Generally speaking I don’t cry in the movie theatre. Being teased relentlessly in childhood for being a crybaby has, for better or worse, trained me to develop stiff upper lips and emotional dams that rarely flood over (we can discuss how unhealthy this is for me another time). But one of the few occasions that I have openly wept in public was during a film festival screening of When Marnie Was There in 2015.
In September 2013, as legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki was promoting his latest film The Wind Rises, he announced that he was retiring from directing and soon after his animation company Studio Ghibli announced that they would be taking a hiatus in light of his retirement. With three feature films still on the docket to soften the blow, the news didn’t feel completely emotionally devastating as we had new material to look forward to. But as the credits rolled two years later on When Marnie Was There, the writing was literally on the wall. Studio Ghibli was, for all intents and purposes, now closed for business. And I wept.
Of course, as often happens in cases of perfectionist artists like Miyazaki, his firm commitment to retire wavered and he now finds himself furiously animating a new feature with a newly restarted Studio Ghibli that hopefully will come out in time for Tokyo’s Olympic Games in 2020. I figured this was as good a time as any to run through all of Studio Ghibli’s films to remind myself exactly why these movies hold such a dear place in my heart and were formative not only to opening myself up to watching anime in general but to piquing my interest to explore movies beyond the English-speaking world.
Like United Artists before it, Studio Ghibli was founded to be a studio that was fundamentally artist-focused and not profits-first. Filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, along with producer Toshio Suzuki founded the studio in 1985 with the explicit desire of wanting to make animated movies and shorts without outside studio pressure. With the creative freedom to make movies how they wanted to make them, they went on an unparalleled streak of stunning animated movies that pushed the art of animation and animated storytelling into new heights with perhaps only Walt Disney’s original run from Snow White to Bambi rivaling it for its impact on the medium. Studio Ghibli has frequently been cited as inspiration to the folks behind Pixar and undoubtedly Ghibli’s work paved the way for the explosion of animation that we see today (with the visually ambitious Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse only the latest addition to our current animation renaissance).
Before we can get to Studio Ghibli’s output, I figure it would be appropriate to start right before with Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. In many ways this movie’s financial success paved the way for the formation of Studio Ghibli in the first place, but it also laid the blueprint for the kind of storytelling that would be its hallmark. But before we dive in, a digression:
SIDE BAR: WHERE I STAND ON SUB VS. DUB
In case the heading above makes no sense to you, let me give some context. Since anime is by definition a cartoon, starting from the 80s there was a general desire to export them from Japan so as to be appealing to children in North America and beyond. The one obvious problem: all the cartoons were in Japanese, and not English. To mitigate this problem the solution was to re-dub all the dialogue and sound effects into English and the early efforts to do so were generally horrifically awkward, leading to whole generations of the public to have a negative perception to anime.
And yet, because listening to any dialogue other than English is seemingly a barrier to some anime fans, the debate of whether the practice of dubbing the original vocal track into English (“dub”) or whether simply providing subtitles while keeping the original vocal performances (“sub”) is better has raged on. Since I am going through all of the Studio Ghibli feature films in this series this is my chance to lay down why, if given the choice I will always prefer to watch an anime (or any foreign-language movie) “sub”:
- A dubbed voice performance is at best a replicated performance and at worst betrays the source material. Voice actors make an infinite amount of actor choices when recording their performances, including the pace of line delivery, the tone of their voice, and the particular emphasis on the lines themselves (as well as some possible ad-libbing). The choices the actor makes are particular to the actors skill-set, interpretation of the text, life experiences, and intuition. Additionally voice actors work closely with the director to make sure their vocal performance makes sense in the context of the movie itself. All of this is lost when you dub a movie, as the dubbed voice performer has the choice of either trying to replicate the performance and risk not sounding organic or trying to do their own thing and thus shift the meaning of the original work. The line that skirts between these two disparate paths is extremely small and so far I have not heard a dubbed performance that does not in some way fall into these traps.
- Language has an aesthetic dimension. Obviously Japanese sounds different from English. Tones, cadences, and vowel sounds are tied to the language and often times the aesthetic qualities of a language derive meaning. More pointedly:
- Language and culture are inextricably tied. A language always carries meaning beyond itself. When Japanese filmmakers use Japanese, even when depicting fantastical and foreign cultures like Studio Ghibli does, they are looking at the world through a Japanese lens. Divorcing a movie from its original language divorces it from the culture in which it was made. A dub is inevitably an act of interpretation – inviting us to encounter the movie on our terms rather than on its own terms. And as the cliche often goes, many things get lost in translation.
