About 25-30 years ago, Studio Ghibli, which I can only assume was created so that the animators could make the movies they wanted to make, started to create things that were outside the traditional material for animated films. What Bakshi did by animating his unique brand of anarchy and raunch, Ghibli did by animating deeply emotional and literal stories—i.e., stories that could’ve been just as well shot as live action.
And usually featuring women or girls in the main roles, which is something I realized watching this. Of Ghibli’s 21 films, 14* feature female leads. Three (Porco Rosso, Pom Poco and The Cat Returns) feature animals as the main characters. Of the remaining four, one features a vignettes of a family (My Neighbors the Yamadas), and the remaining three (the aberrative Tales from Earthsea, the historical The Wind Rises, and the brother-sister team of Grave of the Fireflies) feature male leads.
But you don’t hear me whining that Ghibli is sexist. Because I have a real job.
Anyway, what we have here is a movie made over 25 years ago that never got released in the USA. And as I’m watching it, I’m thinking, “I can see why this never got released.”
Not that it’s not good. It’s very good.
It’s a sweet, romantic memoir of a 27-year-old Japanese unmarried woman (an “old maid” in the parlance of the day) who goes out to visit the farm of her in-laws (by sister’s marriage) every year as an escape from her boring city life. And as she does her farm work, she reflects on her childhood, in particular when she turned eleven and all the things that occurred that year that have stayed with her her whole life. We basically get these vignettes of the past as she tells them to us (and others) as she contemplates the ennui of her current life.
The movie is a reflection of the ’60s as told from the ’80s (the source manga is about ten years older than the movie), and that means there’s a lot of stuff in there you don’t see in modern kidflicks. Like corporal punishment and smoking. So much smoking. OK, there’s actually not a lot of this kind of stuff. But it’s not really a kidflick, either.
One of the vignettes is entirely about the onset of menses. This is a great vignette, and really appropriate for pretty young kids—I mean, it’s Judy Blume stuff, if Judy Blume weren’t icky—but you just don’t see this sort of thing in American cartoons. Or cartoons from anywhere but Japan, as far as I know. It’s kind of astounding that it got a release at all. But I guess if you’re John Lasseter and you’ve given Disney Frozen and Zootopia, you can do whatever you want.
The dub is amazing. I mean, at points, it looks like the characters were animated to speak in English originally. The lead is done by Daisy Ridley (of The Force Awakens), and the recently very hot Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) provides the love interest. Voice greats Grey Griffin and Tara Strong have parts, too, so that’s cool.
In sum, we have a low-key, mature, contemplative film of the sort you don’t get from any other studio but Ghibli. Maybe don’t take your five-year-old to see it (though there were some young kids in our showing who seemed to like it okay) but go see it yourself. You can even take a date!
*Though, in fairness, Princess Mononoke arguably isn’t the lead character in the movie of that name.