ONE, TWO, THREE STUDIO GHIBLI BLU-RAYS! @ 1 June 2012 04:21 PM
There are certain types of films that provide a good excuse to buy them on Blu-ray. Maybe not something like Paul Blart, Mall Cop (though it is available), but spectacles of scope, color and detail.

Animated features by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki fit this category. As new features are released, you can see them on Blu-ray, and eventually the previous releases will surely be available too.

Three have just been released: one brand new feature, The Secret World of Arriety; a lesser known Studio Ghibli release, Whisper of the Heart; and one renowned Miyazaki landmark, Castle in the Sky. All three are introduced by Disney and Pixar creative chief John Lasseter, perhaps Miyazaki's biggest fan and artistic disciple.

Fans of Pixar who haven't discovered these films should take note of their emphasis on character and story, as well as a flair for visual stylization and detail.



1986's award-winning Castle in the Sky, also known as Laputa, is the most epic of the three and follows most closely the Miyazaki themes of environmental protection, loyalty, gadgetry in a period setting, mythology and brave young protagonists who partner with older characters.

Cloris Leachman steals the film as the voice of Dola, a sort of "Popeye meets Wirchiepoo," who, to quote the movie Network, is "crusty but benign." The young characters follow an arc of confidence and courage and, as in all three films, virtually every scene is a masterpiece of design and detail. (See my earlier DVD review here.)



Whisper of the Heart is somewhat of a departure for those used to the fantastic and bizarre nature of most Ghibli films. Written but not directed by Miyazaki, this is a coming of age story of middle school aged kids and puppy love set in modern day Tokyo.

The city setting is a character in itself. Even though there's no Wonderland-like surrealist environments in Whisper, the nooks and crannies of twisting and turning alleys, meandering streets and urban sprawl take on the feel of a wild labrynth. Urban grime and well-worn living space looks alternately cluttered and somehow breathtaking in their stylized complexity.

The story is, in effect, a variation on The Shop Around the Corner, or if you prefer, You've Got Mail, except in this case, the boy and girl are connected by books rather than letters. What's especially interesting for this and all the Disney/Ghibli releases, are how the English language scripts differ in tone from the Japanese.

Many purists insist on subtitled original language versions because they capture the original tone of the actors, while the English version actors, excellent as they are (outstanding, actually), cannot duplicate the performances exactly when they have a changed script and mouth movements to match. And since translations vary also, you really notice subtle differences if you watch both versions one after the other, as my family did.



The Secret World of Arriety, also adapted by Miyazaki, is the first feature-length animated version of Mary Norton's first book in The Borrowers series. I recall fondly the first version, a live videotaped adaptation for NBC in 1973 starring Eddie Albert and Tammy Grimes with music by Rod McKuen. It's quaint by today's standards, but it is still charming and can be found easily on budget DVDs.

Because I had read the book several times and seen the NBC show even more, the characters and settings were etched in my mind. This animated version, for the most part, adheres to the original.

There are only major changes. One in the more comical take on the housekeeper, named Haru in this version, with a spot-on voice performance by Carol Burnett (who also promoted the film in the media). Her ability to get the most out of a line, while still matching the mouth movements, reminds us of what a peerless master she is.

The other change is in the persona of Pod, Arriety's father -- who is a  plump, generally merry dandy in the book and in Eddie Albert's version -- becomes a rugged Clint Eastwood type. It's an interesting approach but an odd match for the unchanged mother character, Homily. It's as if Race Bannon married Miss Grundy.

A simple household, because of the size and scale of the small Borrowers, is as big as a city, and the artists make full use of it. On the Blu-ray, you can see every leaf yard and almost every molecule in the house.

The Secret World of Arriety is probably the most accessible of the Ghibli features, at least to the uninitiated, and especially recommended for first time viewers of the extraordinary artistry of Miyazaki and his fellow artists.

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