Following up what was undoubtedly an incredibly successful run of four films by Hayao Miyazaki, Metro Cinema Society is showing a series of three more films from the Japanese master: early classic My Neighbor Totoro, whose beloved titular character has been Studio Ghibli’s mascot since its creation, and the lesser-known but highly accomplished Porco Rosso and Whispers of the Heart. These films each exhibit the sense of wonder and the exquisite animation which Studio Ghibli is known for, but each of these films is also in its own way influenced by Miyazaki’s feelings and experiences of the Second World War.
Set in 1958, My Neighbor Totoro follows sisters Satsuki and Mei as they move with their father from the city to a new home in the rural satoyama, closer to the hospital where their mother is being treated for a long-term illness. The girls soon meet several monsters and forest spirits, including the friendly and wonderful Totoro. My Neighbor Totoro was originally shown in a double-bill as a companion to piece to Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s incredibly depressing war threnody Grave of the Fireflies. In some ways, Totoro works as a piece of magical realism, using characters and fantasy to create a place where those great tragedies lose their power to dishearten us. Still, the hospitalization of the girls’ mother is a constant background reminder of the realness of mortality and of the external world. Totoro is a beautifully soft and happy film, but it still hums with Miyazaki’s complex humanism. This is a film that you need to see regardless of who you are.
Porco Rosso is set in the years between the first World War and the second one. Its story concerns a former Italian fighter-pilot ace with a mysterious past who has been turned into an anthropomorphic pig. He is a valiant mercenary who fights air pirates and saves entire field-trips of small children, and he is known up and down the coast of the Adriatic Sea as Porco Rosso, “The Crimson Pig.” While Porco’s skirmishes with the air pirates offer fun and pulpy adventure with amazing aerial scenes (flight is one of Miyazaki’s specialties), the real evil force at work is the increasingly oppressive National Fascist government – the fascist secret police pursue Porco for treason and for “being a lazy pig”. This film is a very interesting companion to My Neighbor Totoro, because it too makes a discussion of the impact of the World Wars accessible through a mixture of fantasy, adventure, and history. This may be a movie about a flying pig, but like Porco says – “Better a pig than a fascist.”
Set in a modern, decidedly unmagical Tokyo, Whisper of the Heart follows Shizuku, a junior high school student who is interested in writing. She habitually checks out numerous books from the library and reads them voraciously, to the detriment of her formal studies. One evening, Shizuku finds that every single one of the books she has chosen from the library had been checked out before her by the same person, a boy named Sheiji. As the story unfolds and she learns more about the mysterious name in her books, Shizuku’s passion for writing grows, and she must decide whether to fully commit to pursuing her own dreams. The film was written by Miyazaki as a “contemplation of how to live a rich and healthy life in a materialist society,” intended to encourage youth to trust in their unsure futures and meet them head-on, instead of clinging to the isolated protection of childhood. Whisper of the Heart was not directed by Miyazaki but by his protégé Yoshifumi Konō, making this the first Studio Ghibli film which was not directed by either Miyazaki or by Isao Takahata. Unfortunately, Konō died of an aneurysm after working as animation director on Princess Mononoke just a few years later, making Whisper of the Heart his only directorial work.
All of these films are masterful works of loving craftsmanship and passionate, engaging storytelling. If you can see only one of them, make it Totoro, but the best thing would be to see all of them.
My Neighbour Totoro plays Friday, February 15th @ 7:00, Sunday the 17th @ 1:30, and Monday the 18th @ 2:00
Porco Rosso plays Saturday the 16th @ 4:30, Monday the 18th @ 7:00, and Wednesday the 20th @ 7:00
Whisper of the Heart plays Saturday the 23rd @ 9:30, Sunday the 24th at 2:15, and Monday the 25th @ 7:00