(*8/20/09 Note: The US Ponyo review is now available. This post relates to the 2008 Japan release.)
The very first outside review for Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea has arrived online! Once again, we have Peter from GhibliWorld to thank for mentioning the news, as well as translating the text from the original Japanese. Thank goodness we wouldn't have to rely upon Babelfish. What's the deal with Babelfish, anyway? Does that thing ever work properly? Maybe it's settings are stuck at "drunk."
Anyway, the writer Hashimoto Atsushi is forbidden by Ghibli to reveal any details, so that means no spoilers for the rest of us. He heaps endless praise on Ponyo, which should continue to build the excitement and anticipation for us lonely fans. Sigh...I really wonder why I'm doing this to myself, since this movie won't be seen by any of us until (cough, cough) next summer.
I'm really impressed by Mr. Atsushi's remarks on CGI and the nostalgic return of classical animation. This may become a rallying cry for the movie. I can see the devoted die-hards swarming into theatres all across America, just to make their stand for their beloved cartoon artform. Yeah, we'll all be pouring into cinemas two, three, four times, friends and family in tow.
So, once again my deepest thanks to GhibliWorld. Here are Mr. Atsushi's remarks on Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea:
I have just watched 崖の上のポニョ (Gaku no Ue no Ponyo). Yeah! Soo Nice!! Full marks! FIVE STARS!! Of course, I saw it later than Ghibli’s staff. I'm working on the Ghibli Special program which will air on July 25th and it gave me this opportunity. Hashida, who is part of the Ghibli staff, told me that the first preview for outsiders is called "Sho-go Shisya" (初号試写, 1st preview) and the one for inside the company is called "Zero-go shisya" (0号試写, 0th preview)". The one I attended was Sho-go.
On June 25th, when I visited IMAGICA in Gotanda, there were sooo many people to be seen. "Oh! That's Mr. Suzuki! I just touched him with my shoulder! Oh! There is his Majesty Takahata!" When I entered the preview room, I was surprised to see full seats of audiences, though its capacity is more than 100. It shows that Studio Ghibli’s new movie interests so many. I've never seen such a hot air during any of the previews I visited over the last two years. They all gazed at the screen to ensure they would never miss any of the cuts Miyazaki challenged himself to.
The movie has started. The content is… a secret! Of course that is the rule. BUT! I can tell only one thing… VERRRY INTERESTIIIIIING! Above all, the 5 minutes of opening will surely amaze you! It completely took my breath away and I felt like Miyazaki's soul was telling me "Look at my painting!!". Sorry, I can't tell about the story... only about the images.
The location is a rural seaside town. Sosuke lives at a house on a cliff with his mother. His father tends to be absent from home because he is a sailor. One day, Sosuke has an magical meeting. It is Ponyo, a fish girl. Then a story of friendship and adventure begins. It doesn't have an esoteric theme like Mononoke (though of course Ponyo does hide a deep theme)... It’s not densely drawn like Howl... Rather than that, it has a similar world-view to that of Totoro... The sceneries seem to have something nostalgic. Unaccountable creatures live in the daily life. People accept it naturally.
The visual impression is just like that of the poster. Round and simple, warm and handmade like. A 5 year old kid like Mei acts. For kids of that age, everything is an adventure. We are quickly invited to such bright good old days. I was surprised to hear from Hashida that the whole movie was drawn by hand. It is simple, but out-of-box so to speak. Overblown waves, fishes larger than a ship... All is rather comfortable.
I have thought that the development of 3G animation techniques has reached its limit and we can't distinguish if it’s CG or real. Which is of course amazing, but why must they must make animation as if it is live-action? Anime should be like anime. If that is the way you think, then you'll surely be beaten to watch this film. Miyazaki gave us a clear answer. He never cares about any law of perspective or the motion of real waves or to be close to live-action. He enlarges what he wants to show. That's OK if it's a fairy tale. Free imagination or thoughts are permitted.
