Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki

From the opening scenes of a giant walking castle, it is clear that this film is going to be a magical experience. We are introduced to Sophie, a young girl making hats in her mother’s hat-shop. When the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady, she finds herself swept up into an often unexpected, but always thrilling world of wizards and spells. Sophie sets off to find Howl, whose improbably constructed castle can be seen wandering the landscape, in order to remove the curse, learning about life and love along the way.

The film is full of inventive moments, with the magic element giving the film a truly unexpected quality. Abundant spells mean that anything could happen, and often does. Sophie is a likeable character, with some funny moments and a plight that makes the audience care for her. One of the things the film does well is create a believable world. The artwork and animation is a wonder to behold with all the minute details on the walking castle and street scenes keeping your eyes busy trying to look at everything. The depiction of landscapes, mountains and lakes, do a perfect job in creating a sense of amazement at the natural world, and the action sequences are similarly engaging. The story takes place in a world at war, with a strong anti-war message. The way the film puts across this message is unusual in largely ignoring the war, showing it to be pointless and stupid, and instead focussing on the magic of the countryside and the enjoyment of peace. Instead we see battle-cruisers heading for war, or planes overhead, and the beautiful landscape surrounding offers a counterpoint to this, almost asking the audience to choose between the ugly mechanisation of war, or the rural idyll that the main characters spend most of their time exploring. The times when the war is depicted, it is a dark, dangerous place. The plot can be mysterious at times, but this further adds to the sense of this being a real place with complex characters all of whom have a past, and hopes and dreams. The music is fantastic, with an uplifting score that compliments the gorgeous visuals.

A highly enjoyable film, with creative use of magic and an style that makes every moment a pleasure. As well as a central love story, the film features several themes, including an anti-war message and ideas of aging and maturity. The transformation of Sophie into an old lady, and other transformations further emphasises the themes of growth and change. I would definitely recommend this film as it is packed with so many memorable moments, an engaging plot, likeable characters, and an incredible visual style.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

When Marnie Was There (2014)

Anna is withdrawn and anxious. Isolated from her classmates, she takes solace in her drawings. After an asthma attack her foster mother sends her off to the countryside, believing that the cleaner air will do her some good. While there Anna discovers a mysterious house and meets another young girl, Marnie, with whom she becomes good friends. The house has been abandoned for a long time and it is clear early on that Marnie may not be real. Dreams, memory and reality are blended together as Anna slowly uncovers the details of Marnie’s past and subsequently reveals something about herself too.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, with the action transposed to Japan. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi has crafted a beautiful film that will speak to many people. Anna is a character that you are immediately drawn to, though without overly sentimentalising her experiences. She suffers social anxiety, asthma, and we learn early on that she does not smile a lot. This is due to the death of her parents at an early age, something that has left her feeling isolated and disconnected from the world. The film does a great job of showing how she grows and learns to cope with this childhood trauma. The animation is spectacular. From the opening sequence of a busy play park there is a vibrancy and life to everything that happens. As with many Ghibli films the natural world is as much of a character as everyone else. In this film the effects on the sea are mesmerising with the added importance of the sense of receding tides tying into the themes of the film. There were also a number of techniques used to perfectly capture what was happening such as the faces of Anna and Marnie being overlaid at one point to show their similarities.

When Marnie Was There is a film about loss and memory, regret and redemption. The themes are subtly introduced in the guise of a mystery story and never overplayed. While it deals with serious issues there is humour introduced throughout, and in the latter parts the character of Sayaka seems introduced purposefully to help counterbalance the tragedy. This is another classic from studio Ghibli. While it lacks some of the whimsy of their more fantastical films, it is a powerful emotional drama that reaches a satisfying resolution.