Our spoiler-free review of Hayao Miyazaki’s first new film in five years comes with a sneak-peek look at the official movie programme.

Late last year, Japan’s national broadcaster NHK screened a documentary about Studio Ghibli’s co-founder and acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, revealing that he was working on his first film in five years, which would be an anime short screened exclusively at the Ghibli Museum in the Tokyo city of Mitaka.

Ever since the announcement, we’d been counting down the days until the movie’s first screening on 21 March, and after securing a ticket to one of the very first showings, it was time to head down to the museum’s in-house Saturn Theatre, the only place in the world where the much-hyped Kemushi no Boro, or Boro the Caterpillar, is being shown.

▼ Say hello to Boro the caterpillar.

Before viewing the film, we had a vague idea of what to expect, given all the media updates surrounding the new work in the lead-up to its release. Miyazaki himself, who’d been planning the story for almost 20 years, has described the short as “a story of a tiny, hairy caterpillar, so tiny that it may be easily squished between your fingers”, and just days ago it was revealed that famous Japanese comedian Tamori had lent his voice to the sound effects of the film.

Still, despite all this background information, nothing could’ve prepared us for what we saw – and heard – during the short anime’s 14-minute-20-second screening. Without giving away any major plot points or spoilers, there’s still a lot that can be said about this movie, particularly given that it’s an original screenplay, written and directed by the famously talented Miyazaki while he was meant to be retired from filmmaking.

So is Boro the Caterpillar set to be one of the best original shorts ever shown at the Ghibli Museum? Or will it end up being viewed as a self-indulgent post-retirement project that failed to hit the mark? Well, in our opinion, it might very well find itself slotting somewhere in between the two, and here’s why.

The film opens with Boro the Caterpillar hatching from an egg on a stalk of grass, surrounded by a new and unfamiliar environment, which he immediately sets out to explore. From the very beginning, the tone is strangely dark and unsettling, which works well to transport the audience into the 16-legged body of Boro, from where we can view the giant world through his tiny eyes, but at the same time, it’s a departure from many of the gentler, more child-friendly Ghibli shorts shown at the museum.

The first thing viewers are bound to notice, aside from the visuals, is the audio soundtrack. Miyazaki has been quoted as saying, “This film would not have been completed without Tamori-san”, and that’s entirely true, as his voice is used to bring sound to everything, from the titular caterpillar himself, to other flying insects, and even the sound of a girl’s squeaky tricycle.

To be honest, though, it’s an odd choice to use the voice of a 72-year-old male actor to bring life to the just-born baby character of Boro, and it’s even more peculiar to have this one actor create sounds, at a similar low pitch, for all the characters that appear in the movie. This makes it difficult for the viewers to distinguish Boro’s noises, and therefore connect to his emotional responses, in amongst all the other insects when they’re pictured together onscreen.

What’s even more surprising is the absence of any range in volume level; whether an insect is pictured close-up or buzzing further away in the distance makes no difference to its volume. While some might argue that this one-dimensional sound is due to the lack of a high-quality stereo system in the theatre – and it must be, because this is the work of an acclaimed animation studio and not an amateur college project – others might say that a different approach, perhaps with more range in volume and tone, would make it easier for audiences to get a feel for the different insect characters and add to the overall enjoyment of the film.

Miyazaki’s 2013 feature-length anime, The Wind Rises, was well-known for featuring mouth-made sound effects, but this short film takes this concept to a whole other level entirely. There’s very little range in tone here, and little effort made towards achieving any sense of realism. Whether he’s voicing the baby character of Boro, the caterpillar’s older senpai senior figures, or even a passing bumblebee, Tamori’s deep voice is neither light nor feminine, which means that all the insects in the film appear to be male.

Still, Tamori does an admirable job of making insects sound more like vehicles, jackhammers, and passing traffic rather than real insects, which makes us consider our own lives and the noisy environments we live in, and one of his best performances comes with the appearance of a hunting wasp, which Miyazaki has drawn to appear like an “aircraft on a battlefield”.

What the audio lacks in variety, the visuals make up for in spades, with beautifully drawn scenes capturing the moment Boro gets his first taste of “air jelly”, comes into contact with the sun’s rays, and munches on deliciously green nutrient-rich leaves.

Miyazaki has always been a masterful visual storyteller, needing nothing more than an image to evoke a mood, with even the tiniest of movements helping to convey an emotion. If you’ve ever seen Miyazaki’s 2006 short Mizugumo Monmon (The Water Spider) at the Ghibli Museum, you’ll see some common similarities in Boro the Caterpillar, both in imagery and storyline.

Water spiders and caterpillars are both tiny beings in large and often frightening environments, yet nothing in life remains constant, and both characters go on a journey of self-discovery, where they learn to adapt to new worlds and experiences. In this sense, Boro is a metaphor for our own lives, as seen through the eyes of a caterpillar, only without the pleasant sound effects and majestic soundtrack that featured in The Water Spider.

In fact, in Boro, even the incidental noises made by natural movements – like caterpillars pooping, which takes up a good portion of screentime – are all silent. This absence of real-world noise throughout the film, with cars, buses, and even the footsteps of humans left silent as Boro makes his journey through life, is a puzzling, pared-back move you’d expect to encounter in an arthouse film by an avante-garde director.

Watching the movie turns out to be like viewing the world from an inch below water, where you can see things going on around you, but all you can hear is your own voice in your head.

Is Miyazaki trying to tell us that caterpillars are hard of hearing? Or that we need to listen harder to the subtle noises in the natural environment around us? It’s an interesting and thought-provoking approach to filmmaking, and one which could probably only have been made by Miyazaki at this point in his career, when he has nothing to prove to anyone and can make stylistic choices that his producer friend Toshio Suzuki would have resisted years ago. After all, it was Suzuki who advised Miyazaki to put Boro on the backburner and go ahead with Princess Mononoke instead, when Miyazaki first pitched the film to him 20 years ago.

While viewers will be divided over Boro’s soundtrack, there’s no denying that Miyazaki has achieved what he set out to achieve with this new film. By viewing the world through the eyes of a tiny caterpillar with the use of stunning visuals, we are encouraged to re-evaluate our own lives and the way we live them.

While the soundtrack might be less grandiose than those of his other movies, by reminding us of the natural world around us, and the characters that live within it, Miyazaki’s legacy of promoting an environmentally aware lifestyle has never been louder or clearer. Sure, it’s a self-indulgent project that ties up unfinished business from the start of his career, but at the same time, it’s pretty wonderful in its unique style too.

Photos ©2018 Studio Ghibli © SoraNews24