Either way, I remet the anime I loved so much during my childhood. The 100 minutes was like that. And Ponyo, she's really cute! Sosuke, he's really noble! Mr. Tokoro! We decided you to be the narrator of the Ghibli Special. He shows an unusual side as Ponyo's father. It's quite good. Let us ignore any detailed logics. Maybe you will care for some questions in the story after watching, but it brings us a thought like "No problem. It's really delightful. That's enough!" It must be a masterpiece, surely leaving an important thing in your heart after watching!
(*8/20/09 Note: The US Ponyo review is now available. This post relates to the 2008 Japan release.)
Here it is, folks - the televised movie preview for Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea. Enjoy.
Here is the second and most recent handbill, or "chirashi," for Miyazaki's Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea. It's wonderful and beautiful, just as we always expect. This gives us a good opportunity to examine the artwork and the movie's visual style. There is definitely a move towards simplicity, towards the iconic. Gedo Senki did this, and it was just about the only thing I liked about that movie. And Wall-E, of course, is very iconic. Does this now qualify as a movement, a new visual style in animation? Perhaps we are finally seeing the creative backlash against CGI's obsession with realism and detail and complexity.
Ponyo will echew CGI entirely, so perhaps there is something to this. Miyazaki and Takahata are famous for their nostalgia, and now they are the final great holdouts for traditional, hand-drawn animation. I often wonder what would have happened if Howl's Moving Castle was permitted to be shown on enough screens in the US. Would it have inspired a revival of classical animation? Would other studios return to their roots?
The background art for Ponyo is also different from the past, with more emphasis upon watercolors and pastels. There's a certain pastoral quality to the art style that really catches my eye. I can't wait to see what Miyazaki and Ghibli have in store for us.
I won't reprint all the translated text for you, in the hopes of avoiding any and all spoilers. I'll just post the final lines, which are quite poignant, and I'm sure will grab your interest. Mother and child are evoked, and this is really interesting. It's known that Ponyo began with Miyazaki's attempt to reconcile with his first son, Goro, whose family drama swirled all around Gedo Senki. The master filmmaker's relationship with his own mother was equally complex and troubling, and this was a theme he only treaded upon rarely. My Neighbor Totoro is probably the best example, but there's also a short speech in vol. 7 of Nausicaa that's simply heartbreaking. Perhaps this movie sees Miyazaki, ever the personal filmmaker, trying to make his peace with three generations of his family. We shall see, we shall see.
The text comes, once again, from GhibliWorld. Hmm. I really wasn't planning on pilfering all the vaults from that site; there just happens to be a lot of great news that should be shared. Be sure to send him your thanks when you can.
"A boy and a girl. Love and responsibility. Sea and life. In the age of psychoneurosis and anxiety, this is a story of a mother and child that Miyazaki Hayao depicts without any hesitance."
Another reason why Peter's GhibliWorld is so valuable is because he chronicles the weekly radio broadcasts by Ghibli's Toshio Suzuki. In each show, Suzuki-san goes into detail about Ghibli's history, their influences and loves, and the backstage stories involving the master filmmakers.
For those who don't know, Mr. Suzuki is one of Ghibli's three founders, alonside Takahata and Miyazaki. He has also served as Ghibli's President for many years, recently stepping down to focus more on the creative ends of Ghibli. In many ways, it is this man who is the Svangali of Studio Ghibli. His ability to influence and direct the old masters and guide the direction of the studio is nothing less than amazing.
Anyway, the great news for this post is that George Lucas recently visited the studio when he was in Japan promoting the new Indiana Jones picture (sorry, still haven't seen it, but I still want to). He and Suzuki-san spoke at length, and Peter was dedicated and kind enough to translate and transcribe the discussion.
The conversation with George Lucas can be read here. I'll post a small excerpt here, then you can go and read the rest. There are also a few words from Kathleen Kennedy, one of the two producers for the US release of Ponyo...
Suzuki Toshio: Actually, our new film at Ghibli has no CG at all, so it’s all hand drawn. What do you think of that?
George Lucas: Well, I like hand drawn animation as well. It’s just that there are two different ways of doing something. They have their own style and look and you can do different things in each medium.
Suzuki Toshio: It seems a bit sad, because we started out in animation all hand drawn, and somewhere the computer came in and that’s sort of taking over. There is an animator called Glen Keane, I don’t know if you know him, but he is such a great artist. I would love to see some work from America which is all hand drawn.
