We’ve made our way through the more challenging parts of the Ghibli Universe – things are only going to get better and better from here!
#29 – Mei and the Kittenbus
Right Back Cat-cha
Here you have it: the one and only true, bona-fide Ghibli sequel. Alright, maybe it’s more like “The Further Adventures of Mei” than a full sequel, but still. Ghibli has famously avoided re-treading the hallowed ground of past films, no matter how incredibly successful. (The Cat Returns is the closest, since it features imagined characters from Whisper of the Heart, but it’s very much its own thing.) As such, it feels like a real tragedy the fact there exists out there a 13-minute-long return to the world of Totoro, one of the world’s most beloved animated movies, but that it’s nigh impossible to (properly) see. This is a Ghibli Museum short, so it’s never been made available for public consumption outside the museum’s famed Saturn Theater. Needless to say, Mei and the Kittenbus is the most well-known of the shorts, and the one about which most people dream of one day seeing.
Here’s the set-up: One day, not long after the end of My Neighbor Totoro, young Mei is exploring outside near her family’s countryside house. By chance, she encounters a whirlwind that turns out to be none other than the Catbus’ small kitten, the eponymous Kittenbus. Mei befriends the small vehicular animal, whose interior is just large enough for the tiny girl to fit inside. One night, she boards the kittenbus and takes off into the sky, joining a procession of cat-based transportation delivering hundreds of Totoro-like beings to a mysterious destination. Perhaps there she’ll encounter another friend as well…
This short debuted a full 16 years after the original Totoro, and it’s almost mind-boggling to be able revisit that familiar world again, but with 2000s-style animation instead of mid-80s’. The short looks beautiful, and like all those made for the museum is essentially of the same production quality as the actual Ghibli feature films. This one has the benefit of us already knowing Mei and her magical surroundings, which means we essentially get a full 13 minutes of her interacting with endearing and wonderfully creative fantasy creatures. It’s a cliche to call anything Ghibli inventive, but all the varied cat vehicles are just so fun to behold. And dang is that Kittenbus cute.
Of course, so much of the real pleasure here is re-encountering beloved characters – and I will fully admit to having a huge grin come on my face when friends are reunited. It honestly fills my heart with joy. If there’s one problem here, it’s that the movie is all too short. I wanted to be immersed in the story of the Kusakabe family and the magical world around them for just a bit longer. Then again, that means this was effective.
Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but it’s worth noting that Mei and Kittenbus is one of only two Ghibli Museum shorts that has a cam floating around the internet. It makes sense given how many people would love to see a Totoro sequel that someone would eventually engage in some illicit recording. The quality is quite low, but it does exist. However, the shorts are really meant for the museum experience, where they’re all the more magical – if you have the (admittedly rare) chance, I’d see the short there. It’s what Miyazaki would want, innit?
#28 – A Sumo Wrestler’s Tail
Tiny Package Packs a Punch
In a small house in the mountains live an old man and woman. Farmers, the elderly couple have never been able to conceive children of their own. One day, the old man notices some mice from under the house going off somewhere, and decides to follow them. Hidden from view, he witnesses the mice, donning red fundoshi loincloths, face off against another group of mice on makeshift dohyo (土俵, sumo ring). The old man is dismayed to see how weak and scrawny his home field mice are compared to their burly opponents; they suffer a crushing defeat. Back home, the old man and his wife decide to take matters into their own hands, making a special power-boosting meal to feed their home mice to help them stand a chance against the opposition.
So goes the Japanese folktale Nezumi no Sumo (ねずみのすもう), and so goes this wonderfully charming Ghibli museum short. This is one of my favorite features from the museum; funny, cute, engaging. The old man and woman are wonderfully characterized, their faces a hilarious sort of caricature of age. The mice themselves are winningly cute, and watching the old man and woman cheer them on is truly adorable. I actually found myself becoming involved in their quest to defeat the larger rival mice.
Another part of the appeal here is the beautiful portrayal of Japanese folklore. The narrator’s voice drips with the essence of fairytale storytelling; the friend with whom I watched this would forever be quoting the first lines in that quavery voice: 「昔々、爺さんと婆さんは共に山に住んでいました…」”Long, long ago, and old man and woman lived together in the mountains…” The food, as well, looks simply delicious and belongs on that long list of Ghibli cuisine we all wish we could actually eat.
