From Up On Poppy Hill – Studio Ghibli Movie

From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill
From Up On Poppy Hill

A new film from Studio Ghibli is always an exciting prospect, but this one came with, for me, a certain degree of hesitancy. A post-Korean War slice of reality directed by Goro Miyazaki…could Ghibli deliver their usual magic in a non-fantastical setting, and could Goro-san improve from the utter disappointment that was “Tales From Earthsea”? The simple answer is yes, on both counts. The more complex answer is…well, there really isn’t a more complex answer. “From Up On Poppy Hill” is sublime, wondrous, heart-warming, thrilling, emotional, exhilarating, life-affirming, beautiful and so many other things I could just cut-and-paste a dictionary of positive terms here and be done with it. Out of five stars this is a 10 star film. This is Ghibli at its very best and it was an absolute pleasure to sit in that screening room and experience their stunning tale unfold over and hour and a half.
Written by the legendary Hiyao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa, and based on the 1980 manga by Tetsuro Sayama & Chizuru Takahashi, the story revolves around Umi Matsuzaki, a 16 year old high schooler in the Port of Yokohama. It is 1963 and she lives in a boarding house with her grandmother and several female residents, looking after their needs every morning and evening, and heading off to school during the daytime. Her mother, a professor, is on an extended trip to the US, and her father was killed during the Korean War. Every morning Umi raises signal flags hoping to reach the spirit of her drowned father. One day, the school newspaper prints a poem about her flags and she heads off to the clubhouse to find out who is responsible. It is here she, with her younger sister Sora, encounter Shun Kazama, a young man who is part of the journalism club and popular with the girls at the school for his antics trying to save the clubhouse from closure. Umi is instantly drawn to Shun, and volunteers to help with the paper, and encourages the boys in the clubhouse to tidy it up as a tactic to saving it from demolition. Through her involvement, the girls at the school rally to help the boys tidy, clean and renovate the building. Meanwhile, Shun visits Umi’s boarding house home and discovers (without her knowledge) that her father might also be his. This throws him off centre and builds a wall of silence between them, much to Umi’s distress. Finally she is able to get the truth from him, but even though they now believe themselves to be brother and sister, they still profess their love for each other, and they suffer with the pain of having to put that love to one side. As this melodrama unfolds, the school clubhouse, now beautifully restored to its European splendour (it is called the Latin Quarter) is condemned by the school board. Umi, Shun and their friend Shiro head in to Tokyo to petition the school board’s chairman to come see the building and save it. Elated by her trip to Tokyo but saddened by the change in her relationship with Shun, Umi heads home to find her mother returned. She reveals all to her mother and…well, let’s not ruin the final act, eh?

I honestly cannot speak highly enough of this film. The story is compelling and incredibly moving. I don’t think I’ve ever seen tears in the eyes of fellow press reviewers before, but there were a few at the end of this sublime movie. We were fortunate enough to see a subtitled Japanese original version (I know, subtitles aren’t for everyone, but I am a Ghibli purist and whilst I always enjoy the dubbed versions, I do appreciate seeing the original and hearing the original Japanese actors) so I can’t comment on the UK dub (although the previous dubs for Ponyo, Arrietty, Howl and Spirited Away were all superb) but I am sure it will be as good as you would expect from Ghibli. This is a nostalgic film, seen from a teenager’s perspective, with a fairly predictable plot but which nevertheless leaves you feeling elated and uplifted. It doesn’t do anything radical or shocking, which some may feel is a little disappointing, and it doesn’t have the same visual flair as Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But then this film isn’t a fantasy epic. It isn’t escapist wish-fulfilment. It is a slice of life drama with a strong comedic vein running throughout. It is a moment in Japanese history that few outside of the country are aware of, and it is an important coming of age tale that works because its female protagonist is someone we can instantly empathise with. Once again Studio Ghibli, under the leadership of Myazaki-san have offered us a strong female lead in whom we can see some of ourselves but more importantly through who we can learn about this very specific time and place in Japanese history. No, the story doesn’t take us anywhere new, but I, for one, was happy to be cocooned in the warm world of Ghibli, to be entertained, moved and entranced.

