REVIEW: The Music of Studio Ghibli

This past Saturday, the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra performed a sold-out show at the Michigan Theater. Led and conducted by Wilbur Lin, the orchestra played arrangements of film scores from Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro. 

The concert was a delight. I have grown up watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, and had been looking forward to this event since the start of the semester. Joe Hisaishi’s scores are particularly successful as not only the main themes are iconic, but each other piece from each film are unique, sweeping, whimsical, full of wonder, and simply beautiful to listen to. 

The Spirited Away arrangement perfectly encapsulated the mystery of the film, as well as the chaos that ensues as the story progresses. It was a treat to watch the orchestra play live, and being able to identify what instruments were playing what. With “Merry-Go-Round” and “Cave of Mind” from Howl’s Moving Castle, I loved hearing the same theme played via different techniques – plucking, or pizzicato, as well as the typical bowing technique I am most familiar with hearing. 

I also appreciated that Maestro Lin spoke between arrangements to discuss themes from the film, noting the differences between the more Hollywood dramatic scores of Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle and the more popular-and-familiar-at-the-time Japanese TV reminiscent score of Totoro. The Totoro Orchestra Stories were particularly joyful as the music is arranged to teach children about the different components to an orchestra – highlighting the woodwinds, strings, percussion, etc. by section before the orchestra as a whole launches into themes from the film. Local music teacher Momo Kajiwara also joined the stage as a narrator in Japanese. 

I had only been to one orchestra performance of a film score prior to this event. At the first event I attended, the symphony orchestra performed the entire score for the third Harry Potter film, with the film playing on a screen above the performers. I often find that when I watch a film or show, I do notice the score, but it is something I have to revisit after watching in order to fully appreciate. Hearing the score isolated from the context of the film with the Ghibli concert allowed me to be completely immersed in the music, and having the films played in the background was not necessary to be engaged and awed. 

And of course, seeing Totoro in the flesh was a welcome surprise:

REVIEW: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke is a Studio Ghibli film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki that follows a young man who searches for a forest spirit that can lift his curse, one that was inflicted upon him by a possessed demon boar. This is one of Miyazaki’s darker films, depicting the way in which human progress often comes at the expense of nature, as well as at the expense of other humans. 

The key players in this film and what make it worth watching are a young woman named San who was raised by wolves, and Lady Eboshi, the woman who runs a nearby town where her ironworks provide the primary source of income. Eboshi actively seeks to rid the forest of San and the wolves in order to expand her town and presence as a threat to other villages. The forest is represented by the Deer, Wolf, and Boar Gods, who seek to protect their home and clearly voice their hatred for humans. The way the relationship between humans and the environment is particularly compelling, with demons being created by the violence perpetrated by the humans of Irontown, and Eboshi justifying her actions as Irontown provides a safe space for sex workers and lepers. Eboshi is the clear antagonist of the film and is driven by greed, but I find it interesting that she also sees the forest as a source of evil, and believes San was corrupted by the animals in the forest. I always find it interesting when an antagonist is more interesting than the protagonist – Ashitaka is a little boring – and I also really enjoyed how the forest was essentially a living creature, represented by the Gods and San, all acting defensively with reason to hate the humans. 

Another aspect of the film worth noting is the animation. Studio Ghibli is known for its whimsical background and character designs, and Princess Mononoke continues this trend, but also incorporates more violent imagery to go along with its themes. There are several fight sequences in this film, the best being a confrontation between Lady Eboshi and San early on. I particularly loved the animation for San’s movements, how quick and aggressive she ran and fought, and how acrobatic her technique was at the same time. One of my favorite shots from the film is in this scene: it is from San’s point of view as she charges head on at Eboshi, who remains centered in the frame as the townsfolk scatter out of the frame.

I also loved the design of the demon that Ashitaka fights in the beginning of the film and again, I love the movement. The way it crawls is terrifying and the tendrils coming out of its body are disgusting yet mesmerizing to watch (click the image to see for yourself). 

There is so much to appreciate about Princess Mononoke – its themes, characters, technical aspects, and more. It is one of my favorite Studio Ghibli films and perhaps one of their more underrated films – and I highly recommend it. 

PREVIEW: Princess Mononoke

Princess Mononoke is a 1997 Studio Ghibli film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki. The film takes place somewhere between 1336-1573 AD, during Japan’s Muromachi period, but incorporates the fantasy elements Studio Ghibli is known for. Exploring themes of the environment – primarily humans’ relationship with and their dependency on nature – the film follows a prince who finds himself wrapped up in a conflict between the forest spirits and a nearby town. 

I have grown up watching Studio Ghibli films but was always afraid to watch Princess Mononoke because of the more violent imagery compared to that of My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. While Miyazaki is known for these children’s films, he often touches on themes of war, such as in his film Porco Rosso. About making Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki has said: “I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After [Porco Rosso], we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?” I watched Princess Mononoke recently and loved how it touched on heavier topics, with a hopeful ending that at the same time is not escapist, and does not undo all of the strife that had been depicted throughout the film. I highly recommend watching this film, especially in theaters. 

Princess Mononoke will be playing on Friday, February 4 at 10pm as part of the Michigan Theater’s Late Nights series. 

