The Castle of Cagliostro – Bluray Review

The Castle of Caglisotro Blu Ray Cover

The second Hi-Def helping from Studio Canal and Ghibli in November is not a Ghibli film at all, it is an earlier work, directed by Miyazaki-san called “The Castle of Caglisotro”, aka Lupin III. Made in 1979, it is Miyazaki’s first full-length anime film, and features Wolf (or Lupin in French), a character created by the artist Kazuo Kazuhiko (also known as Monkey Punch). The Lupin/Wolf stories were massively popular in Japan and as such the film doesn’t bother to explain backstory or characters, it just dives straight in to the action.

The film follows the adventures of Lupin, a master thief wanted by Interpol, and his hat-wearing, chain-smoking sidekick Jigen. They’ve travelled to the fantasy European mountain kingdom of Cagliostro to pull off a heist…to steal the famed Cagliostro fortune. However, they are quickly drawn in to one of the world’s greatest car chases, attempting to save a mysterious bride-to-be from thugs and goons. After failing to save her, they head off to the infamous Castle of Cagliostro, an epic monument to fantasy castles, set in the middle of an enormous lake. Here, Lupin and Jigen infiltrate the castle in order to save the girl (who we now know is Princess Clarisse)…and grab some of the fortune, of course. In doing so they come up against their old Interpol adversary Zenigata, and a whole host of cunning castle traps and nasties. The bad guy is the Count, who wants to marry Clarisse and gain access to her family ring, which will help him discover the treasure for himself. Suffice to say, Lupin, with the aid of Jigen, master-of-disguise cat-burglar Fujiko, enigmatic Samurai Goemen, and even Zenigata himself, is able to foil the Count’s nefarious schemes and save the day…helping bring down a counterfeiting scheme in the process.

This is an old-fashioned crime-caper that is chock full of action and adventure, anti-heroes and good vs evil. It is old-school Hollywood, rat-pack fun and games. There is honour and friendship at the heart of the story, and while Lupin is technically a thief, he represents so much more and ends up as the real-deal hero of the piece. The film has an interesting mixed pace, from frantic action to contemplative, almost romantic moments. And while the plot is never truly original, it is always surprising and enjoyable. This is a film that is very easy to watch time and time again.

The movie has previously been released on a very good DVD set, which included some nice extras, including a great introduction by Japan-o-holic and all-round Far East expert Jonathan Clements (if you don’t own a copy of his superb Schoolgirl Milky Crisis book, go buy one now!) Sadly, here we lose those extras, and all we get is a storyboard comparison function. This is a real shame, considering the historical importance of the film, as well as the general lack of knowledge many Western fans will have of the Lupin phenomenon. A short but simple history of Lupin feature would have been good. And considering how much extra stuff Studio Canal have put on their other big release this month, My Neighbour Totoro, it does seem odd to have such a vanilla Blu-ray.

Another disappointment is the lack of improvement in the picture quality. While the colours are noticeably more vibrant than the old DVD release, and the sound is a marked improvement, the film looks its age, with a great deal of dirt and damage on full display…possibly made worse by the HD nature of the medium and displays? With so much effort and skill put in to up-scaling the Ghibli films, it is a real let-down that Cagliostro hasn’t been afforded the same treatment. Maybe this is because it isn’t a Ghibli film, and so the investment for restoration just isn’t there? Whatever the reason, this coupled with the lack of extras makes recommending buying the new Blu-ray edition hard for me. For completists (like me) it is a must-own. The film is, quite simply, superb, and I recommend that everyone watches it. But if you already own the DVD, I’m not sure the cost of the Blu-ray (plus DVD copy thrown in) is worth the investment. To be fair, this is the best looking copy of the film you can buy, and the improved sound is fantastic. It’s 6 of one and half a dozen of the other, flip a coin and see what the outcome is.

That all said, do make sure you see Cagliostro. As an anime film it is wonderful. As an early Miyazaki it is fantastic. But as a crime-caper it is unsurpassed. And that car chase at the start is, for me, the best car chase in cinema!