Visually the film is nothing short of sumptuous. Ghibli fans will love the hand-drawn style so reminiscent from Ponyo, Totoro and so many others. Every frame is stuffed with fine detail, depth and variety. From sweeping seascapes to winding narrow roads, from bustling ports to hectic schoolyards…everything is beautifully animated, with a slightly soft tone but vibrant lighting. Within five minutes I was sighing with pleasure at feeling so at home in this world. Much like Only Yesterday, Ocean Waves or Whisper of the Heart, this is the real world through the lens of Ghibli’s unique eye…at once recognisable and precise, yet at the same time ever so softer and more inviting. In this instance, we experienced a more grown up version of the port town in Ponyo, a teenager’s view of a busy Japanese town changing in the post war boom. I know I wasn’t the only person at the screening to be entranced by these wonderful images.

The soundtrack was equally nostalgic, sadly not by Ghibli go-to-guy Joe Hisaishi (if you’ve not heard his soundtrack to the game Ni No Kuni you are missing out on a real treat), but instead a mix of new tracks by Satoshi Takebe and Japanese versions of some period songs, some European, some American. It works very well for the style and tone of the movie, but I did miss Joe’s input, and the film doesn’t have an immediately memorable theme. Overall though, the music only adds to the brilliance of the movie.

Audio-wise you can expect the usual high-quality sound effects and sound balance. There’s nothing too bombastic or ear-shattering, but the sound designers have clearly had a lot of fun bringing the school and clubhouse scenes to life. And the soundscape of the port, and that of pre-Olympics Tokyo are vibrant and dynamic without sounding like a pastiche.

My only negative with “From Up On Poppy Hill” is that I can’t watch it again, right now. I would happily beg the lovely folk at StudioCanal for a preview BluRay…if I had a first born (I don’t) I might even offer a trade! No, seriously, if they are reading this, let me know what I have to offer to get a copy.

Hyperbole aside, this is just about the perfect (non-fantasy) Ghibli film to date. I am a real fan of slice of life anime, and to see Ghibli take the genre and do something so perfect with it was a real joy. I left the screening smiling, excited and desperate to see it again. It is a film Ghibli fans will thoroughly enjoy, but more importantly it is a film to introduce non-Ghibli fans to anime and Studio Ghibli. If you know someone who is averse to monsters and fantasy, and thinks anime is just for kids, get them to see “From Up On Poppy Hill”…it will show them just what great storytelling can be done using animation, and how anime in particular, and Ghibli specifically, can tell tales in way no-one and no other medium can manage.

My score out of 5: 10 (and maybe another 10!)

My Neighbour Totoro Bluray Review

My Neighbour Totoro: Double Play (2 Discs) (Blu-ray)
Once again the lovely folk at Studio Ghibli and StudioCanal spoil us rotten with new Bluray releases of classic Ghibli films this month. First up is my all-time favourite film (ever!)… “My Neighbour Totoro”. Ostensibly a children’s movie, but a film so magical, wonderful, intelligent and moving that anyone of any age can, and will enjoy it. A charming tale about 10-year-old Saksuki and her inquisitive younger sister Mei who move to a new home in the country to be closer to their mother in hospital. Far from the bustle of the city, they discover a mysterious place of spirits and magic, and the friendship of the big fluffy Totoro woodland creatures.

I never tire of this movie, it works on so many levels. From the magic and mystery of childhood, and the issues children face when faced with the illness of a parent, to ecological concerns and the way that man used to be in harmony with nature. But then it is also a fantastic fantasy adventure, with unique creatures – from the small, medium & large Totoros (think big fluffy plushy bunnies…sort of) to the agile and wily Cat-bus (yes, it is a cat that is a bus…it’ll make sense when you watch the film!) Beyond that it is a coming-of-age tale, with Saksuki learning to take responsibility for herself and her sister, while also helping their hard-working father whilst their mother is in hospital. But then again the film is also about how we can, and should, live with nature, look after the countryside and balance our need for space & technology with nature’s need for our patience and compassion.

