Defending the indefensible

‘Guinea Pig’ and other extremes of Japanese film-making

“When crimson blood crawls over a white woman’s skin like a living thing, she blossoms into a flower of flesh and blood whilst drowning again and again in a bloody sea of rapture and ecstacy”

With the effective death of the horror film in Hollywood, or at least it’s absorption into the mainstream, fans have been looking elsewhere for their fix of horror. Germany has given us the works of Jorg Buttgereit; from Hong Kong we’ve had “Man Behind the Sun”; New Zealand produced the wildly warped mind of Peter Jackson. But perhaps the most notorious film of recent years is Japanese: “Flower of Flesh and Blood”, or ‘Guinea Pig’, as it’s often referred to.

It’s almost an hour long and depicts the abduction and dismemberment of a woman by a modern-day Samurai. There’s no plot, no characterisation and speech is limited to some monologues. With few of the cinematic trappings one expects from a film, it’s perhaps not too surprising that soon after it’s arrival, it was suggested the effects are not actually effects, and that it is the often-discussed but never seen creature, a snuff movie.

And the effects are very, very good, especially coming from a country more noted for rubber-suited Godzillas than Savini-style flesh shredding. Some measure of just how good can be gained from the fact that when Customs recently seized a copy being sent to an employee of the National Film Theatre, they had to call in forensic experts to determine it was not real. The poor sod who’d ordered it, instead of the usual wrist-slapping letter, got a six hundred quid fine. HM Customs clearly do not like being made fools of, but this does seem a tad excessive for importing a cassette of special effects. And in America, Charlie Sheen apparently reported the tape to the FBI, proving again that common sense is no prerequisite for an acting career.

Even many die-hard horror fans feel that ‘Guinea Pig’ is pushing the boundaries too far. The film poses a lot of unpleasant questions to the viewer, the most obvious one being the old chestnut, “Why am I watching this?”. One can find justification in several ways – admiring the effects, for example – but none of them allow you to relate to it as a movie; identification with the characters, for example, is near-impossible. But can a better reason be found?

Let’s start by reiterating one thing: it’s not real. It’s merely an entry in a series of semi-underground Japanese films which explore various facets of horror. Strange though many of their moral concepts may seem in our eyes, the Japanese would not permit the open distribution of a snuff movie, and the documentary “The Making of Guinea Pig” gives the game away in any case.

It’s not the first film to have gained notoriety through the supposed ‘death’ on screen of a participant. But the major difference is that films like ‘Snuff’ and ‘Faces of Death’ are obviously fake, to anyone with an ounce of common sense. Watching ‘Guinea Pig’ for the first time, I had almost to adopt the old standby: “Keep telling yourself: it’s only a movie”.

‘Guinea Pig’ represents the horror film in it’s leanest, meanest, stripped to kill sense, reduced to it’s bare essentials. Part of our appreciation of the genre is because we know it isn’t real, and it’s only this basis in fantasy that makes it acceptable; remove the cushioning support of filmic convention and we’re open to the body-blow of raw emotion.

It’s not a film for the non-horror fan, and I can to a certain extent understand the reaction of Customs officers on seeing it, taken out of context. The film is more tolerable – and to some extent makes a lot more sense – when associated with the other entries in the series. My first reaction on hearing about them was “Why?”, but many of the other entries have little in common with the notorious number two, though they are just as strange to Western eyes. One has a woman chased by a flying, pulsating heart, until the icky flesh gobbet is caught in a dustbin by a transvestite and another very bizarre film has a suicidal man discovering he’s immortal no matter what he does to himself. This resembles ‘Tetsuo’ more than anything else – which may not be a coincidence, as the salaryman from said movie does appears in a further member of the series.

The problem with most articles on the film is that they have concentrated on the gore; this is understandable, as a) the gore is most impressive and b) the tape is unlikely to be released anywhere outside its native land and so no-one has gone to the trouble of subtitling it. However, the monologues of the Samurai provide essential insights into the ethics behind the film when they are translated. As the quote at the start suggests, he is an ardent admirer of beauty, although his appreciation is shown in a way which will perhaps only ring bells with fans of Dario Argento! Another key point is revealed in the following:

“Now the woman is in a state of rapture. Due to the drug I injected into her, as can be seen, she is completely unable to feel pain. But, instead of feeling nothing, she feels only ecstacy.”