Overall, this one’s just simple, well-made fun. I’d love to have the chance to see it again someday. Thankfully, director Yamashita was able to helm another short film within the Studio Ponoc Modest Heroes collection, with great results.
#27 – Modest Heroes
More Than Modest Success
This is it. This is what I wanted from Studio Ponoc- confident, naturalistic, ambitious storytelling. This series of three short films each feels much more like a continuation of the spirit of Studio Ghibli than Ponoc’s first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, ever did.
Rather than being a single tale, Ponoc’s second theatrical outing is a three-part series showcasing three very different stories, styles, and atmosphere. The first, by Arrietty, Marnie, and Mary director Yonebayashi, is an adventure story about tiny river-dwelling humanoids and their attempt to survive. The second is by long-time Ghibli animation and art director Momose Yoshiyuki, and tells the real-life story of a young boy and his mother as they attempt to live a fulfilling life while coping with the boy’s deadly allergy to eggs. The last story is an action-packed portrayal of the daily life of a lonely invisible man simply trying to get by.
All three films felt much more like Studio Ghibli, from which all three directors hail. Each sucks you directly into its distinct world and makes you care for characters in a span of less than 20 minutes. Each also showcases exquisite animation and inspired art direction.
The first film, Kanini and Kanino, is a return to form for Yonebayashi. The underwater world felt fleshed out, deep (pun not intended) – it was the sort of setting I’d have been happy to spend more time in. It managed to create character and generate feeling with essentially no dialogue. Interestingly, it almost feels like a story of Arriety’s primordial ancestors. Maybe Yonebayashi just really likes portraying humans on a tiny scale, allowing the small to loom large – either way, he does a great job here, just as he did in Arrietty. I especially love how the score incorporates steel drums to give the river world a distinctly “underwater” feeling.
Life Ain’t Gonna Lose turned out to be even better, really ramping up the feeling. The direction here is wonderful – good enough that I really wish Momose had been given a full film to direct back at Studio Ghibli. [Update: Momose is now directing his first feature-length anime film, Studio Ponoc’s 2023 film The Imaginary.] It’s emotional, making use of the medium of animation to portray the panicked feeling of an allergic reaction and the vivid motion of dance. The characters are full of, well, character. You get so much from little Shun and his world in such a short amount of time. This is truly a great short film – I really, really hope they give Momose more to do in the future. A long-time associate of Takahata’s, I could really feel some of the old master’s spirit in this one.
The last film, Invisible, is also highly effective. Surprisingly action-packed, this is at its core a story about what it feels like to be ignored; to essentially be invisible to all those around you, a non-entity. As such it manages to be both thrilling and surprisingly affecting. Much like the 2nd short, it makes me incredibly excited at the idea of seeing more from director Yamashita.
Chronologically speaking, this is the last entry on this entire list. Hopefully, both Ghibli and Ponoc will have new offerings for us soon, but this ended up being a better note to go out on than I’d expected. This is a genuinely good (great, really) series of short films, each with creativity, passion, and immense skill running through them. Suddenly, I’m very excited to see where Studio Ponoc goes from here.
#26 – When Marnie Was There
Ghibli Ghost with the Most
This is it: the final released theatrical Ghibli film, at least as of this writing. Marnie is also the sole Ghibli film not produced by either Miyazaki or Takahata and essentially made without either’s participation. The goal was to allow Yonebayashi, director of the successful Arrietty, to make a film without input from either old master. The success or failure of the film would portent the future of Ghibli with Miyazaki retired. While Marnie was received well and was financially successful, it wasn’t the smash hit nearly every Ghibli film before had been. The result is the six-year theatrical hiatus we see now.
Marnie is another Ghibli movie based on a British novel, this time one by Joan G. Robinson from 1967. Miyazaki had recommended that Yonebayashi switch out the original Norfolk setting for the Seto Inland Sea; Yonebayashi, however, thought the Kushiro wetlands of northern Hokkaido would suit the story better.
