Studio Ghibli Season – Previewed

Internationally admired event movies and the perfect cure for a hangover? Studio Ghibli’s wonders never cease…

Nursing a hangover on Saturday, it was with some relief to find My Neighbour Totoro, a product of Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, screening on Film 4.

Ghibli, of course, is Japan’s answer to Disney – whose success led to a boom in Japanese animation; but in terms of quality of output it’s perhaps better to think of them as being closer in relation to Pixar, such is their reliable nature – there are few (none in fact) cash-ins disguised as sequels here.

Why are we telling you this? Because this week, timed nicely to coincide with the release of the post WWII/pre Tokyo Olympics-set From up on Poppy Hill, sees the beginning of FACT’s We Heart Studio Ghibli season, getting underway on Saturday (and in no particular order – not chronological, certainly) with one of our favourites, Princess Mononoke.

The critic Roger Ebert described Mononoke as “One of the most visually inventive films I have ever seen”, and he wasn’t wrong; but that is almost to damn with faint praise, and runs the risk of suggesting that other elements of the film – such as the writing and other narrative components – perhaps aren’t up to the same standard.

“If you choose to watch just one of the five on offer, make it this”

The story of old world life (including amazingly, sometimes queasily, rendered forest deities) and encroaching industry, Mononoke – for us – is one of the most substantial of any and all anime, never mind from one albeit wonderful studio. Emotive and engaging, the film’s central tenet (its questioning of man’s progress) and the resulting collision with nature, looks even more prescient – not to mention stunning – today. If you choose to watch just one of the five on offer, make it this 1997 effort.

Next up, and with much less mild-to-significant peril at the fore, is 2008’s Ponyo. Dealing once again with ideas around the coming together of the older, natural world, and the modernised one, Ponyo is both sea-creature child and our eponymous heroine.

Miyazaki’s 10th feature (eight of which have been Ghibli productions) references Mermaid mythology and plays on themes of growing up, taking responsibility and what happens when a fish-girl falls in love with five-year-old human boy, Sōsuke! It’s sweet and tender, and, given its potentially syrupy nature, bears up very well to subsequent watches.

Before we continue, we have to hold our hands up (and maybe duck for cover). While the next in the season is without doubt the one responsible for firmly establishing Ghibli’s reputation in the west – it also happens to be the film we have the most trouble with of this bunch.

Winner of the Golden Bear at Berlin’s International Film Festival and a Best Animated Feature Oscar, Spirited Away – and we have tried to love it – just doesn’t have the same charm as a Ponyo or the tangible threat of a Mononoke. Nevertheless, we’re clearly in the minority here (Spirited Away is the highest grossing movie off all time in Japan), so we’ll move swiftly on!

If Spirited Away established the brand in the English-speaking world, Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) – adapted from the book by Diana Wynne Jones of the same name – cemented it. Nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar, Miyazaki came out of retirement to direct what would go on to be one of the most financially successful Japanese films in history.

Now, back (briefly), to that hangover; more specifically, to My Neighbour Totoro – one of the studio’s first releases (from 1988) – is a great way to end the run. Channelling all of the Miyazaki/Ghibli charm, flair for beautifully animated creatures, and, frankly, weirdness, Totoro is a winning mixture of innocence and emotive context.

Despite the usual real-world incongruities we’ve come to expect from this animation house (many-legged cat bus anyone?), at its heart, Totoro has things we can all relate to – the trauma of moving and the fear of losing a parent included. Yes these are hoary clichés, but are handled so deftly as to make them genuinely affecting – especially with the added vulnerability brought on by a hangover. 

FACT’s We Love Studio Ghibli season begins on Saturday with Princess Mononoke while The Spirit of Studio Ghibli on Film4 continues this week

Posted on 06/08/2013 by thedoublenegative