On November 23rd, Studio Ghibli’s latest film Kaguyahime no monogatari (The Tale of Princess Kaguya) was released in all theaters across Japan.
I have already seen a number of reviews so far, most of which are specifically focused on how different the film looks, compared to other Ghibli works from the past. But I would like to take a different approach.
Director Isao Takahata is famous for his depiction of real life, while his longtime friend and another Ghibli guru Hayao Miyazaki uses fantasy as a basic setting of his stories.
“The Tale of Princess Kaguya” is based on a Japanese folktale from the tenth century called Taketori monogatari – or ”The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It’s a story about an old bamboo cutter who finds a tiny baby girl inside a bamboo stalk and together with his wife raises the baby as his own. The girl grows up to be a woman of ordinary size and of extraordinary beauty. She is approached by a number of suitors, but she somehow manages to reject all proposals. Finally, she reveals her biggest secret to her parents that she was sent from the moon as a result of some “promise” that she made and must return there. In the end, an emissary from the moon takes her back to where she belongs, leaving everyone in tears. It definitely doesn’t sound like a happy ending, doesn’t it?
One could easily argue that this film might be the most “fantastic” of Takahata’s all past works. Yet the primary focus of the story is not the encounter between humans and aliens but answering many questions of why. Why was she sent from the moon in the first place? Why was she sent to earth? Why was she so sad when she left earth? Why did she need to return?
The tag line reads “The crime and punishment of a princess”, which implies that this is not a simple feel-good story of a lunar princess who comes down to experience life on earth. Takahata says in one interview that the earth and the moon stand opposite from each other: while the moon might represent sanctitude but without any color or life of its own, the earth is full of life, hardships – and joy.
If the earth was considered ultimate hell where all sinners are sent to serve their sentence, Princess Kaguya would be happy to return home, which is obviously not the case here. Perhaps this is where he portrays realism over fantasy, in an imaginative story setting where he suggests that life on earth might at times be too cruel, yet it does have something that even heavenly beings from above envy.
Studio Ghibli’s The Wind Rises, the final film of director Miyao Miyazaki, in spite of the controversy over its extensive use of smoking scenes, has surpassed all box office expectations for the decidedly uncommercial story of an airplane designer.
It has now taken over 10 billion yen ($100 million) at the domestic box office, the first Japanese film to achieve this feat since Miyazaki’s Ponyo in 2008. Overall it is the first movie to take this much money since Toy Story 3 in 2010. Distributor Toho is expecting the film’s receipts to slow as the summer holidays end but it may well come close to Ponyo‘s final take of 15.5 billion yen by October. By comparison, Monsters University has taken $88 million in Japan since its release in early July and remains in the top ten.
While Miyazaki and Ghibli might well be box office genies, with the unusual story and premise of the film (and a title that is a reference to Paul Valéry!), its success was anything but certain. However, controversy over Miyazaki’s pacifist rhetoric and the anti-smoking lobby’s campaign, have likely done nothing to harm interest in the picture. It was also announced amidst a media frenzy that it would be the last feature film that 72-year-old Miyazaki would direct (although he has said this before). Miyazaki’s shock announcement at a September 1st press conference at the Venice International Film Festival led to a box office boost as domestic audiences were keen to catch his final film on the big screen. Audience numbers jumped 134.5％ the following week.
On September 11th, in 54 days since it opened it had been seen by around 8 million people (of course, some may well have seen the film more than once). It was released on July 20th and is still being shown at 454 screens. This is far less than newer releases like Man of Steel (611) or Captain Harlock (578), and yet last week it took four times their grosses. It has been the number one film at the Japanese box office for eight straight weeks. If it can do this for two more weeks it will surpass another Miyazaki film, Howl’s Moving Castle, which managed nine consecutive weeks. The Wind Rises will be released in US in February 2014 in two versions — one with subtitles and one dubbed.
We only hope that Miyazaki, having gone out on a high, can be persuaded to come back and make a contribution to the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. We couldn’t stand it if it’s just mascots and AKB48!
There are some things that, no matter how long I say here, I still just can’t get my head around.
The preference for natto. Honey on pizza. The appeal of SMAP.
Japanese people have some idiosyncratic tastes and this is reflected in their cinema. Surely no other country could make a film called Udon: The Movie (2006) and it be a hit.
Kamome Shokudo (Kamome Canteen). Nankyoku Ryorinin (The Chef of the Antarctic). Almost every week there seems to be yet another film or TV series opening about a restaurant, a cake shop, a cafe or some other such cuisine-connected locale. We even blogged earlier this week about a food-themed manga tackling the Fukushima disaster.