This is a small but significant alteration to the attitude of the entire film; it becomes clear that pain and suffering are not the aim, in fact they are a positive barrier to observing ‘the flower’, which is the real objective. It’s very much an ongoing process:

“In this world, there is nothing more beautiful. I shall now reveal clearly the ideal of beauty. First the red flower shall bloom from her wrist. [Later: after some disembowelment] Finally, I shall pluck out the jewels. They are the most beautiful part of a woman’s body”

If we have trouble making sense of ‘Guinea Pig’, it may be because we are trying to impose Western values on a peculiarly Eastern product. It was not intended for international consumption, so should not be condemned merely because it adheres to very different moral standards. ‘Guinea Pig’ can be seen as just another facet, an experiment in pushing the limits of the genre ever further. It therefore stands alongside films like Hammer’s versions of Dracula and Frankenstein, condemned as repulsive and obscene when first released. Time mellows all things: maybe, in 30 years time, we’ll be seeing ‘Flower of Flesh and Blood’ on TV.

“Thusly, this flower of flesh and blood has bloomed completely…”

Tokyo Decadence Topaz (Ryu Murakami)

Miho Nikaido, Sayoko Amano, Tenmei Kanou, Masahiko Shimada.

This is, for the most part, a very shiny film. It tells of ‘Ai’ – the Japanese word for love – a Tokyo call-girl who works for an S/M agency. Much of the film is taken up with languorous portrayals of her activities, the clients she serves, ranging from coked-up yakuza to spoilt yuppies, via almost every form of bondage, domination and humiliation you can conceive (plus a few more you probably can’t!). The heroine does, however, balk at pretending to be dead…

It’s the stuff of which ultra-warped commercials are made, as it’s shot through with a highly deformed gloss. A lot of it seems to happen in real-time, too, which has both benefits and penalties. It adds a realistic edge, but S&M games are no different from any other porn, in that after a while, their interest value diminshes rapidly, unless you’re a real connoisseur of such things.

After, oh, maybe 80 minutes of this, we get something vaguely recognisable as a plot. Or at least, something happens. After an especially aberrant session – just her, a dominatrix called Saki, a patron, a fruitbowl, a whip, an Art Deco dress and a plastic penis – Ai does some drugs with Saki and resolves to find herself. She does, after a fashion, but it’s not quite what you’d expect, though the ending is not conclusive one way or another. Er, if you get my drift….

Despite this being the only section with anything like a story-line, I felt this section was the film’s weakest. Director Murakami seems happiest when dealing with the twilight world behind locked hotel doors, his style doesn’t transfer well to the suburbia where the film’s terminates (the word ‘climaxes’ isn’t appropriate in any of it’s senses!).

But is this ArtPorn or it PornArt? On balance, probably just the latter, though it’s chances of getting released in this country evaporated after less screen time than any Traci Lords film I’ve seen. But it’s probably too varied to appeal to the tastes of any one devotee, and in any case, it’s got music by Ryuichi Sakamoto, who shared an Oscar for ‘The Last Emperor’. I don’t think his career has gone downhill that far!

Two Girl Warriors in Hara-Kiri

Even as Japanese films go, this is very strange. The title says it all: a pair of nameless female samurai, leaving the scene of a battle, commit ritual suicide. There is no significant dialogue and the action, such as it is, happens in real-time, making the 42 minutes duration seem several times longer.

I really don’t know why I like this film so much. It gives the impression of being a chunk taken from the middle of some great Kurosawa epic, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks. Who are the characters? Are they related to each other? Why were they in battle? How did they get injured? And, even though the only two characters in the film are dead by the end, you feel there must be something more. Maybe a relative finds the body and seeks revenge? The film, perhaps wisely, doesn’t try to answer these questions, leaving them instead for the viewer’s imagination.

The film is as much concerned with the ‘ritual’ as the ‘suicide’, every detail of the preparations, mental and physical, is carefully depicted with near-fetishistic precision. This takes up a significant part of the running time, but gives an added punch to the actual suicide, when it eventually starts.

Which is when it becomes difficult to watch, especially for a Western consumer used to movies where death is quick, simple and – crucially – painless. None of this is true in ‘Two Girl Warriors’. The second half of the film relentlessly shows the slow and painful process involved in the reality of death, as first one girl, then the other, commits seppuku.

Despite the lack of dialogue, the warriors are substantially more than ciphers, or models for splatter and gore (those expecting a ‘Guinea Pig’ style atrocity exhibition will be disappointed – the special effects are competent, but really don’t seem to be the point). One is hesitant, and unwilling to do ‘the right thing’, the other has a fatalistic stance. In less than 45 minutes, the characters are better developed than many Hollywood movies manage.

