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Featured Blu-ray Review: Hayao Miyazaki Double-Shot

June 19th, 2013

Hayao Miyazaki Double-Shot
Howl's Moving Castle - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon
My Neighbor Totoro - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

Hayao Miyazaki is one of the best animators working today, if not they best. He's created a number of masterpieces and even his weaker efforts are worth watching again and again. Recently two of his films were released on Blu-ray, Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbor Totoro. The screeners arrived a little late, but I finally got to the reviews this week. Where do they fit in Hayao Miyazaki's filmography? And are they worth picking up?

Howl's Moving Castle

We first meet Sophie working behind-the-scenes at a hat shop. The shop just closed, but she decides to stay behind and work rather than go out with the other shop girls. Later she leaves to visit her sister, Lettie. On the way, she is accosted by a pair of soldiers, there is a war brewing between two nations, but a mysterious stranger intervenes and uses some kind of magic. He offers to escort her to her sister's place, but before she can say yes, he says he's being followed and she should act naturally. We soon see what is following him: strange oily blobs. He flies the two of them away and drops Sophie off at the bakery where Lettie works.

At first, Sophie isn't sure that really happened. She thinks it was a dream. However, when someone tells Lettie what happened, Lettie is quickly concerned. It seems wizards in this world steal hearts. Howl, who was seen in the area just before, actually eats them. The Witch of the Waste might be worse. Sophie returns to the shop, locking the door behind her. But when she gets to the counter, there's a woman inside the shop. The woman insults her and when Sophie throws her out, the woman reveals herself to be the Witch of the Waste and curses Sophie making her turn into an old woman. Again, she thinks it is a dream and tries to sleep it off. The next day when she wakes up and she's still old, she leaves her home and heads off to the wastes. She needs to find someone who can reverse the curse, and she knows the waste is filled with wizards and witches.

It will be a long journey, especially for an old woman, but Sophie is determined. Early in the trip, she spots a stick that would make a good walking stick. However, when she dislodges it from the bush, she sees it was the post for a scarecrow, a living scarecrow. It can't speak, but it says thanks by giving her his walking stick. He wants to follow her around, but she tricks him into going away by asking him to find someplace to stay. He actually does find her a place, Howl's movie castle. While she gets in, the scarecrow is left behind. She decides to warm herself by the fire, but soon learns it is not a fire, but Calcifer, a powerful fire demon. He's trapped in the castle and Howl treats him like a slave, so he's eager to be freed. The two make a deal. Sophie will free Calcifer and in return, Calcifer will break the curse on Sophie. With that out of the way, Sophie falls asleep.

The next morning, Sophie is woken up by the sound of a doorbell, but when a young boy, Markl, goes to answer the door, she pretends to still be asleep. She then sees him opening the door in one city, and then in another. It seems Howl's castle exists in both capital cities, under different names, and he's being summoned by the King to fight in the war, for both sides. Sophie is able to bully Calcifer to use him as a cooking fire, he normally only listens to Howl. When Howl returns home, we see he is the wizard that saved Sophie in the beginning. He's impressed that she got Calicifer to obey her and she cons her way into becoming the housekeeper.

At this point, we start to run into major spoilers.

If we start the review with the negatives, Howl's Moving Castle is a confusing movie. I understand we are dealing with a lot of magic, but it seems the rules for the magic were poorly defined. Likewise, there were many characters that were poorly defined, or introduced really late into the proceedings. And how the war was ended was a little too Deus ex Machina for my taste. That said, the positives outweigh the negatives. Like all Hayao Miyazaki films, this one looks amazing. The combination of the magic and the steampunk elements are expertly done. There is a real sense of scope to the movie, but you don't lose sense of the more personal message. Finally, the voice acting is strong, although the Japanese audio track is better. It is one of Hayao Miyazaki weaker films, but even so, it was nominated for an Oscar and did win several animation awards worldwide.

The Extras

Extras start with a nine-minute featurette on the English adaptation. This includes not only the new voice cast, but also dealing with difficulties in translating the Japanese to English, while maintaining the same number of syllables to match the animation. Up next is a seven-minute interview with Pete Docter, who co-directed the English-dub. There's a 16-minute featurette with Hayao Miyazaki visiting Pixar studio. Up next are some TV spots and trailers and finally the film is presented in the original Japanese storyboards.

