Six years is a fairly long time to be without something you love. For fans of Studio Ghibli, Japan’s internationally beloved animation house, that extended absence came to an end Wednesday evening with the airing of the studio’s first in-house film in over half a decade: Earwig and the Witch (アーヤと魔女).
Earwig has been the cause for both excitement and perhaps over-exaggerated grumbling. Positively, it signals the studio’s return from its longest-ever period without releasing a new film, which is cause for celebration. It also represents the third film by Miyazaki Goro, son of Japan’s most famous living director and worldwide icon, Miyazaki Hayao. Goro’s previous work has prompted strong reactions, and for some, even having his name attached to a film is enough to elicit derision. Most controversial of all, however, is the TV film’s medium: CG animation.
The combination of elation at the return of Ghibli, the habitual side-eyeing of Goro, and the shift from Ghibli’s beloved hand-drawn animation style to CGI have led to a great deal of pre-judgment being leveled at Earwig. With the film’s airing on NHK (the movie is Ghibli’s first created for television since 1993’s Ocean Waves), however, audiences can finally move from preconceived notions to actual assessments of the movie.
So, how does Earwig stack up? Is it enough for Goro to finally redeem himself in the eyes of even his most trenchant haters? Has its use of CGI been vindicated?
The answer, I feel, is: mostly – with some major caveats.
Flying Close to the Ground
Earwig and the Witch adapts a short novel by the late Diana Wynne Jones, beloved and highly prolific British author. Goro’s father had previously adapted Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle into what became one of the studio’s most successful films; it was Miyazaki Sr. who subsequently recommended Goro adapt Earwig.
The story, which feels like it hews more closely to the source material than Ghibli’s usual adaptations, revolves around foundling Aya (the titular Earwig in the original novel). Aya is left at an orphanage doorway as a baby. Despite her unfortunate beginnings, she makes the most of her childhood. Mischievous, though not in an especially cruel way, Aya likes things to go the way she wants. She’s managed to expertly manipulate friends and adults around her and seems to honestly love her life at the orphanage.
All that changes, however, when the witch Bella Yaga and the towering, spindly Mandrake arrive at the orphanage to adopt Aya. Now trapped inside of a strangely bewitched house, assisting the unkind Bella Yaga with her spells – and warned to never, under any circumstances, bother the Mandrake – Aya decides to use her wits to once again come out on top.
The result is a somewhat whimsical, amiable adventure on a surprisingly small scale for Ghibli – even when compared to their other TV film, the slice-of-life Ocean Waves.
The Magic of Animation?It's hard to label the animation as either a complete success or a complete failure. Click To Tweet
So, let’s get to the CG elephant in the room: the animation.
The object of so much discussion and derision, Earwig’s CG-styling is neither blessing nor curse. I’ll be the first to admit that I almost always prefer Ghibli’s lovingly hand-drawn house style over CG animation. However, the true value of Ghibli’s storytelling is not limited to visual presentation alone. Goro has shown a preference for CG since his well-received cel-shaded TV show Ronja the Robber’s Daughter. I was willing to give Goro a chance to display why he likes to work in computer graphics.
It’s hard to label the animation as either a complete success or a complete failure. The aspect that I believe has most put people off is the facial animation. In certain shots, Aya’s face seems lacking in shading and overly plasticky, sliding into the uncanny valley. These moments are perhaps the worst for the film, and the issue does occasionally bleed over into other characters. When they stand still, characters appear too still – simply frozen models. 2D anime can often get away with this (although Ghibli usually avoids keeping characters still for too long). But it looks more unnatural in CG. This unnatural aspect brings down certain scenes and had the effect of making me long for the naturalism of Ghibli’s other movies. It’s unreasonable to hope for Pixar-levels of animation from a TV film, but some of this is a bit disappointing.
Happily, the animation is far from all bad. Expressions are mostly great, coveying a great deal of character and humor. The presentation does capture a good deal of the Ghibli charm, especially as regards setting. The British town where the action takes place has been lovingly recreated, and each room in Aya’s adoptive home is full of random objects and small details that make them feel properly lived in. These details allow for a real sense of location – perhaps the unsung aspect that Ghibli does better than just about anyone else. The house, for all its magic, feels lived in and takes its place among the long list of memorable Ghibli locales.
Indeed, there are nods to this British setting all around. Aya loves the shepherd’s pie made at her orphanage and is seen reading various books by Arthur Conan Doyle. The English-dubbed trailer released thus far displays a very British cast, whose accents will doubtless increase the movie’s feeling of specific setting even more upon release in foreign markets early next year. British foods are also animated with the traditional Ghibli flair for creating mouth-watering on-screen edibles. A prominent shot of fish and chips had me especially missing the British Isles. It’s impressive how well the famed Ghibli food has been translated into the new animation style.
(Want to read more in-depth Ghibli reviews? Check out Noah’s Ultimate Ranking of the Studio Ghibli Universe series.)
The character here, too, are quite good. Aya is of course the standout. She has a great design, with her hair standing up in two curved pigtails, veritable devil horns adorning this skillfully manipulative little girl. As a personality, she confidently strides the thin line between precocious and obnoxious, managing to be likably determined instead of annoying. She makes for a good Ghibli heroine.