This is one in a series of films, including ‘Lost Paradise’. While all are undeniably odd, the others tend to a certain sameness; there are only a limited number of ways one can show a girl slitting her stomach open. But the dramatic tension ‘Two Girl Warriors’ generates, lifts it above the rest, and propels it alongside the likes of ‘Videodrome’ and ‘Miracle Mile’ for it’s relentless depiction of death. But while those two films almost make death appealing, as an escape, ‘Two Girl Warriors In Harakiri’ suggests that it may be far worse than you expect.

Pretty Body: Frankenstein’s Love

If the preceding film seemed strange – and if it didn’t, I recommend therapy – then at least it was clear what was going on. But in ‘Pretty Body’, the puzzle is less what is taking place than why. The whole creature resembles a cross between ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ and ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’; if you can imagine trying to watch the latter in a language you don’t comprehend, you’ll have an idea of the mood instilled by ‘Pretty Body’.

A girl moves into a flat in a seaside block occupied by some indubitable odd-balls, most notably the couple who engage in icky sex reminiscent of ‘Society’ and the mad ear doctor on the floor below who is assembling a “monster”, although that’s the wrong term as it looks more like something out of the Chippendales. The girl accidentally meets the creation, and becomes fascinated by it, to the extent of crawling through the air-conditioning to meet it. When she finally does, they sing a duet. They are interrupted by the doctor, who is then set on fire, and the creature’s brain swells up and explodes. The film ends with the heroine throwing an eyeball into the ocean.

Ever feel like you were missing something somewhere? Also involved (somehow!) are a schoolgirl who gets her intestines punched out, a point-of-view shot from inside an ear and a monster-as-ventriloquist variety-show sequence. It’s all crammed into 54 minutes, which makes me wonder about it’s origins – too icky for TV, too short for a movie (and not letterboxed either), it’s just an all-round curious animal!

Of beer, black cats and 24,750 missing prostitutes

No exotic holidays to far-flung locations this year for me, thanks to the arrival of a large chunk of terraced debt. However, after an offer of rooms from a sister of a friend of a friend – no relationship offering free accommodation is too distant – it was decided that the 1993 TC Trip would be to Prague in Czechoslov…No, damn it, it’s now “The Czech Republic”, isn’t it? Horrible name, more like a political statement than a holiday destination: by the same token, 1992’s trip was to the Decadent Capitalist Fascist-Imperialist States of America.

I was a little uncertain at the prospect; my last few holidays have, to a large extent, been glorified shopping trips for books, CDs, videos and so on. However, I couldn’t read Czech, was unable to name a single Czech band, and assumed a country with four years of freedom would have had better things to do than evolve a trash video culture. I was forced to consider the possibility of a holiday spent in civilised activities like admiring ancient monuments.

We flew Czech Air – nice meal, dodgy English (the in-flight magazine had florid phrases like “Try to join with pencils of different colours the things which match in a way”, and that was on the kid’s page) and arrived in appropriately Stalinist, chucking it down rain, to be informed with near-sadistic glee that it had been perfect weather until that day.

Prague is finally undergoing adolescence at the age of 600 or so, with scaffolding pock-marking it’s face like urban acne as it rushes to embrace Western concepts like Cambio/Wechseln/Change and Benetton shops. Yet there remain sections of stunning beauty; get to Prague Castle at 9 a.m, before the invading hordes descend and you can enjoy sights that rival any in Europe.

Daniel Wabyick from San Francisco, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Though the most unique such sight of the holiday was seen on a day trip, and was about 40 miles outside Prague. The Ossuary at Sedlec probably ranks as the most wonderful example of bad taste I’ve ever seen. It dates back to last century; the cemetery there had been in great demand ever since some holy soil taken from Golgotha was spread around it, and it was deemed necessary to do “something” with the 40,000 or so skeletons contained therein. An artist was engaged to perform the honours and, lo, the entire chapel was decorated, almost floor to ceiling, with bones. There’s bells made of bones, coats of arms made of bones, and the piece de resistance (above), a chandelier which contains every one of the 206 bones in the human body. This is religion à la Jeff Koons.

Sure irreverence is not surprising; while the Czechs are theoretically Roman Catholic, the true faith is probably “brewing”. They drink more beer than anyone in the world bar the Germans, and I can see why. It’s superb stuff and doubly tempting when it sells for half the price of Coca-Cola. In the nine days there, I probably put away 50-60 pints, but my drinking patterns were such that I was only ever “sober” or “dehydrated” without ever passing through “drunk” or “hungover”. Instead, for some reason I got dreams in 70 mm, Dolby stereo sensurround. Little wonder my hand luggage on the plane back a) weighed more than my regular case and b) clinked.

