Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
My Neighbour Totoro / Porco Rosso
Metro Cinema's Studio Ghibli retrospective returns with the exhilarating gust of magic that blew through cinemas in the late '80s, establishing the Japanese workshop as a fantastic force of modern animation. This masterwork, which almost didn't happen (only when the fledgling studio agreed to make Isao Takahata's children-caught-in-war classic Grave of the Fireflies did backers go along with the project), is paired with the Miyazaki film that seems to fly straight of the studio's name itself—"ghibli" coming from the Arabic "qibli," the gale-force wind that's whipped up in the Sahara before rushing across the Mediterranean.
No film bottles the wide-eyed, moody, exploring, strangely sensitive spirit of childhood like My Neighbour Totoro (1988). It also fizzes with the spirit of Miyazaki, and Studio Ghibli, at its simplest. (Spirited Away is Miyazaki's complex masterpiece.) When Satsuki and Mei arrive at their new home in the country with their father, we're let out into a childhood of frolics and explorations, where a rundown old home is fun, young Mei pistons down the big stairs on her little legs or gives a "hmph!" as she plucks up her courage, and the girls yell ahead into dark spaces to allay their fears.
Soon after the house's "soot sprites" scatter (only to return in Spirited Away as boiler-man Kamaji's servants), Mei, Alice-like, follows two scooting creatures into the woods. She falls down a hole onto the big-bellied, egg-shaped, cat-faced, tuft-eared Totoro. This guardian, an enigmatic protector that you can just sense, along with Mei and Satsuki, is a caring creature, rahr!s to speak. Only the girls can see him, though Totoro also seems to be a manifestation of their wish to be bigger, more commanding and never fearful. He can also summon a Cheshire-cat bus that smiles its toothy, mischievous grin in-between running from stop-to-stop on 12 legs.
This film's perfectly pitched at young children who've felt—and any adult who still even faintly remembers— that throbbing sting of concern for a parent (the sisters worry about their mother, convalescing in hospital). Moments of self-blame, from the eldest and the mother, are also deeply moving and may be semi-autobiographical (Miyazaki's mother spent some years in hospital, suffering from Pott's disease, before being nursed at home). With the finest rhythm and pace of any Ghibli film, My Neighbour Totoro gently see-saws the faint aches of youth—echoed in the melancholy of a rainy afternoon or the streaks of tears on Mei's cheeks—with complete trust in the wonder of a nature-inspired imagination. The sisters and their newfound furry friend, in the blue of night, dance until rows of acorns spring into a giant tree, its canopy billowing up toward the clouds. Totoro perches on a treetop and plays an ocarina-like flute. In lulling, Ozu-like moments, the satoyama landscape (foothill farmlands and paddies) twinkles in its beauty, like the film itself.
1920s aviation-adventure Porco Rosso (1992) is more action-packed and manga-style, but its predictable plot points—punch-ups and air-battles—are secondary to Miyazaki-esque scenes of women's work, the indifferent beauty of nature and war as nightmare. The writer-director, fascinated by aviation since designing planes as a boy while his father worked as director of a factory that made parts for A6M Zero planes during the Second World War, transforms his boyish enthusiasm for winged weapons into an adult ruefulness about aero-warfare.
An ex-First World War ace, Marco Pagot, turned porcine by a magic spell, Porco Rosso ("Crimson Pig" in Italian) now soars over the Adriatic as a bounty hunter, rescuing the hostages of air pirates and otherwise thwarting the jeering buccaneers of the clouds. But then a cocky American, Donald Curtis, flies in, determined to knock Porco down a peg and woo the lady he loves. Still, this plot's less stirring than the sequence where the occasionally sexist male Pig finds himself surrounded in Milan's Piccolo factory by women making his new plane for him—from 17-year-old redhead Fio, who designs it, to her spirited grandmother. And there's a story this anti-Fascist pilot later recounts to Fio in his camp at a cove, looking out into the sea-sky night—a reverie where, in the midst and mist of war, so many comrades and foes drifted up, up, and away from a prairie of clouds. Was it heaven or "hell" they were flying to? Porco still wonders. Left behind, he was turned into a pig.
The ambiguous ending, too, takes us far from scenes that are a little too broadly comic (the movie's adapted from Miyazaki's short manga "The Age of the Flying Boat"). Porco Rosso's last moments are tinged with nostalgia for a time of honour and restraint, a time before the Second World War landed and made "air pirates" seem a quaint threat. The film's spell lingers in that air-pocket of history—before filthy, savage fascism's curse broke so many spirits across the globe.
Fri, Feb 15 (7 pm), Sun, Feb 17 (1:30 pm), Mon, Feb 18 (2 pm)
My Neighbour Totoro
Sat, Feb 16 (4:15 pm), Mon, Feb 18 (7 pm), Wed, Feb 20 (7 pm)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
Metro Cinema at the Garneau
Vue respects your privacy. We will not forward your personal information to any other organization except as required by law, and will use your e-mail address only to respond to your comments. We reserve the right to edit and remove comments for length, clarity and/or if they are illegal or inappropriate. Your email address is never shown to visitors to vueweekly.com. Read the whole policy at: http://vueweekly.com/privacy