Howl?s Moving Castle Blu Ray Review

Howl?s Moving Castle Blu Ray
Howl?s Moving Castle Blu Ray Cover
It?s time to take a look at the second Studio Ghibli film to be released on Blu-Ray this month. Following on from the under-par Tales From Earthsea we have the ?in-another-league? Howl?s Moving Castle. Both films were being produced at the same time, but it was Howl that was directed and overseen by the master, Miyazaki-san?and boy does it show. Where Goro Miyazaki?s film shows all the trademarks of a first-time director struggling with his art, Hayao Miyazaki?s movie shows a director at the height of his talent, confident in his adaptation of the source material. Howl sits perfectly alongside ?Spirited Away? as a modern masterpiece of animated story-telling, and it is for all the hallmarks that we have come to regard as de rigeur for a Ghibli film. Here is a movie that is at once for children and for adults, for fans of the original book and those coming fresh to the tale. It is whimsical, magical and fantastical while remaining grounded in its characters and motivations. Miyazaki-san gives us another view of his version of a pseudo-historical steampunk-lite Europe, all airships and magic, Victorian outfits and manners, middle-European architecture and colours. Much like Laputa, Lupin III and Porco Rosso, this is Miyazaki letting his love for European vistas take flight, and then rooting a very solid story in the middle of it all.

Based on but not strictly adhering to the best-selling novel of the same name by Diana Wynn Jones, the movie tells the tale of Sophie, the hard-working daughter of a hat-seller who encounters the Witch of the Waste and is cursed to look 90 years old. She flees her home and family and meets up with a mysterious magical scarecrow who leads her to the sanctuary of the infamous wizard Howl. This castle moves across the Alpine-like landscape on legs and Sophie discovers is inhabited not just by Howl, but by his young apprentice and a fire demon named Calcifer. She quickly casts herself in the role of cleaner in order to try to find a way to lift the curse upon her. In doing so she befriends the wizard and his entourage and becomes embroiled in their attempts to avoid being dragged in to a war between rival countries.

Aside from removing the Welsh and name-swapping sisters elements of the original book, Ghibli stick fairly close to the original story, but do so with their usual flourish adding more depth and life to the characters.

Sophie is far more sympathetic here, and with the legendary Jean Simmons supplying her ?elderly? voice, she becomes a character you genuinely feel for. Howl is a far less whiney wizard here, partly due to time constraints, but mostly because the audience need to fall in love with him along with Sophie. The Howl of the book is a rather harsh and overly whinging chap who I struggled to see what Sophie saw anything in. But here he is a bit emo/goth, and while Christian Bale?s ?I am Batman? gruff voice grates more often than not, he is a relatable character, fearing for his freedom and seeking the return of his heart. The real standout characters are Calcifer, voiced by Billy Crystal, and the Witch of the Waste?both amuse and entertain, but also offer a sense of depth to the storyline, of a whole world to be explored.

The film is one of Studio Ghibli?s finest, with wonderful pacing and a real sense of scale. It is a grand adventure for all ages and does a great job of blending reality with fantasy. While magic is at the core of the film, it is the very real actions of Sophie and co. that leads our heroes to success. There is also a heart to the film, where even those who have done wrong are offered a chance of salvation and peace. And of course, there is a Totoro-sized chunk of Miyzaki-styled ships, planes, palaces, cars, trams and much more. The unique Ghibli style is on full display throughout.

And so we come to the Blu-Ray itself. Unlike the rather lacklustre look of ?Tales From Earthsea?, the transfer for Howl is nothing short of magnificent. The transformation from DVD to BD is stunning. The vibrancy of colours, the sharpness of the image, the purity of the animation?all of it is beyond compare. This is Ghibli?s best looking BD to date, and the best-sounding, and it gives me great hope for what Spirited Away is going to look like. This BD will show off your system to its finest, while entertaining friends and family alike. There are, once again, some interesting extras included, such as a feature on how Miyazaki-san surprised John Lasseter at Pixar with a shock visit, bringing drool-inducing gifts. There are features on the sound and voices, the English dub and the original launch. All in all it is a wonderful package that will make Ghibli fanatics (like me) very happy indeed.

I cannot recommend this film, or this BD release highly enough. Go and get it and you?ll not be disappointed. If you?ve never bought or seen a Ghibli movie before, here is a wonderful place to start. Fall in love with the magic of Ghibli animation, it is truly something to behold.