The other, non-alcoholic shopping was a pleasant surprise, in weird and unexpected ways, such as fossils – get your own amber-containing-insect-containing-blood-containing-DNA. There was also an interesting trade in ex-Warsaw Pact militaria: medals, badges, boots, coats, I bought what seems to be a Soviet submariner’s watch for fifteen quid. It has a compass in it, which at any given moment, can be made to point to any direction as North. This would explain why the Russians never invaded the West – they couldn’t work out which direction it was…

If they’d put as much effort into building their compasses as they did into toys, things might have been different. Rummaging round in a toy store, I came across a fearsome weapon, in the shape of a gun-metal blue jet plane, which fires sucker darts at a velocity where they’d probably imbed themselves in the target regardless of suckers. You can load up three darts and select single-shot or one, mutually assured blast of destruction. It’s the best sort of toy – the kind Trading Standards would have a fit about!

Which bring me naturally to videos. My earlier assumption about no trash culture was almost correct. However, there was one notable exception: Hong Kong films. Somehow, a Czech company seemed to have done a bulk purchase of D&B films, including their “Nikita” remake “Black Cat”, “Iron Angels” and it’s sequel, “Tiger Cage” 1-3, and all six parts of “In the Line of Duty” (renamed for the Nth time. The Czechs know them as the “Red Force” series, sigh!). Dubbed, but bearable – in fact, “Black Cat”, being about a government assassin, sounds pretty plausible in Czech, knowing their penchant for such things in the good ol’ days.

Occasionally in a guidebook, you come across a phrase that leaps out of the page and burns into your brain. How about this one:

“Prague has 25,000 prostitutes”.

Hmmm. Population 1.2 million. Assuming an even sex ratio, this means one in 24 of Prague’s female population is a hooker. Rule out those over 40 or under 15, and the ratio is heading towards one in ten. Or put another way, if every male inhabitant spent 20 minutes per day with a call-girl, the babes wouldn’t need to work more than nine to five, and could still have an hour off for lunch. Here endeth Statistics 1.0.1.

So where is this hyper-abundance of fast females? Damned if I know. There’s no red-light district, the nearest thing is Wenceslas Square – incidentally, no more a square than Oxford Street is – where you can see a few girls in impressively short, tight skirts, lounging outside the night-clubs, awaiting an injection of hard currency. Of course, this may be utterly libelling them – the skirts worn by the waitresses in the castle cafe were just as short and tight – but even on the most Puritan of definitions, we were still faced with a shortfall of about 99%.

Even when we decided to investigate a couple of night-clubs, the numbers remained minimal, though we probably chose the wrong ones. Certainly, the first one, “Peklo”, was wrong in more or less all possible ways. Though nicely situated in Gothic catacombs under a former monastery, the music was crap, the drinks were hideously overpriced and the clientele…well, we were most of it. Total babe count: three, looking more like secretaries on a night out than sultry Slovak sluts (ok, it should be “sultry Czech sluts”, but why should I let geography get in the way of a nice titbit of alliteration? And they do seem laid-back about the split themselves, to the point that, six months in, the stamps still have “Ceskoslovensko” on them). “Peklo”, incidentally, is Czech for “hell”.

“The Classic”, the second attempt, was a little better. The music was still crap, but was at least crap rock rather than crap disco, the drinks were only mildly overpriced, and it was a lot fuller. However, it felt more like a school dance than a sleazy dive and the mystery of the truant tarts remains unresolved…

Actually, there is a lot of highly visible prostitution going on. Not of Prague’s cuter inhabitants, but of the city itself, it seems any indignity is acceptable as long as it brings in hard cash. For example, I went to a ballet performance at the State Opera House (above). In the old days, this sort of thing would have been state-subsidised, but now it has to fend for itself; the ticket prices have shot up by a factor of ten and the audience is now more or less all tourists. As a result, the performance was crippled by imbeciles with cameras, unbelievably using flashes and motor winds.

Now, I’m no aficionado (the last ballet I saw was back in 197~) but even I felt this was dissing the performers. But the staff, presumably scared of upsetting the tourists, did nothing until another tourist (and presumably fan) made a severe scene. It will probably not surprise you to learn that she was British, and that it definitely had the desired effect (we may have lost the Empire, but if our stiff upper lip is broken, we can still complain better than anyone else). However, I couldn’t help thinking that in pre-revolution days, one flashclickwhirr and ushers would have gone in with Alsatians and riot-batons.

The charm of Prague is not to be found in the places where you’ll hear German and English more often than Czech; after all, cafes charging extortionate prices to sit on the pavement are a Europe-wide phenomenon. The true delights are finding the pockets of the city which have been frozen in time, and stepping back into the age before McDonalds, when bars didn’t have MTV. One of the most enjoyable finds was in Petrin Park, where there’s a hall of mirrors – two parts, one a mirror-maze, the other a traditional distort-your-shape. Both were absolutely fascinating, all the more so for being virtually tourist-free.

