I am by no means a huge fan of the works of Miyazaki Hayao, but I do respect that he’s a master of his craft, and has contributed significantly to Japanese animation. As such, I do make a point to see what he puts out into the world, and own a handful of his works. The man is known for claiming to retire multiple times, only to come crawling back and start on something new. However, at 82 years old, Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru Ka (How Do You Live) may actually be his final filmYes, I know he ran back to the studio immediately after the film was released with more ideas, but still–the dude is old and could croak at any moment. So, of course I had to go see it.
During World War II, a young boy from the city named Mahito tragically loses his mother in a fire. Mahito comes from a well-off family, with his father running a factory supporting the war effort. As the war escalates, they move out into an estate in the countryside owned by Mahito’s auntSpecifically, his mother’s younger sister.–who his father has conveniently re-married. And to top it all off, she’s pregnant. While Mahito doesn’t take too well to his new complicated family arrangement, what really irks him is a talking heron that eggs him on at every turn, trying to get him to enter a tower on the estate. The heron claims that Mahito’s mother is still alive in the tower, and that he should save her. While initially hesitant, one day Mahito sees his aunt enter the tower. He decides to follow her in, and is transported into an alternate world.
Right off the bat, it is my duty to state that this isn’t the greatest film to watch coming right off of work, and with a few Strong Zeros in you–because that’s how I watched it. Between being quite tired and filled with booze, I can’t say I was super engaged the whole way through. But I have seen other films in a similar state and have enjoyed them immensely, so I must place some of the blame on the film itself. To put it bluntly, Kimitachi doesn’t make much effort to keep one interested. The story itself feels quite run-of-the-mill, and is something of a remix of previous Miyazaki endeavors. It also feels very meandering without much in the way of build-up or climax. However, despite these rather big flaws, the elements that make the film compelling to me on a first watch are its presentation and the themes it touches upon.
Being a Ghibli work headed up by Miyazaki, it’s no surprise that the film looks excellent. The first actNot sure how many “acts” there are in this film, but it does break off quite distinctly after the opening segment. particularly stands out due to its more realistic aesthetic. This look is mostly achieved through the simple application of a more muted color scheme, but it does stretch some stronger artistic muscles as well. Of note, the beginning of the film has Mahito running to try and save his mother from the burning building she’s trapped in. Crowds of people melt into spikey figures as Mahito makes his way through the city, and each step he takes looks like the heaviest step ever, working well to rub the trauma of this poor boy in our faces. Outside of the scenes set in the real world, the rest of the film is quite firmly in the Ghibli aesthetic. It has all their hallmarks of great and expressive character animation, featuring both realistic acting and the exaggerated morphing of character drawings that we’ve come to expect out of Ghibli.
What impressed me the most were the backgrounds, though. It goes without saying that any Ghibli film has great artistic talent behind the various in-film environments, but the period accuracy and convincing depth of the film’s real world mesmerized me, especially now that I have started enjoying more older Japanese films. Be it wallpaper, pieces of furniture, or all the incidental bits and bobs laying around, the Showa-era interiors are rendered in great detail, depicted with rich colors and deep shadows that place us firmly in the time and place. As we get into fantasy land, the film showcases the sorts of majestic Ghibli landscapes we have become used to. However, there is also a liminal natureYes, liminal in The Backrooms sense. to a lot of the fantasy locales. While Ghibli works generally feel dreamy, the environments in Kimitachi are dreamy, while also being slightly uncomfortable and empty–which I enjoy.
Rounding things off in the aesthetics department, Kimitachi delivers another iconic Ghibli soundtrack. I haven’t heard Hisaishi Joe’s work in a while, but this film reminded me of how good he is. Kimitachi can be very visually quiet between Mahito’s muted expressions and the relatively sparse fantasy backgrounds, and Hisaishi crafts a hauntingly beautiful and minimalist soundtrack to match. Among the Miyazaki films that I’ve seen, I remember the music from Sen to Chihiro no KamikakushiSorry, I know everyone knows it by the English name of Spirited Away but I gotta keep the style on here consistent… very well, and the music used in this film certainly feels like a more mature iteration.
Looking beyond aesthetics, what ultimately struck me about Kimitachi were the overall themes of life, how to live life, and how life ends. These themes are addressed quite openly in the film, with the fantasy world allowing Mahito to meet people he knows at different stages of their lives. What makes it poignant is how clearly one can see Miyazaki looking back on his own life, and the people he knew. To lay it on even thicker–and without spoiling too much–the inclusion of an elderly man among these characters almost feels like a self-insert. Even back in the real world of World War II Japan, the scenery feels like real places Miyazaki would have seen and interacted with as a childGiven when he was born, his earliest memory is likely Japan surrendering at the end of the Pacific War.. The mix of all these elements makes it clear that Miyazaki is grappling with being in the twilight of his life.
Since moving to Japan in 2011, I have only been around to experience two Miyazaki films new in theaters–Kaze Tachinu, and this one. Of these two films, I do like Kaze Tachinu better due its grounded subject matter and primary focus on adult characters. However, given this film could very well be the final work from one of the masters of anime, I think Kimitachi wa Dō Ikiru Ka is not to be missed. While it does feel like it’s treading old ground, its tone, approach and messages have distinct weight to them–a weight that could only come from its veteran creator. Even if Miyazaki does have another film up his sleeve, this feels like a fine one for him to end his career on.