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Andrew Osmond on Takahata’s chances and more

I didn’t love The Lego Movie. Don’t get me wrong. I found it smart, witty and imaginative, with the best screen Batman since Adam West. But I felt that watching it was like watching an early Daffy Duck bouncing round a swamp and screaming “Woo-hoo!”; splendid fun for a few minutes, but somewhat numbing at an hour and a half.  The film’s most moving scene, of course, was the live-action bit with Will Ferrell.

Of course, I’m in a minority. Lego Movie’s lack of a nomination was the first huge upset in the Oscar corner reserved for cartoons. Fans rioted, other animators were outraged, though co-director Philip Lord had the pitch-perfect humorous response. As for why it was snubbed, some suspect that the product-placement title scared voters. But I wonder if demographics played a part, if Lego Movie’s madcap humour played to a younger generation than the Oscar crowd. True, Lego Movie had ecstatic reviews, but critics have their own biases. Lego Movie was populist and darned different, so its critical embrace wasn’t so surprising. (The same day as its Oscar snub, it won Best Animated Film at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards.)

Anyway, it’s out of the running now, leaving the field open. Of the five nominees, at least four have a genuine chance of winning. And what a mix: two trad drawn cartoons, a stop-motion film, and two CG blockbusters. (Lego Movie would have mixed it even more, its CG echoing the low-tech stop-motion of Robot Chicken.) Yes, a blockbuster usually wins, but we still remember 2002, when a little foreign film trounced the likes of Ice Age and Lilo & Stitch. That was Spirited Away.

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Ghibli’s third Oscar nominee since then. It’s also probably Ghibli’s best last chance of a second Oscar. (It opens in Britain on March 20.) On Rotten Tomatoes, Kaguya has an immaculate 100% rating, based on 58 reviews, compared with 89% for Miyazaki’s Wind Rises. Of course, there are negative write-ups if you want them. Bill Plympton, the satirical indy animator, found Kaguya sleep-inducingly long. Length is the film’s obvious liability; it’s longer than Princess Mononoke! It also looks proudly indy, more akin to Japanese art animation than Totoro or One Piece. In Japan, Kaguya was one of Ghibli’s few flops, earning less than a third as much as One Piece Film Z.

However, Kaguya has plenty to please Oscar voters. Unlike some of Takahata’s films, it’s extremely accessible to Western viewers. As MyM magazine put it, “You watch Takahata’s film and you can hear the underlying millennium-old tale as if it’s being read to you aloud, at bedtime surely, to your childhood self.” It also appeals to the sensibilities of old-school animators. The film looks like moving drawings, with deliberately incomplete watercolours complementing white space. More than most anime, even Ghibli anime, Kaguya foregrounds character acting and emotion, of the kind at the heart of Disney and Warner Brothers in the 1930s and ‘40s.

The terrible irony about Takahata is his forced association with Miyazaki. On the one hand, it’s effective to market Kaguya as ‘From the studio which brought you Spirited Away and Totoro,” or “From the colleague of Miyazaki!” The fact is the Miyazaki ‘brand’ has long eclipsed Takahata’s, except for serious fans. When it was rumoured last year that Ghibli might be closing, CNN called it a place where “you might see a boy turn into a flying dragon, a deer morph into a monstrous god, or a fish transform into a young girl.” Those were all images from Miyazaki films.

Last year, I was in a group press interview in Paris, talking to Takahata about Kaguya. Before we went in, a PR person warned us not to ask questions relating to Miyazaki. The French journalists before us had done just that, and Takahata wasn’t happy. (I’d planned to ask Takahata if he thought his path had wholly diverged from Miyazaki’s, but I prudently ditched it.) I think there are surprisingly ‘Miyazaki’ bits in Kaguya – even a flying scene! – as there are “Takahata” bits in Miyazaki’s Wind Rises. But it’s understandable that Takahata, Miyazaki’s senior, should feel the comparisons insult his own art.

That said, many Oscar voters may be coming to Takahata new. One of his Ghibli films, Only Yesterday, never even got to American DVD, while neither Yamadas nor Pom Poko had cinema releases stateside. Grave of the Fireflies was passionately championed by Roger Ebert, but that was twenty years ago. It’s doubtful how many of the Academy voters will have seen it. In the end, they may have to take Kaguya on its individual merits, perhaps swayed by PR accounts of Takahata’s rich life in animation and – let’s face it – the Miyazaki connection.

