While marathoning the films of Studio Ghibli in preparation for writing about TIFF’s retrospective, I found myself wishing I could have seen them when I was kid. The endless creativity and vivid fantasy worlds that Hayao Miyazaki and company created would have been nothing short of astounding to my young imagination. At the same time, I was glad to experience them at my present age, appreciating the artistry and complex themes on a more mature level. This is precisely what makes the films of Japan’s most famous animation studio so universal; they are for everyone, no matter what age. In the three years that the TIFF Bell Lightbox has been in operation, this is the second time they’ve run this film series, a testament to how wildly popular it was the first time around. Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli is on right now until January 3, 2014, marking the perfect opportunity for families and film lovers alike to take advantage of during the holiday season.
I was first introduced to Studio Ghibli in university when Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was screened in a film studies class I took. I immediately understood what all the hype was about. It provoked a sense of wonder in me that brought me right back to childhood. A ten-year-old girl named Chihiro is moving out to the suburbs with her parents but they take a wrong turn and end up in a strange abandoned town. Before you even really get a chance to settle in, Chihiro’s parents turn into pigs and she enters a magical world where she is ushered into a large bathhouse for spirits, monsters, witches, and an assortment of other creatures. The animation is constantly eye-popping, almost too much to handle. Miyazaki doesn’t sugarcoat the story either: Chihiro is forced to get a job in the bathhouse and you start to wonder whether she’ll be stuck in this colourful yet harsh world forever. But she deals with her situation sensibly, providing a character that children and especially young girls can genuinely look up to.
This is what really strikes me when considering Studio Ghibli – the fact that they’ve imagined some of the strongest female protagonists that have ever graced the screen, particularly in the realm of fantasy cinema. Almost every film is led by a heroine who is bold, fearless, smart and dynamic. This has been prevalent right from the start in Miyazaki’s first film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was so massively successful that it led to the formation of Studio Ghibli. Nausicaä is the princess of a beautiful valley on an otherwise toxic post-apocalyptic Earth. But this ain’t your typical Disney princess. Nausicaä is a badass warrior in tune with the wind, riding through the air on her glider and exploring the dangerous wastelands that stretch out endlessly. When warring clans start to descend upon the valley, she fights back and never quits. Miyazaki also has some powerful environmental activism to share, illustrating the destructiveness of mankind to our natural habitat, yet I’m just so blown away by how revolutionary the development of the central character is. And it’s mostly because of how naturally her power is portrayed. She is the daughter of the king, who raised her to be a great woman, and now that he is dying, she will take over the throne. She has the respect of all the citizens of the valley because she is tough, honourable, caring and knows what she’s doing. It’s just as it should be, and yet it feels rare to see movies lay out strong female characters in such a straightforward manner.
It’s also refreshing to see female protagonists who aren’t caught up in stupid romances. The characters in Ghibli films don’t pine after guys – they’ve got more important things to do. Hiroyuki Morita’s lovely The Cat Returns actually addresses this head on. Initially our heroine, a teenage girl named Haru, is awkward and clumsy and desperately wants a cute guy in her class to notice her. But then she saves a cat from getting hit by a car and, in short order, finds herself whisked away to a cat kingdom to be involuntarily married to the cat prince she saved (There’s a lot of cats in this movie). At first, she tricks herself into accepting this ridiculous situation, figuring she’s got nothing else going for her in her normal life, so she might as well become a cat bride. With the help of some helpful cat friends, however, she learns to gain confidence in herself and take control of her life, leading to a truly empowering ending for girls. And seriously, if you love cats, you have to see this.
With the exception of Pixar, which itself has been heavily influenced by the techniques of Studio Ghibli, kids movies are generally in a sorry state these days. They’re often unimaginative riffs on classic tales stocked with tacky pop-culture references. I like to think of it as the Shrek-syndrome. On the other hand, Studio Ghibli offers extraordinary worlds, rich stories, and valuable lessons, and they rarely falter. One warning about Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies though, which is screening for the first time as it was unavailable for the last retrospective. It is a tragic, super-depressing story about a young boy and his little sister trying to survive in Japan during World War II after losing their parents and their home; it may not be one you want to screen for young children. But it is fantastic and really an essential film in terms of trying to understand some of the horrors that we inflicted on each other during the beginning of the 20th century. So go see it. Just remember to bring tissues.
MORE FROM TORONTO FILM SCENE