There are six short films by Hayao Miyazaki that are almost impossible for Western anime fans to get to see. They've never been released in cinemas, on VHS or on DVD. Each of them is about fifteen minutes long, which means that they add up in total to the running length of an entire feature film, but the only way to see any of them is to buy a ticket to Japan, go to the Studio Ghibli museum near Tokyo and then watch whatever short film happens to be showing that month in their little 200-seat cinema.
They're worth the trip, by the way.
I'd actually been hoping to see Miyazaki's Totoro
mini-sequel, Mei and the Kittenbus, but I can't complain about getting this one. In case you're wondering why I'm being pretentious and not translating the title, by the way, that's because the distinction between "star" and "planet" is fuzzy in Japanese. A strict translation would be "The day I bought a planet", but "star" was what I told Dad before we watched it and I reckon that sounds more poetic and fitting. Wikipedia's stabbing at random words in translating the verb as "harvested", though.
Before I talk about the film, though, it's worth discussing the Ghibli museum for a bit. Miyazaki designed it so that exploring the building is like wandering through one of his films. You've got overgrown rooftop gardens that must be far more work to maintain than an ordinary garden would have been, stuff half-hidden in the undergrowth, doors tucked away behind other doors, wrought-iron spiral staircases and lots of cool stuff like that. It's also a college course in animation for children, in that it painstakingly gives working examples of every step of the animation process, going right back to its 19th century roots with recreations of Georges Melies's work and so on. You've got flip books and phenakistoscopes. It's fascinating in that it shows you how the magic's achieved and yet somehow this only makes it more magical.
The shop's surprising too. It has genuinely nice stuff, rather than the usual cash-in merchandise. I still regret not buying a cup and a plate for a total of fifty quid, if that gives you any idea. I'd have probably lingered until I'd bought them if only the shop had been a bit bigger and less crowded.
Anyway, museum = cool. Museum + film = a reason to visit Japan.
What's most distinctive about it, I think, is the world it creates. Miyazaki is better known for his fantasy than for his SF, but here he combines the two to create something rather wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the way it unfolds. At first it looks like another period film, with a boy pumping water from a well to irrigate his garden in the middle of nowhere. It could almost be any century, but then a lady drives up on a motorbike. You can't see its wheels and it's making an odd noise, but the penny hasn't dropped yet. We still think it's some kind of rural mountains backwater. It's only later when we meet Wind in the Willows characters re-enacting Jack and the Beanstalk with anti-gravity planet seeds that it becomes clear that we aren't in Kansas any more.
I thought it was merely post-apocalypse for a while, but it's more complicated and richer than that. I now think its nearest cousin might be Urusei Yatsura
, in the way that it's ostensibly SF and yet will happily veer off without warning into almost Alice in Wonderland territory. Look out for the cameo for the bouncing heads from Spirited Away
, for instance. (Or is that Howl's Moving Castle?) Paul Magrs should start planning his trip to Japan today.
Then there's the "hoshi" itself, which is unexpectedly hard SF and yet whimsical in the way it presents it. I found its micro-gravity charming, for instance.
The language might be a problem. It's in Japanese with no subtitles, but oddly enough the native speaker among us was also the one who enjoyed it least. Dad didn't have a clue what was being said, but was nonetheless enchanted. Tomoko was the only one whose Japanese skills were good enough to realise that there were great chunks of backstory floating like melting icebergs which the film was simply treating as irrelevant. The boy's looking for someone or something called (I think) Everaado. Everland, maybe? I'd need a rewatch (joke). Personally though I didn't mind this, since the film feels like a piece of something larger, suggesting an entire universe beyond the confines of its scant 16 minutes. As far as I'm concerned, that's a positive quality.
This isn't a film you watch for its plot. It's a gentle piece from a fantasist who's fallen in love with SF for sixteen minutes. It should be the kind of low-key piece that you'd expect to be crushed to death under the weight of any expectations whatsoever, but expectations can hardly get much heavier than "unknown Miyazaki you've travelled around the world to see" and I thought it was charming and lovely. Kudos to Miyazaki for not releasing these short films on DVD, by the way. He'd make another fortune by doing so of course, but you'd lose that sense of pilgrimage one gets in finally getting to see the damn thing.