The story goes as such: Anna is being raised by her foster parents in Sapporo, Hokkaido. After suffering an asthma attack, the socially anxious young girl is sent off to an aunt and uncle in Kushiro in the countryside in order to convalesce. One day, Anna, depressed and inwardly drawn, notices an ethereal girl with blonde hair sitting at the window of an abandoned mansion across the marshes. When she finally encounters the mysterious girl, named Marnie, the two immediately feel a deep connection, and Marnie begins to draw Anna out of her deep well of sadness. But there’s more to this girl, who seems almost to exist in a different time, than meets the eye…
Despite the lack of oversight from the old masters, this movie still has many of those Ghibli hallmarks. Naturalism of motion, subtle displays of emotions, portrayals of idiosyncrasies we innately understand (Anna, just wanting to be on her own but not be rude, tries to dash out of her Aunt’s house before the latter can talk to her).
It also has some aspects that veer a little off course from that “Ghibli” feeling, however. The soundtrack, occasionally effective but one of the studio’s least memorable, sometimes gains a slightly treacly feel. Anna’s young friend, Sayaka, introduced a bit late into the movie, also feels like another company’s attempt at a precocious Ghibli young’n. She sort of takes the wind out of some dramatic scenes, at least for me.
The setting, however, is a real treat, replacing Norfolk marshland for those of Hokkaido. Anna’s aunt’s house is the perfect craftsman’s cabin, the exact sort of place one would love to visit. And having Anna be from Hokkaido herself — just the capital city, Sapporo – grounds the movie as a fully Hokkaido-based story, no Tokyo needed.
The animation itself is quiet and beautiful, if not out-of-this-world gorgeous. Nothing about this movie begs for artistic flair like other Ghibli movies, yet it’s incredible to see what modern Ghibli animation can do when used to display mostly normal life. The result isn’t a heightened reality, like Shinkai Makoto’s movies, nor is it the near cinéma vérité of Only Yesterday, Grave of the Fireflies, or Ocean Waves, but rather an extremely well-animated reflection of normal life.
This presentation does give the movie a fairly strong ambiance, but, as what’s essentially a ghost story, Marnie could honestly stand to be a little creepier. The few moments where it verges into the darker aspects are suitably atmospheric – but I wish there was a tiny bit more. Still, the mystery of Marnie is compelling. This is mostly possible because Marnie herself, who could so easily have verged into Moe-bait, is a compelling and complex character. Anna herself is as well, a great example of an introvert character with social anxiety being portrayed sympathetically and realistically. Seeing Marnie bring her out of her shell is a treat. I do wish more attention was given to perceptions of Marnie’s as a hafu – the lack of commentary on that othering aspect seems like a waste of something that could have been profound.
Of course, this brings us to the interesting readings certain scenes can have. Before the movie came out, many actively wondered if the two would be Ghibl’s first same-sex couple, and some scenes almost suggest this sort of feeling between the two girls. This would have been a bold step (if other plot aspects were changed), but I think these scenes do actually make sense within the movie, as complicated as they end up being. It certainly makes for something to think about.
Much of the middle action is also less engaging than other Ghibli films. However, just like Yonebayashi’s other Ghibli movie, it’s saved in the ending. Although the final act revelations don’t work for everyone, they really do for me — bringing forth a legitimately emotional and earned final impact. Anna’s final understanding that she isn’t alone — that even with the tragedy in her life, that she’s always been loved — brings all the theming together in a satisfying way and transforms both her and Marnie into deep, memorable characters. It had a major effect on me when I first saw it, and continues to get me teary-eyed each time I watch it.
Honestly, it’s hard for me to decide between Marnie or Arrietty in terms of which Yonebayashi movie I like better. Marnie is more emotionally satisfying, but Arrietty feels more unique and is perhaps stronger throughout. Both have strong endings, but I think Arrietty sticks in my mind just a bit more.
This is a good movie, and I’m glad it exists. But I have to admit — I firmly hope this isn’t the last Ghibli movie we see released. It’s a bit of a quiet, restrained way for the studio to go out.
#25 – On Your Mark
Take Me Down to Irradiated City, We Live Underground and Winged Girls are Pretty
For many years, On Your Mark was the holy grail of the overseas Ghibli fandom. Before the days of wikis and fan databases, rare images of a winged, classic Miyazaki-style heroine and her police escort proliferated among fans, with little information attached. Who was this angelic girl, who so resembled Nausicaa? Was this some forgotten Miyazaki film, somehow unknown beyond Japan? For those who wanted and needed every last piece of animation created by Miyazaki, these images offered up a tantalizing source of mystery.
Sadly, On Your Mark isn’t some feature-length Miyazaki movie that time forgot. It is, however, a very unique and beautiful piece of animation, well worthy of its semi-legendary status.
