The Mike Toole Show
Ghibli Before Ghibli
by Michael Toole,
A few weeks back, our long national nightmare ended as Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind was released on blu-ray. For the first time, audiences in the west could enjoy this truly great classic of Japanese animation in full high definition, and in the process, determine once and for all that yes, she is wearing pants in that one scene where it looks like she isn't wearing any pants. I find Nausicaä's station in western anime lore to be an interesting one; it got a rare theatrical run in the 80s, but only after being edited halfway to oblivion as Warriors of the Wind. It came later on Disney's grand Ghibli release schedule than family favorites like Kiki's Delivery Service and Castle in the Sky, but the company has remained insistent that it consistently sells better than any other Miyazaki title. No surprise, then, that it's among the first to arrive on blu-ray. Not bad for a little movie that isn't even technically a Ghibli film.
Yep, Nausicaä falls into that odd gray area before Studio Ghibli was well and truly established; the first "real" Ghibli movie was 1986's Castle in the Sky, or Laputa if you're not worried about what that means in Spanish. Prior to that, Miyazaki and his pals hired a studio called Topcraft to make Nausicaä - this studio wasn't new to Miyazaki and Takahata, and they had most recently worked for a couple of guys named Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin to make this quirky little movie called The Last Unicorn. Meanwhile, the film got its theatrical release and promotion courtesy of Toei. Many of you probably already know this, and also know that The Castle of Cagliostro, while also a fine and delightful Miyazaki gem, was a Tokyo Movie Shinsha joint, long before Ghibli was the animation force we all know and love. In fact, if you examine the works of Miyazaki and Takahata, the two pillars of the studio, Ghibli's legacy stretches all the way back to the sixties.
I've talked about some of the earliest of Miyazaki and Takahata's works in this space before. As kids, the pair were inspired by films like Paul Grimault's The King and the Bird and Taiji Yabushita's Panda and the Magic Serpent to go into the field of animation. Miyazaki's first gig was as an in-betweener for Yabushita's Bow-wow 47 Ronin, a retelling of the classic samurai tale only with cute doggies marching into battle against a big mean tiger. Just a few months prior to that was Takahata's big break, a job working on the studio's Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon. After that point, though, Toei shifted Takahata over to television, where he helmed episodes of Ken the Wolf Boy, a Jungle Book pastiche that was one of the studio's earliest TV cartoons, and created the opening sequence for Hiroshi Ikeda's delightful Hustle Punch. Takahata and Miyazaki would work together on Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon, regarded highly by nerds like myself both for its stunningly weird animation and for the fact that Miyazaki, still an in-betweener, went to the director and suggested that the robot princess rescued by the film's heroes actually be a girl trapped in a robot body, a surprisingly insightful suggestion that the enlightened director, Yoshio Kuroda, took to heart. Even when he was a grunt, Miyazaki's talent shone through.
Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon illustrates another thing well - the Toei of the 1960s were very, very different from the dominant animation powerhouse that they are now. They were still successful, of course, but they were risk-takers; Gulliver was a departure from anything seen prior, and they'd throw out another game-changer in 1968, when they hired Isao Takahata, then in his early thirties and still relatively unproven, to helm Prince of the Sun: Hols' Great Adventure, their most ambitious animated effort to date. After a succession of fairly diverse projects, Prince of the Sun really set the tone for what these men and their famous studio would create in later years - it is a marvelously action-packed fairytale about a tough young boy, the village he tries to protect, and the girl he has to save - or at least, convince to save herself. The thing is, Prince of the Sun, an expensive affair that was in production for two years, pancaked upon its initial release, vanishing quickly from theatres and almost costing Takahata his job in the process. But here's the twist: Japan's emerging wave of high school and college-age animation geeks loved it. Long after Toei shelved it, student groups around the country were pulling it back into the limelight so it could be viewed at college film festivals. In that way, the two Ghibli guys can be held accountable for something that would, over the decades, turn into the otaku culture that we know and (sometimes) love.
Miyazaki, for his part, would work on two films in the following year that would continue to define his career path and become classics in their own right. After more than a decade spent making sumptuously animated features, Toei's Hiroshi Ōkawa decided on a different approach - theatrical animation that hewed just a little closer to the cheaper production style of their emerging TV unit. The first major project to take this approach and yield fruit was a retelling of Puss n' Boots. Put images of a weird CG cat with the voice of Antonio Banderas out of your mind - 1969's Puss was sharp, accessible, and amazingly funny. It was an instant hit, and the character of Pero has become so popular that he's now Toei's mascot. Miyazaki was a key animator on the film and it shows - the characters' showdown at the ogre's rickety castle feels like a dress rehearsal for Cagliostro. Miyazaki also spent some time in '69 working on Shotaro Ishinomori and Hiroshi Ikeda's The Flying Ghost Ship - again a key animator, his most noted contribution to this fanciful and enjoyably weird boys' adventure tale is an extended scene of tanks and artillery rolling through the streets of Tokyo, laying waste. It's easy to forget stuff like this, in light of the master's passion for environmentalism and creating good stories for little kids, but Miyazaki doesn't like modern civilization very much, and this film is an early indicator of that dislike. Think about that the next time you watch the flood scene in Ponyo!