Tales From Earthsea ? Bluray Review

Tales From Earthsea Blu Ray Cover

Ghibli are back with another brace of Blu-Ray releases (Howl?s Moving Castle & Tales from Earthsea) edging us closer to the much-waited for release of their most popular films ?Spirited Away? and ?My Neighbour Totoro?.

First up is Goro Miyazaki?s ?Tales Form Earthsea?, based loosely on the third Earthsea book by Ursula Le Guin. Yes, that read Goro, not Hayao. This Ghibli pic was directed by son-of-the-genius, Goro, not by the master himself. It was also animated by many of Studio Ghibli?s younger team members. And boy, does it show!

Admission time?I am an avid Ghibli fan. I honestly believe Studio Ghibli is the finest production house in the world, even outpacing the likes of Pixar. Their range of films, breadth of storylines, layers of characters and locations?it all adds up to a canon of work that has no competitor. Yes, I am a Japanoholic, but this transcends my love for all things Nippon. Their films engage on so many levels, they are unafraid of switching styles and themes, and they consistently allow film-makers to tell original and interesting stories. So you will be shocked to hear me say that ?Tales From Earthsea? is a Ghibli film I simply do not like! I dislike it so much that I really didn?t want to have to sit through it yet again. But here we are, so let?s get down to the review.

Hayao Miyazaki is unashamed in his love for Le Guin?s Earthsea novels. Many of her themes are reflected in his movies. In fact, he wanted to make an Earthsea movie before he made Nausicaa, but Le Guin wouldn?t release the rights at the time. Finally, after a mutual friend pointed out to them both how much they appreciated the other?s work, Miyazaki and Le Guin met and agreed to make an Earthsea Ghibli film. Huzzah! Except, hang on, Miyazaki-san then said he felt he was too old to direct the movie himself and wanted to use it as a chance for some of the younger Ghibli team members to show what they could do. Fair enough, one thing Ghibli has always done (like Pixar) is give people opportunities to shine. And so directing and writing duties went to his son Goro, but it appears that very little of the Miyazaki magic went with them.

The film tells the story of Prince Arren who murders his father and flees to the countryside where a pestilence is destroying crops and people alike. He meets archmage Ged who has come to the land to investigate the pestilence. On their journey they meet with a young girl called Teru who Arren has to rescue from slavers. The evil magician Kamu uses Arren & Teru in his plan to find immortality, but discovers all is not as it seems with the young people.

Dragons, magicians, mystical lands?all sounds very Ghibli, right? Well, on the surface it is Ghibli-as-usual. But while everything looks good, it is covering up much bigger problems. Goro is a competent technical director but he has no feel for characterisation. Where Ghibli succeeds is in producing vivid, varied and relatable characters that we fall in love with. But there is no single character in Earthsea where this happens. They are all one-dimensional?basic avatars for their roles in the plot. You never bond with Arren or Teru, or feel for them. There is no warmth to Ged the archmage. The evil magician Kamu is a strangely designed creature who neither terrifies or appeals. There is just no feeling of completeness to any of the characters, it is almost as if Goro had sketched them out and forgotten to finish them off for the final movie. It is the biggest failing in a Ghibli film where the audience demands characters they can take in to their hearts and fall under the spell of. Quite how Miyazaki-san or Suzuki-san allowed this to happen is unclear, but reports of disagreements between father and son have littered the trail of this movie.

