As I’ve exhausted Studio Ghibli’s feature filmography for reviews and essays, as well as the studio’s offspring Studio Ponoc, for a while I’ll be reviewing films from those within the Ghibli diaspora. Filmmakers like Kazuo Oga and Kitaro Kosaka who had long formative career experiences at Ghibli before creating their own short films and figures like Keiichi Hara and Mamoru Hosada who never worked for the Studio, but derive inspiration from its methods and themes, and implement a style more characteristic of animation, than the Japan-specific form of anime.
In a manner of speaking, the first of the figure’s careers I will be covering here fits both of these molds insofar as he is both a figure with a background in work with Studio Ghibli, though in a very limited capacity, and a figure who seems to align himself with traditional animation as opposed to Anime as such. This man is Sunao Katabuchi. Sunao began his career in animation while a student at Nihon University in the early 1980s. There, he somehow came into contact with Hayao Miyazaki and, in 1984-85 (in the period just prior to Ghibli’s technical formation) he worked as an assistant director on one episode of Miyazaki’s Sherlock Hound television series. Later, he also wrote four of the episode screenplays. A few years later, when Kiki’s Delivery Service was in preproduction, he was slated as the film’s director and went on scouting trips to Scandinavian countries for architectural and city planning information towards a proposed look for the film. At some point, Miyazaki decided that Sunao wasn’t up to the challenge, and besides, Miyazaki had fallen in love with the project, so he took over and ultimately directed the film, leaving Sunao to claim an assistant director credit. If he had gone all the way with the project, Sunao would have been the first person other than Miyazaki or Isao Takahata to direct a feature for the studio (at a full two years prior to the made-for-TV feature Ocean Waves directed by Tomomi Mochizuki).
Over the next ten years, Sunao would work as a journeyman in the animation field, being hired out by any company needing an assistant or head director for TV anime works. During this time, and in the time since, he never landed another job working for Studio Ghibli, but took his experiences with the company everywhere he went with him as formative creative times when his skills were first being honed. And in 1999, he was hired by Studio 4°C and got the go-ahead to direct his first feature film as an auteur (partially on the strength of his direction on the 1996 World Masterpiece Theater animated series Famous Dog Lassie, and for his arthouse short film Upon The Planet in 1998).
The production was to be an adaptation of the 1983 classic feminist fairy tale The Clever Princess by Diana Coles, which was extremely well-received in Japan in the late 80s and early 90s. The story follows the life of a young princess named Arete who has been locked away in a tower overlooking her city until she has chosen a suitor. Through a series of events in which she increasingly establishes her clever disposition in opposition to the stupid and brutish suitors who attempt to win her hand in marriage by collecting magical treasures throughout the world on quests, she serves as an example to young girls that they can be strong, intelligent, and often superior to their male counterparts, that domesticity is not a necessity, and that life is about more than merely child-rearing and subservience to one’s husband.
But there was a problem. In the critical literature on the tale, both insightful male and female critics found in the text a troubling conversion and mirroring of male chauvinism into a form bordering on female chauvinism. The women became strong, intelligent, self-actuating, and all of the men became stupid and ultimately powerless. Rather than subvert and render more realistic age-old fantasy tropes, power hierarchies, and gender formulations, the text merely turned them on their heads, resulting a negative text with little consequent merit. Sunao, as a man, was uncomfortable with this simplistic rendering of half of the story’s characters, and as such, translated the men in the story into characters just as complex as their female counterparts.
In the original text, the suitor who forces the King to cede his daughter’s hand is the Sorcerer Boax who comes from an ancient civilization of ‘magicians’ who were actually engineers of complex technologies. Boax was a boy when his civilization was destroyed and as such, had not learned much of the technology. He has kept himself alive by finding a pendant that prolongs life. He has sought out Arete as a companion to stay by his side eternally as he has grown tired of the companionship of Frogs he has transfigured into humanoid beings as servants. In the book, Boax is an evil man who must be defeated totally and symbolically emasculated by the removal of his gemstone and therefore his eternal life, as well as undermined in his control of the village beneath his castle who he controls by limiting their water supply. In the film, he is a figure deluded through the emotional pain of the loss of his people and through a sheer technological realism affected in memory of that people’s great scientific achievements, but which leaves no room for imagination, for creativity, for life-affirmation (which includes death-realization and acceptance), or for love. He is a flawed man who is defeated and who loses all he loses in the book, but ultimately gains something in his encounter with Arete that is much more precious: perspective, humanity, and life (even as he will slowly succumb to death as the average human being he has been demoted to).
And in the process of creating whole figures instead of stereotyped tropes, for all characters within the text, Sunao has managed to make the work palatable for both boys and girls, men and women, without sacrificing anything of its feminist emancipatory potential. In fact, in the original Japanese translation of the text, the version that was so popular in Japan, much of the cleverness of Arete had been edited out and attributed to help from outside parties aiding her in her journey, leaving many readers to ponder in what ways she was clever. Furthermore, the book was titled The Adventure of Princess Arete in the Japanese version despite it lacking any real quest narrative or fighting with monstrous beings as the Adventure moniker often connotes in the Japanese cultural imaginary. Sunao managed to re-insert much of the cleverness of the girl and to add more adventure to the narrative, which brought to the film more dramatic coherence and interest than even the original source novel held.
The result is a film about a willful young girl who negotiates the parameters of her medieval surroundings and shows herself to be a full-fledged person with all of the autonomy and intelligence of any male protagonist. The text is both feminist and humanist, symbolic and realistic, and is animated in a deft manner akin stylistically to the Toei productions of the 1960s like Hakujaden and Horus with all of their attendant connections to Western animation style. Its approach is traditional animation with invisible CGI aided effects. Its time and place is legendary, mythic Eastern European. In a word, the film is very Ghibli, and deserves to be recognized as a great work within the diaspora of that great Studio, to be mentioned in the same breath.
Aside from stylistic and thematic similarities, the film shares one more extremely important parallel to Ghibli animation in the form of its editor, the great Takeshi Seyama. Seyama has worked for many years as a Ghibli film editor and is as responsible for the ‘look’ of Ghibli as anyone else through the effect of his particular approach to montage. He edited for Miyazaki and Takahata, both pre-Ghibli and during the Ghibli era, the following works: Heidi, Girl of the Alps (his first work on any animation), 30,000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Future Boy Conan, Sherlock Hound, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales from Earthsea, Ponyo, From Up on Poppy Hill, and The Wind Rises. Seyama is also known for collaborations with Katsushiro Otomo (Akira, Memories, Steamboy), Satoshi Kon (Tokyo Godfathers, Paranoia Agent, Paprika), and Chiaki J. Konaka (Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze).
[Next up, Sunao’s second feature: Mai Mai Miracle]