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Noi Albinoi

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Hayao Miyazaki became a phenomenon in the United States this year, winning the Best Animated Feature Oscar for Spirited Away.

But Miyazaki has been animating movies in Japan since the 1980s. The IMDB shows 9 films under his belt, plus several TV projects. Now Disney (with help from Pixar animator John Lasseter) is releasing three of Miyazaki’s films on DVD: Spirited Away, Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), and Castle in the Sky (1986).

American-dubbed versions of Kiki and Castle have been around for about six years, entertaining the small niche of videophiles who were already fans of Miyazaki. With this trio of DVD releases, perhaps they’ll get the wider audience they deserve.

What Makes a Master Animator?

 3 great animated features see the light of DVD
3 great animated features see the light of DVD
 
Miyazaki’s movies are always a joy to watch. For one thing, he has a great eye for detail. As Lasseter points out in one of Spirited Away’s extra features, the 10-year-old protagonist Sen doesn’t just put on her shoes and exit the frame, she first pulls on her socks, wedges her feet in the shoes, stands up, and then taps them on the ground before walking out of frame. It’s these observant digressions that make his animations feel alive.

Also, Miyazaki understands the importance of scale. Beautiful rolling clouds just look like white blobs until you see a giant airship as a tiny speck drifting between them. He shows us what a city, a dirigible, or a floating citadel look like from every perspective and scale.

His animation is not perfectly smooth, but that’s part of the appeal. It hasn’t all been computerized. It leaves plenty of room for human craftsmanship. The colors, textures, and settings are impressively beautiful, and the overall effect is mystical and magical, familiar and dreamlike.

Kiki’s Delivery Service ()

Kiki is a witch, and in this gentle world, when witches turn 13, they have to leave home for a year to live on their own. Kiki is not afraid; in fact, she is excited at the adventure that lies ahead.

She finds a beautiful hillside city near the sea with a wonderful clock tower. Kiki, like anyone else, only wants the basics: shelter, friends, and meaningful work. She stumbles into all three when a pregnant baker hires her to return a customer’s baby pacifier. The baker and Kiki hit it off, and Kiki is allowed to set up a delivery service in the bakery and sleep in the spare room upstairs.

Things go well, but after an emotionally distressing day, Kiki gets sick. When she finally rouses out of bed, she seems to have lost her witch powers. A big-sister friend who lives in the woods invites Kiki to visit for some rest, relaxation, and recharging. A climactic rescue ends the movie, but the rescue isn’t as important as the fact that she once again finds her inner strength.

In between these key events are the details of life. A boy called Tombo, an aviator-of-tomorrow, gets a crush on Kiki. A grandmotherly customer takes a shine to her. Her black cat Jiji falls in love with the neighbor’s cat. This is the adventure that everyday life offers a 13-year-old girl.

Kiki is the most approachable of Miyazaki’s films. The story is simple, sweet, and innocent. There are no villains, only adversity. And where other Miyazaki films spiral up and away from the literal into the mythical, Kiki stays rooted in human reality. Some may say that makes Kiki less visually interesting, but the tradeoff is worth it.

By way of recommendation, let me add that Kiki’s Delivery Service has, for now, made it onto my ever-changing list of favorite movies.

Castle in the Sky ()

Castle in the Sky is more uneven than Kiki, but also more impressive. The story involves a boy and a girl, Pazu and Sheeta, both orphans. Sheeta is being chased by a band of pirates and by a special army unit. They all want the levitation stone she wears around her neck. The stone, a gift from Sheeta’s parents, has the markings of a fabled floating city in the sky called Laputa.

The kids are chased from a mining town, across a rickety elevated train trestle, and through lush green fields before they are captured. One ends up in the hands of the army, the other with the pirates.

Both groups meet up in a fierce aerial storm while looking for the entrance to Laputa. The army hopes to find weapons and power; the pirates want treasure; but when they reach the city, our heroes find a beautiful garden, a utopia minded by asymmetrical robots programmed with a love of nature.