The story itself, written by Goro and based very loosely on the third book in the Earthsea saga, also falls flat. The initial murder, the sudden appearance then disappearance of dragons, the issue of magicians losing their powers, the pestilence?none of these issues are resolved, and few if any are dealt with in any way. This is a jumbled and barely coherent plot that stumbles from minor event to minor event. Why is slavery allowed? Why is the Prince not being hunted? Just what is the purpose of the dragons? The problem is that Goro has assumed the audience know something about the Earthsea universe, and so he either fails to explain things, or he throws in random references that make no sense. Place names, events, people?these crop up but are not put in context. It really does make the film hard to follow and almost purposefully disrespectful. Inside the mess of a plot is an interesting idea of dual-personality, real-names, responsibility and loyalty which would make for a decent film IF it were told using relatable characters that we cared for. This isn?t Le Guin?s fault, as her Earthsea characters are all well-rounded, personable and written with depth. It is no surprise to me that she was less than happy with the finished movie. It is not the definitive Earthsea film she had hoped Ghibli would produce. To be honest it doesn?t feel like an Earthsea movie at all! The animation, while pretty, is not up to Ghibli?s usual standards. There is a lack of imagination, flair and beauty to it. The Blu-Ray does nothing to improve the flatness and lack of vibrancy. I found it hard to differentiate between this release and the previous DVD release in terms of visual or audio performance. The style is hand-drawn and credit for that. While Goro was making this film, his father was making good use of hand-drawn and digital techniques to make the far superior ?Howl?s Moving Castle?, and I can?t help but feel that too much of the company?s attention was with Howl than on Earthsea. With a new director and young animation talent the company needed to focus more resources on ensuring it was a success. Sadly it wasn?t, and the final film, while not terrible, certainly doesn?t hit any of the traditional Ghibli notes.

So, this is one for Ghibli completists, or the very curious. I?d avoid it if you are an Earthsea novels fan as it will infuriate you. The Blu-Ray comes with a decent selection of extras, including several behind the scenes docs which are actually very entertaining and informative. I?m not sure how to rate or recommend this release. As a Ghibli-ite I want to see them make money to invest in future films, so I should tell you to rush out and buy it, but I find myself hesitating as I just don?t think it is good enough a film to recommend. Certainly don?t make it you first Ghibli film?go for Spirited Away, Howl or Totoro?but also don?t judge Ghibli by this one film?s standard. Maybe by ignoring the Ghibli name we can look at this as a standard piece of animation fare, interesting on its own merits but nothing special? Well, whatever you make of the film, I am glad Hayao Miyazaki is still helming the majority of Ghibli films, and that the studio continues to support its young artists in their dreams. A little more quality control? Yes. A little less aspiration? Certainly not.

Borrowing from a classic leads to a new classic ? Arrietty Bluray Review by Neil Gardner

Arrietty Blu-ray
2012 is looking like a bumper year for fans of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki. We have already had the BD release of the superb Whisper of the Heart, and now we have their latest masterpiece, Arrietty, available on the shiny (not really) blue discs.

Based on the popular children?s story ?The Borrowers? by Mary Norton (published 1952), Arrietty tells the tale of tiny people who live alongside, under and around human beings, borrowing items that they need and trying hard to avoid being seen. In the Ghibli version, the story takes place in semi-rural Japan, where a young boy, Sho, has moved to live with his grandmother to rest up before he has a major heart operation. One night he spots Arrietty and her father borrowing some sugar and so starts the story proper, as he tries to find her again and strike up a friendship, while Arrietty?s parents panic and decide it is time for them to move home. I won?t reveal any more of the story as you should have the chance to enjoy the way it slowly unfolds for yourself.

So let?s dive in to the BD itself. First off, unlike the other recent Ghibli BD releases, this copy of Arrietty comes with just one bonus feature, an opportunity to watch the entire film using the original storyboards (rather nice actually). Now, this may be because it was a review disc based on the single BD version, but it felt rather light for a BD release. Considering the noteworthy UK cast of acting luminaries, an extra on the UK casting, recording, etc? would have been nice. There were no trailers for other Ghibli titles, and strangely, no sign of the traditional ?blue? Ghibli logo screen. Somehow, without these things the disc felt lacking. There are two versions of the film available on BD?I think the review disc is the ?vanilla? single disc edition, as the listing for the Deluxe Collector?s Edition includes many more extras, including the promotional video for the beautiful music by Cecile Corbel. So it looks like the Deluxe Edition is the one to go for if you are a die-hard fan (that would be me then!) with the plain version being a great buy for the kids.

Picture quality is, as always with a Ghibli release, exquisite, ranging from fully vibrant sunshine-laden gardens, to shadow-infested torch-illuminated under the floorboards living. The sense of scale and size in Arrietty?s world is breath-taking and the artists have excelled themselves in making the two worlds fit together so beautifully. I have a small bugbear, as I do with ALL films/TV shows where there is a small world and a large world interacting?.it is this, why slow down the giant human hands when seen from the smaller Borrower perspective? They are smaller people, but they don?t perceive the world around them moving at a different speed, otherwise EVERYTHING bigger than them would appear to be in slow motion, including rain drops, flowing water, birds, cats, etc? Plus Arrietty would hear Sho speaking at a slower rate and lower pitch. There is an inconsistency within the film over this issue, and while it in no way diminishes the story or the enjoyment of the film, it does betray a rare lack of care and attention from the Ghibli team.

