MIYAZAKI’S EARLY, PRE-GHIBLI WORKS
Taiyo No Oji: Horusu No Daiboken (1986)
(Prince of the Sun: The Adventure of Horus / The Little Norse Prince)
Horusu trailer (YouTube)
Made for Toei Animation Studios, Horusu was the first feature film directed by Isao Takahata, and Hayao Miyazaki worked as a scene designer and key animator on the project. Although more significant when charting the development of Takahata’s career, Horusu shows Miyazaki’s origins in the animation industry and features some traits that would develop into typical Ghibli characteristics.
“The movie, three years in the making, is distinguished by its precise, appealingly drawn and animated human characters, and beautifully realized natural scenery and animals. In fact, although some of the human designs have a more broad, cartoony feel, with its epic plot and a backdrop based on Scandinavia, in many ways it feels like the first Studio Ghibli production in everything but name.” – Stephen Cavalier, The World History of Animation, Aurum Press Ltd., London, UK, 2011, p.208.
Horusu has often been seen as a reflection of the struggle that Japanese animators were going through at the time of its production:
“The feeling at Toei just then was that they were treated less as artists and more like factory workers, churning out kid’s cartoons rather than film with a deeper purpose.” – Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Kamera Books, Harpenden, Herts, UK, 2009, p.42.
The film was produced by many of the Toei union team, including Takahata and Miyazaki and openly presents positive socialist content alongside the adventure tale, depicting the villagers working together, happy in their work. This theme of community and the strength and support that can be found within it would become a key recurring theme within Studio Ghibli productions and especially Miyazaki’s films, such as Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The benefits of living a simple, rural life would be further explored by Takahata in his films Only Yesterday (1991) and Pom Poko (1994).
Horusu also began the tradition of taking influence from European stories and myths (as well as settings), but giving them a distinctively Japanese perspective; a feature that would come to define many future Studio Ghibli works, notably Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and The Secret World of Arrietty (2010). Horusu shows traits from Norse and Arthurian mythology, with its sword-trapped-in-stone, sorcery, and its protagonist with a heroic destiny to fulfill.
The film is more Disney-esque in feel than any other Ghibli work, with the towering figure of Grunwald recalling Chernabog from the Fantasia (1941) sequence Night on Bald Mountain, and its cute, anthropomorphized animals more similar to those from Sleeping Beauty (1959) than The Cat Returns (2002) or Gōshu the Cellist (1982, the trailer of which shows a highly expressive cat battling with bad music).
The film, unfortunately, failed to get the box office ratings that Tōei were pressing for and their initial reaction was to castigate their staff for wasting time and money, leading to further creative restrictions that caused Takahata and Miyazaki to leave the studio (along with Ōtsuka Yasuo, future character designer on Conan and Cagliostro)
Conan, the Boy in Future (1978)
(Future Boy Conan)
- Miyazaki’s debut as director and the film that marks the emergence of his style of filmmaking
- Nippon Animation TV series
- Adaptation of Alexander Key’s The Incredible Tide (1970)
- First work to include Miyazaki’s imaginary flying machines
- Miyazaki designed, storyboarded and directly nearly all 26 episodes, with help from Isao Takahata (storyboards) and Ōtsuka Yasuo (animation director).
“The importance of this landmark series is difficult to over-emphasise. Like many Miyazaki productions it appears to be aimed predominantly at the youth market, yet it contains nuances and perspectives that transcend the bland entertainment often passed off as family viewing.” – Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Kamera Books, Harpenden, Herts, UK, 2009, p.39
Although Miyazaki’s films on the surface appear to be childish in nature, they have a universal appeal that transcends age and background. Indeed, some of them may be more suited for an older audience, such as Princess Mononoke in which graphic violence and themes of death and war feature heavily.
A post-apocalyptic view of the future is presented in Future Boy Conan, based in the very distant year of 2008 (I’m sure it must have seemed distant 35 years ago), as young boy Conan and his grandfather crash their spaceship into a seemingly unpopulated planet Earth. The oceans have risen and the remaining land has been ravaged by a devastating war, leaving behind nothing but a wasteland. However, Conan’s standing as one of the last two human survivors on Earth is disproved one day when he is out shark-hunting (a popular past time in 2008, as I’m sure we all remember) and he encounters a young girl, Lana. Her grandfather may hold the key to humanity’s salvation, but when Lana is kidnapped by the military island, Industria, it’s up to Conan to set off on an adventure to save her and, perhaps, the planet.