REVIEW: The Tale of Princess Kaguya

This animated film comes at the end of the Michigan Theater’s Ghibli Studios series.  Directed by Isao Takahata, whose other works include “Grave of the Firefiles” and “Pom Poko,” the movie has a different style than most other Ghibli Studio films.  It is drawn in a sketchy style and the colors are subtle as if painted by watercolors.  The soundtrack is also noticeably delicate and playful as if the music is in reaction to the animation.  The tale is taken from a Japanese folktale and begins with the birth of a little girl from the stalk of a bamboo.  A bamboo cutter is the one who finds her and he and his wife take her in and raise the girl as their own.  Amongst other tales, this one has similarities with the story of Thumbelina, but the similarities end there.  The girl, unlike Thumbelina, grows up faster than a normal child.  She is nicknamed “Little Bamboo” by the other children in the village because she grows so quickly.

The father suddenly decides that there must be a better life that awaits his daughter.  Living in the country she grows up with the wildlife, helping out with the gathering food, and exploring the forests with her friends.  But as her childhood ends her father is determined to make his Little Bamboo the princess she deserves to be.  After receiving piles of golden nuggets from a bamboo stalk, he interprets this as a sign from the gods to make his daughter a better life in the city and to have her become educated as a royal.  Little Bamboo leaves her care-free life in the country to pursue the life her father wants for her.  For the love of her father, she learns the manners and customs of the nobility.  It seems a self-fulfilling prophecy is being made as, under her father’s instruction, Little Bamboo becomes the most beautiful and desirable lady in the kingdom and is referred to as princess.  Little Bamboo’s happiness has been taken away in the carries on day to day life with disinterest.  She tries to spend all of her time in the kitchen, the one part of her new house that she feels comfortable in, but the world around her always comes around and compels her to come out again.

Her struggle in this world stems from the story of why she came to be in the bamboo stalk, a story that is not revealed until the end.  It is only through the telling of her own story does the current world make sense and the world she knows ceases become reality and more like a folk tale.  It is interesting to examine the reasons behind how such a story was written.  Not that there must be a lesson to every folk tale, but after seeing this movie I came away wanting to cherish those feelings and relationships earned from stories more than ever, because though they are fictional they are unique and it is important to recognize this and understand the power stories can have.


REVIEW: Princess Mononoke

The story begins in ancient Japan, during a time of warring villages and samurai and monsters.  Prince Ashitaka of the Emishi people is defending his village from a demon boar when he becomes cursed by the demon, and as a result he is given super-human strength while also that same power threatens to kill him from the inside.  In an effort to find the source of the curse, Ashitaka follows the cause of the demon’s suffering, a ball of iron, to a mining town that is using the iron to build weapons.  Traveling far to the west, he meets the Princess Mononoke in the forests, riding on the back of a large white wolf.  In this time period, gods still exist amongst animals, they are larger than life forms of the animals we know today, and are intelligent and able to talk with humans.  But something in the world is changing this.  More and more animals are born unable to speak and the cause of this seems to lie with the humans.

Ashitaka takes up residence in the town that is creating the iron, but he is unable to convince them to stop their mining and manufacturing.  The manufacturing force is comprised largely of former prostitutes and men and women ostracized from society by diseases such as leprosy.  They have come to this town and found a better lifestyle which they are prepared to defend.  Their mining efforts continue and Ashitaka leaves the town to see if he can find the Princess Mononoke again.

There is a theme of growth and change in the movie, not just in the changing of the humans relationship between themselves and the environment, but also the change from a feudal society to one that is contemplating contemporary problems in an ancient civilization.  Though the town is creating problem with its iron production, it is also making significant changes in societal norms.  Women and men’s roles are divided such that men do the fighting and women stay home and make the iron.  The disabled are in charge of design and innovation of new technologies, and each person contributes equally to the society so no one group is considered higher above the other.

As the human society seems to be propelling towards the future that we know today, the animals and the spirits of the natural world are heading towards their respective future in contemporary society.  As mining destroys mountain homes and humans support deforestation, the animals are being pushed further and further away from their homes and from their roles as intelligent beings.  The role of animal gods and forest spirits is changing from one that exists in parallel to the human world to one that will only belong in fables and story-telling.  The wolf goddess, the mother to the wolf-girl Princess Mononoke, knows that the world is growing larger than the animals, and that the existence of spirits will soon become a memory to the humans.  But Princess Mononoke, who sees herself as a wolf born in the body of a human, chooses to fight for her place in the world.  She does not fit with the humans, but through the fighting she learns that she does not fit completely in the world of the animals either.  Prince Ashitaka inevitably falls in love with the Princess, for he dreams of a society where humans and animals live in harmony, or the embodiment of what the Princess represents.  He and the princess work together to stop the humans and animals from fighting, but the war culminates in the death of two great animal gods, as well as the cutting off of the head of the forest spirit.  There is death on both sides, as it goes with war.  The humans, now displaced and their iron works destroyed, have a post-apocalypse hopefulness and plan to move on and build a better town founded on better values.  The forest spirit no longer takes the physical form it used to, but Ashitaka emphasizes at the end that the forest spirit is not dead, he exists instead in a form invisible to humans.

Preview: Porco Rosso – State Theater


What: Porco Rosso – Film
Where: State Theater
When: Wednesday 12 November, 7pm
How Much: $8 Student, $10 General Admission

Written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, and released in 1992, ‘Porco Rosso’ follows an Italian WWI flying ace now acting as a bounty hunter targeting “air pirates.” A Strange curse transforms him into an anthropomorphic pig. Magic, action, love and intrigue drive this youthful and entertaining plot.