An oversize furry creature called Totoro, a mischievous young witch named Kiki, an ominous spirit referred to simply as No-Face, and a handsome wizard named Howl. These are arguably the most well-known characters to inhabit the word of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation company responsible for My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, respectively.
Studio Ghibli was founded in Tokyo in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma. Although its movies have been highly popular in Japanese cinema, only a handful of the films have been shown in North American theatres—until recently.
GKIDS, a New York–based animated-movie distribution company responsible for founding the New York International Children’s Film Festival 15 years ago, has helped to organize Studio Ghibli retrospectives in almost 30 cities across North America over the past year. In December, two Vancouver movie theatres will cohost a major retrospective of their own, giving local audiences a unique opportunity to experience these films on the big screen. Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata, and the Masters of Studio Ghibli will run at the Cinematheque (1131 Howe Street) from December 7 to January 3, while Castles in the Sky: The Masters of Studio Ghibli will take place at the Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour Street) from December 14 to January 3. The 14 films screened at the Cinematheque will be shown in Japanese with English subtitles, and the 12 running at Vancity will be shown with English dubbing.
“[Studio Ghibli] is really interested in having their films seen properly in theatres,” David Jesteadt, director of distribution for GKIDS, told the Georgia Straight in a recent phone interview from New York. “They really want to give fans the proper viewing experience for the films, so many of which are visually remarkable and only been seen on DVD on 20-inch or 42-inch versions.…This is…the first big chance to experience these films properly on the big screen.”
All films presented during the Studio Ghibli retrospective will be 35mm prints, except for Ocean Waves, one of two rare titles never released in North America. Ocean Waves tells the story of two teenage friends whose relationship is tested by the arrival of a new high-school transfer student. The 72-minute film based on Saeko Himuro’s novel was directed by Tomomi Mochizuki in 1993 and was the first Studio Ghibli film to be helmed by someone other than the studio founders.
“Ocean Waves was a special project,” Jesteadt said. “For them, it was a real effort to get the younger members of their animation team to feel like they could really take control of a project, because between Miyazaki and Takahata, they had firmly planted their legacy on the company, and people were very used to seeing their names on the films and seeing their productions and their auteur influence on the films that they do.…I know Ocean Waves is the only film that Mochizuki directed for them, but he was heading a young team, so that was how that came about. [The film] is on a tape—a DigiBeta, if you want to be really specific—and that is because that film was a made-for-television production in Japan.”
The other movie rarely seen outside of Japan that is included in the retrospective is Only Yesterday. Directed by Takahata and released in 1991, Only Yesterday tells the story of Taeko, a young urban professional who is reminded of her childhood during a 10-day trip to the countryside. The story, which switches between the 1960s and 1980s, reflects on such coming-of-age experiences as romance, puberty, sibling rivalry, school, and rebellion.
“That is one of the only animated films that I’ve seen to actually tackle adult women’s issues seriously,” Jesteadt said. “Personally, it’s very refreshing to see films where female heroines are given a real place. They’re not princesses or waiting to be married off or inactive bystanders or some guy’s fun adventure. I think it’s really refreshing to see, especially family films where younger girls have incredibly powerful roles without necessarily feeling stuffy or moralizing.”
(Both Ocean Waves and Only Yesterday will screen at the Cinematheque only.)
Dynamic female heroines are at the centre of many Studio Ghibli movies, starting with Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The movie, which tells the story of a young princess driven by her love for nature, was made by Miyazaki in 1984, and purists will often debate whether or not it is actually a Studio Ghibli film.
“[Studio Ghibli] wasn’t really the production company behind it at the time, although all the chief creative personnel were there and they own the lifetime rights to it, so it is a Studio Ghibli film legally,” Jesteadt said. “Certainly, I think it would be nitpicking to exclude it from their output.”
Other titles—including 1989’s beloved witch tale, Kiki’s Delivery Service; 1995’s romance Whisper of the Heart (the sole feature film directed by Miyazaki’s then-protégé, Yoshifumi Kondô, who died of an aneurysm three years later); and 1997’s mythological action flick, Princess Mononoke—also feature young women in lead roles.
“I think, once you start seeing the films…it will become apparent you see a master studio at work grappling with some of the same issues and interests but spinning them off for very different styles of films,” Jesteadt said. “Like many other great directors who make classic family films, he [Miyazaki] makes films that speak to kids but they don’t necessarily speak down to kids, or infantilize their stories, or shy away from showing the danger or sadness or serious consequences of great adventures.”
Jesteadt recalled watching 1988’s My Neighbor Totoro on VHS as a child, and he still considers Miyazaki’s fantastical story about two young sisters who discover a family of totoros—gentle, furry giants that some audiences have likened to panda bears crossed with rabbits—living in their country backyard his favourite Studio Ghibli film.
“There’s something about it that’s so quintessentially innocent, but it’s almost impossible to describe to a person what that film is about or what it’s like,” Jesteadt said. “I remember, when I was younger, how it just made innate sense, and it held my attention perfectly. I would watch it over the years, and as you get older and older, you peel back layers, and after a while it becomes quite wistful, sort of that looking back, that nostalgic childhood, which, in the case of that film, is deeply troubled.”
Meanwhile, Spirited Away, which won the 2003 Academy Award for best animated feature and is the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, is often considered to be geared more toward adults. The movie, about a young girl who is separated from her parents and enters an alternate reality inhabited by shape-shifting spirits, is sometimes read as a commentary on gluttony, environmental pollution, economic hardship, and Japanese society.
“Among a mainstream audience, I think a lot of parents are aware of My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away but don’t necessarily know that the same director did both and that there’s all these other films,” Jesteadt said.
Although it has taken more than two decades for some of these films to make it into North American theatres, Jesteadt noted the timeless quality of the films, which is rare when compared to many Hollywood animation projects.
“There’s been a trend recently with CGI pictures to make it very pop culture–loaded and go for the laughs with the most recent stuff you can make fun of,” Jesteadt said. “A lot of these films are fun and great and huge commercial successes, but I think these [Studio Ghibli] films have already really stood the test of time. Some of them are 25 years old but still feel incredibly vital and fresh, and I think they’ll stay that way for centuries.”