Studio Ghibli is one of the truly great studios in the world of animation. Walt Disney and Pixar often overshadow the small Japanese studio in North America, but Ghibli’s work over the last 30 years has been nothing short of brilliant. The studio is home to famed anime directors, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, and has produced 18 films since 1986. Their most recent film, From Up on Poppy Hill, was released in Japan last summer. Last month, Disney brought a dubbed version of their previous film, The Secret World of Arrietty, to North American shores.
Beginning this weekend on March 10th, the TIFF Bell Lightbox will be hosting Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli, featuring 15 of their previous classics. The only films missing are the aforementioned new releases, Gorō Miyazaki’s Tales From Earthsea, as well as Isao Takahata’s devastating film about children in wartime, Grave of the Fireflies. I highly recommend seeking that film out on DVD, but for everything else, TIFF has got your back.
The Studio Ghibli’s catalog is filled with one classic after another, so it can be difficult to parse out the most necessary films. Of course, the real answer is to head down to the Lightbox to see all 15 films, but that probably isn’t an option for most people. In light of this, there are a few films that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Naussicaä in the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 film, is not technically a Ghibli film. Ghibli owns it now, but it was actually the film that led to the founding of the studio. Watching the film it’s easy to see why. Nausicaä lays the template for what Ghibli would come to represent. It’s a beautiful story, very connected with nature (a running theme in many of Miyzaki’s films), beautifully animated, and very mature. The maturity is what sets Ghibli’s films apart. While they are generally suitable for children, they are often best appreciated by older children. The films don’t shy away from violence, and they deal with complex themes and ideas, which Ghibli’s American counterparts rarely touch. If you’d like to see an example of everything Ghibli is about, Nausicaä is the place to start.
Next up is My Neighbour Totoro, the sweet tale of two girls becoming friends with woodland spirits. The film also gave the world the ever-lovable Totoro. He’s so lovable, in fact, that Totoro has become the symbol and logo of Studio Ghibli. This is also one of the Ghibli films most suited to younger children. Where some of the other films might be a bit much for young ones, Totoro has a sweetness that makes it a perfect entry point for children raised on Disney and Pixar films.
Things kick up a notch with the decidedly more adult Princess Mononoke. The film is a period fantasy epic dealing with the human beings’ relationship to nature and natural resources. It’s very mature in its dealings with violence, and much of it is dark and complex. If you’re an adult looking for a great animated film that doesn’t talk down in any way, Princess Mononoke is the one to seek out.
Finally, there’s Spirited Away, the Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature in 2003. Many Studio Ghibli films have a loose connection to reality. They are often weird and fantastical and go places you’d never expect, but Spirited Away takes all of that to another level. It tells the story of a young girl, Chihiro, whose parents have become imprisoned in the spirit world. Chihiro enters the spirit world and encounters all kinds of spirits and creatures and, let’s just say, the plot gets extremely convoluted very quickly. What’s unique about Spirited Away, though, is that the convoluted plot and constantly shifting rules of the spirit world are actually part of the entire thematic concept. It’s almost possible to disregard most of the plot developments and focus purely on Chihiro’s emotional journey and still come away having had a full experience. In this way, though the film can be quite scary, it’s actually quite suitable for somewhat younger children who are sure to enjoy all the craziness without much question. For adults, it’s certainly a wild, emotional ride not to be missed on the big screen.
TIFF is also doing something very special with the Ghibli retrospective. While all the films are Japanese, Disney has also very nicely and professionally dubbed them all into English. This is perfect for children, and it’s actually a great way to enjoy the films as much as possible for their visual artistry. But for those who don’t mind reading subtitles, every film is also being offered in a subtitled version. While subtitles distract a little bit from the visuals, they also offer a slightly more accurate translation of the original Japanese dialogue. Either way, both options are available, with dubbed presentations happening during the daytime to accommodate children, and subtitled versions presented at night for more discerning adult Ghibli-philes.
So if you’re an adult who love animation, or a parent hoping to expose your children to animation beyond the confines of Pixar and Dreamworks, or if you’re just a regular person who loves great films, there’s more than enough wonder and beauty on offer with Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli.
Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli begins at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Saturday, March 10th and runs through to April 13th.