The same can not be said of the public transport system, which may soon go the same way as the ballet. Currently, it’s a joy – less than 10p per ticket, the five-day pass shown below costs £2.50, or you can get a yearly one for about forty quid. It’s fast, frequent, efficient and clean, a source of great amazement to this adopted Londoner, who’d never really experienced good public transport. The most impressive thing, personally, was finding that the buses ran to a specific timetable. Here, if there’s a timetable at all, anything between “First Bus” and “Last Bus” is so inaccurate as to be useless. Prague’s system hasn’t a hope of surviving private enterprise, and already the fares are beginning to rise.

And that more or less sums up Prague. At the moment, it is definitely worth visiting – no place with beer at 13p per pint couldn’t be! But I give it two years at most before it becomes indistinguishable from any other Western tourist trap.

Information you may have missed

The company I work for has a news agency feed, down which many interesting stories come. previously, most of these important events were sadly ignored by the media, but now, TC is proud to present a selection. Similar pages may be found throughout the rest of this issue (wherever we need something to bring the page count even!). We start, appropriately, with reports from the Asian desk.

Schoolchildren see ‘devil’ in Manila

Manila – Some 20 Filipino schoolchildren went into a frenzy after seeing a man they described as the devil under a tree in their schoolyard, police said on Thursday. “He is a gigantic man who has horns and a tail,” 12-year-old Marilyn Umpat told reporters. Classes were called off at the height of the mass hysteria in a classroom of a Manila elementary school on Wednesday, and the children were rushed to a nearby Roman Catholic chapel, where the priest dabbed holy water on them and said prayers. School officials planned to have the tree blessed and perhaps hire an exorcist.

Japanese students score a perfect zzzzzzzzzzz

Tokyo – Two students flunked a Japanese university entrance exam but later won places after complaints a supervisor’s snores drowned out the questions, a university spokesman said on thursday. The test consisted of English comprehension questions relayed by loudspeaker but a number of students insisted the broadcast was inaudible because of a storm of snoring and nose-blowing in the room, said a spokesman for the university. After parental complaints, university authorities looked into the case and decided to admit the failed pair to make sure they were not treated unfairly.

No condoms please, we’re Singaporeans

Singapore – Strait-laced Singapore unbent a bit on Friday and decided to allow its first sort-of sexually explicit musical — but only if the audience dressed properly and no-one tossed any condoms on stage. Singapore’s Ministry of Information and the Arts & Home Affairs Ministry agreed to allow the opening of “The New Rocky Horror Show” despite earlier misgivings. The show is about a transvestite scientist from outer space trying to create an ideal man. Officials had been upset by a report in the Straits Times, which said condoms would be tossed on stage.

Up, up and away with the cash

Hong Kong – A daredevil Hong Kong robber is preying on one of the high-rise colony’s most familiar modes of transportation — the lift. Riding on top of elevators in public housing estates, the robber stops them between floors and threatens to pour in gasoline and set the passengers on fire unless they hand over their valuables, the Sunday Morning Post newspaper said. He then opens the inner doors from above, grabs his loot and hops out onto the next floor without his victims ever seeing his face. The robber has struck a half-dozen times in the past month, netting HK$56,000 (£5,000).

Hayao Miyazaki Film, TV and OAV-ography

  • key: i-b = in-betweener
  • k/a = key animation
  • s/d = scene designer
  • s/p = screenplay
  • dir = direction
  • con = continuity

