Monday, October 24, 2011

Understanding Auteurs: Hayao Miyazaki (Kiki's Delivery Service and Porco Rosso)

Originally this post was going to focus exclusively on Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Hayao Miyazaki’s fifth feature and the spiritual sister of My Neighbor Totoro (1988).  But while Kiki is a pleasant enough follow-up to Miyazaki’s artistic breakthrough, and boasts gorgeous animation from the reliably excellent Studio Ghibli team, it strikes me as a relatively minor work and I’m not sure how much I really have to say about it.  And since I didn’t get around to writing anything about Miyazaki last month, this post will also include a look at the great Japanese animator’s sixth feature, Porco Rosso (1992), an entertaining film that finds Studio Ghibli making a confident return to the action genre.

Despite their kid-friendly cartoon surfaces, Miyazaki’s films have tended to be a little too eccentric and surreal to fit comfortably in the children’s section at video stores.  The situation changes somewhat with Kiki’s Delivery Service, a lighthearted tale about a young witch who gradually learns to overcome her insecurities and become a self-sufficient, mature individual.  Kiki is our first (and possibly only) chance to see how Miyazaki would handle a relatively straightforward family film – the streamlining most likely due to the fact that he took over for a different director part way through the film’s pre-production – and he handles it very well.  It would be disappointing to see Miyazaki make too many films with simple morals and few dark edges, but Kiki’s pro-independence message is treated with appropriate sincerity, and the Totoro-style lack of villains and contrived conflict prevents Kiki from becoming just another children’s film.  With its utter lack of urgency, Kiki may qualify as “Miyazaki light,” but it is genuinely sweet and charming in a way that far too few family films are.

While Kiki finds Miyazaki reigning himself in a bit for a mass audience, the wild action-adventure film Porco Rosso is probably the strangest thing to come out of Studio Ghibli up to this point.  In fact, Porco may be the most eccentric film set during the World War II era this side of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).  The plot revolves around the titular character, an ace Italian pilot who inexplicably turned into a pig after emerging as the sole survivor of a skirmish in the first World War.  Porco simply wants to fly his plane for fun and adventure (and the occasional quick injection of cash to pay off some of his many debts), but he is constantly interrupted by various gangs of sky pirates and by a cocky U.S. pilot who wants to compare skills.  The story borders on being incoherent and a little shapeless – which is perhaps due to the project’s origins as a short film meant to be shown during commercial flights, though it’s also true that plotting has never really been Miyazaki’s strong suit – and while setting the film in Italy during the initial stages of WWII is an interesting choice (and it is amusing to see the hero of the film tell a soldier that “it’s better to be a pig than a fascist”), Miyazaki doesn’t seem terribly interested in making any sort of grand statement about the war. 

Still, this is Miyazaki’s most energetic and purely exciting film since his feature debut, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979).  Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (1986) seemed to be adventure films mostly because Miyazaki couldn’t come up with any other structure to hang his fantastical animation on, but Porco finds the director really digging into his action scenes, and coming up with dynamic and visceral ways to film Porco’s many dangerous and daring flights.  The climactic action scene that finds Porco and the U.S. pilot engaging in a dog fight before landing in the sea and having a surprisingly gory (albeit cartoonish) fist fight in the water is particularly impressive.

Better still are the bizarre details that fill every scene and contribute greatly to the movie’s rowdy atmosphere.  An early highpoint has sky pirates kidnapping a group of children who wind up annoying the villains by reacting to the situations as an audience excited to be rescued by Porco rather than as terrified hostages.  Later scenes feature the apparently foul-smelling pirates ganging up on Porco only to become bashful and giggly when confronted by the hero’s female repairs specialist, who encourages them to take a bath.  This kind of enjoyable broad humor is matched to a dry, surrealist wit that provides continuously amusing tropes like Porco’s inexplicable appeal as a ladies man despite being an obese pig, and a straight-faced flashback to the moment that Porco transformed into a pig that hilariously winds up making the situation more baffling rather than explaining anything.  While My Neighbor Totoro found Miyazaki fully developing his own distinct style, and Kiki’s Delivery Service put that unique aesthetic into a somewhat more crowd-pleasing context, it is the seemingly throwaway Porco Rosso that finds Miyazaki finally pulling all of the divergent strands of his filmmaking into one messy yet potently unmistakable aesthetic. 

UP NEXT  Princess Mononoke

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