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The King and the Mockingbird

Andrew Osmond on Miyazaki’s love for a French classic

The King and the Mockingbird

In the run up to Ghibli’s The Wind Rises opening in Britain, Studio Canal is giving a cinema release to a film that, while masterly in its own right, is also fascinating as a piece of Ghibli prehistory. It’s called The King and the Mockingbird, a French cartoon that was a major influence on both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Indeed, Ghibli now distributes the film on Japanese DVD, under its ‘Ghibli Museum Library’ label. Here’s the Japanese trailer, though with French voices; the film will be released in both dubbed and subbed forms.

The King and the Mockingbird has a complicated history, with two different versions and several alternate titles. Directed by Paul Grimault (1905-1994), it tells the strange story of a gigantic castle where two young lovers, a sweep and a shepherdess, flee the clutches of an evil king. The titular mockingbird protects them; their obstacles include a giant robot, years before mecha became cartoon staples in Japan. Interestingly for anime fans, the robot initially seems a mere machine, only to turn out to have a soul of its own.

As the above trailer shows, The King and the Mockingbird has Disney trappings – a fairy-tale world, rich, cartoony character animation. And yet it’s as idiosyncratic as Spirited Away, an unearthly, dreamlike vision. In particular, the vast edifice of the evil king’s castle, which towers into the sky and plumbs into the ground, echoes through Miyazaki’s work. Pre-Ghibli, it was turned into the castle of Cagliostro, and the oppressive city of Industria in Miyazaki’s TV series Future Boy Conan. It also stands behind the flying ruin of Laputa, and Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away. It’s even implicit in the mazelike clubhouse which the students campaign to save in the Miyazaki-scripted From Up on Poppy Hill.

More broadly, The King and the Mockingbird was one of the films which taught Miyazaki and Takahata that you could make an animated feature without following studio formulae – something they strove for themselves as early as Takahata’s 1968 Marxist epic The Little Norse Prince. Grimault is not the only French animator whose work is released by Ghibli. The studio also distributes films by Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendez-vous, The Illusionist) and Michel Ocelot (Kirikou and the Sorceress). But Grimault was much earlier than them, an inspirational figure at a time when Disney seemed to rule cartoon features unchallenged.

The King and the Mockingbird

Grimault, whose other cartoons were shorts (compiled into a package feature, La Table tournante, 1988), began work on his castle film in the late 1940s. He had an esteemed collaborator. The witty script was by the French poet Jacques Prévert, who had recently written the live-action French classic Children of Paradise. Yet production did not go smoothly. Grimault fell out with his producer, who thought he was taking too long to make the film. The producer took it from Grimault, got it finished himself, and released it in 1953.

This incarnation was called La bergère et le ramoneur (The Shepherdess and the Sweep). There was also an English dub, The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird, with Peter Ustinov as the title character. It’s not clear when Miyazaki and Takahata saw it. Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements notes the film came to Japanese cinemas in 1955, entitled Yabunirami no Bokun or The Mistaken Tyrant, but Miyazaki was only a schoolboy then. On his own account, the first cartoon film to impress him was Japan’s Hakujaden three years later. However, there were film screenings at the labour union at the Toei studio in the 1960s, where Miyazaki and Takahata worked (and demonstrated) as young animators. Quite possibly they encountered La bergère et le ramoneur at that time.

Miyazaki mentions the film in his book Starting Point, albeit briefly. In a 1982 lecture (“On Animation and Cartoon Movies”), he cites it as an exemplar of “how animators can complete a work in a very healthy way, achieving a type of perfection in the process.” He also mentions Grimault’s film in a 1979 article (“From Idea to Film”) when he’s talking about directing animated movies; he was directing his own first film, Castle of Cagliostro, at the time.

The King and the Mockingbird

“The overall balance of the feature is something determined not by a group of animators,” Miyazaki claimed, “but by someone in a position to see the work as a whole – the director. This need to see the big picture may explain the emergence of a division of labour between director and animation. The more sophisticated the subject you are trying to depict, the more important the scenario becomes. For an example of this, take a look at La bergère et le ramoneur.

