Review-Baiting and Hayao Miyazaki

Let’s talk review-baiting.


I’m not one to normally criticize a reviewer; after all, entertainment is subjective, so you’ll always have differing takes on it. It’s like the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Regardless, I can’t always keep my mouth shut, and, in this case, it involves Hayao Miyazaki again. As if I’m not predictable enough!

Anyway, review-baiting. There’s this critic named David Nusair. He has a site called Reel Film Reviews. The idea behind it is to take a popular movie and review it in one paragraph, complete with a thesis, an image to match and a score out of 4 stars. This, theoretically, is brilliant, as few people have the time or energy to read a long-winded review.

The problem is that some of his reviews aren’t even that well-written, coming off as pretty whining. I don’t mean that in the Armond White kind of way, but more in a “why do people like this again?” kind of way. It feels like Nusair’s so fixated on standing out that he, perhaps indirectly, comes off as shallow. And nowhere is this more apparent than his on-going reviews of Hayao Miyazaki’s films.

I’ll be upfront: I’m not mad at Nusair because he doesn’t like Miyazaki’s movies. As I’ve said before, one of our staff writers on Infinite Rainy Day doesn’t either. Rather, I’m annoyed because of how he expresses his disdain. Execution, not concept, is the problem.

We’ll take a look at a few reviews to better understand where Mr. Nusair is coming from:



"Kiki's Delivery Service (December 2/15)
As tends to be the case with Hayao Miyazaki's films, Kiki's Delivery Service boasts a striking visual sensibility that is, unfortunately, slowly-but-surely rendered moot by an uneventful, deliberately-paced narrative. The storyline follows a young witch named Kiki as she leaves her home and travels to the big city to complete her training, with the character's subsequent efforts at opening a flying delivery service hindered by a number of complications (including an item that goes missing and a pie that's still uncooked). It's clear right from the outset that Miyazaki isn't in any hurry to tell this admittedly simple tale, as Kiki's Delivery Service unfolds at a clip best described as lackadaisical - with the episodic structure and absence of interesting periphery characters effectively perpetuating the all-too-subdued atmosphere. The viewer's efforts at embracing the material are, as a result, thwarted at every turn, and there's little doubt that the hands-off vibe grows more and more insistent as time slowly progresses. It's too bad, really, given that Kiki's Delivery Service possesses as bright and vibrant an animation style as one might've anticipated, while the narrative admittedly does contain a very small handful of unexpectedly engrossing sequences. (The best and most obvious example of the latter is the action-packed climax, which is far more exciting and entertaining than anything preceding it.) The film's status as a top-tier animated endeavor is baffling, to say the least, and it's ultimately difficult not to wonder what its ardent followers have embraced so passionately over the years.

2 stars out of 4 stars”
The obvious first: this is a single paragraph. And it’s a little taxing. I understand that academic paragraphs are however long you need, hence why scholarly books drag theirs’ out, but it’s not practical. A paragraph shouldn’t be intimidating, especially when reaching a large audience. My advice is to stick with 5-8 sentences, as that’s reasonable to get an idea across.

Anyway, Mr. Nusair’s argument is clear: Kiki’s Delivery Service isn’t in a hurry to tell its potentially interesting story. Instead, it trots along lackadaisically. Isn’t that the point? The movie has a premise, true, and a general arc, but it’s not supposed to be grand. It’s a slice-of-life story, one of those films that’s about the life of Kiki as a witch in training. Those moments Nusair mentions, the incident with the pie and the missing statue, are part of that.

I’m not one to usually state this, especially since Nusair’s entitled to his opinion, but I think he missed the point of the film. Kiki’s Delivery Service, like My Neighbor Totoro, embodies the specialness of everyday life. It’s not supposed to be a big story, that’s what Princess Mononoke is for. To demand that from Kiki’s Delivery Service is like demanding a liver steak not be mushy and soft: what were you expecting?

This kind of obnoxiousness that annoys me. If Nusair wanted a grand story and didn’t get one, whose fault is that: his, or the film’s? I know I’m not exactly guiltless in demanding something that wasn’t there, I was disappointed in The Wolf of Wall Street for not saying anything compelling, but I won’t demand that a movie about a witch delivering parcels be an epic. (It doesn’t need to be!)

As for the statement about not getting why people call the film top-tier, who said anyone was calling the film top-tier? I don’t consider it Miyazaki’s best, not even close! It’s a simple, fun movie. Insinuating otherwise is putting words in people’s mouths, and while some people consider it their favourite, it’s not “top-tier”.

Of course, there’s the issue of Kiki’s Delivery Service losing its “coveted” 100% Fresh status on Rotten Tomatoes because of this review, something that’ll no doubt anger purists, but that’s the least of my worries.
“Howl's Moving Castle (June 9/05)
It seems clear that Howl's Moving Castle has been designed to appeal solely to animation buffs; it's hard to imagine neophytes to the genre or even kids getting much out of this impenetrable film. The movie features a lack of compelling characters along with an expectedly baffling storyline, ensuring that only the most die-hard fans of director Hayao Miyazaki will find something here worth embracing. Set in some kind of an alternate reality where witches and warlocks are commonplace, Howl's Moving Castle follows a young girl named Sophie who finds herself magically transformed into an old lady by an ill-tempered hag, and her only hope lies with a socially-inept warlock. There's no denying that Howl's Moving Castle is quite impressive in terms of its visuals, but there's nothing here to keep the viewer engaged; Miyazaki himself has admitted that the plot makes no sense, while the scarcely-developed characters aren't even remotely interesting. The film is completely lacking in momentum, a problem that only gets worse as it progresses (that the storyline becomes increasingly esoteric and hard-to-follow certainly doesn't help matters). Adding insult to injury is the dubbed soundtrack that Disney has attached to the movie for its North American release; this sort of thing is no longer acceptable for so-called "adult" movies (eg Hero, House of Flying Daggers), so why is it okay for an animated flick?

