I spent the past month reflecting on my own mortality and the fact that several of my favorite current writers aren’t actually that much older than me. It was sobering to reflect upon, especially on the eve of my twenty-ninth birthday. What am I doing with my life? How would I like to be remembered? Can I become one of them? Hard questions.
Apart from that, having (almost) finished the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot, I spent November obsessively reading the Poirot novels. Towards the end of the month I spent a few days watching (almost) all the Studio Ghibli films. Here’s what I found.
I read Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Murder in Mesopotamia, Hickory Dickory Dock, Hallowe’en Party, The Murder on the Links, Death in the Clouds, Lord Edgware Dies, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Sad Cypress, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The ABC Murders, Third Girl, and the first half of Cat Among the Pigeons. For the most part, the books were as good as their adaptations; when I watched a bad episode, I found that the problem was usually in the source material. As such, my favorite books in the series tend to also be my favorite episodes. (I’m currently watching them all over and making a ranked list, which I’ll post in a few days).
I started reading the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet, which is one of the most highly acclaimed series of the decade. The four books tell the story of two girls growing up in Italy, and follow them throughout their lives. They’re solidly written, packed with details and filled with illuminating psychological digressions.
Two other series I began reading are more juvenile, but still thoroughly entertaining: the Red Blazer Girls and The Penderwicks. Of these, The Penderwicks is the better of the two. It’s the best book series for young adults I’ve read in several years (the first book won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature in 2005). The story is comical but realistic, following the adventures of a family of four girls during four succeeding years. The author, Jeanne Birdsall, is extraordinarily inventive and has a knack for finding just the right character details. “Rosalind had never cared about plants,” she writes at one point. “She had wanted to for her father’s sake, but in her secret heart, a plant was just one more thing that needed feeding and coddling.” If J. K. Rowling is the modern heir to Lewis and Tolkien, then Birdsall is our Edith Nesbit.
I spent a quiet and increasingly paranoid Friday watching Amazon’s new series The Man in the High Castle, which is narratively frustrating but impressive in the scope of its worldbuilding. Rufus Sewell (as a high-ranking American Nazi named John Smith) delights as always. ***1/2 stars.
The Castle of Cagliostro: Miyazaki’s first full-length feature film (1979) owes an obvious debt to the classic 1937 swashbuckler The Prisoner of Zenda. However, the profusion of clichéd tropes and cartoonish nature of the story kept me from total enjoyment. *** stars.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky: I hadn’t seen this movie since 2005 and was not prepared for how good it is. There are very few stories that are structurally perfect. The Matrix is one, and this is another. It deserves to be more widely seen. The two leads are scrappy but endearing, and the villainous commander (voiced by Mark Hamill in the English dub) is the most odious creature Miyazaki has fashioned. **** stars.
Grave of the Fireflies: Across a bomb-blasted wasteland, a child wanders. He forages for food. Sickness gnaws him. Starvation dessicates him. Death takes him. *** stars.
My Neighbor Totoro: What can you really say about this movie? It’s delightful. ***1/2 stars.
Porco Rosso: Michael Keaton voices a Han Solo-esque fighter pilot in the years between the world wars. Years ago, in a manner that is left somewhat vague, this pilot was transformed into a man-pig. Yet all the women love him, and all the men want to be him. This is actually a fairly subtle character study and one of the best depictions of mimetic rivalry ever captured on film. ***1/2
Pom Poko: I wasn’t expecting much going into this movie, but I’ll be honest: this is the best animated movie I’ve ever seen about raccoon dogs with shapeshifting testicles. When developers threaten their land, the raccoons seize the occasion of a fox wedding to shower a human city with terrifying illusions straight out of Jung’s nightmares. With its voiceover narration, intricate plot and sporadic outbursts of violence, Pom Poko occasionally obtains the feel of a Martin Scorsese film. ***1/2
Whisper of the Heart: Of course I was always going to fall in love with this movie. It’s about a young woman who discovers she has a passion for writing novels that prominently feature cats. I mean, come on. But it’s also a powerfully earnest movie about the nature of art and craftsmanship in the vein of Pixar’s Ratatouille (my favorite Pixar film). Plus, it introduces one of Studio Ghibli’s best characters, a tophat-and-monocle wearing CAT BARON named Baron Humbert von Gikkingen. ****
The Cat Returns: A followup to Whisper of the Heart that portrays the events of the novel written by the main character of that movie (the Cat Baron, who only appeared in dream sequences in the previous film, is a major character here). The Cat Returns bears the same relationship to Whisper of the Heart that Carry On does to Fangirl, yet the plot of this film recalls the wonderlands imagined by Lewis Carroll and G. K. Chesterton. It is also, easily, Studio Ghibli’s funniest movie. *** stars.
Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea: Miyazaki’s own variation on The Little Mermaid is at once more precious and more visually sumptuous than the Disney version. Critics angsted because Ponyo is more kid-friendly than some of Miyazaki’s previous endeavors, but there’s nothing here to inhibit adult enjoyment. ***1/2
The Secret World of Arrietty: A loose adaptation of The Borrowers, about small people living in the inner recesses of a normal-sized human home. Seldom has Studio Ghibli so fully succeeded in making the everyday world seem magical. Yet the plot, involving a doomed relationship between two mismatched people, one of whom might be dying, seems like a rehash of earlier Ghibli films. ***1/2
From Up on Poppy Hill: A story of teens growing up in Japan during the 1960s, trying to save an old clubhouse from destruction and angsting because they’re in love but they might be siblings. Disney allegedly tried unsuccessfully to keep this movie from being released in America because of the incest subplot. But it works beautifully as a period piece and coming-of-age film. ***1/2
The Wind Rises: This biopic about a real-life designer of aircraft is supposed to be Miyazaki’s last. Disappointly, it’s not among his best. The pacing is sluggish and laconic, and there’s little to keep the viewer invested in the characters. ***
The Tale of Princess Kaguya: This fairy-tale told in watercolors, about a princess from the moon who appears as a baby to a couple of peasants in a bamboo forest, is visually splendid though occasionally hard to follow. By the end, the story has become a powerful metaphor for the heartbreak of parenting. ***1/2
When Marnie Was There: Ostensibly Studio Ghibli’s last movie, this is the story of a girl sent by her parents to spend a few months in the country who discovers lights shining from an abandoned building on the other side of the marsh. There she meets a beautiful young woman, Marnie, who may or may not be a ghost. This movie is sturdily built on classic tropes and features some of the studio’s finest artwork. Breathtaking. If it really is their last film, it was a strong note to end on. ****
What about you? What did you see, read and hear this month?