SIFF Uptown is hosting the Studio Ghibli retrospective, Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli, which has been touring around the country. I took the opportunity to see a double feature of films that have never been released on home video in the U.S., or at least aren’t currently available. Studio Ghibli is most famous for producing the films of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, but neither of these films was directed by him.
The first was Only Yesterday (Omohide poro poro, 1991), which was directed by the other co-founder of the studio, Isao Takahata. I had previously seen Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994), about the displacement of a tribe of tanuki (a Japanese animal like the raccoon) by human development. Only Yesterday is a very different film, although it touches on similar environmental concerns. It’s based on a manga and has a very novelistic feel. A 27-year-old woman is traveling to the countryside for a vacation on a farm, and as she travels on the train she remembers events from when she was ten and going to the fifth grade at a school in Tokyo in 1966. She was an oddball child, not understood by her parents or her sisters. The depiction of the children at the school and of the dynamics within the family are extremely powerful and detailed. The story is slow and uneventful, but full of great humor and poignancy.
In the present timeline Taeko spends her vacation working on a farm in the countryside, and we also get to know the inhabitants of the farm, especially the genial Toshio, a young man who unlike many of his peers has decided to stay on the farm and pursue his father’s career. The story weaves back and forth between Taeko’s memories of her childhood and her experiences on the farm. It’s in the farm story that the environmental concerns come forward. Toshio is an organic farmer and expatiates on the relationship between humans and nature. There’s also much discussion of life in the city versus life in the shrinking countryside, with the latter — and traditional Japanese values in general — being valorized. Taeko has drifted through her life up to this point, and the film is about her finally coming to terms with her past and her future. I found it enormously moving, and the coda in which the two timelines are tied together was almost painfully sweet. Simple story-telling that builds to a well-earned climax. Great stuff, and apparently a surprise box office triumph in Japan. (Nobody expected a naturalistic anime aimed at a female audience to be so popular.)
The second film was Ocean Waves (Umi ga kikoeru, 1993) — a TV movie that’s also a coming of age story, like Only Yesterday, although I didn’t find it as powerful as the first film. Director Tomomi Mochizuki doesn’t seem to have directed anything else for Studio Ghibli. It’s set in a high school where two boys have become close friends. A beautiful girl transfers into the school in mid-year, and her troubled life is slowly revealed. Both boys fall in love with her. This film also has a strong sense of humor, but its sense of character isn’t anywhere near as developed as in Only Yesterday. Then again, it was at least a half an hour shorter, so it didn’t outlast its welcome either. If nothing else it was another window into quotidian Japanese life, where the foibles of adolescents looked all too familiar.
The theater was packed with devoted fans for both movies, and that made the experience especially fun. You hear a lot of grumbling about how awful movie audiences are these days, but there was certainly no evidence of bad behavior in this crowd. Instead we all fed on a shared enthusiasm for anime, and especially that of Studio Ghibli. A wonderful night out at the movies. The retrospective continues at SIFF Uptown through July 5th.