On Your Mark is Miyazaki’s singular music video, animated at the request of famous J-rock duo Chage & Aska. Miyazaki was a big fan of their music, and when he hit a rut on production for Princess Mononoke the director decided to take a well-deserved break from that film… in order to write, plan, and design an entirely separate piece of animation. The result is this seven-minute PV, which played before screenings of Whisper of the Heart in 1995.
Being a music video, there’s no dialogue – the story is told via the visuals, bearing only small relation to the song’s lyrics. In a future where the earth has seemingly been irradiated, and giant Chernobyl-esque sarcophagi tower over the landscape, humanity has taken to massive, futuristic underground cities. One day, two policemen participate in a violent raid of a cult headquarters. Lying amongst the dead they discover a young woman with wings sprouting from her back. The two feel immediate empathy for the girl, but she’s soon whisked away by hazmat-suited scientists in order to be made the subject of testing. The two policemen decide to carry out a daring rescue.
Most of all, On Your Mark presents a tantalizing and all-too-short look at a fascinating world that, sadly, we’ll never get to spend more time in. The design and production value here is completely up to theatrical Ghibli standards. Visually, it looks much more “hard sci-fi” than anything else Ghibli has ever done (like Nausicaa, it’s post-apocalyptic, but seems to have a much higher tech level). The underground city, the hovering police attack vehicles, the cult headquarters (likely inspired by the infamous new religion Aum Shinrikyo, whose sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway was carried only months before this released), the labs and computers; it’s a sort of setting we only ever get here. Add in the likable characters, who you come to care for within a seven-minute timeframe with zero dialogue, and it’s easy to wish this was actually a full-length film. It could easily have been something special.
If there’s a problem, I think it’s with Miyazaki’s choice to display branching, conflicting timelines within the story. The song deals with striving forward despite setbacks; Miyazaki represents this by showing alternate timelines of failure and success for our heroes. However, at just seven minutes, there just isn’t enough time to really flesh out this idea, and it’s only used about twice. It’s not bad, per se, but I’m just not sure it fully works.
Either way, this is just a wonderful little treat for anyone who loves Miyazaki. Sadly, there’s still no official release in North America, but you can still find On Your Mark if you know where to look. It won’t be seven minutes you’ll regret.
#24 – Arrietty
“You stole my boat!” “Borrowed. Borrowed without permission.”
Arrietty, based on the long-beloved children’s novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton, marks a sort of liminal film for Ghibli. It’s the first film directed by Yonebayashi Hiromasa, a dependable animator who had worked on Spirited Away, Howl’s, and Ponyo, and who briefly looked like the chosen Ghibli successor – until company restructuring led him to form a successor studio of his own, Studio Ponoc, in 2015. Personally, I see this film as the beginning of what might be termed late-stage Ghibli, when for the first time there would be more than one movie by another director in between films by Miyazaki or Takahata.
This isn’t a judgment on the film’s quality, however. Arrietty is a good movie, deserving of the Ghibli name.
The story follows the general ideas of The Borrowers, only with scribes Miyazaki and Niwa exchanging 1950s England for present-day Koganei, Tokyo. Arrietty is a member of a tribe of tiny, finger-sized people who live under the floorboards of the houses of larger humans. Her father, Pod, is a skilled “borrower” who ventures into the living spaces of the house in order to scale cupboards and walls in a quest to spirit away (heh) small amounts of materials – sugar, tissues, crackers, pins – which won’t be missed by the humans, but which can be used by his family to survive. Arrietty, brave, high-spirited, and competent, is excited to go out with her father on her first-ever “borrowing” mission. Alas, her world comes crashing down when she’s spotted by Sho (or Shawn, as he’s called for some reason in the Disney dub), a young human boy staying in the house to rest before a heart operation. Being seen by a human is believed to spell disaster, and Pod and Arrietty’s mother prepare to move the family into a new home as quickly as possible – but meanwhile, Arrietty and Sho have begun an unlikely friendship.
When you’re watching the Ghibli films in order, Arrietty can seem a bit… dare I say it, mundane after the incredible animated visuals and creativity of Ponyo, the vast landscapes of Earthsea, and the extensive and gorgeous worlds of Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. However, Arrietty does have a quiet charm of its own, coupled with some serious creativity in regards to the display of the human world as seen from a bug’s-eye view.