- Paradoxically, reading subtitles forces me to pay more attention to the movie. It is extremely easy for me to watch an English-language movie at home while checking my e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter. However the only way I can enjoy a foreign language movie is by devoting my full attention to what is happening onscreen. And I promise you, with a little bit of practice (try it with a foreign movie you’ve already seen dubbed) reading subtitles while paying full attention to what is happening onscreen is something that is second nature. I’ve now started to make it a practice to watch English-language movies with subtitles because it eliminates the need to try and figure out what is being said and simply focus on how its being said and what else is happening in relation to the conversation.
In short. Choose sub. Every time.
NAUSICAÄ OF THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (1984) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
Only Hayao Miyazaki’s second feature film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind showcased Miyazaki’s imaginative talents with a story that was at once familiar to fans of high fantasy while still seeming very new. The movie is set in a post-apocalyptic landscape in the future, where a cataclysmic war a thousand years ago has left the earth mostly covered in a toxic Sea of Corruption. The few remaining humans survive in this hellish by huddling into the few remaining places where the Sea of Corruption has not tainted yet, with the Valley of the Wind being one of those few places.
It also happens to be the home of Nausicaä, the daughter of her village’s chief and a carefree daredevil explorer. She uses her unparalleled flying skills to traverse frequently into the Sea of Corruption in order to study the plant and animal life that lives and thrives there, even at great risk to her own health. Her village life meanwhile is tranquil and sheltered from the outside world. In many ways she represents the epitome of just about every fantasy novel protagonist except for one glaring and refreshing omission: she is a woman who is granted the hero’s journey. It is hard to overstate just how rare that would have been in 1984 not just in the realm of fantasy but in animation where too often female characters are reduced to being props for male protagonists or even when they are given centre-stage find romance as the central thrust of their narrative. But Nausicaä stands apart as someone who, like Frodo Baggins, finds herself caught up in a much larger quest to save her world. Nausicaä represents what will be a defining characteristic of Studio Ghibli, namely the plethora of female-driven protagonists given a vast diversity of narrative arcs (with My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo being only a brief sampling of those movies).
Nausicaä’s idyllic life is shattered when two warring nations come crashing into her valley. The Tolmekians, the more dominant of the two nations and led by the Princess Kushana, quickly upends the tribes of the valley as Kushana seeks to raise an ancient god to life in order to conquer the Sea of Corruption and thus, the world. When she kills Nausicaä’s father as a show of strength, one might expect the narrative to set-up a clear binary battle of good and evil with Nausicaä on the side of angels and Kushana the villain to be vanquished. But here the movie usurps our expectations, setting up another hallmark of Studio Ghibli: the absence of a purely evil villain. Kushana is no mere caricatured villain and her goals of ridding the world of its toxicity are identical to Nausicaä’s. Her villainy is derived from her methodology; she is to be hated because her techniques for ridding the world of toxicity are to use violence and to abuse the natural order.
In contrast, Nausicaä sees humanity’s salvation lying in understanding and working with nature. She is a prodigious flyer but her skill comes from the way she glides with the wind, rather than using engine power to go against the wind’s wishes. After initially being captured by Kushana, she escapes to the Sea of Corruption only to find that underneath its surface, away from human eyes, is a fertile land free of toxicity. This prompts her into a race against time as she tries to save her people while also trying to stop Kushana from raising the ancient god and, on top of that, quell a mass of angry creatures who have seemingly risen up against Kushana’s war call.
In this pre-Ghibli film we find many of the themes that would become hallmarks of the studio’s style: a respect for the environment that borders on religious devotion juxtaposed against an aversion for technology that would seek to conquer nature; a staunch belief that even when violence is necessary it is always tragic and not to be celebrated; a celebration of communal life and human connection, especially when in sharing a meal; and a mystical understanding of the universe that always sees its heroes as mere pieces in a much bigger narrative.
Even though Nausicaä is not an official Studio Ghibli film, being made as the studio was still being formed, it still represents an important milestone in the studio’s history. Made both cheap and fast, the movie showed that even on a limited budget Miyazaki’s imagination was second to none. It was the proof-of-concept film that showed the merit of an artist-directed studio. The unexpected financial success of the movie certainly made the studio’s creation possible and with it, the creation of one of the strongest bodies of animated work ever.