George Lucas: I think John Lasseter is doing an hand drawn film for Disney. I think, ultimately, it is really more about the ideas, than it is about the technique you use to express those ideas.
Suzuki Toshio: Well, I actually said he should do it (laughing).
George Lucas: But it is about the story as much as anything else. The development of the characters and that sort of thing. Weither you do it hand drawn or... With the computer you can make it look as if it is hand drawn, it is just a different way of doing it. It’s really ultimately about what the story is.
Suzuki Toshio: Maybe this is an influence from Miyazaki, but I watch Disney channel a lot and see all the old animations they used to make. Everything moves maybe too much. More than they should be moving. But it creates a certain kind of atmosphere. The effect of things being handled by hand. Things that maybe should not be moving in a movie. But just watching that is very, very interesting. Not with our new film Ponyo, which is already almost complete, but for the next film maybe we’ll go for that. I hope that maybe you will also do hand drawn animation at some point.
This July, there will be a gallery exhibition of Studio Ghibli's storyboard artwork. If you happen to be in Toyko anytime between July 26 and September 28, be sure to attend and enjoy.
Peter from GhibliWorld first shared the news with us, and as always I'm deeply grateful to him for all his hard work. Whenever I need some news about Ghibli, his site is the place to go.
Back to the E-Konte exhibition. This is a terrific showing, and of course these are all familiar to dedicated Ghibli fans, thanks to the E-Konte features on all the DVD's. These are essentially the final storyboards for the movies. Dialog is included on the pages in a seperate column, and important details such as length of shots and other directoral notes are included. Ghibli also sells their storyboards in book form for all the major Takatata/Miyazaki works. I have the E-Konte book for Horus, Prince of the Sun, and it proved to be a revelation in understanding the film, as well as learning where those "lost" 30 minutes from the original two-hour running time went.
On the dedicated gallery exhibition website, a page is devoted to some short notes by Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Thanks to Peter from GhibliWorld, whose Japanese is far better than my own, here are their remarks:
Isao Takahata: "We animators often have a poor man's mentality. If we make e-konte or a layout without imagining the result, it can incur a big waste. So we make a detailed plan in advance of production to avoid such a waste. For me, in such a situation, I needed a reliable cooperator and I was very lucky. I did not think "layout" to be a "system," but I premised I had the excellent talent of Miyazaki. For me, it had a big meaning to meet Miyazaki. Maybe it was the same for him. I guess he learned much from the works that he did with me, but not from me. I think the reason Miyazaki became big world wide is not because he draws very well, but because his layouts already have a side of directing (a layout might be seen as a distorted picture, if you see it as a tableau though). Animation must show lies. We are struggling on how we can show the moving of flat pictures to close to reality."
Hayao Miyazaki: "I've worked on animation for more than 40 years on struggling how we can show interesting things. However, there is no right way to do it. The world we draw is not the one seen through a lens, but the one seen by naked eyes. The world seen by naked eyes shows the curious things in large, but ignores the things we don’t care for. That is the way it goes. When cutting out and drawing a scenery like that, the result is a world that we used to see somewhere, sometime. If you ask if my layouts fit to the perspective an architect draws, they never do. If we draw perspective lines before we begin making a layout, then the pictures will surely become dull. Animation movies are 'ayakasi', so to speak ('ayakasi' means "deception"). For the audiences, how they are tricked is the amusement of watching animation."
Toshio Suzuki: "If I would explain what 'layout' is with one word only, then it is a 'camera man & live action film director.' It indicates the positions of characters and acting and backgrounds and camera works.
"Miyazaki says he was unbelievably busy during the time they worked on Heidi. The director, Takahata, just drew simple e-konte (Suzuki says it was 'chon-maru,' probably referring to circles and lines). These were re-drawn cleanly by Miyazaki and made into layouts, who soon had meetings with all parts of the staff. About sakuga with the animators, about backgrounds with the art staff, about color with the finishing section and about camera works with the filming staff. On top of that, Miyazaki had one more job: the job of being an animator. If he had free time, he drew and drew. Because of this, he returned home only once a week, the days on which the program was aired.
