Sunday, March 27, 2011

78 cents per minute, and cheap at the price.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)

I have a sickness.  It's called cinephilia.  The more specific sub-strain currently afflicting me is Miyazakiphilia.  Last night I spent $21 to see two short films that totaled 27 minutes together.  And I don't regret it.  In fact, I'd do it again if I could.  Unfortunately, I can't.

Last week I noticed that Carnegie Hall, as part of the JapanNYC arts festival, was somehow showing two of the eight shorts that animation god Hayao Miyazaki has made for screening exclusively at his museum in suburban Tokyo devoted to the work of his production company Studio Ghibli.

If you don't know who Miyazaki is, it's tough to explain succinctly why reading this announcement made me shriek like a four-year-old handed a new puppy and painfully clutch the arm of the nearest stranger (this interview piece in The Telegraph is a good start).  Within the world of Japan's animated cinema, and those in the rest of the world who pay attention to it, Miyazaki is the equivalent of, say, a Bob Dylan: an almost universally beloved popular figure who is also a singular, uncompromising, even eccentric artist who's innovated his own distinctive style and vision that remains inimitable while being hugely influential.  His child-friendly but not childish fantasies eat domestic box office records whole and also pick up awards from highbrow European film festivals and Hollywood's middlebrow Academy Awards alike.  And it's not as if his fans have a huge amount of work to choose from, or ever will - a painstaking creator with the financial success to set his own timetable, he's directed ten feature films total starting in 1979, and keeps announcing his retirement from directing and then taking it back.

And he's a stubborn old cuss who, as the Carnegie Hall program emphasized with sadistic relish, has never allowed any of his Ghibli Museum shorts to be shown outside that venue, and supposedly never will again - they must have drugged his drink, or kidnapped his grandchildren, or something.  However they did it, they had me there at "Miyazaki," and I probably would have paid $50 if I'd had to.

The evening began with a short introduction by American Ghibli executive Steve Alpert, who spoke simply and unsentimentally about the studio's reaction to the earthquake and tsunami disaster.  Miyazaki gathered the staff together and told them that the best thing they could do was keep making the work they did... besides, of course, fundraising and clothing drives and food drives, which they're also conducting, in addition to setting up DVD screenings for children stuck in shelters.  Then he gave some quick comments on cultural and other background to set up the shorts - which, given that most people will likely never have a chance to see them, I'll describe in more detail than I normally would.

(Image courtesy Studio Ghibli and Carnegie Hall)
The first, House Hunting (Yado-Sagashi), is a 12-minute story which sets a redheaded young girl off with a big, stuffed backpack, briefly hiking down the side of a deafening, crowded highway before setting off across the countryside, over streams and hills and through woods.  Along the way, she has glancing encounters with various nature spirits, each of which she greets cheerfully with an offering of an apple and a polite bow (in what I'm sure was an unintentional echo, the giant tadpole-like apparition in a stream reminded me of the much more dangerous water beast in the great Korean monster movie The Host, released the same year, 2006).  She eventually comes to an isolated cabin where she takes shelter from a rainstorm and shares her lunch with a scuttling host of wide-eyed, friendly bugs - not noticing the enormous black millipede-like creature (another spirit?) that zooms around out of sight, eventually exiting in apparent fright.  After a good night's rest in her sleeping bag, she awakes to the presence of a shuffling, vaguely Sasquatch-like spirit, and seems to realize that this is not her house to occupy after all.  Quickly packing up, she hikes back the way she came, although at one point the hairy occupant of the cabin tosses her a big sack of goodies over the trees, which she takes after leaving an offering for him.

Fans will instantly recognize in the narrative a lot of Miyazaki tradmarks - the intrepid prepubescent heroine, the skeptical view of technological civilization and the love of the natural world, the fascination with quasi-mythological mysticism, the superficially menacing creatures which would be typed as a threat in a Disney animation, but in fact turn out to be harmless.  Stylistically, though, it's pretty experimental.  The images are graphically simple and rendered in bright primary colors and deliberately rough-hewn animation.  The entire soundtrack - mostly sound effects with just a few brief phrases of dialogue - is created by two human voice performers, with the sound effects also represented in big onomatopoeic Japanese characters that fly, quiver and tumble across the screen.  The overall feeling of enthusiastic oral storytelling and naive, childlike play inspired butterflies of joy in my stomach, and I wasn't alone judging from the reactions around me.

The everyday glories of nature are also central to the 15-minute Mon Mon the Water Spider (Mizugomu Monmon), inspired by an actual species that apparently fascinates Miyazaki - an arachnid that lives underwater but breathes air which it collects from the surface in big (to the spider) bubbles.  We watch our hero Mon Mon's routine of gathering air and building bubble nests while trying to avoid being eaten by the many bigger carnivores in his pond.  Then he notices a cute female water strider zipping gracefully along the surface, in contrast to his scuttling, furtive existence, and is smitten.  He pines hopelessly and watches from a distance, eventually saving her from being eaten (by an awesomely scary-cool clawed crustacean of some sort).  Confused and frightened, she flees unceremoniously.  But she returns for a climactic brief encounter wherein he hangs onto her two front legs for a thrilling, dancelike zoom around the surface of the pond at top speeds.  After almost being eaten by a big fish, they inevitably part, returning to their separate worlds to the melancholy awwwing of the audience.

The second movie is a striking stylistic contrast to the first, marked by a startling re-creation of the story's natural environment so realistically detailed that it looks like an animated episode of Planet Earth.  The only "cartoon" stylization is in some of the details of the two main characters - a little too much in the case of the water strider: the pink bow on her head is an atypically clumsy stumble into cloying territory. But that's a tiny nitpick in a piece so beautiful and charming, and so full of remarkable sights that it would be worth watching multiple times in a row just to catch all of them.

When the lights came up after the pair's parting, there was an audible groan of frustration from the audience - we felt like Mon Mon being torn away from our water strider and forced to scuttle back down to our bubble nests in the depths.  At that moment, I was almost ready to say it would be better to see none of these shorts than just a tantalizing two.  Would it have killed him to let us have four?  But as my Great Uncle Lester used to say, look a gift horse in the mouth and you might get your nose bitten off.  So I'll keep my nose and my pleasant memories of an experience even most worshippers at the altar of Miyazaki never get to have.

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