The 1990 TV movie Like the Clouds, Like the Wind has a fairly unusual history. Based on the first novel to win the Japan Fantasy Novel Award, the movie aired without commercial breaks thanks to sponsorship from Mitsui Real Estate. In the US, it developed a certain popularity in the fansub scene, no doubt partially thanks to its character designs by Katsuyuki Kondō and a screenplay misattributed to Hayao Miyazaki leading people to think it was made by Studio Ghibli.
Decades later, Discotek released the film legally in English for the first time, and it seems that the rumors have been mostly forgotten or dispelled. Now, with it being available for streaming on Crunchyroll, Like the Clouds, Like the Wind is accessible to a broader audience, many of whom never heard the rumors and falsehoods that built up its original reputation in the Anglophone world, allowing the movie to speak for itself and reveal what it is: a charming film with lovely animation and a story that is too big to be told in 75 minutes.
After a brief introduction showing a ruined palace and setting up the inevitable court intrigue, the story begins in earnest when the peasant girl Ginga enrolls in the palace harem, dreaming of a life free of hard work where she gets to do nothing but sleep, eat, and laze about. She knows little about court etiquette and doesn’t much care for that matter, and her forthright nature earns her the affection of some and the ire of others.
The first 45 minutes or so, despite the promise of a story of court intrigue, has more of a slice-of-life feeling. Ginga meets people, runs her mouth, goes to classes, and so on. The strength of her personality alone would probably be enough to carry the movie’s full runtime; she’s headstrong and a bit unpredictable, but in a likable and fun way that bounces off the other characters. Some respond well, like the old professor who promises to let her in on the secret of the difference between men and women in a monologue that is only a little bit gender essentialist and overall surprisingly progressive in its point-of-view; others, like the old woman who walks her through the weeping tunnel and her snobby roommate, don’t care for her rough manners at all. The inner palace setting creates space for a wide variety of female characters as well.
Ginga’s likability comes from every aspect of the movie, from the design to the script to the animation. Her every gesture and facial expression brims with personality, in no small part due to Kondo’s iconic character design work, often echoing Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service with her mischievous smile. Ryoko Sano does an admirable job with Akira (not Hayao!) Miyazaki’s script, giving joy and life to clever lines without ever coming across as obnoxious or overbearing. Everyone’s efforts come together beautifully to create a character who is consistently fun to spend time with.
But then it all falls apart in the last half hour or so, when Ginga is announced as the seishi, or the emperor’s primary wife, and the promised court intrigue kicks into gear. The film asks the audience to become invested in Ginga and the emperor’s relationship within the space of a single conversation. Conflicts seem to rise up out of nowhere, including ones that weren’t at all foreshadowed at the start of the film. As a result, the entire climax falls flat, leading to an unsatisfying ending where things just kind of happen, without a sense of character motivation or build-up. It’s a beautifully animated mess.
Miyazaki’s script, despite being so charming when it comes to character writing, lacks many of the elements that would have been required to make a story like this work. The total focus on Ginga for the first part of the movie, while lots of fun, completely isolates her from the larger picture. It becomes impossible to develop the percolating tensions around the succession battle and other antagonistic forces, or to give characters motivations and personalities that would make their choices sympathetic, or at least make sense. Part of the issue lies in the pacing as well, as the first part is quite lackadaisical while the latter part is crammed. Many of Ginga’s conversations, although they have thematic echoes throughout the film, have no bearing on the film’s story. Trimming the dialogue here and there, or replacing some of it with lines that would more strongly foreshadow what is about to come to pass, would go a long way.
However, in the end, these changes would only go so far without fixing Like the Clouds, Like the Wind‘s most fundamental issue: it’s just too short. As a made-for-television movie sponsored by a corporation, I understand the creative staff likely had their hands tied in this respect and did their best with what they had. But still, another twenty, even fifteen minutes would go a long way toward giving the story and relationships the room they needed to develop properly without becoming over-long, and make it possible to appreciate the bittersweet ending instead of leaving me going, “Wait, that’s it?”
Still, there are much worse ways to spend 75 minutes than watching Like the Clouds, Like the Wind. Even if the storytelling leaves something to be desired, Ginga is a lot of fun and the animation and setting are beautiful. What’s more, it’s a solid family film if you’ve exhausted the Ghibli library, provided you’re watching with children old enough to read subtitles and know where babies come from… otherwise you might end up having a conversation you’re not ready for.