The plot of Conan has a number of similarities to Miyazaki’s later film Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) as the young boy Pazu must save the mysterious Sheeta from the nefarious Muska and the army at his command. Before the end, the two youths must prevent Muska from using Laputa to destroy the planet. [I will be discussing Laputa, along with Miyazaki’s other films, in another post]
“The links to the natural world, the Nausicaä-like, post-apocalyptic scenario and the similarities in design to Laputa: Castle in the Sky all point to Miyazaki’s future work.”
“Themes relating to the resilience and hope of the young, the nature of friendship and community, the stupidity of warring nations and the relationship between people and the environment all feature heavily. The idea of communicating with animals, of psychic links and of people isolated from each other all feed into later projects, and there are even underwater scenes that bring to mind later works such as Water Spider Monmon (2006) and Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008).”
– Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Kamera Books, Harpenden, Herts, UK, 2009, pp.39-40.
Early on in his career, Miyazaki displayed his distinctive flair in animating and consideration for a deeper meaning to animated films. He worked as an in-betweener on the feature film Gulliver’s Space Travels (Garibaa no Uchuu Kyokou, 1965), but took it upon himself to propose alterations, and even animated these changes scenes himself when approved. A key change in the story was the ending which previously had the titular hero, Gulliver, rescue a robot princess, however Miyazaki’s revised ending had the artificial shell encasing the princess crack and reveal a human girl within. This modification completely redefined the film’s message, creating an ending far deeper and more thought-provoking; the truth that robots are actually living humans imprisoned within cold mechanical bodies, but there exists the hope that their humanity can be regained. Miyazaki has, clearly, never been one to just sit back and accept things at face value; he looks for deeper meanings and greater understanding of his characters and the inner workings of their hearts. This also demonstrates Miyazaki’s recurring interest in the truth lying beneath the surface and that outer appearances can be deceiving, as would further be explored throughout his work, such as in Nausicaä (the Sea of Corruption holds the power to return life to the world and save humanity) and Spirited Away (Chihiro finds the courage to survive within the spirit world and save her parents inside herself) for the former and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) for the latter (appearances of multiple characters are constantly changing, often reflecting psychological states).
Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)
(Rupan Sansei: Kariosutoro no shiro)
Castle of Cagliostro marks the first feature film to be written and directed by Miyazaki. The film follows on from his and Takahata’s first major project free of Tōei Dōga, the TV series Lupin III, based on the “hilarious but vulgar” manga by Monkey Punch (Odell and Leblanc, 2009, pp.36-37).
Beginning with an adrenaline-fueled car chase along a mountainside and ending with a dramatic fight scene inside a clock tower, Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro is an exciting, action-packed thrill-ride following the adventures of master thief and ladies man, Arsène Lupin III, as he investigates the source of counterfeit money (which he acquired from a casino heist) in the European Duchy of Cagliostro. Naturally there are mysteries that need solving, conspiracies that need thwarting and a princess to save from an evil count who has been pulling all the strings.
“The film is a great animated crime thriller and tense action movie, featuring many of the European historical-style settings to be found in Miyazaki’s later work.” – Cavalier, The World History of Animation, 2011, p.240.
Cagliostro is a great animated film I’d especially recommend to one who is less inclined to enjoy the sweeping epic tales of Miyazaki’s other films with their ancient spirits, peaceful yet destructive robots in flying cities and strong moral messages about the relationship between humanity and nature. In comparison, Cagliostro is more down-to-earth and grounded in a familiar world, devoid of Totoros or boar gods. However, this does not mean the film lacks the magic of Miyazaki’s other films. It is a wacky crime-thriller with an engaging plot and varied, memorable characters ranging from the suspicious and unquestionably evil count, the ready-for-action, combat trained reporter Fujiko Mine, to the dodgy-due themselves, Lupin III and Jigen. Castle of Cagliostro is a great introduction to both the world of Lupin III and the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
Lupin himself has curtailed his lecherous behaviour quite significantly for his feature film outing, although is still a ladies man, wooing Princess Clarisse and “innocently” flirting with on-again-off-again flame, Fujiko. This decision, on Miyazaki’s part, helps make Lupin’s character more appealing and easier to identify with in this shorter, contained adventure than his racier incarnation which is gradually developed in the longer manga and TV series, which allows the audience to warm up to him over time.