  • 1963 – Wan Wan Chusin-gara/Watch-dog Bow Wow. Short, 21 min. (i-b)
  • Okami Shonen Ken/Wolf Boy Ken. TV series. (i-b)
  • 1964 – Gariba No Ucho Ryoko/Gulliver’s Space Travels. Short, 20 min.(i-b)
  • Shonen Ninja Kaze No Fujimaru/Boy Ninja Fujimaru the Wind (ib, k/a)
  • 1965 – Hassuru Punch/Hassle Punch. TV series. (k/a)
  • 1966 – Reinbo Sentai Robin/Rainbow Warrior Robin. TV series (k/a)
  • 1968 – Taiyo No Oji Horus No Daiboken/Prince of the Sun – The Great Adventures of Horus. Feature. 82 min. (s/d + k/a)
  • Mahotsukai Sally/Sally the Witch. TV series. (k/a, eps 77 + 80)
  • Nagagutsu Wo Haita Neko/Puss in Boots. Feature, 85 min. (k/a)
  • 1969 – Soratobu Yureisen/The Flying Ghost Ship. Feature, 60 min. (k/a)
  • Himitsu No Akko-Chan/Secret Little Akko. TV series. (k/a, eps 44 & 61)
  • 1971 – Dobutsu Takarajima/Animal Treasure Island. Feature, 78 min. (k/a)
  • Ali Baba To 40 No Tozoko/Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Feature, 55 min. (organiser + k/a)
  • Lupin III. TV series. (dir Eps 6-23, with Isao Takahata)
  • 1972 – Panda Kopanda/Panda, Panda Cub. Short, 23 min. (concept, s/p, design + k/a)
  • Akado Suzunosuke. TV series. (k/a + continuity on eps. 26 & 27)
  • 1973 – Panda Kopanda Amefuri Sakasu No Maki/Panda, Panda Cub: Rainy Day Circus. Short, 38 min. (concept, s/p, design, k/a)
  • Kouya no Shonen Isamu/Wasteland Boy Isamu. TV series. (k/a, ep 15)
  • Samurai Jyaiantsu/Samurai Giants. TV series. (k/a, ep 15)
  • 1974 – Alps No Shojo Haiji/Heidi: Girl of the Alps. TV series, 52 episodes. (design + organization)
  • 1975 – Flanders No Inu/The Dog of Flanders. (aid in k/a)
  • 1976 – Hama O Tazunete Sanzen-Ri/3000 Leagues IN Search of Mother. TV series, 51 episodes. (design + organization)
  • 1977 – Araiguma Rascal/Rascal the Racoon. (k/a)
  • 1978 – Mirai Shonen Conan/Future Boy Conan. TV series, 26 episodes. (character design + dir)
  • 1979 – Akage No An/Red Haired Anne [Anne of Green Gables]. TV series, 50 episodes. (layout, design and organization, eps 1-15)
  • Lupin III: Cagliostro No Shiro/Cagliostro’s Castle. Feature, 100 min. (s/p, con + dir)
  • 1980 – Lupin III. (s/p + dir, eps 145 & 155)
  • 1981 – Little Nemo. Feature. (s/d, quit in pre-production stage)
  • Meitantei Holmes/Great Detective Holmes. TV series, 2 episodes (k/a + dir)
  • 1984 – Kaze No Tani No Nausicaa/Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. Feature, 116 min. (s/p, con + dir)
  • Meitantei Holmes. 24 further episodes. (k/a, and dir for 4 eps)
  • 1986 – Tenku No Shiro Laputa/Laputa:Castle in the Sky. Feature, 124 min (s/p, con + dir)
  • 1987 – Yanakawa Horiwari Monogatari/The Story of Yanakawa Canal. Documentary, live-action, 165 min. (producer)
  • 1988 – Tonari No Totoro/My Neighbour Totoro. Feature, 83 min. (s/p, con + dir)
  • 1989 – Majo No Takkyubin/Kiki’s Delivery Service. Feature, 105 min. (s/p, con + dir)
  • 1991 – Omoide Poroporo/Remembering in Drops. Feature. (producer)
  • 1992 – Kurenai No Buta/Porco Rosso. Feature, 94 min. (s/p, con + dir)

The Feature Films of Hayao Miyazaki

Given the enormous volume of work produced by Miyazaki, and the relatively small fraction ever to have been released outside his native country, it is impossible to adequately cover his entire output. However, as most of his theatrical films have become available, through diverse routes, and as these movies reflect most clearly the man behind them, they deserve to be discussed in greater detail. Do bear in mind that these works are only a selection – for example, readers are recommended to try and find the ‘Sherlock Hound’ episodes Miyazaki did as a co-production with Italian TV, which were released on CIC Video and so can occasionally be found in video stores.

Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro

US release, dubbed, Streamline, $29.99

“Breaking down an entire, huge building is a form of motivation. Such motivations is like the reaction to suppressed impulses. I don’t feel that I have to make films that are constructive, destructive films are fine by me, too, because it is natural to destroy a huge thing. But, the constraints of living in a suppressed society aside, I’m hoping to single out motivations for dreams, desires and hopes”

This film took only six months to make, from pre-production to completion. That’s fast, even by anime standards, and it’s lightning speed for Miyazaki, who habitually takes 12 to 18 months per movie. Given this, it’s remarkable that the quality of the end result is almost indistinguishable from Miyazaki’s other works.

The hero is Lupin III, a descendant of Arsene Lupin (a character created by French author Maurice Leblanc at the turn of the century). Like his ancestor, Lupin III is a gentleman thief of high intelligence, and high morals too – except with regard to other people’s valuables! He, together with sidekick Jigen, rob a casino only to discover the money is all counterfeit. They head to the principality where the forgeries are said to originate, only to find themselves rescuing a lady in a wedding dress; this soon leads them into deep mystery and high adventure.

