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勝手にしやがれ #6. Mighty Mice: Hayao Miyazaki's "Chuo-Zumo"

Possibly the most interesting feature of the Ghibli Museum, located in Mitaka, is its small movie theater. It’s here that audiences can discover new and unreleased shorts by Hayao Miyazaki. Having concluded a baroque trilogy that includes Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo on the Cliff, all elaborate fantasy pieces, Miyazaki returns to the charm, the wonder of other worlds waiting around the corner, that informed what are undoubtedly two of his greatest works, the seminal My Neighbor Totoro, and the elegant Whisper of the Heart, for which he co-wrote the screenplay.

Chu-Zumo is a period piece, in which an old farming couple live alone atop a mountain side. It’s been a very long time since Miyazaki shone a light on his own generation; there are no young heroines to be found here. Sophie’s grand old age in Howl, we may recall, resulted from a curse. This time around, the farmers are old, still robust, but their spines have begun to curve. Husband and wife never exchange a word, and days consist of planting and harvesting, a simple dinner, an early night.

As would be expected in the countryside, the old couple actually share the house with country mice, small, shy, prudent creatures with a clever look and a soft brown coat. One night, stirred in the midst of sleep, the husband finds his "flock" of mice heading for the forest, where he witnesses an unsuspected form of entertainment that will reawaken his life. The mice engage in bouts of sumo against the plump white "rikishi" mice of the fields, thrice their size, under the supervison of a strict frog referee draped in the attire of a gyoji, surrounded by five other shinpan frogs.

The house mice are defeated to the chagrin and resentment of the farmer, who shares the tale with his wife. Both agree that their modest home shall become a great house of sumo and proceed to serve a considerable feast to their wrestlers. The entire sequence consisting in the preparation of the meal and the noble manner in which it is consumed stands out as a return to form for Miyazaki as a return to a sensibility of earlier works, elaborate and stunning, hilarious and moving. It is as if the filmmaker wanted to provide some measure of dignity to a national sport marred by scandal in recent years.

The country mice, sporting brand new bellies, return to face their still more massive opponents, cheered on by the farmer and his wife. This time Miyazaki observes all the sumo rituals, throwing the pinch of salt in the ring to purify it, the reward given the winner by the referee, the mice spectators throwing their pillow seats at the end of a drawn out struggle. The clever smaller opponent, a reminder of the wonderful wresler Minoumi, wins the day, and the lot returns to celebrate, before going back to training, and back to the soil.

Studio Ghibli releaed Chu-Zumo the same year as its most recent feature, Arrietty, directed by Hiromisa Yonebayashi, a long-time animator, artist and Miyazaki collaborator, which highlighted the fact that although Ghibli is teeming with gifted craftsmen, there is only one Miyazaki. The disappointing box office results of Arrietty have again fueled discussion as to the great animation studio’s future.Ghibli has been slow and reluctant to let other animators from within take a stab at directing, let alone inviting someone from the outside to helm a project. Ghibli’s activities in the future might limit themselves to handling and managing its collection.

In the meantime, Isao Takahata continues to work on his long-awaited new feature, and Hayao Miyazaki has spoken of a new project. Chu-Zumo will not be screened abroad, but the great director, who has announced time and time again that he would be retiring, just made us very hungry for more.

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rado
The Ghibli Museum is simply the most important place to visit in Tokyo. Don’t miss it!
I don’t know if you’re pulling imaginary Japanese box office facts out of a hat but The Borrower Arrietty has made 110 million dollars at Japanese theaters so far (almost double Gedo Senki’s returns). Not nearly as much as a Miyazaki film makes but it’s the top-grossing Japanese-language movie this year (and doesn’t look like it’s going to get toppled). Only three other films have performed better so far this year: Avatar (although it was released late last year), Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3. Disappointing box office results? The facts seem to disagree. To be frank I have expected more from this particular regular feature on Mubi, but I’ve been disappointed greatly so far. I’d prefer reading from someone more deeply entrenched in Japanese film and media and more knowledgeable about the culture. Jasper Sharp, anyone?
I want to see this!
I visited the Ghibli Museum in June and was lucky to catch this. The short really reminded me of Goshu the Cellist, and early Takahata film. http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-986235200397452613# Both stories feature animal/human relationships in what are very simple surroundings with little to no backstory. The simplicity of the stories they both tell let the narratives really focus on the relationships and how they help/depend on one another. I guess in some ways they also slightly lean towards Miyazaki’s quite common themes of man and nature. Over-reading things aside, Chuo-Zumo was good fun and everyone in the theater really enjoyed it. Hopefully they’ll become available to buy at some point in the future. I could swear I saw a disc on Amazon once with a bunch of shorts on but I had a quick search and couldn’t find anything.
Every Studio Ghibli film since もののけ姫 has been top box office hit in Japan. By comparison Miyazaki grosses, Arrietty was disappointing. For box office numbers, Gedo was around 7billion yen, and Arrietty about 9billion. Not double in Japan. Film readers in Japan know Stephen Sarrazin as a French specialist of Japanese cinema and culture. I am discovering this column in english. Chu-Zumo is truly wonderful! Director Yonebayashi was in Paris very recently. The movie will play there next year.
I don’t know, Nami. Would you care to back that up with some sources and data? Mine come from Box Office Mojo, which seems to be pretty accurate when it comes to these things. Here are Gedo Senki’s returns: http://boxofficemojo.com/intl/japan/yearly/?yr=2006&p=.htm And here are The Borrower Arrietty’s returns: http://boxofficemojo.com/intl/japan/?yr=2010&wk=43&p=.htm Of course, I’d love to be proven wrong. As I mentioned above, not at all comparable to Miyazaki, but within the context of the Japanese box office? Isn’t Studio Ghibli being stupid if they expect the same reception as with Miyazaki films? Shouldn’t they know better? And although Stephen Sarrazin may be considered some kind of specialist, I have read critics who have a far better grasp and more insightful perspective when it comes to Japanese cinema. Tadao Sato, Shigehiko Hasumi, Olaf Moller, Jasper Sharp, Joan Mellen, Chuck Stephens, to name a few. Going by what has been posted here by Stephen Sarrazin, his writing is simply adequate, mediocre, superficial, and not exactly original.
Mine come from Japan, http://www.eiga-ranking.com/japan/yearly/domestic/ http://www.eiren.org/toukei/2006.html Don’t forget about significant exchange rate difference between 2006 and 2010… and for comments about critics and writers, I will say that I prefer to read French critics on Japanese cinema. Sato and Hasumi are Japan’s oldest and most well known specialists in foreign countries. For the others you mention, I think each country has its experts in their language, on cinema .We read those we like!
Well, I don’t know how to interpret the data I come across, but perhaps I am looking at worldwide grosses. Another site has similar figures to the ones I posted above: Arietty: http://www.the-numbers.com/interactive/newsStory.php?newsID=5477 Gedo Senki: http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/2006/0TFES.php But the site does mention Arietty crossing the 100 million mark in Japan, so we just might have a conflict of data sources. If we have to consider exchange rates and other economic factors, I’m afraid we’ll never come to a true comparison between the two movies.

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