"One day he heard Takahata was arguing with the producer for a long time. 'Why must we make one episode in a single week!?' From the bottom of his heart Miyazaki wished that Takahata should have given him an next order, instead of wasting time.
"One of his profound thoughts I once heard was like this: 'I devoted 15 years of my youth under Paku-san (Takahata). I wish he will give it back to me some day...' What he devoted during his youth were the so many days of drawing and drawing layouts. After that, when he became a director and managed the entire production, he muttered 'I need one more me!' In this case, 'me' meaning a 'layout' man.
"Later on, Miyazaki began drawing more detailed e-konte. When he made Mononoke Hime, he enlarged the size of e-konte. Basically, e-konte indicates the acting of characters and backgrounds just roughly and sets the length of cuts. However, Miyazaki tried to make detailed e-konte and replace it into layouts.
"As you can see, layout is the key-point of producing animation. It's unique and secret. It depends on one's capacity for imagination if the visitors can find the secret of Takahata/Miyazaki anime."
I added bold to some lines for my own amusement, a few lines that really jumped out at me. My favorite is that line Takahata gives about animation. "Animation must show lies." I just may have to print that onto a t-shirt. Thanks again to Peter from GhibliWorld for all his hard work.
The website Gigaom includes excerpts from a conversation with Brad Bird, where he discloses his lessons for innovative filmmaking. It's an enjoyable read, so be sure to check it out. The nine key lessons Bird offers are as follows:
1. Herd Your Black Sheep
2. Perfect is the Enemy of Innovation
3. Look For Intensity
4. Innovation Doesn't Happen in a Vaccuum
5. High Morale Makes Creativity Cheap
6a. Don't Try to "Protect Your Success"
6b. Steve Jobs Says "Interaction=Innovation"
7. Encourage Inter-Disciplinary Learning
8. Get Rid of Weak Links
9. Making $$$ Can't Be Your Focus
"Your describing Wall-E as a kind of 'Rubber Soul' movie is about the most original way of exactly telling me what to expect without any spoilers (although I love Sgt. Pepper, I was always more interested in Rubber Soul and Revolver)."
Thanks for all the kind words, as always. The thought popped into my head somewhere during the first act, and it really does describe where Pixar's heads are at now. Ratatouille was the first real step away from the old formulas, in a lot of ways, and Wall-E cements that trend. So maybe, in a sense, Ratatouille was Pixar's answer to "Help!" Me and my endless music analogies.
This is to be expected; after all, how much longer can you just push computer graphics? Pixar has always had an edge over their rivals with the technology. Goodness knows the artists are without peer. But that means reaching a plateau sooner or later. The only other direction to evolve is through the story and characters. And it's here that American animation so desperately needs to evolve.
The Pixar artists have already mastered the computer technology. That was the focus of their first two evolutionary phases. Phase One would cover their early years, the experimental short films of John Lasseter and company, under the umbrella of George Lucas and then Steve Jobs. There's a certain charm to these first shorts; while the technology is constantly being pushed, there's an iconic quality to the characters. These are simple, fun little stories, charming and endearing. And it was nearly all unchartered territory. Younger kids today have no idea how brand spanking new computer animation was in the 1980's. The computer graphics in the movie Tron were a revelation to kids hooked on Atari and Intellivision (it may have been light on story, but it was definitely fun).
Pixar broke open the boundaries of computer graphics animation with Toy Story, and this is where their Phase Two begins. This movie is the archetype that all CGI cartoons still model themselves after. Really, is it possible to imagine any Hollywood animated movie without Toy Story? Heck, they'd be forced to come up with some original ideas themselves, instead of shamelessly stealing from Lasseter. Why are all these movies still obsessed with buddy road trips and standup comedy acts? For the love of Elvis, please don't make me watch another cartoon with Robin Williams.
All of those great Pixar movies - A Bug's Life, Monster's Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars - continue to refine and perfect these formulas. The focus is still largely on the technology, pushing computer graphics farther and farther, and each picture reveals another important barrier broken. It is notable that no significant rivals emerge for a great many years. This is all trailblazing stuff.
