Cinema for children and families has evolved significantly over the years. While early Disney animation is revered for its artful execution of beloved fairy tales, it has often been criticized for its ability to singularly disturb or traumatize child viewers. Fast forward to today, in which North American animation studios seem to believe that since children are not adults, it follows that they are not sophisticated viewers. As a result, we have a seemingly endless stream of animated films that pander to the lowest common denominator, creating an ocean of simplistic, one-dimensional stories that completely fail to teach our children anything ““ let alone take them on a fantastical journey of any kind.
Enter Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation house responsible for films such as Spirited Away , Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle . Founded in 1985 by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, the Studio has created 15 films that tell rich, complex stories that foster both the imagination and the spirit of all their viewers, adult and child alike.
The films of Studio Ghibli remind us of a time when we had few worries, but also remind us that those explorations of the world sometimes led us to make decisions that created the adult we would become. Perhaps this is rooted in Ghibli’s most famous and visible founder, Hayao Miyazaki, who believes that children are the “inheritors of historical memory from previous generations,” and that as they grow older, this memory fades. Having directed 8 of the Studio’s 14 films, and written or contributed to the stories of many more, he makes movies that try to speak to that generational memory.
It is perhaps not a mystery then that the young characters in his movies seem to have a depth and wisdom that is well beyond their years. Spirited Away , Howl’s Moving Castle , Ponyo , NausicaÃ¤ of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke all feature main characters who are young ““ ranging in age from four-years-old to early teens ““ with heavy weights on their shoulders. In Spirited Away , Sen cannot forget who she is in order to save her parents, requiring her to make moral decisions and embrace a strange new culture in order to do so. In Ponyo , SÃ´suke supports his mother through her trails as a single parent, and accepts Ponyo just as she is, even though she is occasionally difficult. The sisters in My Neighbor Totoro work through the pain of having an ailing parent, trying to be strong through the fear that it brings. Each of these characters had their own challenges, yet, at every turn, they have the opportunity to prove to themselves that they are able to handle their own decisions and burdens, even if they have made grave errors.
Despite the fact that Miyazake says he does not make “message” films, it seems as though watching his main characters discover something about themselves is the journey the film intends to take its viewer on, but they also just happen to be goldfish who become people, live in castles that move, are princesses with abilities to calm the angriest of animals, and are witches leaving home to begin their training. Somehow Miyazake and Studio Ghibli know that it will be easier to accept that children have the intelligence and wisdom to create their own worlds when set against a backdrop of incredible fantasy.
While Miyazake’s main characters are complex and ever-changing, so are his villains. Painted starkly with black and white / good and bad, villains of North American films such as Kung Fu Panda , Monsters Vs. Aliens , Madagascar , Shrek and many, many more are no more than one-dimensional characters designed to show up, provide conflict for the hero (or heroine) and further the plot. In Miyazaki’s world, those who do bad things to good people are just as complex as the main characters, and their journeys are just as important. This hallmark of morally ambiguous villains and noble heroes who are willing to overcome their own flaws is what allows Studio Ghibli’s films to deeply explore themes of war and pacifism, single parenthood, family dynamics, feminism and environmental impact. Every Ghibli film is a journey, and while complex, certainly one that is accessible to every member of the audience.
TIFF is presenting a retrospective that includes the catalogue of Studio Ghibli’s films, with the exception of The Secret World of Arrietty , which you can find at your local theatre right now. Beginning on March 10 and running until April 13, 2012, they will screen 15 films for your viewing pleasure. As Disney owns the license for all international, non-Japan distribution, you can enjoy these films dubbed by stars like Liam Neeson, Matt Damon, Gillian Anderson, Elle and Dakota Fanning, Billy Crystal, Christian Bale, Emily Mortimer and many more. For those of you who either want the “original” experience or have children old enough to read along, TIFF is offering screenings in both dubbed and subtitled formats.
Despite the fact that Disney is often criticized for their animation, they certainly saw the benefit in distributing these films. Studio Ghibli has a strict “no cuts” policy, so you can be sure that you are seeing the films as they were originally made with no strategic marketing edits made by the distributor.
Whether you have children or just want to enjoy some beautiful filmmaking, one thing is for sure, the films of Studio Ghibli will whisk you away, and when you return you’ll feel enlightened and happily tired, as though you just went on a fantastical journey, but are happy to be home.
Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli runs until April 13, so check tiff.net for showtimes and tickets.