Mayhem, Magic & Maelstroms
Curated film programme for Melbourne International Film Festival - 1997

Catalogue essay

Studio Ghibli: Mayhem, Magic & Maelstroms focuses on the animated works directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata - both of whom write/direct their own films for their joint studio company Studio Ghibli, and who also share and are fundamentally engaged in the production of the films along with Toshio Suzuki.

Japan, Anime & Manga Japan

Largest animation industry in the world. By the mid-90s, over 40 new TV animation series alone running in any one week of the year. An industry within which 'live-action' cinema can legitimately be regarded as a sub-set of the expansive, more popular, and often more engaging medium of animation.

Anime. A French-sounding word used to denote the vast terrain of fantastic images, dizzying narratives and sensational sounds of Japanese animation. A vibrant vocabulary born from 30 dynamic years of anime's graphic sibling - manga (Japanese comics). Animation - not the reductionist, ageist, derided medium we are subjected to in the West, but a respected form of cultural expression born from the uniquely Japanese sense of the calligraphic, the iconic and the idiomatic.

In the West, words rule. In the East, sound and image form a materiality from which is carved complex ideas, sentiments and feelings we in the West ascribe too readily to a rarefied literary tradition. Japanese culture views the graphic and animated image and its audio-visual iconography as poetic material from which can be shaped a range of narratives, styles and effects far broader then we have allowed in the Disneyland of our Occidental dreaming.

Studio Ghibli

Nowhere is this level of sophistication more apparent than in the work produced by Studio Ghibli - currently the biggest and most recognized independent animation studio in Japan. It also happens to produce the most artistically advanced examples of cel animation in the world.

Studio Ghibli (it's WWII Italian fighter pilot slang to describe the hot wind blowing across the Sahara Desert) was formed in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki & Isao Takahata under the financial support and incorporation of Tokuma Shoten Publishing. Miyazaki and Takahata met while honing their craft at the Toei-Doga Animation Studios in the early 60s. There they became nakama (comrades) and forged a strong creative relationship: they both led the animators' union at the studio, plus director Takahata urged animator Miyazaki to move into the directing field. From there they developed a vision to make quality feature animations for theatrical release. This imperative would become the foundation of Studio Ghibli's identity. While Takahata had directed numerous films & TV series over this period (including the acclaimed THE GREAT ADVENTURES OF HORUS: PRINCE OF THE SUN, 1968), Miyazaki directed fewer (including his distinctive take on Monkey Punch's LUPIN III: CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, 1979).

Concurrent with their explorations in the field of television animation, Miyazaki commenced work on the manga NAUSICAA: IN THE VALLEY OF THE WIND (since made available in 7 translated volumes through VIZ Publications). Serialized in ANIMAGE magazine from 1982, its popularity soon prompted the production of a feature animation, which in turn allowed Miyazaki and Takahata to commence the realization of their vision. Following the success of the NAUSICAA film in 1984 - produced by Takahata and directed by Miyazaki - Studio Ghibli officially came to life in 1985 with the production of LAPUTA: SKY CASTLE.

After the release of LAPUTA in 1986, production increased at Studio Ghibli. MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO and TOMBSTONE FOR FIREFLIES were concurrently produced then released as a double bill in 1988. While not as big box-office draw cards as expected, FIREFLIES has gone on to be critically regarded and TOTORO keeps growing in popularity - especially since the marketing of the film's soft toys (ironically 2 years after the film's release). Then came the box office smash of KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE in 1989 which solidified Studio Ghibli's track record and status within Japan's animation industry. More films followed (see the filmography at the end of these notes), culminating in Takahata's POM POKO being selected as Japan's entry into the 1994 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film.

By 1995, Studio Ghibli had shifted to larger premises, implemented a plan to employ full-time staff as opposed to contract work attached to discrete projects, ventured into TV series production, and opened the East Koganei Village School of animation for which the school master is Takahata. Currently, Studio Ghibli is completing post-production on the first film to be released under their recent distribution deal with Buena Vista (Disney), THE PRINCESS OF MONONOKE. Buena Vista will also be releasing most of Studio Ghibli's back catalogue, thereby allowing the West greater access to the marvelous work of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

Hayao Miyazaki

Hayao Miyazaki's work is carried by various streams of fantasy, most of which are navigated by central teenage girl characters. (Speilbergian 'wonder boys' they're not.) Yet rather than make bishojo anime (for the 'young girls' market), Miyazaki makes fully rounded dramas within which there simply exists strong girls. Such characters in Miyazaki's work form a base from which ecological concerns extend on both macrocosmic and microcosmic levels. Acknowledging existence from dimensional, planetary effects to the slightest physical nuances, Miyazaki's characters always tread carefully. They also fly beautifully. Miyazaki is obsessed with flight of all kinds, and often uses it as the vehicle for not only high-keyed drama, but also to generate emotional substance in his characters. The high quality animation which realizes all these concerns is controlled and distinctive. Miyazaki's acute rhythmic sensibility privileges inspiring silence as much as dizzying motion effects, typifying his uniquely Japanese slant on the medium.

Isao Takahata

Perhaps cast in Miyazaki's public shadow (despite Studio Ghibli being a collaborative vision), Isao Takahata produces work of equal depth, precision and emotional intensity. Whereas Miyazaki explores his ideas in speculative settings, Takahata has forged his style and approach through sharp realism with a breath-taking sense of naturalism. His works are often slow, generally lingering, and exhibit a focused approach to investigating individual characters' shifting states of mind. His drawing style and character design shares many similarities to Miyazaki's, but Takahata's characters are distinctly sombre, reflective, tragic. Yet Takahata also delivers a wry humour derived from what could be termed a 'political cartoonist' sensibility (POM POKO being a tour de force in this respect). A published author on key European animators, Takahata's complex themes are energized by his approach to animation, wherein naturalism can suddenly collide with visual metaphor in the most unlikely combinations. Takahata deftly makes his points by juggling and combining devices, effects and audio-visual language, thereby producing rich experimental work which neither alienates nor confuses.