There's a lighthearted sense of fun to these movies, and it would be unfair to expect more. It's all bright colors and dazzling sights. Story is always toted as the main focus, but I find that notion doesn't sit well with me, never really has. The two Toy Story movies have the best stories and the most developed characters, and that's probably why these are my favorites of the period. There's a spirit of childhood nostalgia, both good (the first movie) and the sad (the second movie). Too often, however, Pixar's movies rely upon formulas, melodramatic plots and happy endings all. These are very tightly structured songs.
Perhaps this reflects the studio's continuing growth and maturation, perhaps it reflects their tight relationship with Disney that made their worldwide success possible. Who knows? In any case, that relationship is really what defines this period, and it's the anticipated breakup that leads us towards the next evolutionary leap.
This may have been forgotten now, but Steve Jobs (Pixar) had soured on Disney over the years, and was openly planning to break free completely at the end of the current contract, after the sixth feature. I think the kids were becoming restless, too. They've always been the obsessive, geeky kind, not the sort of mindless corporate suits which have completely ruined Hollywood. Not that I have any opinions on the matter.
The politics of what eventually became the Disney merger was pretty dramatic itself. Edward Jay Epstein chronicled much of it online at Slate. Pixar had searched around for a new parter, but was frustrated because of one clause in the Disney contract: Disney held the rights to all the Pixar characters. This became their trump card; they announced the building of their own CGI movie studio, where they would crank out an endless supply of Pixar clones and sequels and knock-offs. In short, Disney was out to dilute and destroy the brand. This made things impossible for other studios. How could you compete with an unknown movie against a Toy Story 3 and the Disney brand? Would moviegoers even tell the difference?
Doesn't this come back to the primary issue with American animation? In our country, "animation" means "babysitter," and that's all it's expected to be good for. It's just a simple distraction for the kiddies, to get them out of your hair, while you collapse on the bed or couch after a long day at your useless jobs. Most parents will stick their kids in front of anything.
So, as I've said, if we're going to make better movies, we need to start making better audiences. But I rant enough on that topic. It's damn near the thesis of the Conversations on Ghibli blog. But this brings us, and Pixar, back to the only place anyone could turn to: Disney. Which is where Steve Jobs pulled off one of his greatest business deals.
This is the atmosphere where Cars and Ratatouille are born. I've argued before that Cars was really a movie about the studio itself, caught between its past and future, caught in the crossroads between the indie artist and the corporate (Disney) behemoth. You could see that movie ending three different ways. In the end, being good artists, they chose the hardest route available: to create their art through the machine itself.
Cars was envisioned as the final movie with Disney; Ratatouille was to be their first as true independents. This is why it was such a crucial test. Would the Disney merger mean hedging thier bets? Would it mean creative compromise? Taking the safe route? Sticking to the old predictible, if profitable, formulas? For me, at least, this was the grand drama of Brad Bird's movie. Impressive, isn't it, that Bird is the one chosen to lead the Pixar studio into uncharted territory? He also has the knack for being inventive and subversive, for pushing the boundaries, within the formulas of the system.
It is true that there's nothing new with animal characters, and wacky slapstick, and cartoon chases that go all the way back to the silent era. What is new is a deeper impression of the emotions, a need to go below the surface. Ratatouille isn't a movie about the goofy outcast proving himself and achieving fame. In this movie, fame is not only elusive; it is spurned outright. The "success" of the climactic meal before the food critic does result in the restaurant's triumph. Then it is shuttered because of the rats. In this world, the hero can never become a success, certainly not in the way the heros from Toy Story or A Bug's Life could. Remy the Rat is free to pursue his art, but he must be a guerilla artist. He must work in the shadows. The movie's final shot, of the new restaurant's sign, carries a double meaning - a pun to its patrons, a sly wink and a nod to the viewers. I promise you that those diners have no idea their food was prepared by rats, or about that second "restaurant" above the ceiling boards.
Notice, again, how Brad Bird was fully aware of the squeamish nature of rats - many people are honestly repulsed by them - but this is a fact he gleefully accepts. He throws it in your face, with succeeding stampedes that remind me of all those Ohmu stampedes. Recall, again, those cooks who walked out when it is revealed Remy is the Svengali of their kitchen. The cliched plot requires them to all return in time for the movie's climax, where all is forgiven and friends are made. This event never takes place. Those cooks walked out for good.