1.5 stars out of 4 stars”
I’m not too fond of Howl’s Moving Castle relative to other Miyazaki fans, and yet I find parts of this review annoying. The biggest one is the claim that only die-hards will get anything from this movie. Howl’s Moving Castle isn’t underrated. It holds an 87% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 80 on Meteoritic and an 8.2/10 on IMDb, the latter putting it on the IMDb Top 250 list. That’s more than enough of a counter-case to Nusair’s claim that no one will appreciate the film.

Even outside of that, I hate it when people arrogantly claim that a dense and highly-acclaimed film can’t be appreciated. Stanley Kubrick made films like that all through his career, and he’s considered one of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Christopher Nolan makes films like that, yet the masses love him. Even Hayao Miyazaki pulled that off with Princess Mononoke, and it’s considered one of his best.

As for the critique of the film? I have no problem with that. I’d be a hypocrite if I called him out, as I’ve criticized its problems on three separate occasions. Nevertheless, Nusair’s comment on the dub track is worrisome. He doesn’t state why it’s problematic, he merely states that it’s problematic and calls out people’s double standards. This angers me. It reeks of the nonsense that permeates the anime community, as dubbing isn’t inherently evil. Disney took their time to provide a good translation, ignoring that is a slap in the face.

I’m not even sure where the “double-standard” exists: in the quality script? In the talented actors and actress giving strong reads? In the end result that, personally, clarifies some of the plot-holes? In the fact that this was picked up and translated at all? What’s the problem here?

One more example:
“Castle in the Sky (August 4/15)
An unexpectedly thrilling adventure from Hayao Miyazaki, Castle in the Sky follows a pair of scrappy adolescents, Pazu and Sheeta, as they're thrust into a rip-roaring escapade involving pirates, secret agents, and, of course, the title locale. Miyazaki, working from his own screenplay, does a fantastic job of immediately grabbing the viewer's interest, as Castle in the Sky opens with an impressively engrossing action sequence set aboard an enormous airship - with the pre-credits set piece setting a fast-paced, Indiana Jones-like tone that proves impossible to resist. (Well, fast-paced by Miyazaki's otherwise excessively, interminably deliberate standards, anyway.) The typically overlong running time isn't, as a result, as problematic as one might've feared, as Miyazaki effectively peppers the proceedings with one exhilarating scene after another - including a fantastic bit involving an oversized robot. (It's worth noting, too, that the movie fares quite well in its smaller, quieter sequences, with the vivid characters, both good and bad, perpetuating the persistently watchable atmosphere.) And although the 124 minute running time begins to wear on the viewer past a certain point, Castle in the Sky's energetic climactic stretch ensures that the film ends on a palpably high note - which confirms the movie's place as a better-than-average effort from Miyazaki. (This is, after all, one of his few works that matches his always-gorgeous visuals with a compelling story and interesting characters.)

3 stars out of 4 stars”
This is the sole movie of Miyazaki’s that Nusair likes. Still, I can’t help but think he’s looking down, once again, on those who like these films. I mean, “unexpectedly thrilling?” “interminably deliberate?” “better-than-average effort?” Did Nusair expect to hate this film, yet was disappointed he liked it? “Okay Miyazaki, you win this time!” *Twirls villainous moustache*

But seriously, for as much as I’m pleased that he liked Castle in the Sky, even his praise is insulting. Hayao Miyazaki didn’t earn his reputation by being “better-than-average”. Any chump with basic competency can be “better-than-average”, that doesn’t automatically make them special. Hayao Miyazaki earned his reputation by pushing the envelope, such that even his critics acknowledge his talent regardless of whether or not they like him. Calling Miyazaki merely “better-than-average” implies that people blindly praise him, and that’s something I wouldn’t expect to hear from a professional.

Essentially, I’m disappointed.

To reiterate, I’m not criticizing David Nusair because he attacked one of my favourite directors. I’d be perfectly content if he acknowledged that he’s not for him. But Nusair doesn’t have the common-courtesy for that, instead coming off as a grouch who feels like he’s the only sane one. That’s why, even if I don’t mind him giving some of my favourite movies bad reviews, I think so lowly of him.

Still, at least he’s watching these movies, instead of downplaying them as “children’s fare” like someone else, so I should be grateful. And who knows? Perhaps I’m being paranoid? You be the judge.

Comments

  1. The reviewer has been reviewed! You make quite a few excellent points, but I do have to take exception to your claim that I'm "looking down on those who like these films." Miyazaki, and most anime, isn't for me, I'll admit it, but I have no issue with people who love his work.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my site.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. My apologies. I guess I was just a little annoyed and thought you were being unfair. Still, thanks for taking the time to read this...

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