Caught this at TIFF (along with Letter to Momo).
This is quite an interesting film, in that there's a lot more going on here than many critics would seem to believe. I disagree with the idea that this is a simple story, as a matter of fact, there's actually about 3 narratives going on at the same time here, and they get quite tangled up with each other. Just because the setting is localized and it doesn't involve World Changing Events, doesn't mean this isn't still fairly complex in its own localized world. As with Earthsea, Goro's focus sometimes wavers--he'll pick up a narrative thread, drop it, and them move on to another thread seemingly at random.
But it works for this film. You get the sense of a real world going on outside of the two leads, and so the other narratives sort of grow organically out of the world building. Many of the "extras" are distinct individuals and you sort of get the sense that while they provide support for the leads as plot devices at times, they have their own lives, feelings and instincts too.
It's also a fairly bold film.
As Umi and Shun grapple with the seeming revelation that they are brother and sister, there's a scene before the Oh So They're Not Related After All So It's All Good discovery, where Umi says that she loves him, and won't apologize for it, even if they're related. And it's very clear she doesn't mean love "as a brother." And I could hear the whole theatre shuffle in their seats. It was a great moment, and a point where I felt that Ghibli suddenly was in uncharted territory. Naturally, everything works out in the end, but the point is, she made it quite clear she would be willing to tread taboo territory--much like Dixon Steele in A Lonely Place, it doesn't matter that she didn't do it, the point is the *intent* was there and she WOULD have done it.
But what makes it work is that it's truthful and consistent. When Umi first discovers that Shun MAY be her brother, she doesn't act like a typical Ghibli heroine and go spazzing out. She smiles awkwardly and says, "What should we do?" The audience laughed at that, but the funny thing is that line planted the seeds for the later scene. In fact, one of the admirable things about this film is that Umi and Shun are two intelligent, nuanced leads who have an idea of what they want, without making speeches about it. It may even be said that in terms of behaviour, they're the most mature leads in a Ghibli film since Taeko in Only Yesterday.
Also interesting were some of the reactions by critics and audiences to the film. There were of course the usual "why wasn't this live actioned" people, which we can safely ignore. But more interesting were those, presumably weaned on Fantasy Ghibli, who said they expected "bigger" set pieces and more "imagination". And I think this kind of attitude is exactly the reason why animation has a hard time being taken more seriously. If a cartoon doesn't fit the mold of a BIG and EPIC "cartoony" film, then they're disappointed. Epic. God, I'm beginning to get tired of that word.
There's also the usual bristling against girly, romantically-inclined films. As if more "girly" films are somehow always at a lower level than even films about men who dress up in tights to punch out bad guys.
Don't get me wrong, this film does have its flaws. Miyazaki's tendency to get distracted remains true here, but this film was tailor made to compensate for that tendency. I think if the three narratives were tightened up a bit more to connect more seamlessly, then it would have been an excellent film.
As it stands, I think it's better than Ocean Waves, The Cat Returns, and Howl's Moving Castle. On the whole, I think it's close to ranking near the middle of Ghibli's output. And I liked it better than Mamoru Hosoda's two films thus far, to be honest. An encouraging sophomore effort.