With Ratatouille, we can clearly see that Pixar is moving into a new era. The computer technology is beyond reproach; no other movie studio save Ghibli can match the skill of these artists, and Ghibli has famously kept CGI at arms' length (apart from the short films of Yoshiyuki Momose). Pixar are the uncontested masters of their art. But the marketplace is cluttered with cartoons like never before. It's becoming harder and harder to retain those audiences. Those parent's we've mentioned, the ones looking to Buzz and Woody as surrogate babysitters, now have a whole menu of choices. Sticking to the formula simply won't work anymore. For if the day comes when Pixar is just another cartoon studio, churning out lifeless drones set for the lowest-common denominator (cue Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams), they'll be finished.
For the true artists, there is only one direction to go.
So now it's the year 2008, and Pixar's newest movie is a sincere, heartwarming romance on par with Charlie Chaplin...and the most wickedly whip-smart picture of the year. These guys and gals at Pixar are hungry. It's almost as if they're beginning all over again, and they are driven by the deep need to prove themselves. This is exciting to watch.
Pixar are now firmly into Phase Three, their Rubber Soul period. It's much like the Second Miles Davis Quintet, which spanned the middle to late 1960's. The period when Miles, the great American artist, kept pushing himself, driving his art into new and uncharted territory, desperate to outrun the competition, desperate to outrun his own famed reputation. And he was backed by the best band in the world, save one (The Beatles). The resulting albums evolved rapidly from the hard bop of ESP, to the abstract rock of Filles de Killemjaro, and finally to the great paradigm shift, the great break - fusion.
So where is Pixar driving towards? What is our end goal? I always point to the Japanese masters, Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, but these are our teachers. The new paradigm will be something different, something new. I would die happy if Pixar could create something as sublime and masterful as Gauche the Cellist, My Neighbor Totoro, Whisper of the Heart, Omohide Poro Poro. But when Pixar finally breaks the barriers imposed upon American animation, the new paradigm will prove a surprise. It will be different. How? In what way? I can't say. They must be willing to push themselves further than ever before, and push the audiences further than ever before.
It is altogether possible, and very likely if history is any judge, that Pixar's masterpieces will be ahead of their time. The parents will be completely lost, and maybe some of the kids, too. But some will get it. They will become the artists of the next generation, the new trailblazers of the year 2028. For evidence, closely examine the following: Pet Sounds and Ramones; Miles and Coltrane; Citizen Kane; Horus and Heidi.
That is the promised land for American filmmaking and animation. That's where we need to go. And I believe Wall-E is that latest, crucial step. Certainly helps a lot that it's such a great movie. I'm already itching to see it a second time, and maybe a third. If you're a believer in the new paradigm, in the promised land, you'll drag friends and family back with you for repeated viewings. It's always said that art is a two-way conversation. Which means it's up to you to carry your load. Isn't it good, Norwegian Wood? Rubber Soul, man. Rubber Soul.
The second trailer for Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea is now playing in Japanese theatres. This is the formal preview, and should provide enough incentive to get everyone excited for next month. Also, a new trailer aired this week on the NHK television network. I'll try my best to beg my secret sources for a copy to show. In any case, I'm sure we'll see the fan bootlegs making their way online sooner or later.
Now that Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea is complete and awaiting its release next month, what is Hayao Miyazaki's next move? Another series of short films for the Ghibli Museum. Hah! The man seriously never takes a break.
Just to give you an example of the legendary Miyazaki Work Ethic, during the production of Ponyo, he also found the time to design and build a children's nursery, a giant city clock, and restore a vintage Japanese inn. Now it's off to the next two or three short films. Is it possible for Miyazaki to be working harder in his 60s?
This never ceases to amaze me. It's too bad that, as an American, I'll never see any of Miyazaki's Ghibli Museum short films during his lifetime (I predict these movies will see global distribution after his passing), but it is endlessly inspiring to see these things happen. Japanese children are so lucky....