One music video, two languages

Japanese Version ("On Your Mark"):



English Version ("Castles in the Air"):



These videos are both fairly "young", in terms of being pulled down for copyright violations, but the first was by the clearest version of "On Your Mark" I stumbled across, and the latter is the only video of "Castles in the Air" I could find. If one or both of those links dies, please let me know at antagonyecstasy@yahoo.com)

In 1995, during the first real lull in Miyazaki Hayao's filmmaking career since the beginning of the 1980s, he was approached by the pop duo Chage & Aska, who wanted him to make a music video. With nothing else to do at the moment, Miyazaki took the opportunity, and the result is one of the rarer oddments of his career, but a satisfying one anyway. "On Your Mark", a nifty little sci-fi fable, was released in theaters with Kondo Yoshifumi's Whisper of the Heart, Studio Ghibli's higher-profile project for the calendar year. At some point, a somewhat re-edited version the video was married to another Chage & Aska song, the English-language "Castles in the Air". It seems to be a matter of some debate which is the "intended version of the video, as there is apparently evidence that the "Castles" variant was actually screened for the public first; but I am not going to get into that, for whatever the film's merits as a music video, we're here to talk about Miyazaki, not Chage & Aska, and he was by all accounts given a free hand to make whatever story he damn well pleased without having to pay much attention to the lyrics.

The story- aye, but you just watched the video, didn't you? And maybe twice. Anyway, the story of two futuristic policemen (modeled after Chage & Aska) who find a mysterious angel girl and save her from the evil future fascists is pleasantly, cleanly expressed, with just a dash of non-linear content that serves to give some emotional heft to the scenario, such as when the girl's abduction by the men in white suits comes only after we've seen a vision of the girl and the policemen playing delightedly in the countryside.

He'd made masterpieces and great films aplenty before this, but I don't know that anything speaks as highly of Miyazaki's filmmaking skills as his ability to distill a story that could support a feature length project into six minutes and change, and to do it in pantomime. Certainly, it's a mark of his and his animators' talents that they could communicate so much emotion in such a few key images. Take this:

Even without the context of the story, it's tremendously easy to unpack what those two men are feeling, from their body language (including the way the man on the right is slumped)m to the details of their setting (one of them isn't eating, one of them is picking at his food, they haven't bothered to get out of their workclothes). You can either have two characters discussing, at great length, how they're going to save an abducted woman, or you can just show it in a shockingly tiny number of images that get us to the terrifying experimental lab where the plot continues.

(Incidentally, the lab, and the hints of nuclear devastation around it, were inspired by Miyazaki's thoughts on the Chernobyl disaster, though I detect some Future Boy Conan in there as well).

Of course, not all of the animation is bent to the service of the story: the video is positively rotten with shots of things flying, giving us yet another example of Miyazaki indulging in his favorite kind of imagery.


And then, there are the images that are pretty as hell, just for the sake of it - the privilege of any animator.

As much as the flying cars and girls prove "On Your Mark" a Miyazaki film, there's a certain sensibility to it that feels somehow alien to the rest of his body of work. Obviously, there's the thing where it's a dark, Blade Runner-inflected science fiction setting without even a hint of fantasy to it. I mean, I guess the angel girl is fantastic, but she doesn't feel "of magic" in the same way that Shita from Laputa: Castle in the Sky does, if you follow me.

I suppose what I mean to say is that there's a certain sleek violence to "On Your Mark" found nowhere else in Miyazaki, though it is certainly not unfamiliar to anime as a whole. You can't take the humanism out of a humanist, of course, and the story remains very tender and emotional, but in the shots of a truck outrunning an exploding elevated freeway, I for one think we're in the territory of a different kind of filmmaker than Miyazaki shows himself to be over and over again. This is not a bad thing; perhaps, freed from the expectations of making a feature, the director felt he could try something new and wildly different.

The most important development, though, has nothing to do with scenario or setting: the most historically important element of "On Your Mark" is something much subtler.

It's easier to notice in the video, where it's moving, but the city and some other details throughout make history as the first computer-generated images in Miyazaki's filmography; I believe indeed that it was the first time Studio Ghibli attempted CGI. The degree to which it works is up to the individual, but I have here the same problem that I had with all of Disney's attempts to fuse traditional and computer-generated animation, or any other time it has been done: the textures are too jarring, and the cels float awkwardly above the CGI backgrounds - made even worse because unlike Disney, Ghibli's cels were hand-inked.

Still, it's an important jump forward, that gave Miyazaki a number of new possibilities to explore, and his very next feature would take no small advantage of this technological leap. But that is not to relegate "On Your Mark" to the status of a tech demo: the director tried hard and succeeded at making a genuinely interesting, moving little story, and there is not a single moment that feels like it was crafted with anything but the greatest care and sincerity.