Although both realism and exaggeration are applied to the animation, it never feels contradictory. On the contrary, the finely observed, realistic details help to ground the exuberant story that flows at a break-neck speed while the characters’ larger than life personas are felt to the full extent.
“All Miyazaki’s films juggle internal realism with distorted embellishment and it is in the mix of the two that the films, and individual scenes within them, find their voice,”
– Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Kamera Books, Harpenden, Herts, UK, 2009, p.48
A good example of the merging of realism with exaggeration is found within the opening sequence, featuring definitely one of the best car chases in movie history with Lupin’s little yellow car defying the laws of physics as it drives along a mountainside at an impossible angle. The overall ridiculous of the chase, as Lupin and Jigen attempt to rescue a wedding dress-adorned Clarisse from a pack of bowler-hatted goons, with the little car ignoring gravity as it easily leaves the curving road in preference of the sheer wall of the cliff, is pulled back into a sense of reality as details of the scene are focused on; parts of Clarisse’s battered pink car flying through the air as Lupin and Jigen try to avoid them, and the shattering of the windscreen glass as Lupin punches it in order to improve his view of the road. The effect of these little details is to make the overall sequence more believable, despite it containing feats you know to be impossible, further immersing the viewer in the story. After all, animation is about making the viewer believe that anything is possible. The characters react to the danger, Lupin yelling at his partner in crime as the situation becomes increasingly dire. They respond to the cracked windscreen instead of just driving on, unable to see. So often in Ghibli films, it is these little details that truly make the film, whether they be adding a layer of realism to an otherwise outlandish scene or adding a bit of humour, such as the pirates in Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), constantly adding sin little jibes and jokes to the dialogue. Miyazaki gives you characters you can believe, they don’t just sit quietly in the background waiting for their line or plough forward as though invincible.
The abundant action scenes, including numerous fights, are creative and exciting, resulting in a real sense of urgency as Lupin and his cohorts fight against the Count’s
hoodlums, soldiers and metal-clawed ninja called Shadows, as well as avoiding the police led by Inspector Zenigata.
“The climax – the extended duel between the Duke [the Count] and Lupin – takes place inside a clock tower, which encapsulates the sense of scale, perspective and urgency set against the mechanical precision of the clock’s deadly innards.” – Odell and Leblanc, 2009, p.49.
The film also begins the Miyazaki tradition of representing strong female characters with Clarisse and Fujiko. The two are very different personality and appearance wise, with Clarisse presented as more of a damsel-in-distress type in comparison to Fujiko’s gun-totting, grenade-throwing, blonde femme fatale. Yet despite Clarisse’s gentle nature, passivity and eventual resignation to the Count’s marriage proposal, she is a kind young woman who cares deeply for her citizens (whom she is well loved by in return) and is capable of displaying bursts of independence, such as when she shields Lupin. Even her consent to marry the Count is only given to protect the thief. She could perhaps have demonstrated a bit more backbone, as Miyazaki’s future leading ladies would, but the fact that she manages to keep up with Lupin while wearing such a huge wedding dress is certainly impressive. A regular to the world of Lupin III, Fujiko Mine, Lupin’s ex-lover stands toe to toe with the men in the fight scenes, skillfully keeping the Shadows at bay while Lupin rescues Clarisse from the horror of matrimony (himself having only just been saved by Fujiko). Indeed, she comes across as more of an action warrior than Lupin, Jigen and sword-wielding Goemon Ishikawa XIII.
Despite its age, The Castle of Cagliostro has remained a hit and a classic Miyazaki film, its popularity never faltering and with the Lupin III franchise still growing with the new series, The Woman Named Fujiko Mine, it’s likely the film will continue to find new audiences able to enjoy this early gem of Miyazaki’s.
The Woman Named Fujiko Mine (2012), made by studios TMS and Po10tial, is a stylish telling of the origins of Fujiko and how she became involved with Lupin and his gang. Darker and racier than Cagliostro this incarnation of Lupin III definitely isn’t for kids.