The biggest movie blockbuster in Japan last year was Thermae Romae, telling the “hilarious” story of an ancient Roman who gets sucked through a portal in a bathhouse to arrive in modern day Japan.
The premise is a familiar fish-out-of-water-cum-time-travelling tale with lots of obvious jokes about how the “foreigner” does things differently to the locals.
The comedy may well be universal. But much more impenetrable might well be the fundamental appeal of a film about, well, bathing. (Arguably it is more a film about bathing than about outsiders in Japan.)
The movie, based on a bestselling manga, rests on the idea of a Roman architect tasked with designing a bath, who is then able to travel to present day Japan and experience the wonders of local sento (public baths). What can he learn from the delights of modern day facilities? And there you have a box office smash.
Starring Hiroshi Abe and Aya Ueto, the film was so popular that the makers have just announced a sequel will appear to be shot in Bulgaria later this year.
It goes without saying that a film catering to such esoterically local tastes will never travel much beyond these shores. What does that mean for the industry as a whole?
A teaser trailer has been released for artist (and uber-businessman) Takashi Murakami’s first film, a fantasy movie called Jellyfish Eyes (Mememe no kurage) that is set for release in April 2013 in Japan.
A tight lid has been kept on details of Murakami’s first feature, which blends CGI characters with live film footage. Apparently over ten years in the making and originally intended as a straight anime, the story is a science fiction based his childhood fantasies.
The eponymous wide-eyed title character shares a name with the wallpaper installation by Murakami that has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, among other places.
Directed and produced by Murakami, the screenplay is by Jun Tsugita, and assistant directing and special effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura.
(With apologies for the second film-related post in as many days.)
Kicking off tomorrow is the 25th Tokyo International Film Festival.
This year’s line-up includes everything from Cirque du Soleil and a preview of the new Jamese Bond movie to a biopic about Hannah Arendt. Now that’s what I call catholic programming.
If you search through the long, long schedule of diverse showings, there is actually a competition being held, though TIFF isn’t known for picking difficult films for its winners. There is also a rather corporate-y “eco” theme as in previous years, with a green carpet (natch) and well-meaning slogans galore. However, sorry to sound cynical but this is being held in Roppongi of all places, hardly a Mecca for self-restraint or ecology.
The line-up includes American entries like Yellow from director Nick Cassavetes and the latest Clint Eastwood starrer, and a Japanese film like Flashback Memories 3D, about Didgeridoo performer and higher brain dysfunction sufferer Goma.
There has been a hint of controversy due to the recent Japan-China relations crisis. No one seems sure whether the film Feng Shui will be screened or not.
To quote the TIFF website:
It has been announced through some media channels that “Feng Shui”, a Competition section Film, will be canceling its screening at the 25th Tokyo International Film Festival. However, the screening of “Feng Shui” will take place as scheduled as Tokyo International Film Festival office has not received any official notice to this matter from the production side of the film.
It may not have the budget of the Busan International Film Festival or the kudos (or even the celebrity power) of the European ones, but Roppongi will still be graced with a touch of much-needed glitz this weekend.
TIFF runs from October 20th to 28th.
Koji Wakamatsu, one of the giants of Japanese cinema, has sadly and suddenly died after being struck by a taxi while crossing a street in Shinjuku. He was 76 and still very active.
Like many of his generation, he made his name by first toiling in the world of soft porn (pinki eiga) before moving on to direct and produce more mainstream features, though violence and eroticism always continued as latent or overt themes.
Known for his close connections and sympathy in his younger days with Japanese radicalism — including once making a semi-propaganda film in 1971 about Japanese Red Army terrorists — he came to terms with his past and made a major career comeback with United Red Army (2007), a remarkably, three-hour semi-documentary film about the Asama-sanso incident in 1972. He narrated the film himself and even used his own home as part of the set, which involved destroying the building.
He continued his reflections on the formulative era of his generation with 11:25 The Day He Chose His Own Fate, released this year and starring Arata as Yukio Mishima. It chronicled the life of the famous writer leading up to his notorious “coup” and ritual suicide.
Wakamatsu’s challenging film about sadism, Caterpillar, about a paraplegic war veteran who still has insatiable sexual appetites in spite of his physical dismemberment, and with his wife who tries to serve him faithfully played by Shinobu Terajima, winning her international acclaim and accolades. Terajima also stars in Sennen no yuraku, Wakamatsu’s last completed film, which is set for release in Japan next spring.