have to die so soon?’
After the creation of their debut feature film Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) the fledgling Studio Ghibli were looking for new projects. Grave of the Fireflies appealed on a number of levels to Isao Takahata, who recognised how to use the medium of animation to create a worthy interpretation of Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical novel and combine it with the characterisation necessary to narrate a heart-rending story. An agreement was made to fund this and Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and the two films were to be released as a double bill. They are both exceptional animations but, as a pair, they didn’t really complement each other. Totoro became Ghibli’s corporate mascot in the same way that Mickey Mouse represents Disney and Grave of the Fireflies was critically lauded but remains the lesser known companion film.
On 21st September 1945, Seita (Tsutomu Tatsumi) is found dead, slumped in a train station. The film tells us his sorry tale, how he ended up in this situation and how he lost all those he knew and loved. Japan has been bombed relentlessly by the Allies. In Kōbe, Seita and his younger sister, Setsuko (Ayano Shiraishi), survive one of the latest bombing raids, but their mother (Yoshiko Shinohara) is not so lucky and dies from her wounds, Seita witnessing this sad event. The boy decides to hide the news from Setsuko, saying that they will see her again when she recovers from a slight illness. Seita seeks shelter with their aunt (Akemi Yamaguchi) but leaves her home to live in a disused air-raid shelter when the pair are accused of not engaging in household chores. The children exist on stolen food and grilled frogs but they are both becoming malnourished and their outlook becomes increasingly bleak.
Although many people were aware of the bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear bombs that destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima during World War 2, a plethora of other Japanese cities were also razed to the ground. Even though its story is about the consequences of war, Grave of the Fireflies is not a war film. The film is almost suffocating in its focus on the two siblings who are utterly authentic as characters because they are so tragically flawed. At times it makes for uncomfortable viewing, not just because of their extraordinary circumstances, but because their choices are so wrong and their sorry fate might have been avoided. Seita is desperate to care for and protect his sister, but is far too proud to accept any help. Grave of the Fireflies’ animation is exemplary, combining the realism of the world at war with a sense of artistic individualism, strengthening our understanding of the claustrophobic lives of its protagonists and their situation. It never seeks to judge Seita and his bad decisions but places them in the context of atrocious circumstances.
A very human film, this is animation as emotion, drama, historical document and artistic realisation and, as such, Grave of the Fireflies makes for essential viewing. The new release offers a plethora of extras, including interviews and documentaries, which help the audience understand how such a film came to be realised and the thought processes involved with its development. So there are in-depth interviews with Isao Takahata himself as well as storyboards for deleted scenes and further documentaries about the history of the time the film was set, placing the film in context.
Ghibli’s following film was another from Hayao Miyazaki, the delightful fantasy Kiki’s Delivery Service. Witch-in-waiting Kiki (Minami Takayama) follows the ancient traditions of her kind by leaving home at the age of 13 to begin the transformation into fully-fledged witch-hood. Aided and abetted by the faithful Jiji (Rei Sakuma), a talkative and opinionated black cat, she flies to a suitable town on her broomstick and starts her new life. She finds accommodation with the kindly baker Osono (Keiko Toda), who rents Kiki her attic room and, in order to make ends meet, Kiki devises a business plan that suits her major talent, which is flying. She starts up a delivery service to fly parcels around town. Naturally the plan has teething troubles but soon Kiki and Jiji become welcome members of the community, and are especially popular with Tombo (Kappei Yamaguchi), a bespectacled boy whose greatest desire is to fly.
Based upon the charming children’s book by Eiko Kadono, first published in 1985, Kiki’s Delivery Service follows the young witch’s first steps to becoming an adult, with four further books having been published since. Although the film generally follows events in the novel it does differ substantially, particularly towards the film’s set-piece finale. Originally Miyazaki was only going to produce the film, due to his commitments completing My Neighbour Totoro, but eventually he acquiesced when he could find no-one suitable for this particular project. This seems almost bizarre as the film is so perfectly suited to Miyazaki it is difficult seeing how anyone else could have realised it. It’s a delightful coming of age fantasy drama. Kiki has to learn to live on her own and develop the confidence to make a good life for herself. The animation is superb throughout, from Kiki’s flyaway hair and dress as she shoots through the sky, closely observed cows chewing straw and licking at Kiki’s feet and a magnificent sequence when stripy-jumpered Tombo tries to fly with Kiki using his modified bike. Equally impressive is the film’s use of sound with Joe Hisaishi’s varied and uplifting score which underpins the film perfectly .
Kiki’s Delivery Service’s combination of humour, adventure and self-discovery makes it an ideal film for family viewing. Set in a never-when European town of indeterminate location but resolutely Japanese in its execution, it is an uplifting film that revels in humanity and community spirit.