Arrietty’s family has crafted a beautiful home out of pieces of wallpaper, abandoned glass bottles, and dried flowers and plants. Postage stamps are framed on the walls, and a broken flower pot serves as a fireplace. Water at Arrietty’s size moves differently, coalescing into large blobs via surface tension. The inside of the human’s house’s walls become places of adventure, where nails are used as stairs and mice the size of lions prowl. Traversing a kitchen floor becomes an adventure.
This sense of changed scale makes this film another in a long line of Ghibli creations with memorable and engaging settings. It brings a sense of the epic to the spaces we’re used to hardly noticing as we walk from our couches to the dinner table.
The movie has a quiet sense of pace. Its atmosphere is enhanced by Breton artist Cécile Corbel’s Celtic-inspired score, which sonically sets this movie apart from others in the Ghibli canon. I find the soundtrack one of the more memorable parts of the film.
The cast is small – essentially three humans and four kobito (the Japanese word used for Arrietty’s diminutive tribe). The heart of the story, though, is found in the relationship between Arrietty and the human boy Sho. These two, both afraid for their futures, form a very naturalistic relationship. Sho, who honestly can come off as creepy at first glance, is a boy whose heart condition makes him fear his own extinction. He projects this existential dread onto Arrietty and her disappearing tribe, to which Arrietty pushes back. Their interactions end up being the best part of the movie, and their shared actions towards the end, all of which take place within one house, are both moving and exciting.
I really like this movie and its heroine. I especially love that this is yet another Ghibli film to grant a sense of adventure, loss, and hope. Overall, it’s not always as engaging as the films that came chronologically before it – for example, although the antagonistic household maid Haru is perversely funny, the extraneous characters don’t have much to them — but, Arrietty is indeed a good Ghibli film.
#23 – Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess
This is a fun one.
After finishing up the intense and lengthy production of Ponyo, Miyazaki turned his creative attention to another short film germinating in his mind. The director had been inspired by the 1565 painting The Harvesters by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The piece depicts a bucolic scene as farmers thresh a golden field of shoulder-high wheat; Miyazaki merged this image with the idea of European fairytales similar to the Japanese tale Omusubi Kororin, in which a riceball flees down a hill. Miyazaki envisioned a European story of fleeing bread set within Bruegel’s landscapes.
That story ended up looking like this: deep in a thorny briar patch lives the lazy and improbably buxom witch Baba Yaga. The witch, discovering a little egg girl, makes the girl her prisoner, forcing her to do all the backbreaking chores around the witch’s lair. One night, a batch of dough comes magically to life, and the egg girl and her doughy protector flee Baba Yaga for the countryside.
This short is the perfect example of how Miyazaki can create an entire living world within the span of only thirteen minutes. Baba Yaga’s dirty, cluttered house clinging to a cliff is a classic Miyazaki space, feeling like the direct evolution of the sort of thing we saw in Howl’s Moving Castle six years earlier. As the witch greedily chows down on dozens of fried eggs, she even begins to look like a corrupted version of protagonist Sophie from that same movie. This short is done entirely without dialogue, yet the framing, world, and inspired use of Hisaishi Joe’s baroque arrangement of “La Follia” tells us all we need to know. (The score is actually on Spotify – I recommend checking it out.)
Our unlikely food-based duo escapes into a medieval town as alive as any seen in the Studio’s history, swarming with citizenry bringing in the wheat harvest. The combination of music and visuals gives the short a uniquely thrilling storybook quality. It’s really a beauty to behold, and a perfect example of the power of the museum’s shorts in taking advantage of the wonders possible in short animation.
All in all, this might be my favorite museum short. I really hope the day comes when these are made accessible to the general public – Mr. Dough and the Egg Princess deserves to be seen.
#22 – Ocean Waves
Shikoku Growing Pains
By 1993, Ghibli was already becoming something of an institution. With nearly a decade of effective output, each film becoming a classic and many becoming box office hits, one thing had remained constant: the directorship of Miyazaki and Takahata. With these two behind the reigns, there was little room for other talent at the studio to stretch their abilities and take the lead. Ocean Waves was conceived as a way to remedy this issue; it would be a television film made entirely by young staff (and respected slice-of-life director Mochizuki Tomomi) “quickly, cheaply, and with quality.” One look at the beautiful animation can clue us into the fact that the “quickly” and “cheaply” aspects never quite came to fruition.