Given that the director, Grimault, had been removed from La bergère et le ramoneur, this may seem a pretty ironic statement. However, you could argue plausibly that Grimault’s vision was so singular that it shone through even the compromised version of his film. Many people argue the same of compromised live-action films, such as Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. Even Warriors of the Wind, the infamous abridgement of Miyazaki’s Nausicaa, keeps some of the original anime’s achievement.

Grimault, though, was not prepared to settle for compromise. In 1977, a quarter-century after La bergère et le ramoneur was released, he reclaimed the film’s rights and negative, then fought for funds to finish it his way. His battles must have impressed the Ghibli staff, perhaps inspiring them in their own negotiations with Hollywood. When Princess Mononoke was being sold to America, and was handled by the Miramax mogul Harvey Weinstein – nicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands” for his propensity to cut down movies – the Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki mailed Weinstein a samurai sword. There was a message attached: ‘No cuts.”

“I was only interested in the idea of re-making the film as it should have originally been made,” Grimault said in a 1980 interview. “The version that audiences saw titled La bergère et le ramoneur was for me an imposter. I had a lot of difficulty getting this idea across. I was made two offers from abroad that I had to turn down: the first by Americans, the second by Russians… Unfortunately both implied that the film would be produced abroad without using anyone from my team.”

Eventually, Grimault managed to raise the funding and – remarkably, given how much time had passed – finally got the film made as he wanted. One vital change was to the music; Bergère’s unremarkable score was replaced by a sublimely delicate one by the Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, best known to filmgoers for his music for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Pianist. Interestingly, Kilar’s music for Mockingbird is sometimes in a similar vein to Joe Hisaishi’s work for Miyazaki, especially in the fantasies Nausicaa, Laputa and Spirited Away.

The King and the Mockingbird

New animation was created and integrated with footage from decades earlier. “Some of my oldest collaborators had passed away,” Grimault said. “Young animators, passionate for adventure, came to join the team, and the interaction of old and new turned out to benefit the film incredibly well. When the film was finished and the team had to disperse, it was a sad day for everyone.” On finishing his opus, the director reflected that, “The King and the Mockingbird was a fight that lasted more than thirty years. That’s an entire professional career for some, but a sign of loyalty to my friends and my ideas.”

Ghibli’s Isao Takahata appeared together with his colleague, legendary animator Yasuo Otsuka on a documentary on a French DVD of The King and the Mockingbird. “We borrowed the film for 24 hours and presented it to our animation studio,” Takahata said. “After watching it during the day, we spent the night analysing it, in different ways, all of the cartoon. We worked a lot as a group in this analysis.” The animators studied print-outs of individual images, checking particularly interesting pieces of movement.

One comment which might have given Grimault particular satisfaction concerned the film’s ending. Following the cataclysmic climax to the story, the earlier Bergère version has a perfunctory happy-ever-after, tacked on by the producer. One person it annoyed was Miyazaki. “I know I shouldn’t criticise others,” he wrote (which will amuse anyone who knows his style), “but why do the final scenes of cartoon movies have to be so ridiculous? The ending of La bergère et le ramoneur makes it look like the production staff went out to make a wrap party.”

Grimault clearly agreed. In his revised version he substitutes a completely different conclusion, which would have a very personal meaning for him. It was his last collaboration with his old friend Jacques Prévert, two weeks before the poet died. “Even at the end, when (Prévert) was very sick, the work in some ways became a lifeline for him,” said Grimault. “He knew he wouldn’t live to see the finished film, but it still felt like he was taking his revenge.”

We’ll leave the scene for you to discover, but it involves the giant robot mentioned above and a baby bird, and it’ll bring tears to the eyes of any mecha fan with a heart. “This is the only time we felt so much emotion,” said Otsuka of the scene. “One does not find it in the American cartoon. In Disney movies, for example, we are not affected in the same way.” Which is just one more reason why The King and the Mockingbird is worthy of its new release.

The King and the Mockingbird opens in the UK on 11th April.

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