“On Your Mark” is an un-short in the filmography of Studio Ghibli in general and Hayao Miyazaki in particular. Removed from the official Ghibli discography after Aska of Chage & Aska was arrested for Drug Possession (Estacy and Stimulants), the film has become one of those things that’s only really available via bootlegs now (much as, apparently, Chage and Aska’s discography). I saw it once when I was in High School, in my school’s anime club, and I never got around to re-watching it until recently, and I’d like to give some quick thoughts.
“On Your Mark” isn’t just the film that is most unlike Studio Ghibli’s work. It’s also a film that is most unlike Hayao Miyazaki’s work. Yes, there are elements of pastoral landscapes in the framing sequences of the film. However, those oddly enough make up the least of the film. The majority of the video is set in a hyper-developed cyberpunk-inspired cityscape, fitting almost more with Akira than with even Nausicaa.
This is played up further with the protagonists, modeled loosely on the members of the duo, being police officers taking part in a raid on the headquarters of a cult – a raid that is, while it doesn’t contain bloody violence, is significantly more violent than many of Miyazki’s other films. The two cops find a girl with wings chained to a wall, in a room full of trash. They rescue her and provide her something to drink before she’s whisked away by scientists in radiation suits. The expies of the duo decide to break her out, break into the lab and succeed… sort of.
The “sort of” comes up with the other place where this gets unusual for Miyazaki – the film is non-linear and uses alterations over the looping narrative in telling the story. Early shots have the duo driving in pastoral farmland with the winged girl, who starts to take flight but is hesitant – before cutting back to the cult, and the girl being taken into custody. The rescue itself has a couple false starts, including one instance where clearly the protagonists’ escape fails and they all seemingly plummet to their deaths, before we loop through the earlier footage to the same sequence, where this time their getaway vehicle has previously unestablished thrusters that allow them to escape into some apartments.
It makes for a film that is, in a lot of respects, far more experimental than anything else Miyazaki has ever done, and also in a way, something of a creative dead end. Miyazaki would never do anything in a futuristic industrial environment like this again, with his subsequent works, such as Princess Mononoke, continuing to evoke pastoral and nostalgic environments more in their settings. It feels like Miyazaki is dipping his foot in the water of this form of urban and industrial science fiction in this video, finding it not to his taste, and then leaving it behind, in the same way that Ghibli’s two main films with full or partial settings in a more modern, metropolitan Tokyo – The Cat Returns and Whisper of the Heart – were not directed by Miyazaki.
Viewed in the totality of Miyazki’s filmography, “On Your Mark” feels like the beginning of the final solidification of Miyazaki’s artistic voice – especially in the context of his next film being Princess Mononoke. It’s Miyazaki coming to the conclusion that this form of urban, metropolian narrative, whether in the present (as with the two films mentioned earlier), or in the future as in this short, is not what he wants to do, and while he will experiment with other concepts and techniques in later works, he’s settled on rural and nostalgic settings for his own work going forward.
As mentioned at the start, “On Your Mark” is currently unavailable through any legal channels due to Aska being un-personed. However, you’re smart readers. You should be able to find it somewhere.
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