The singular Ghibli television film, this is perhaps the most straightforward story of everyday life ever made by the studio. Taku is a young college student in Tokyo; one day, about to board the train at Kichijoji Station, he chances to see a girl on the opposite platform whom he thinks he knows. About to head back to his hometown in distant Kochi on the island of Shikoku for a high school reunion, he reflects on his history with this girl, Rikako. A transfer student from Tokyo, Rikako was headstrong, pretty, but unpopular; isolated in provincial Kochi when her parents divorced and her mother moved to her home prefecture, she’s unhappy with her surroundings. Taku and his friend Yutaka are subtly drawn to her; an understated tale of bittersweet high school drama results.
Whether you’ll find this film engaging or somewhat tedious will really depend on the sort of movies you enjoy. Unlike the stylistically somewhat similar Only Yesterday from two years earlier, this is not an outright masterpiece. Rather, it’s a quiet, nostalgic character piece. Anyone with experience with Japanese schooling or growing up in Japan will immediately find a great deal of detail here to be accurate; anyone who was ever been to high school, however, should still find themselves transported back to the little squabbles and petty frustrations of young adulthood. Moments when even small encounters with the right person seemed all-important.
Another aspect as to how well you’ll enjoy Ocean Waves is how receptive you are to the characters. Everything here is realistically understated, including our mains. Taku and his stolid friend Yutaka are both likable, and their simple friendship is enjoyable to watch. Rikako, the character on whom the action hinges, could be a more difficult sell. She’s manipulative and insensitive, and her charming qualities are, like so much in the movie, subtle. Watching the two male leads fall for this complex but somewhat unlikeable figure can be frustrating, depending on one’s perspective.
On the other hand, Rikako’s situation is highly relatable – cut off from her world in Tokyo, sent to the boonies, surrounded by people with accents that remind her of samurai “period pieces,” she’s isolated. Still attached to the idea of Tokyo, she seems to feel like even acknowledging the potential of her life in Kochi would be a betrayal. When I was younger, I found her annoying. Now that I’m far enough away from high school, I can better understand her impulsive, emotional character, and notice her peculiar strengths. After all, in the end, the whole point of the film is how small our world is in high school; how foolish our actions can look in retrospect, how much we can blossom once allowed into a wider sphere of existence.
Speaking of spheres, I have one major area I’d like to praise: the presentation of the local. Ocean Waves has a great sense of place — of central vs. the periphery. This film is all about Kochi, a beautiful little seaside prefectural capital. Rikako is the lone outsider among a group of “provincials,” and the disassociation this causes between her and the others is well played. Sadly, part of the depth here will be lost on those without an ear for Japanese; everyone sans Rikako speaks in the heavy Tosa dialect. Feelings of superiority and cultural cringe brought on by regional differences are a subtle but significant part of the movie, including in a central section of the film spent on trips in Hawaii and Tokyo. Of real interest is that Taku, narrating the film from the present, has lost his dialect after only two years of living in Tokyo.
However, there is one area where I will actively criticize this film. Ocean Waves possesses what is possibly the weakest Ghibli soundtrack. The main theme is a fine tune, but the keyboard, which so much of the simple music seems to emanate from, sounds cheap. At times, the soundtrack actively detracts from scenes that would be much better if simply left without any score. For a film that is so realistic and down-to-earth, the soundtrack actively cheapens and dates the experience. Ghibli has created some of the best soundtracks in film, but this ain’t one of them.
There will be people who find themselves very drawn to this movie, and others who will come away bored or frustrated. In the end, I find it an engaging, subtly played journey into a time and place that’s very specific, and yet familiar to anyone who remembers being dumb, anxious, excited, and most of all, young.
#21 – Horus, Prince of the Sun
In 1965, two young animators were given the chance to craft a brand new feature film. This was still fairly early in the history of Japanese color animation; the very first film of that type had been released merely seven years previous. Japanese animation was, if not in its infancy, barely in its adolescence. Animated movies were kiddy fair, based in large part on the Disney model. There was little in such movies in terms of characterization, themes, or message to appeal to adults. With Horus, Prince of the Sun, director Takahata Isao and animation head Miyazaki Hayao thought to change all that.