The rest of the cast is essentially rounded out by Bella Yaga, the Mandrake, and talking cat Thomas. Bella Yaga follows in the footsteps of many a cantankerous Ghibli middle-aged woman, from Castle in the Sky‘s Dola to Spirited Away‘s Yubaba. She doesn’t come close to either of the aforementioned characters’ charisma, nor is she fully developed, but she still has that unique Ghibli quality of being cruel and antagonistic without being all bad.
The Mandrake is definitely the most fun character visually, wrapped in a veil of mystery and barely concealed magical rage. The surreal magic that surrounds him is a treat, from his reclusive organ playing to his ordering around of daemons, who bring him his beloved meat pies from the nearby station. He’s perhaps the most memorable part of the movie, and it would’ve been great to get a bit more of him. The Mandrake feels very, very Ghibli.
Thomas, the talking cat, is adorable. That’s about it – he’s no Jiji, the iconic black cat from 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service. More than anything, Thomas serves to make this movie have even more strange echoes towards Kiki‘s and Ghibli-successor Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower, another England-set animated film about a young girl with a black cat who happens upon a magical world all while being unaware of her own witchy pedigree. (Thankfully, while this movie is much smaller in scale, it’s more enjoyable overall than Mary.)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sonic landscape of the film. Ghibli’s soundtracks have always been one of my favorite features of their movies. While the music (by Takebe Satoshi, who previously provided the fine soundtrack for Goro’s From Up on Poppy Hill) is quality – about as good as most of the second-tier Ghibli soundtracks – the sound design leaves a bit to be desired. Settings are a bit aurally empty, a feeling that doesn’t gel especially well with the already comparatively artificial look of the CG animation. Some more ambient noise might have helped.
The main song, “Don’t Disturb Me,” serves as a setpiece around which much of the movie’s (somewhat underserved) central mystery revolves. It’s quite good, and features some nice 60’s-sounding organ riffs. I look forward to a full version being released. The English version will be sung by popular American country music star Kacey Musgraves.
A Good Film in Search of an Ending
The setting and these characters make for a place you’d be happy to spend more time in; sadly, this ties into the movie’s greatest failing. As it happens, the original novel for Earwig was released posthumously and wasn’t exactly complete at the time of Jones’ passing. The result is a story that, as one reviewer of the novel put it, “end[ed] as though mid-sentence, leaving me suspended in midair, fantasizing about Earwig’s future for a full five minutes before I realized the proverbial rug had been wrenched out from beneath me.”Earwig feels unfinished in a way no other Ghibli production does. Click To Tweet
You might expect a film adaptation to expand on such a sudden conclusion; after all, the beauty of adaptation is the ability to forge new paths for already-told stories. (Indeed, the movie had already included some enjoyable aspects about a witchy, Beatles-esque band which the source material lacks.) Goro was roundly critiqued for his complete departure from novel canon in his debut film, Tales from Earthsea; perhaps this has made him gun-shy towards deviating too much from his source material. The result is that, in what feels like should be the beginning of the third act, the movie just suddenly stops. This leaves Earwig feeling unfinished in a way no other Ghibli production does.
It’s really unfortunate – the film was building up such a nice sense of atmosphere and setting, and I’d found myself becoming invested in Aya’s budding familial relationships. It all leaves the movie feeling much more episodic; more made-for-TV than a fully-fledged film. This wasn’t the case with Ocean Waves, which, despite being a few minutes shorter, tells a much more complete story, bookended by a satisfying framing device. There are many Ghibli films with fairly sudden endings (Nausicaa, Totoro, and Goro’s own Poppy Hill come to mind), but none quite like this. The end credits feature a Totoro-style series of charming, hand-drawn images giving a glimpse into the status of Aya’s life. But much is left unsaid, and not in a good way. These images feel less like an epilogue and more like the third act we should have received in the first place.
So, where does this leave us? I can say that I enjoyed Earwig, but I can’t say that unreservedly. The film showcases much of Goro’s skills as a director and his eye for character. But it also reveals some of his shortcomings in developing satisfying story structure and conclusions. Most of all, the movie just leaves me with this feeling that it should be a series, or that a sequel lies in the offing. That, however, is never how Ghibli has operated – and that, once again, just leads me to this unfortunate feeling of incompleteness.
The film also isn’t quite as thematically dense as essentially every other Ghibli movie. There’s some interesting ideas here about how children interact with adults, and how they can manipulate those seemingly in control to gain the upper hand. This is probably the most interesting aspect overall about the movie, but once again, I’m left wanting a bit more.
My appreciation of each Ghibli film has been expanded and deepened with various re-watches, however. Hopefully, once I get another chance to watch Earwig, some of the disappointment at the ending will fade away. As a small but fairly magical story about a clever girl figuring out how to get her way in even the strangest circumstances, this is a good story. It just feels like less of a movie than any other by Ghibli. It’s this, much more than the animation style, which is currently keeping me from unabashedly recommending this newest addition to the Ghibli canon.
As for Miyazaki Goro – I can only say that I look forward to his next attempt.
(For those hoping for more of Ghibli’s trademark, theatrical hand-drawn animation, the studio is currently hard at work on Miyazaki Sr.’s How Do You Live, said to be a full-blown epic clocking in at over two hours. The movie will release sometime in the next few years.)