This is a superbly entertaining piece of fluff. Comedy, as mentioned, is perhaps the area where animation can beats reality hands down, since there are no limits, and ‘Castle’ revels in the freedom. All the characters here are memorable: Fujiko, the freelancing female thief, Zenigata, the Interpol detective who’s life is dedicated to capturing Lupin but who ends up working with him, but above all, Lupin III, arguably the best male character in anime. If the maker of ‘Hudson Hawk’ had any sense, it might have ended up looking something like this. B+

Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind

UK release: Warriors of the Wind, Vestron Video – 7.99

“I’m not making movies just to make appeals on particular problems. The close relationship between nature and mankind is something we should be aware of as people living in the present-day, regardless of whether or not we make movies.”

This was reviewed way back in TC6 – or at least, 3/4 of it was. What I didn’t realise at the time was the savage trimming ‘Warriors of the Wind’ had undergone. It’s 25 minutes shorter than the original Japanese version, and it says a lot about ‘Nausicaa’ that ‘Warriors’ is at all watchable. In it’s complete version – 116 minutes, letterboxed, undubbed – it blossoms into perhaps the only truly “green” film yet made. For those without a TC6 to refer to (what took you so long to get here?), a brief re-review. Set post-holocaust, when nature has reclaimed all but fragments of the Earth under a “toxic forest”, Nausicaa is princess of one of the few remaining inhabitable areas.

She feels an attraction to the toxic forest, but it is threatened by the actions of a nearby kingdom, who plan to resurrect pre-devastation technology to destroy it, little realising the dangers of their actions. This illustrates perfectly the imagination anime permits; Miyazaki creates an entire world: plants, animals, insects, fungi, transport, all with painstaking detail. All the characters are plausibly constructed, with justifications worthy of real people. Even in the truncated version, this deserves B+, in the full-blown “director’s cut”, we’re looking at an A.


No UK release yet, it’s on Island World’s target list!

“I had always wanted to make a movie about a flying city in the sky, perhaps because of the books I read while I was young. Laputa, the city, was from “Gulliver’s Travels”. At first, I thought about a European palace that suddenly floated up in the sky. The I drew a picture following the description in “Gulliver’s Travels”, but it was just an ordinary island, and too boring”.

Miyazaki’s work ethic is famous, even in Japan. During the making of ‘Laputa’, he racked up 14-hour days for six months non-stop, not just drawing the story boards, but re-doing his staff’s material where he felt they were deficient. The end result is truly “A Hayao Miyazaki Film”, and is worthy of the title.

Set around the turn of the century, it’s about the search for Laputa, a “legendary” city which floats in the sky and dates from an unknown era, with technology far in advance of anything then available. When a sample of this falls to earth, a descendant of the Laputian kings seeks to reclaim his heritage for his own ends. To do this, he kidnaps Sheeta, the rightful heir to Laputa, though she is unaware of it, which brings him into conflict with Pazu, the son of an aviator who glimpsed the city once, who wants to find Laputa to prove his father was not insane.

There is a lot more to it than that, Miyazaki makes full use of the two hours to cram in more story than you’d think possible, yet it never becomes overweighty. The film is the perfect example of Miyazaki’s philosophy: “I do not make movies with the intention of presenting any messages to humanity. My main aim in a movie is to make the audience come away from it happy”.

Though not available in this country on video, it has been shown on TV in most regions, albeit in a slightly trimmed format. But it still remains a masterpiece, and one of the best examples ever of what can be done with animation. And if the setting for Laputa seems vaguely familiar, it’s probably because Miyazaki travelled to Wales in May 1985, to look at locations! A

My Neighbour Totoro

No UK release yet, but it’s on several company’s target lists!

“I don’t feel interested in outer space movies, since all that is in space is darkness and not much else. Because of this, all my animation and manga involve the land, the seas and the skies. They all revolve around what happens on Earth”

I’ve heard rumours that Disney bought up the American rights to this movie and sat on them, purely because they regarded it as too much of a threat to ‘Aladdin’. This may or may not be true, but it’s plausible, as ‘Totoro’ beats any of Disney’s recent films hands down (no dancing candlesticks or stupid musical numbers here). After the massive epic that was ‘Laputa’, this is a totally different movie, on a much smaller, and personal, scale.

Two small girls go with their father to stay in the country, as Mother is ill in hospital. They stay in an old house, and meet the family of Totoros who inhabit the nearby forest. Now, what’s a Totoro? Good question. Er, um, it’s kinda like a cat. Except it can be enormous, up to maybe twenty feet tall. I think it’s some Japanese folk thang. Whatever it is, it’s main distinguishing feature is that it is utterly, utterly, utterly, cute.

