The Films (5/5, 5/5, 5/5)
Yeah, you read that.
The films of Hayao Miyazaki, and Studio Ghibli are of massive importance to me. I discovered them 12 years ago through my then girlfriend (now wife) when she came into a copy of Miyazaki's then latest film Spirited Away on DVD, and it went into near constant rotation. I quickly purchased all the available Miyazaki and Ghibli titles on the market obsessing over the man, his studio, and most importantly his films.
Hayao Miyazaki and in turn Studio Ghibli have made some of the finest animated features of the past half century. His film My Neighbor Totoro, I would simply rate as the finest animated feature film of all time, enjoyable by both children and adults alike. Prior to the DVD era his films were harder to come by, especially in their uncut form. A deal made with Disney in the early 2000's at the time of Spirited Away's theatrical release changed all that, and now almost every film from Ghibli (minus the recent From Up on Poppy Hill, and a few other titles for some rather odd reason) has been issued in theaters or on DVD through the Mouse House. We have now had a format upgrade, and Blu-ray is the name of the game, and Disney has been slowly (at least to me), been upgrading their Ghibli titles. This month they have issued 3 of Miyazaki's masterpieces Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, and the master's final feature film The Wind Rises.
Miyazaki has a tendency to work between more simple stories, mythological tales, and stories with deeper more complex themes. The first film in the trio of Blu-ray releases chronologically Kiki's Delivery Service combines the simple elegant storytelling style of My Neighbor Totoro with one of Miyazaki's more mythological films like Nausicaa or Spirited Away.
The film tells the story of KiKi, a young witch who has just reached the age where she is supposed to leave home and apprentice for a year on her own. As the film opens, she leaves to find a city to call her own with her cat JiJi in tow. The two settle in a coastal community, where KiKi decides to use her broom flying skills to quickly deliver items around the town in order to make her living. While there she begins to come into her own, having new experiences, finding new struggles, and meeting new friends.
And that is the story in a nutshell. The beauty about some of Miyazaki's films of this nature is there ability to throw us into a situation, not give us narrative guidance and just allow us to spend time with these characters in their world. There isn't any big bad villain, and while there is a segment of the film where KiKi loses her ability to fly her broom, it's less an obstacle to overcome in the plot, then it is a way to show the maturation of the character through her experiences.
Princess Mononoke is Miyazaki's 1997 film. It could be considered Miyazaki's most epic and mature film, possibly ever (though his earlier Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and later Howl's Moving Castle are certainly contenders). The film opens with Prince Ashitaka becoming infected by a demon's curse when defending the village from said demon. Although he stopped the demon's destruction, due to the nature of the curse he was banned from the village, and forced to step out on his own. He begins to search for the source of the demon's ire, and attempt to find a way to dispell the curse that will prove fatal if not cured. He finds that the source of the curse comes from outside a new industrial community called Iron Town. Iron Town is populated and worked by societies outcast, but utilizes the natural resources of the nearby region. This has upset the natural Gods of the area, most especially the boar Gods (one of whom became the demon that infected Ashitaka), and the wolf Gods who raised the titular Princess Mononoke, who alongside the nature Gods is attempting to lead a rebellion against the new industrial civilization. Prince Ashitaki like masterless Samurai of Yojimbo he ends up caught between the human civilization, which he knows is committing atrocities against the natural world, and the natural Gods, and his heart's desire Princess Mononoke.
The film is a much deeper and complex experience than Kiki's Delivery Service. It offers strong subtext showing the effect of humans on the natural world. That being said, it does remain subtext, and Miyazaki never lays it on truly thick. The film is grounded by fantastic animation, and if you choose to watch the dubbed version you will be treated to a translated script by Sandman writer Neil Gaiman. Princess Mononoke also has the distinction of being the most violent film of Miyazaki's filmography with beheadings and bloodletting appearing, and a number of very intense action set pieces, that may not be approrpriate for younger children (who might be fans of his other work).
The Wind Rises has been a long wait for Blu-ray. Sure, the film was out in theaters earlier this year, but it has been completed for some time. Also, knowing the film would be Hayao Miyazaki's last made the wait even more devastatingly long. He has announced retirements previously, but there is something about this one that felt definitive, and so far it is.
The Wind Rises is a biopic about Jiro, a real life airplane designer that lived in the early 20th Century. However, I would immediately dismiss the Wind Risesí biographical nature as the film is less about facts and more about feelings. The film certainly touches upon the true life events of Jiro and the Japan of his life time such as having to deal with a wife suffering with tuberculosis, the great earthquake of 1923, and World War II. However, these are done in a more traditional fantasist Miyazaki style. It allows us to never lose sight of Jiro's dreams of aviation and design, even through the darkness that he has to work through to sustain his dream.
The animation throughout is stunningly beautifully, and may be the finest of Miyazaki's career allowing the director to go out on an absolute high note. The film packs both a nice amount of drama and whimsy in it's running time. It's a film that manages like Cassavetes Love Streams to offer a slightly new direction for the filmmaker, while offering a nice summation to his career.
Disney animated Blu-ray releases are usually very hit or miss. Ghibli releases on the other hand are nothing but hits. I have heard this is due to a clause that does not allow for any digital tampering on the part of Disney. It is for this reason I have given each a score of 5. All 3 films offer excellent line detail, colors, and black levels. Everything about these transfers brings out the best in the animation, and I cannot imagine these films looking any better on Blu-ray (where as on DVD I could imagine them looking much better).
The audio is of similar superb quality. The audio on both the Japanese and English language tracks comes through excellently (DTS-HD MA, btw). Dialogue comes through nice and clear, as does the music, and effects. Absolutely, no complaints on either A/V side.
Extras (4.5/5, 3.5/5, 4/5)
Each disc that has been released has varying extras. The Kiki's set has the majority of extras for the set including the entire feature in storyboards (this is included for each of the features). Also various trailers, documentary features, interviews, and an introduction by John Lasseter.
Mononoke also has the feature storyboards, trailers, TV spots, and some featurettes.
For Wind Rises, we get a nearly 90 minute documentary on the films completion, the story board version, a behind the microphone featurette, and trailers.
Not to simplify, but it's 3 films by one of animations greatest masters on Blu-ray. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.