With Totoro, the master Hayao Miyazaki created a near-perfect film, entertaining, educational, exciting, wondrous and full of warmth. But he also created the Ghibli studio, the Ghibli logo and even a Ghibli/Totoro foundation that attempts to rescue old Japanese countryside from development and return it to its original state. He also laid down a touch-stone for his films that would follow – of quality, uniqueness, accessibility and fun. My Neighbour Totoro isn’t just a film about big fluffy bunny creatures, it is the start of a true revolution in animated films.

With this new bluray edition we get to enjoy Totoro in a whole new way. The restoration/upscale is phenomenal, with colours outstandingly vibrant and no hint of blurriness or colour-bleed. As someone who has watched the original DVDs endless times, I was truly shocked at the improvement in quality, and on such an old film. I would dearly love to see a feature on how they are achieving these amazing results. I can honestly say that the bluray edition is worth any Ghibli fan owning, it is almost like seeing the film new all over again.

And then there are the bonus features. Not surprisingly, since this is Studio Ghibli’s biggest title (alongside Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle) they have added some very tasty extra items. A full list is below, with several new items that haven’t been included on older DVD editions, but one that stands out is a set of excerpts from a Japanese TV programme looking at the real-world inspirations for Miyazaki and how many Japanese are seeing the worth of saving these beautiful places. These are extra definitely worth watching.
As usual you get the original Japanese audio track plus the English/American dub. The English dub is pretty good, but I would recommend the Japanese original for slightly more depth of character and emotion. There are some great US voices, but the dub isn’t quite up to the standards of Spirited Away, Howl or Ponyo.

Surprisingly the only omission, still, is an HD trailer for the Ghibli collection…we still get the tired old DVD (almost VHS) quality trailer. It is about time Ghibli created a spangly hi-def trailer, they certainly have the material to make it by now!

So go forth and buy My Neighbour Totoro on bluray, you won’t be let-down. It is a superb film, in a beautiful presentation with great-value extras. What more could you ask for? Well, maybe a limited edition version with a Totoro plush toy…but then that’s just me, a self-confessed Totoroholic!

Extras: Storyboards / Creating My Neighbor Totoro (new!) / Creating the Characters (new!) / The Totoro Experience (new!) / Producer’s Perspective: Creating Ghibli (new!) / The Locations of Totoro (new!) / Scoring Miyazaki (new!) / Behind the Microphone / Textless Opening / Textless Closing / Original Japanese Theatrical Trailers / Studio Ghibli Collection Trailers

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.


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.

Arrietty ? Another Success for Studio Ghibli

Arrietty ? Another Success for Studio Ghibli

Based on the classic kid?s fantasy story ?The Borrowers?, Studio Ghibli?s lastest animated masterpiece tells the story of Arrietty, a tiny girl, living with her family underneath an old cottage in the country. Arrietty and her family survive by ?borrowing? things from the humans who live in the house, such as food and old left-over knick knacks. While their home is beautiful and comfortable, the borrowing can be dangerous and they must always hide from the giant humans. Once there were many such families, but now it is just Arrietty, her mother and father, and a near-feral boy who lives off the land. In the film, a young boy comes to live at the cottage, owned by his grandmother, in order to rest before having a major heart operation. He catches a glimpse of Arrietty and slowly builds a friendship with her. However, the housekeeper also discovers the little people, and sets about trying to capture them.

