Now here's a delight: a made-for-TV feature film from 1990, unlicensed officially outside of Japan until now, that plays like a forgotten earlier Studio Ghibli project. It isn't one, although it does employ a couple of Ghibli personnel — and its irrepressible heroine Ginga feels like a nod towards the plucky Ghibli girls we all know. But there's more to Like The Clouds, Like The Wind than nostalgia or cross-references; it's a fine project in its own right.
Calling all concubines!
Clouds/Wind adapts an award-winning fantasy novel from Kenichi Sakemi, Kōkyū Shōsetsu ("Inner Palace Harem Story", not available yet in English). Like Nahoko Uehashi's Moribito books, it's set in a land that amalgamates and synthesizes conceits from various Asian civilizations. Here, the main influence is imperial China: the last emperor has just died, and his harem of dozens of concubines is being disbanded and sent back to their respective provinces. The current prince is set to ascend to the throne, but the reigning Empress Dowager has the idea of assassinating and taking over.
To stave this off, the other court nobles arrange to put together a nation-wide competition for a new head concubine. They're in a rush, and so they cast their net as far and wide as they can. One of the commoners they dredge up is Ginga (her name means "Milky Way"), a commoner girl barely in her teens. She's got that mix of fearless, curious, and naïve that makes us root for her and drives everyone else around her nuts. To her, this sounds like the best meal ticket she could possibly imagine: all you have to do is eat, sleep, and wear fancy clothes! And off she rushes to the capitol to throw her hat (and the rest of herself) into the ring.
Competition at the capitol is stiff, as Ginga's in the running with dozens of other girls her age or older. This part of the story seems to be setting us up for a kind of comedy of errors, where Ginga's unfiltered attitude causes her to run afoul of the place-for-everything-and-everything-in-its-place eunuchs who run the palace. She considers everyone she meets to be a potential new best friend, but not everyone else returns the favor. And her roomies in the capitol, three other girls in the running for top concubine, are also a handful: one's a preening narcissist; another's an indifferent, pipe-smoking dozer; and the third is a soft-spoken beauty who slips out at random hours for inexplicable errands.
Intrigue in the castle; barbarians at the gates
All this comedic byplay, fun as it is, isn't the actual story, which is a little more ambitious and even deeper that it might first seem. Two of the ruffians that were hired to escort Ginga to the capitol, the temperate Kon and the rowdy Heisho (self-rechristened "Iryuda", because he thinks it sounds more impressive), were rewarded for their work with comfortable posts. But Heisho would rather have a short, fierce life than a long and boring one, and he enlists his lifelong friend in an all-or-nothing effort to raise a rebel army and take the capitol for himself.
On top of all this are a few other surprises. While being escorted into the inner chambers of the palace, Ginga encounters an effeminate an alluring figure named Koryūn. No prizes for guessing this is the prince himself, that he's been sneaking around under his mother's nose to try and avoid being killed by her, and that the mystery knife-wielding lady from Ginga's dorm is his sister. But what he lacks most is someone to confide in, and his surreptitious mixing with the girls — and, specifically Ginga — has been about trying to find who among them can be trusted.
The way Ginga reacts to all this sets up the entire second half of the film, and moves it from being frivolous to something special. Her reaction to most anything in life is boundless enthusiasm; nothing intimidates her. When assassins come gunning for Koryūn, she snatches up a brick and smashes one of them in the face. But the magnitude of what she's dealing with reaches her in time. She may be cheery and flighty, but at bottom she is not stupid, something that the sage who has been teaching her picks up on and nurtures in her. And when invading armies show up at the gates, and the dowager's assassins turn up even in the inner chambers of the palace, she takes matters into her own hands as best she can.
How the child is mother to the woman
Again, it's easy to see how Western fans mistook Clouds/Wind for a Ghibli project. Some of that was a simple misreading of a name, as the screenwriter was one Akira Miyazaki, no relation. But its character designer and animation director was Katsuya Kondō, a Ghibli alumnus who worked on many key titles in that company's catalog (Kiki's Delivery Service, Castle In The Sky, Ocean Waves), and so a distant-cousin-of-Ghibli flavor does hang over the whole project.
Where this flavor comes through most isn't the design work, but the general arc of the story. It gives us someone who at first we simply find amusing, and we want to see what she does next just for the sake of that alone. Then we come to care about her — just as she, too, becomes far more emotionally invested in what once to her seemed like nothing more than a lark or a way out of a dead-end life in the countryside. That leads to both triumph and tragedy — the former on her part, since she has the nerve to take matters into her own hands, and the latter on the part of another who elects to die with what he believes to be his rather than leave it behind to start something new.
A few things don't quite work. The way Ginga rounds up the other girls and creates an impromptu army veers between silly and serious, sometimes in the same shot. I get that too heavy a touch would have been oppressive, but the out-and-out slapstick in a moment involving a cannon and a tunnel is over the top. But those are quibbles, not show-stoppers. One thing that did stop me, at first, was how to regard the death of one major character in the right light. At first, it just felt selfish and misguided, both on the part of the character and the screenwriters. But then I saw it a little differently, as being a painful but necessary part of Ginga's arc. There had to come a point where this whole thing stopped being an adventure for her, and became instead part of the larger story of her life. Someone who goes from a cheery nobody to a queen of the realm — even if only for a day — doesn't make that leap without it costing them something.
Postscript: I admired how, like Perfect Blue, this film doesn't waste time. This being a TV production, it had to fit into a two-hour broadcast timeslot, so it runs a trim eighty minutes (sans commercials) and makes good use of every moment it has. Sometimes constraints help you focus.