What stops the film from descending into whimsy? Hard to say; it may be partly autobiographical as Miyazaki’s own mother suffered from spinal tuberculosis for nine years when Hayao was young, and she spent much of the time in hospital. Certainly, it’s straight from the heart. Perhaps Miyazaki tapped into some unconscious common imagery, but the result is absolutely delightful. It’s a non-stop parade of wonders, including perhaps Miyazaki’s best creation – the Cat Bus, a multilegged creature with a grin a mile wide, looking like something designed by David Cronenberg on ecstacy.

Few films are capable of melting my granite heart, but ‘Totoro’ reduces this writer to the consistency of a packet of sat-upon marshmallows every time. Which is astonishing, given that this unashamed wallow in nostalgia is for a land on the other side of the globe, and a time before I was born. Miyazaki is the only director I can think of to have directed three films we’ve rated as A (get the feeling this guy is good?); but for ‘Totoro’, this is still not enough, it can only be A+.

Kiki’s Delivery Service

No UK release, Channel 4 were negotiating it’s purchase

Japan Times, August 29, 1989 – “In his latest film, Miyazaki reaches new heights of not only physical but psychological realism…Miyazaki explores states usually considered the province of ‘live’ movies…”Kiki’s Delivery Service” is more than a place to park the kids for two hours – it is a surprisingly moving celebration of the animator’s art that deserves a wider audience”.

Hmmm. Well, each to their own. Perhaps a more telling quote is one from an interview Miyazaki gave in October 1989, when he said, “I want to see whether or not I can make a movie without any action”. I think “Kiki” probably just about counts. But I could live without that – after all, ‘Totoro’ is not exactly action-packed – if there was something to compensate for it. And that’s where “Kiki” fails to deliver(!): the characters are distinctly ho-hum, the plot is distinctly ho-hum and only the animation itself is anything above average.

Trainee witch Kiki goes to the city to seek her fortune. She meets some people. She has some mild adventures (losing her cat, for example). She finds she can be happy despite her lack of spell-casting ability. If this sounds like a pretty naff TVM, I’m pitching it about right. Remove all conflict and struggle from a movie and it takes very careful plot and character design to hold the audience’s interest. ‘Totoro’ managed it because every sequence held a wonderful surprise, but, in Kiki, everything pans out exactly as you’d expect, and the result as far as I’m concerned is Miyazaki’s most forgettable movie to date. D-

Porco Rosso

No UK release

“On board a rundown bi-plane, with only one torpedo loaded, fighting a big task force for one’s pride, while knowing all the while how foolish it is – it will be a breathlessly exciting film, the kind of movie that makes you want to say, “Ah! That was amazing, I want to watch it again””

‘Porco Rosso’ represents a return by Miyazaki to the action/comedy genre in which he started, after a long period when his aim, expressed with a wry grin, was to make “films which would let me get more famous awards each time”. ‘Porco’ is first and foremost an adventure story, set in Italy during the 1930’s, and is about the heroes and villains, pirates and aces who flew in that era, a theme which gives Miyazaki plenty of opportunity to indulge in his passion for airplanes and flight. It’s been said that the hero is based on Miyazaki himself, or at least his dreams; there may be some basis in fact for such statements, but I feel the same thing could be said for almost any of the heroes, or indeed the heroines, in his previous work.

It’s especially dubious given the twist in ‘Porco Rosso’. The hero is a pig. Literally. He was once human, but after a strange (near-death?) experience during a dog-fight, he found himself with a pig’s features. This is a nice idea, but nothing much is ever made of it, beyond a very eerie sequence where he tells of his transformation. Otherwise, it’s business as usual as he rescues a gang of pirates from some schoolgirls (sic!), avoids the attentions of the fascist government, and fights for the honour of his friends.

It’s effective enough stuff, and after the “still life” that was ‘Kiki’, it’s a relief to see him rediscover the art of things happening. These “things” however, don’t seem to link into each other as well as in his best movies, the scenes between the set-pieces seem a little contrived, and the political subtext is cringeworthy (“I’d rather be a pig than a fascist”). But even flawed Miyazaki is still highly enjoyable! B-

“I really don’t know why my works are so highly regarded. But, then, there’s no guarantee that I will continue to enjoy acclaim. Many times I’ve waited for younger filmmakers of great promise to come along, and I’ve even tried fostering them – but to no avail. I myself intend to continue making films. I have no idea how long I can go on, or what the next generation holds…”