After the Totoro-esque simplicity and innocence of Ponyo, this is Ghibli heading back in to more contemplative and serious territory. It is a stunningly beautiful film, with vibrant colours and shamelessly revelling in long, slow shots of the cottage, the garden and the hidden world of the borrowers. In style and tone it is closer to Howl?s Moving Castle, Only Yesterday and even Grave of the Fireflies. Don?t get me wrong, this is very much a film for kids of all ages, but it is more mature, more considered than Ponyo. And while it focuses once again on a young female protagonist, the viewpoint feels less childlike than previous Miyazaki stories. Both the young characters act far more adult than the actual adults around them!

So, in a story about tiny people, scale is going to be all important. And in Arrietty the animators have done a grand job of conveying the differences in size between the human world and the borrower world. The transitions between the two are handled with care, and the interactions between the humans and borrowers feels believable and to scale. The only time the issue of scale comes a cropper is in some of the sound design. For 90% of the film the sound design is exquisite, helping to bring to life the two worlds, as well as when crossing from one to the other. However, while the designers have done a good job in adjusting the relative volume of items between the ?large? and ?small? worlds, they have done so inconsistently. For example, when Arrietty is exploring the human house one night, a nearby mantle clock ticks heavily and loudly (as one expects when heard from the perspective of a tiny pair of ears). But later, when Arrietty is sitting alone while a rain storm (with appropriate giant rain drops) rages around her, the sound of the rain drops hitting the ground are as humans might hear them, but not the thunderous KABOOM the sound design has led you to expect. This is a minor niggle, but in a film with such attention to detail, it seems strange to have such inconsistencies.

I saw the UK dub, which was, as with most recent Ghibli films, superbly handled and well-cast. This is a film that relies on the imagery to convey the plot as much as, if not more so, than the dialogue. And while the core cast handled the lines with consumate ease, Arrietty and her mother being singled out for particular praise, I feel that something may have been lost in translation somewhat. There is a sense that the lines needed to be just a bit longer, as though the adapter had tried to stick to a ?less is more? approach. This is best illustrated by the sick little boy, Sho, who I kept wanting to say just one more sentence, or add just one more phrase. Of course, in his case, this may be indicative of his illness. But I wonder if it is more to do with the style of drama Miyazaki is attempting to produce. And that, in the Japanese original, the paucity of dialogue, the Pinter-esque pauses, make more sense? It doesn?t overly detract from the movie, and certainly is no fault of the cast. It is a very British cast, which is interesting. Famous names, yes…but not Hollywood superstars in any sense.

Arrietty is a must-see for any Ghibli fan. It doesn?t disappoint and continues the studio?s proud history of family films that work on multiple levels. It will entertain your kids in magical ways, but will keep adults enthralled as well. It is a quiet, emotional, beautiful, moving, thoughtful and simple tale…very much Ghibli at their best.

Neil Gardner

My Neighbors The Yamadas Bluray Review

Bluray Review by Neil Gardner

My Neighbours The Yamadas - Double Play (Blu-ray + DVD)
We’ve been spoiled a little this month with not one but two Studio Ghibli bluray releases. First was the sublime fantasy Laputa: Castle In The Sky, and now comes the less well known, and in my opinion much overlooked, My Neighbors The Yamadas.

The first thing you need to know is that this film looks unlike anything else in the Ghibli movie collection (although very similar to the Ghibli tv shorts The Ghiblis). In fact, it looks like nothing else you’ve ever seen on the big screen. Unlike the usual stunning mixture of traditional hand drawn animation and cgi you’ve come to expect from a Ghibli title, Yamadas looks more like an animated sketchbook. It is as though an animator’s ideas pad has been brought to life. The screen is a wash of white which is brought to life by beautiful hand drawn inks and water colours. But images fade off at the edges, colours wash away, there is little or no shading, almost no depth or perspective. In one way, the style is simplistic and basic. But the genius of Yamadas is that this approach allows the characters and plot to hurtle to the forefront. Don’t let me undersell the animation though. This is no exercise in student film-making, or a parody of a more traditional style. At times the complexity of the scenes and action are breath-taking. From bob-sleighing newlyweds, to sailing into a mighty ocean storm, Yamadas is a masterclass in animation. It manages to be endearing, amusing, sympathetic, outrageous and exciting. It may take a few minutes for you to adjust to the look and feel of this film but stick with it because what follows is pure Ghibli magic.