This film and its production really are a landmark, both for the future of Studio Ghibli and for Japanese animation as a whole. This is where Takahata and Miyazaki met and began their lifelong animation relationship; it’s where Japanese animation took its first steps toward maturity. It’s also, I think, a thoroughly enjoyable – if flawed and somewhat dated – film.
The story here is based on Ainu folklore, although Toei balked at a potentially controversial portrayal of Japan’s ill-treated indigenous people, forcing a change in setting from Hokkaido to the equally chilly Scandinavia. The folk origins remain strong, and the film truly feels like a simple ancient tale injected with socialist ideals of the supposed equality of primordial village life. Horus, our main character, is a young boy living in a remote wasteland with his father. One day, while fending off a pack of vicious wolves, he stumbles upon a great stone giant. After helping the giant remove a painful thorn from its body, the “thorn” is revealed to be the legendary Sword of the Sun. When his father, on his deathbed, tells Horus to seek out their home village, which was destroyed by a great evil, Horus sets off. He encounters the demon responsible, and after finding a new home in another human settlement, promises to help protect his new community from all harm. He then finds another orphan among the sunken ruins of his father’s old village; this is Hilda, who possesses a beautiful singing voice and a terrible secret.
For a modern audience used to how anime has come to look, sound, and function in the decades since, Horus can be a bit of a hard sell. That’s too bad, because there’s much here to be appreciated and enjoyed. The first quality that may stick out upon viewing is the animation. While design aspects might seem simple, Horus has surprisingly kinetic movement and action. The frame rate is often much higher than we see in modern fare, and it’s used to great effect. Action choreography is tight and fluid, and a scene where Horus faces down a murderous giant pike could honestly be called one of the best-animated scenes in any anime.
Unfortunately, the animation is a double-edged sword. The film production ran extremely overlong, and Toei eventually ordered the film production to close without time for some scenes to be finished. The result is two sequences wherein the village is attacked without any animation – just chaotic, hard-to-follow stills. These scenes, which look like they could have been promising, are scuttled by the lack of animation.
However, in what animation there is, we can see some of the genesis of the naturalistic movement and character actions Ghibli would become famous for. Little movements and expressions that are hardly necessary for progressing the plot, but reveal the humanity of the characters involved.
Speaking of such characters, while Horus may be the title character, it’s Hilda who’s the real star of the show; remarkably for this age of animated film, she’s complex; conflicted. So much of her character can be seen in future Ghibli characters; Nausicaa, Sheeta, San, Theru, Kaguya. In fact, Horus and Hilda’s relationship bears more than a passing resemblance to Ashitaka and San from Princess Mononoke, right down to a confrontation in which the conflicted heroine is told “no, you are human!” She’s also the only character who seems to have been allowed to retain some semblance of the Ainu design originally envisioned in the film, sporting a headband reminiscent of the Ainu matampus. It’s her inner conflict that most draws the viewer in, and which truly makes this movie ahead of its time. In fact, she’s often viewed as the first complex female character in anime. It’s been fifty-two years since she first appeared on screen, and I’d still consider her one of my favorite characters from any of the films on this list.
The other thing of note here is the socialist theming of the movie. Takahata was in his early 30s when this movie released; Miyazaki was 27. Both were highly involved in the tumultuous social movements of the age. Indeed, Miyazaki had become a labor union leader almost as soon as he entered Toei. Takahata became a major influence on Miyazaki’s feelings towards social justice and political ideology throughout the making of this movie, and the film was clearly made with the intention of visualizing those ideals. Horus worships the prototypical idea of the village, of idealized pre-industrial agriculture, the innate imagined socialism of ages past. Those in the film who scheme to amass wealth – the mayor and his advisor – are portrayed as evil petit bourgeoisie. What’s important is for the workers and people of the village to unite, to scare off the hoarders, and to face down adversity as a single community. Mamiya Michio, who would go on to score other films for Takahata, provides European-sounding folk work songs to underscore this message; images of mighty hammers raised in unison drive them home.
While the pacing, animation style, voice-acting, and unvarnished violence towards animals may turn some modern viewers off, this is still an epic tale, well told. If you love Ghibli, Miyazaki, Takahata, strong female characters, or animation history in general, it’s very much worth a watch.
Another batch of great films down — it’s time slowly to move into masterpiece territory! Join us tomorrow for the continuation!