After that, Miyazaki would team up with Ikeda again for 1971's Animal Treasure Island. If Takahata's blueprint for the traditional strong Studio Ghibli heroine was Prince of the Sun's Hilda, Miyazaki's has got to be this movie's character Cathy - the steely-eyed young girl takes charge swiftly, fighting Long John Silver and his men with guns, swords, and bombs as Jim Hawkins looks on disbelievingly. Then Miyazaki had a hand in making Ali Baba's Revenge, something extraordinarily different-looking from most of his animated works. The great director and his studio are known for modest character designs and incredibly detailed scenery and animation, but here it's all pitched in favor of a wacky, wobbly, cartoony take on 1001 Arabian Nights, as Al Haq, the descendant of the original king of thieves, reclaims his treasure from the bumbling, nasty descendant of Ali Baba. (No, I don't quite get why the English title is "Ali Baba's Revenge," either.) Still, the movie's constant stream of inventive, giggle-inducing gags makes it stand out, even 40 years later.
While Miyazaki was busy making awesome movies, Takahata was bouncing back from Prince of the Sun by using TV animation projects like Apache Baseball Team and Gegege no Kitarō to refine his craft. He'd find himself working alongside Miyazaki on a TMS-bankrolled Lupin the 3rd TV series, a snappy rendition of the popular manga character. Interestingly, the duo had to essentially rescue the show after its original director made it so hard-boiled that it was failing in the ratings. He also had a really great idea to create a version of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking for TV, but things just wouldn't fall into place. Fortunately, he and his pal Miyazaki were able to recycle some of the show's discarded production materials on a new project, a pair of theatrical short films called Panda Kopanda, or as they're now known, Panda! Go, Panda!. If you check these shorts out (and you should! the DVD is out of print, but not terribly hard to find) you'll notice that main character Mimiko has startlingly red hair and pigtails - now you know why!
Both directors would stick to television for much of the 1970s. Miyazaki directed the insanely great Future Boy Conan during this period, but if his greatness has earned him the lion's share of the studio's theatrical work, you could argue that Takahata is a much more accomplished master with TV projects. In Conan, Miyazaki created one of the medium's best-ever TV shows, but starting in 1974 Takahata hijacked the World Masterpiece Theatre moniker to make some of the most enduringly popular TV anime series ever, like Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, A Dog of Flanders, and 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother. Miyazaki would work with Takahata on many of these productions, but the latter's touch is much more obvious as director, while Miyazaki usually busied himself with layout or storyboard duties. As the decade drew to a close, both men would get roped back into TMS's explosively popular Lupin the 3rd Part II TV series, and Miyazaki would head up a film project based on the franchise. We know and love The Castle of Cagliostro now, but again, this was a film that didn't do very well upon its original release. Maybe that's why Miyazaki didn't come flying out of the gate as the 80s began.
Well, part of the reason for this is because Miyazaki and Takahata were lured into TMS and Yutaka Fujioka's great big Little Nemo boondoggle. Animation fans all over the world were intrigued by what the duo might accomplish with Winsor McKay's famous character, but they cut and ran before they even managed to create a pilot, with Miyazaki in particular describing the experience as one of his least favorite ever in his autobiography. Fortunately, both men were back on track soon enough - Takahata went to the most unlikely of studios, the famously weird Knack, to create a very serviceable little family comedy called Chie the Brat. Meanwhile, Miyazaki was hard at work on a funny-animal version of Sherlock Holmes - but this TV project, a co-pro between TMS and Italy's RAI, was derailed when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's estate objected to the adaptation. Sherlock Hound, as it's known here, went onto the shelf after six episodes were produced, but those episodes were hastily dusted off when the legal problems were solved in 1984. Two of the best episodes ran as a featurette in front of the Japanese theatrical release of Nausicaä, and the resulting momentum meant that the Hound TV series would be finished, even if it was by another director.
Takahata would have one more film, Gauche the Cellist, before both men turned their efforts to Nausicaä, and then Studio Ghibli as an entity. We know and love their works now, but their older projects aren't all that hard to find, and by examining them it becomes really evident how their styles and tastes evolved. Best of all, many of these great old works aren't that hard to find at all. You can watch Sherlock Hound right here on Anime News Network (check and make sure you look at the Miyazaki episodes first, since they're the best!), and it got a DVD release some years back. So did Panda! Go, Panda!, which is now out of print but still relatively easy to turn up. Discotek emerged as the champions of Miyazaki's early-70s key animation efforts, releasing both Puss n' Boots and Animal Treasure Island in durable, if slightly technically rough, bilingual DVD versions. The wonderful and underrated Prince of the Sun is actually available on Hulu and Netflix, so get watching it! The dub is an endearing piece of work by producer Fred Ladd, who has championed the movie for years. Heck, if you're not above googling, you can even find dub-only digital copies of long out-of-print fare like Ali Baba's Revenge and Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon.
The truly intriguing thing is the sheer number of titles referenced above that never got released in the west. There's no Flying Ghost Ship DVD, or Anne of Green Gables box sets, or Future Boy Conan on Netflix. You'd think that having one or both of the founders of Ghibli attached to the show would make it an easy sell, but this apparently isn't the case. Despite all of that, there's still plenty of Ghibli goodness to look forward to as more of the studio's titles make the hop to blu-ray. Which Studio Ghibli blu-ray do you think will be the next to land on American shores?
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