The film itself is a collection of moralistic tales, following the family life of the Yamadas: mother and father, grandmother and two kids. It is often slapstick, very often hilarious but also full of pathos and cleverly realised advice for a successful family life. The Yamadas are a dysfunctional family, but unlike a Western film, our Ghibli friends offer us a more genteel form of dysfunction. They argue, bicker, fight, annoy, anger, aggravate and so much more. But they obviously love each other and it is how to balance the difficulties of family life with the love of each other that the film focuses on.

Of the many vignettes, some that particularly stand out include: leaving the youngest child at the shopping centre and panicking about where she has gone; mother and grand mother suffering from apathy and poor memory; facing up to noisy bikers and fantasising about being a superhero; father and son baseball; fighting over the remote control; and many others. There is bound to be at least one that resonates with your own experiences of family life!

As the tales fly by, you learn to love this ridiculous family, with all their individual and group faults. You will laugh along with their adventures in family-life and bit by bit you will fall in love with this energetic, unusual and all together different approach to animated storytelling.

So…does the bluray edition offer anything new, anything worth spending money on? Well, for one, it is a beautiful transfer, allowing the inks and watercolours to shine. Instead of blocks of colour, in this edition you can make out the finer details of the animator’s art. From fine gradations of colour, to every pen and brush stroke. It seems odd to suggest that a high definition version of such a simple looking film should be superior or worth the investment, but I really do recommend this bluray edition. With a superb English dub, starring many of the American actors who have appeared on numerous Ghibli dubs, and the original Japanese audio track (always well worth listening to), this is a beautifully mastered disc.

As for bonus features, once again I feel a little short changed, but whether this is down to the exclusion of material, or simply because there isn’t anything new to add, I don’t know. I would like to see the marvellous Optimum Releasing commission some new material for these editions. There are plenty of Amime and Ghibli experts and fans who could contribute to new documentaries and features. I for one would love to see something by Jonathan Clements (check out his brilliant book on the anime and manga trade, Schoolgirl Milky Crisis). It is about time the ultimate Ghibli documentary was made…come on Optimum, make us fans happy, we’ll buy more discs!

So, to sum up…bizarrely I feel more inclined to recommend Yamadas than I do Laputa. Hang on, no…I happily recommend them both as exciting, original and perfect movies for the whole family. But Yamadas feels like it has profited more from the hi-def process than Laputa. I may be wrong, but Yamadas on bluray is a real step change from the DVD version. But let me suggest this…Ghibli fan or not, buy both these releases, you really won’t be sorry.

As for the Yamadas…I hope we’ll see more of their adventures. But if Optimum could dig up some more classic Panda, Go Panda episodes first, I’d be a really happy chap!

Laputa – Castle in the Sky. Review

Available for the first time in high definition on Blu-ray Double Play courtesy of Studio Ghibli and master animator Hayao Miyazaki Laputa: Castle In the Sky is an imaginative tale full of mystery and adventure.
Bluray review by Neil Gardner

Let me confess at the very start of this review, that I am an unashamed Studio Ghibli fanboy. It was Spirited Away that began my relationship with anime and manga, and I’ve been ravenously devouring every Ghibli morsel as soon as it becomes available.

Laputa was the second Ghibli movie I saw, and on that first viewing I truly fell in love with the studio, and Hiyao Miyazaki’s work. It is easy to see why he is referred to as the Walt Disney of the East, but I think he is much more than that. He is certainly Disney, but also Lassiter, Lang, Tolkien, Blighton, Rowling, and so many others. It is a very Western thing to try and pigeon hole someone or liken them to one other person, but what Miyazaki and his team do is more akin to whole swathes of Western talent.