Sadly the sound mix suffers from a similar problem. 99% of the sound is a pure delight. From the sumptuous songs and score by Cecile Corbel (see, another Ghibli film without Joe H doing the music!), to the soundscapes of gardens and dolls houses, the overall production is genuinely well done. The surround mix works particularly well in building a sense of space and scale when then two worlds collide. However, there is 1% that, for me, fails. I mentioned this when I reviewed the film on its cinema release, and rather hoped the problem was the fault of the sound system in the viewing rooms, but alas, it remains on the BD mix as well. And again, it is one of scale and acoustical physics. When we hear the world from Arrietty?s perspective there is an inconsistency with levels and speed. Sometimes the sounds e.g. clock ticks are at ?human scale? and so are slowed down slightly and made a lot louder (even though they are still the same distance away?so would they really sound louder and slower to smaller ears?) but at other times e.g. thunder and lightning, the sounds are kept as how a human would hear them, even though we are perceiving them from the Borrower perspective. Why the inconsistency? Yes, sound is as important a tool for storytelling as anything visual, and in the instance of the clock ticking, or the first few raindrops hitting, there is a justification for dramatic use of sound. All I would hope for is that such skilled storytellers as Ghibli would find a more consistent and balanced approach to their sound design. This may, of course, be something no-one else picks up on (especially kids), and I mention it only because it irked me twice now, and beyond these minor quibbles, I can find nothing to dislike about this BD release of Arrietty.

Destined to become another much-loved Ghibli masterpiece, to sit alongside Spirited Away, Howl?s Moving Castle, My Neighbour Totoro and Ponyo, Arrietty is a wonderful film that is perfect for children of all ages, and a real treat for older Ghibli fans. It straddles the two styles of Ghibli, the fantastical and the human, and does so with consummate ease, a soft touch and a beauty that is rare outside of the Totoro-factory. And unlike so many Western films, Ghibli are not scared to end their movie with so much of the story still to tell?we get just a small snapshot of Arrietty and Sho?s stories, it is tantalising, but still manages to sate out appetites. Miyazaki and his team continue to create escapist fantasies that educate and entertain, but most of all, make us feel warm and happy. I heartily recommend Arrietty as a purchase on BD?just go for the Deluxe Edition if you can afford it, the extras are better!

WHISPER OF THE HEART ? BLURAY REVIEW by Neil Gardner

Whisper of the Heart stands up to the more famous films, and can sit alongside them in the pantheon of ?great animated movies?.
Whisper of the Heart stands up to the more famous films, and can sit alongside them in the pantheon of ?great animated movies?.

2012 is already proving to be an exciting year for Miyazaki/Ghibli fans, with their latest movie, Arrietty just released on BD, and several older titles slated for release later in the year. However, I was particularly excited about the release of Whisper of the Heart, the 1995 Miyazaki scripted, Kondo directed film based on the manga of Aoi Hiiragi. Why? Well, let us take a step back for a moment and examine Studio Ghibli?best known for its lustrous fantasy adventures and fairy-tale settings, the studio is often thought of in the West in terms of films such as Ponyo, Totoro, Spirited Away, Howl?s Moving Castle and Pom Poko. As a die-hard Ghibli-ite, I adore these movies, their richness of style and story-telling, their (mostly) female protagonists, and their true originality. If ever you are feeling down, pop Totoro on and you?ll be smiling again before you know it. But for me, my real appreciation of Ghibli came when I started to watch their more ?human/adult? output?films with less (if any) fantastical creatures and fairy-tale landscapes and more true-life themes, messages and settings. Yes, all Ghibli films introduce us to morals, ethics and alternative viewpoints, and the quirkiness of the characters and situations within these films helps the pill go down. But it wasn?t until I saw movies such as Grave of the Fireflies, Ocean Waves, My Neighbours the Yamadas, Only Yesterday and Whisper of the Heart, that I could understand just how different Miyazaki and his team were as story-tellers, and how far Western animation has to come to catch-up and to be able to feel confident to be able to tell such stories.