The story isn’t as carefully told as Kiki’s Delivery Service, but the visuals are more amazing. Flying machines more fantastic than Da Vinci’s fill the skies. Floating cities are realized in great detail. The mining town exists in three dimensions, with houses built at every elevation from the top of the cliff to the ground, and even below the surface. Up above, gigantic robots convey kindness and gentility without ever speaking or changing their facial expressions.

Castle in the Sky is certainly worth a look, but watch it after you’ve seen some of Miyazaki’s other movies and you’ll appreciate it more.

Spirited Away (1/2)

Spirited Away deserves the Oscar it won. It is original and exotic. It is full of places and creatures and spirits that you have never seen before.

Our hero Chihiro (again a young girl) gets lost in an amazing and dangerous fantasy world. Her parents turn into pigs when they eat a banquet meant for the spirits, and when dusk falls, Chihiro literally begins to fade. A boy saves her and brings her into the spirit world, at the center of which is a bath house where flesh-and-blood creatures serve spirit-world customers.

In order to save her parents, Chihiro must first learn the rules of this strange place by taking a job at the bath house. She must continue to remember who she is and what happened to her parents while looking for a way to save them and escape.

Picture and Sound

All three movies are presented in widescreen format, and all have Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound, at least for the English-dubbed versions. Each movie also has the original Japanese-language soundtrack, encoded with surround sound, but not 5.1 Dolby Digital.

The American re-dubs are very good. The translations are faithful and lip-synch is unobtrusive. There’s even a new song in one case: the American version of Kiki’s Delivery Service features a pop-country song, where the Japanese version has an early 1960’s sock-hop tune. My only complaint about the American soundtracks is that sometimes the voices are too recognizable and therefore distracting. Phil Hartman voices Kiki’s cat, and Tress MacNeille, a voice from The Simpsons, plays the baker who takes Kiki in. It’s hard to hear these voices and not recall the faces that are already associated with them.

Picture quality is outstanding on all three DVDs. In each case, the clean, crisp, clear presentation does justice to Miyazaki’s beautiful and artistic vision.

DVD Extras

Each DVD has a second disc with the complete storyboards set to the film’s soundtrack. Hard-core Miyazaki fans, sketchers, and artists may enjoy watching these sequences, but the appeal to the rest of us is limited.

Also of limited interest are the Japanese trailers for the film. Three or four might have been interesting, but ten versions of the same trailer are too many.

Each disc features a “behind-the-microphone” featurette that looks at the American actors who lend their voices to the characters. These segments are fluff, but it is interesting put a new face to a familiar voice.

The most interesting feature on any of the discs is The Nippon Television Special — The Making of The Film on the Spirited Away DVD. This half-hour documentary goes inside the offices of Studio Ghibli and follows Miyazaki and his team. (The difference between the natural, ivy-trimmed facade of Studio Ghibli and the garish seven-dwarfs architecture of the Disney studios shows what a truly odd pairing this collaboration is.) Each DVD also includes an introduction by John Lasseter that runs just before the feature. These one-minute intros offer no insight.

DVD Interface

Disney put trailers for other DVDs in front of the menu, and you have to skip past them if you’re not interested. These should have been accessible through the menu, and not programmed to run automatically. The worst aspect of the DVDs is the cute animated segments between menus. These segments last 6 or 7 seconds, so if you accidentally push the wrong button (as I did), you have to wait about 12 seconds to get back to where you were. This is bad interface design.

Finally, the Japanese and English versions of the movie are encoded separately (possibly to allow for different credit sequences), which means you can not switch back and forth between Japanese and English language and caption tracks. You have to exit to the menu, re-find your place in the film, and start over.

If that weren’t bad enough, you also have to set Japanese audio and English captions separately. When I chose the original Japanese language track, I expected to see subtitles, but there weren’t any. I couldn’t turn the titles on using my remote, either; I had to return to the menu and use the interface (waiting 7 seconds for the animation) before I could turn on the captions.

Overall

The DVDs aren’t particularly well designed. The slow interface is a shame and the second disc of limited appeal seems like a lost opportunity. But on the whole I can’t complain. The movies are excellent and their presentation is superb. I hope Disney brings more buried treasures from Miyazaki’s vault to video and DVD.