Incorporated into the Asian Shadows Film Festival, Los Angeles (1998); the 23rd New Zealand International Film Festival (2000); the 28th New Zealand International Film Festival touring programme (2005)


  • Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind


    Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki (based on manga)
    Character design by Hayao Miyazaki
    Music by Joe Hisaishi

    Inspired by a 12th century folk tale about a princess who could talk to insects, NAUSICAA transposes that idea of a human's hypersensitivity to the natural order of life into a futuristic world ravaged by ecological disorder. The future of NAUSICAA is one where deadly, microscopic spore (housed in a massive, decayed forest belt, now called the Sea of Corruption) could at any point be carried by winds to devastate further land mass. Down wind from the Sea of Corruption lies the Valley of The Wind. Nausicaa is the warrior princess of the Valley, a territory whose frail existence is based on wind technologies (showcasing a key Miyazaki design aesthetic of colliding old and new technologies). Nausicaa knows well that the decayed state of the world is due to mankind's upsetting nature's order. As a leader of humans, she embodies ethical and political clashes with a maturity, awareness and reserve that far out-stretches her years. Her consequent decisions and actions make for a thrilling and engrossing drama of human conflict.

  • Laputa: Sky Castle


    Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki
    Character design by Hayao Miyazaki
    Music by Joe Hisaishi

    LAPUTA has similar heroic themes to NAUSICAA, this time centred on a young boy (Pazu) and girl's (Sheeta) quest to discover their heritage and unleash mystical powers bestowed upon them. More gender-balanced than some of his other work, LAPUTA nonetheless is hinged on Pazu's drive to follow the path set by his lost father, and Sheeta's discovery of a secret internal power she has housed for mysterious reasons. The children weave their way above and beyond the clouds to eventually encounter the mythical Sky Castle (referred to in Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS). The visualization of the flight sequences is poetic and memorable; the staging of the action sequences is truly awesome. Miyazaki can evoke creative and destructive forces with an intensity imaginable only in the medium of animation.

  • Kiki's Delivery Service


    Written & directed by Hayao Miyazaki
    Character design by Hayao Miyazaki
    Music by Joe Hisaishi

    KIKKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE (1989) is an allegorical tale of the joys and sadness of puberty told via a young witch's coming of age. Just the idea alone is intriguing: young witches have to learn about human existence by spending a period with humans and living under their conditions. Its execution in the film is multi-faceted, soulful, and never melodramatic. Miyazaki's penchant for flight and levitation are here symbolically fused with the character of Kiki as she rises above depressing situations and thereby learns as much about her own verve as she does of human foibles. Another Miyazaki trait surfaces in KIKI: fused settings and polyglottic production design. The town she arrives at is a meld of Napoli, Lisbon, Paris, San Francisco and Stockholm. Japanese pop culture consistently privileges the imagined over the authenticated, and KIKI will certainly confound those who seek clear references to where and when the story is set. Of course, the setting is ultimately fantastic - but the characterization of Kiki and the people she meets is grounded, rich and believable. Clearly Miyazaki believes in the totality of Kiki without passing judgement, making KIKI a children's film devoid of the neurotic, moralizing tone that has smothered Anglo children's fiction since the 70s.

  • Tombstone For Fireflies


    Written & directed by Isao Takahata (based on the novel by Akiyuki Nosaka)
    Character design by Yoshifumi Kondo
    Music by Michio Mamiya

    Set during the horrendous fire bombings of Japan in the lead-up to the atomic bomb drops, TOMBSTONE FOR FIREFLIES follows two children orphaned in the Kobe attacks - a girl (Setsuko) aged 5 and a boy (Seita) aged 10 - as they try to survive on the streets. The story is told in flashback, opening with the boy's memorable voice over: "September 21st, 1945. That was the night I died." (Be prepared for an ending that still is unthinkable in Western animation.) In TOMBSTONE, Takahata is at his most refined, focusing on the minutia upon which life precariously hangs. Despite its sombre tone, the film is a true celebration of life, using the animated image to poetically dwell upon life essences: the weight of fresh rice, the swirling of hot soup, the spray of fresh water, the final flickering of fireflies. An incisive and considered political rumination slowly materializes beyond the obviousness of the film's historical scenario, as Takahata reveals how a society can be most cruel to its own members when overtaken by the hysteria of war.

  • Pom Poko


    Written & directed by Isao Takahata
    Character design by Hayao Miyazaki
    Music by Shang Shang Typhoon

    Using the rich folklore of the indigenous tanuki (the fat happy 'raccoon dog' that welcomes you outside Japanese restaurants - now an endangered species in Japan), POM POKO maps out a socio-political scenario to question the effectiveness of certain strategies in bringing attention to ecological issues. The message in this film is not simply 'save the forest' but a question as to how one saves the forest. (The answers posed at the film's conclusion provide much food for thought.) The story is densely 'Eastern', making it a film for the adventurous gaijin (foreigner) - not due to the film's innumerable cultural references, but more because of the means by which Takahata characterizes the tanuki. According to their folklore, tanuki are capable of transformative powers and can metamorphose into anything. Throughout POM POKO, they do this while switching between modes of depiction - the three primary graphic states being realistic, comic and iconic. When and where this occurs relates to their state of mind and reactions to a current situation: despite this multiplicity of apparition, character is sharply defined. Individual character is further refined through the story's social dynamics, as numerous debates and conflicts ensue.