Kaguya is distributed in America by GKIDS, which took over Ghibli’s licence with From Up on Poppy Hill. (Previously, Disney distributed the films in America.) Remarkably, GKIDS is also distributing one of Kaguya’s rival nominees, Song of the Sea (trailer here). This is an Irish animation, whose director Tomm Moore may sympathise with Takahata; several pundits have compared Moore to Miyazaki. In fact, Moore’s very much his own artist: he’s already had an Oscar nomination, for his feature The Secret of Kells (2009). The influences on his stylised drawings include Genndy Tartakovsky (Samurai Jack), while Moore was encouraged to innovate by French director Michel Ocelot (Kirikou and the Sorceress). Ocelot’s fans include Takahata, who distributed his films in Japan.

Moore himself is an outspoken admirer of Ghibli and specifically Princess Kaguya. Interviewed by the Cartoon Brew site, Moore said, “I was inspired by how brave and expressive (Kaguya) was, how it used so much language of the line. It is unashamedly hand-drawn… Kaguya and other Ghibli films point the way that 2D (animation) has to keep going to reinvent itself.” Many reviewers have made similar comments about Moore’s Song of the Sea. It’s due for British release in July, though it’s already playing in America and France.

Of the other contenders, Disney’s Big Hero 6 wears its Japanese influence on its sleeve. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s a giant robot action-adventure set in ‘San Fransokyo,’ a blend of San Francisco and Tokyo. As a blockbusting Disney product (over $400 million worldwide), it has a good chance of winning. However, its distance from traditional Mouse fare might play against it. Last year’s Frozen was neo-classical, fairy-tale Disney; voters might be less sure about the studio moving into SF action-adventure. Personally, I liked it, and loved the big cuddly robot; but some of it was already done by Iron Giant and The Incredibles, rather better.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is directed by Dean DeBlois, one of the co-creators of Lilo and Stitch. Lilo was influenced by Ghibli’s Totoro, and later reworked as an anime series (with Stitch, minus Lilo), as we explain here. Again, Dragon is a strong contender for the Oscar. Its world earnings are over $600 million, though more than two-thirds came from outside America. Moreover, its sequel status is an issue. The film strove to expand the first film’s world, maturing and developing its characters, though I and some other reviewers preferred the original (which admittedly set a very high bar). Toothless the dragon is wonderful, but he was in the first film too.

The last feature contender is the stop-motion Boxtrolls, which I predict won’t win. It had more mixed reviews than the other nominees, and with reason. It’s a somewhat grotesque netherworld fantasy, a bit reminiscent of the Brit animation The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), which was co-funded back in the day by Manga Entertainment. Boxtrolls has lots of gross-out humour – too much for some reviewers – and lopsided storytelling. Its baddies, led by a cross-dressing Dickensian monster voiced by Ben Kingsley, are horribly fun. Its goodies, including the trolls themselves, feel shortchanged, like supporting characters in their own story. Both the Laika studio’s previous films, Coraline and ParaNorman, were better; Laika’s now making a Japanese story, Kubo and the Two Strings.

Over to the short animation contenders. None are clearly anime, but one should be of great interest to anime followers. The Dam Keeper (trailered here) is an 18-minute film by two alumni of the Pixar studio, Robert Kondo and Daisuki “Dice” Tsutsumi. As you may guess from their names, they’re of Japanese descent. Kondo was born in California, while Tsutumi emigrated from Japan. From the trailer, the film looks intensely painterly and delicate, able to stand in the company of both Kaguya and Song of the Sea.

Is that all? Well, except that Tsutsumi once had a crush in Japanese grade-school… A crush on a little girl whose uncle’s name was Hayao Miyazaki. Not only that, but the girl was the inspiration for the boisterous toddler Mei in My Neighbour Totoro. Years later, Tsutsumi met Miyazaki, confessing to the surprised director that his niece was Tsutumi’s first love. It doesn’t end there… Thanks to friends, Tsutsumi had a reunion with “Mei-chan.” The birds and bees (and the Totoro) worked their magic, and the two married in 2009. And yes, that’s all true.

Princess Kaguya may be the only anime nominee at this year’s Oscars. And yet Japan and anime seem to have quietly pervaded the entire event!

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