So…on to the review of the 2011 Bluray release of Laputa. Unlike previous Ghibli bluray releases, I wasn’t blown away immediately by the transfer. While it is definitely an improvement on the DVD, it doesn’t feel like the sea change we got with Nausicaa or Ponyo. The colours are vibrant and well defined, the sound is clean with a decent mix, but somehow, for some reason, I just didn’t get the wow factor as I sat down to view the disc.
Now, this isn’t a reflection on the brilliance of the film or the plot. Laputa holds up to multiple viewings easily…and this must have been the 14th or 15th time I’d watched it. I’ve only ever had one beef with this Ghibli masterpiece, and that is that I find it a little too long. It is made up of a large number of set pieces, all of which are exciting, character driven and necessary for he plot. But by the time our heroes finally reach the mysterious Laputa, I feel like I need a break for five minutes to get my second wind.

Laputa ? Castle in the Sky
If you don’t know the film, it is the story of two kids searching for the mystical land of Laputa, a city said to be floating in the clouds. The army are also searching for the city in order to learn it’s many secrets, while a pirate gang are looking for it to loot the rumoured treasure vaults. On their adventure the kids meet miners and friendly pirates, evil secret agents, greedy soldiers and destructive yet kindly robots. It is all set in a European, industrial landscape…similar to other Ghibli films, and as with much of Miyazaki’s work, flying and the sky are key themes.

I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet…but if you’ve seen Howl’s Moving Castle or Ponyo you will immediately feel at home with this movie. It is hand painted and hand animated and has that unique Ghibli feel of warmth and friendship, fantasy and reality…all mixed together to tell a tale that will resonate with children and adults. If the only Ghibli film you’ve seen is Spirited Away then you may find this one a little more basic in it’s style and pacing, but give it a try and soon you’ll come to appreciate Miyazaki’s tone and approach to story telling. This is a lovely entry into the world of Ghibli, from which you can move on to some truly wonderful films.

As for whether this makes for a good bluray purchase…well, as a fanboy I have to say yes, it does, as it is certainly the best version of the film you can own. The English dub is superb, but you also get the original Japanese audio (well worth listening to). While the disc isn’t overly burdened by extras, there are a couple of nice documentaries and some behind the scenes material, as well as the usual Ghibli previews. But I wonder if now is the time for Ghibli to release one or two of it’s big hitters. I think we need to see My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle or Spirited Away…something to really show off what Ghibli can do in High Definition. It is wonderful to own this film in a definitive edition, but I can’t say it is as exciting a release or improvement in picture quality as Nausicaa was. I would love to see what Spirited Away can look and sound like on Bluray disc…so come on Optimum, stop making us wait, let’s see those big films!

Laputa – Castle In The Sky is a must have for all Ghibli fans, and a definite good investment for any anime fan, and especially for anyone looking for an exciting adventure film for the kids (of all ages!). Let’s hope it is soon joined by a few more of it’s stablemates.

Classic Anime Back on DVD – But is it Steampunk?

Available for the first time in high definition on Blu-ray Double Play courtesy of Studio Ghibli and master animator Hayao Miyazaki Laputa: Castle In the Sky is an imaginative tale full of mystery and adventure.

From the creators of SPIRITED AWAY comes Hayao Miyazaki?s homage to Jules Verne and Jonathan Swift. CASTLE IN THE SKY was the first feature film from the now legendary Studio Ghibli and combines the Japanese master director?s twin obsessions of eco-thriller and aerial escapades and turns a treasure hunt into a fight against evil for an unforgettable adventure.

2011 DVD Extras. New Release on 9th May 2011

Double Play Blu Ray / DVD

Extras: Storyboards (PiP) / Promotional Video (12 mins 38) / Behind the Studio (11 mins 46) (new): The World of Laputa, Creating Castle in the Sky, Character Sketches, Producer?s Perspective: Meeting Miyazaki / Textless Opening and End credits / TV Spots / Original Japanese Theatrical trailers