The technical presentation is flawless. It is as simple as that. The level of details is stunning, the colors are gorgeous, the blacks a inky deep. It goes without saying that there are no compressions issues or signs of print damage. The audio is just as good with clear dialogue and amazing use of the surround sound speakers.

The Blu-ray is not cheap at $28, but in my mind it is worth it.

My Neighbor Totoro

I previously reviewed this film when it came out on DVD. Here's a quick recap of the plot. ... Although there's not a huge plot and it is more of a character driven piece.

A father, Tatsuo and his two daughters, Satsuki and Mei, travel to the country. They are going to live in a new home so they can be closer to their mother, Yasuko, who is sick in the hospital. When they get to their new home, it is really old, and Satsuki thinks it might be haunted. There is some evidence that all is not normal with their new house. Satsuki and Mei find acorns that have fallen from the ceiling. Of course, that could be squirrels. But when they open the backdoor of the house, the place is filled with black fluffy things. These are definitely not squirrels. Their father calls them soot gremlins. When they find the stairs to the upper floor, they find another acorn and more of these soot gremlins. Mei even catches one, although it disappears before she can show Satsuki. They also meet their neighbors, an older lady that they call Granny, and a younger boy called Kanta (Paul Butcher).

One day, while Satsuki is at school, Mei explores the area around the house and spots another acorn. She then sees a small wood spirit, which she chases. It tries to turn invisible to get away, but Mei sees it, and then a slightly bigger wood spirit and the chase is on. They head into a tunnel through the brier patch and after falling down a hole, Mei meets Totoro for the first time, and falls asleep on his chest. However, when Satsuki and her father go looking for her, she's asleep on the ground and Totoro is gone. Tatsuo explains the forest spirits only show themselves to very lucky people and of course, Satsuki wants to see Totoro. Tatsuo takes both of his daughters to a shrine in the forest where they can give thanks to the protectors of the forest.

Before that can happen, we start to run into some spoilers. Like I said, the film isn't plot driven, so it is hard to say when unacceptable spoilers begin.

A lot of people think Hayao Miyazaki's best film is Spirited Away or perhaps Princess Mononoke. However, I think a case can be made that My Neighbor Totoro is his best work. It is a much smaller film than either of those two movies, or Howl's Moving Castle, but as I said in my previous review, it has a more personal touch that I really like. It is, for the most part, a simple coming of age story focusing on the two sisters. That's not to say there are no parts of the movie that have tension or adventure, but it isn't the focus of the movie. Also, it goes without saying the movie is gorgeous.

The Extras

You can watch the movie in the original Japanese storyboard form. There is a three-minute featurette on the origins of the movie and a four-minute look at the creation of the characters. The Totoro Experience talks about the film's legacy for two minutes. There is a shorter featurette on how Studio Ghibli got its name. There is a featurette on the real world locations in the movie. This one runs nearly 30 minutes long, Scoring Miyazaki is a seven-minute featurette on the score for this movie and other Hayao Miyazaki's films. There is the original Japanese trailer and finally a six-minute featurette on the American voice cast.

Like the previous film in this review, the technical presentation is amazing. The film was made in 1988 and it doesn't have the level of detail that Howl's Moving Castle has, especially in the backgrounds. Additionally, the colors are not quite as vibrant, but this was an aesthetic choice and not a flaw in the transfer. The audio is only 2.0, so while it is very clean, it is not as enveloping as a 5.1 track would be. Then again, this is how it was recorded, so this is how it should be presented.

Finally, the price is a little high for this type of release at $28, but it is definitely worth it.

The Verdict

Hayao Miyazaki is widely regarded one of the best directors working in animation today and these two films show why. Howl's Moving Castle isn't his best, but it is still worth owning on Blu-ray. My Neighbor Totoro is arguably his best, at the very least in the top five, and the Blu-ray is a must have.

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Filed under: Video Review, Hauru no ugoku shiro, Tonari no Totoro, Lauren Bacall, Christian Bale, Pat Carroll, Billy Crystal, Tim Daly, Pete Docter, Dakota Fanning, Elle Fanning, Josh Hutcherson, Jena Malone, Hayao Miyazaki, Emily Mortimer, Lea Salonga, Jean Simmons, Frank Welker