So, back to Whisper of the Heart. The film tells the story of schoolgirl Shizuku Tsukishima and her search for a purpose in life. As she is heading towards high school and possibly university, she has big decisions to make, but she is uncertain of the path to take. One day, she follows (or is she led by?) a large cat through the suburbs of Tama New Town (a suburb of Tokyo) eventually reaching a beautiful neighbourhood and a small antique store. Within the store is a beautiful ornamental grandfather clock, being restored by the aged store-owner, as well as a small statue of a cat, called The Baron (small spoiler alert ? the large cat and The Baron reprise their roles in the film The Cat Returns?keep an eye out for small clues as to their motives). ?The store is also home to a boy who has been borrowing all the same library books as Shizuku?something she finds faintly romantic. He is an apprentice violin maker, due to head off to Europe to study.

The film tells of the blossoming romance between the two, and Shizuku?s attempts to define her future as a writer, while stumbling through the early steps of her first ever relationship.

So is it any good? Yes. Honestly, truthfully it is a superb, funny, clever, heart-warming film that makes you laugh and think and consider. A Ghibli film with no fantasy creatures and a suburban setting may sound dull, but I promise you this is far from that. Every character is brought to vivid life, not just through some sumptuous artwork, but through exquisite character-study, scripting and interaction. From the disinterested and distracted academic parents and ?been-there-done-that? older sister, to the old store owner and his musician friends, everyone in this film feels real, alive and relevant. The two leads (although this is mostly Shizuku?s film) are relatable and avoid the whininess of Western youth protagonists. Seiji (our young violin maker) is possibly a little too perfect, a little too eager?but then we are seeing him through Shizuku?s eyes, and for her this boy is all these things and more.

For those who prefer their movies with more Miyazaki magic (now THAT could be a marketing sell-line, surely?!) don?t despair. The Tama New Town setting, from winding hillside roads, schools and offices, to old stores, strange alleyways and steep stairways is beautifully drawn, holding a mysterious air of newness and oddity. It may not be the lush countryside of Totoro, but it is what is left of the Tama Hills from Pom Poko, which offers a fascinating insight in to the evolution of the region. And if fantasy really is your lynchpin, fear not, as Shizuku writes her first story (about the life of The Baron) her imagination takes her on a fantastical journey, featuring some of the most beautiful and remarkable landscapes you?ll find in any Ghibli film.

For me, Whisper of the Heart stands up to the more famous films, and can sit alongside them in the pantheon of ?great animated movies?. This is because it is exactly that?a great movie that just happens to have been animated. It might work as a live action film, but a lot of the warmth, personality and mystery would be lost, I fear. Once again I?ll assert, as I have with so many Ghibli films, that this is a film only Ghibli could have made, and made such a success of.

So we?ve ascertained it is worth watching?so is it worth watching on shiny new Bluray? I am happy to report that the BD/HD conversion is a success. The colours are vibrant without any sign of washing-out or bleeding, the age of the film doesn?t show in any way, and the soundtrack is beautifully rendered (it is that rarest of beasts, a Ghibli film with music NOT by Joe Hishaishi!) I?m not sure if it is just me getting used to BD releases, but I did feel that this conversion wasn?t quite as stunning as the Nausicaa disc, but it could also be that the previous DVD releases were so clean that there doesn?t appear to be such a step-up in quality. Suffice to say, the film looks and sounds amazing, you get a small but decent selection of extras, including some beautiful step by step artwork, and the usual (sadly not updated but great pieces of archive) Ghibli trailers.

It is fantastic to see Whisper of the Heart being released so early in the cycle of Ghibli BD releases. Sadly the director, Yoshifumi Kondo passed away in 1998 so we were deprived of his genius, vision and storytelling. A possible successor to Miyazaki was lost that day, but we have Whisper of the Heart to remember him by, and this BD release is a fitting tribute to a talented individual. So pop that shiny disc in, sit back and let yourself be immersed in yet another masterpiece from Studio Ghibli.