I’ve never watched the Oscars, although I usually have a look to see who’s won what. This year, as ever, the list of awards had very little in common with a list I would have compiled of the excellent films that I’ve seen this year. In particular, I was disappointed to see that Blue Is the Warmest Colour (La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2 in the original French) was not represented at all—not nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Adèle Exarchopoulos), Best Supporting Actress (Léa Seydoux), or even Best Foreign Language Film. The explicit sex scenes may have put off some judges, whose prudishness permits flaying (12 Years a Slave) but not cunnilingus. However, I think that a significant barrier to wider appreciation of Blue Is the Warmest Colour is the simple fact that it’s foreign. Foreign films come with baggage. Depending on which side you butter your brioche they are cultured or elitist, symbolic or pretentious. And so it is, paradoxically, with Studio Ghibli—paradoxically because the studio that gave us Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away produces not three-hour-long lesbian coming-of-age dramas, but children’s animations.
Studio Ghibli (properly pronounced with a soft g, after the Japanese) was founded in Tokyo in 1985. Since 1989 when Ghibli released its fourth film, Kiki’s Delivery Service, only one of its films has failed to be the highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. (In 1999, My Neighbours the Yamadas—the quirkiest of Ghibli’s films and one of my personal favourites—failed to measure up to Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back at the international box office.) Spirited Away, Ghibli’s eleventh film, released in 2001, is the highest-grossing Japanese film ever; yet it doesn’t make it onto the list of the top-50-grossing animated films, beaten out by the likes of Monsters vs. Aliens, Cars 2 and Shrek Forever After.
Of course for every dollar lost to Pixar or Dreamworks, Ghibli is awarded a point in the “artistic excellence” column. And in fact the Studio has had some limited international recognition: in 2002 Spirited Away won both the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and the Golden Bear. The stage is thus set for a cult following, and so we have the BFI’s complete Studio Ghibli retrospective, showing in April and May. Alongside the films, there are a few talks, including one by Justin Johnson, curator of the exhibition, in which the question of why Ghibli hasn’t had the same box-office impact as its American contemporaries will be considered.
The key figure at Studio Ghibli is Hayao Miyazaki, the 73-year-old co-founder and director of nine of Ghibli’s 19 films. The way that Miyazaki and Ghibli are often discussed it would seem that Ghibli is Miyazaki, and this may be a reasonable assertion: of the ten films that Miyazaki didn’t direct, he screen wrote two, while his son, in dynastic fashion, directed and screen wrote one other (also directing one of the two films that his father screen wrote). The films that Miyazaki directed include most of Ghibli’s most famous and commercially successful films—My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away—while central features of Miyazaki’s films reoccur in films that he didn’t direct or screen write. It is fair to say that Miyazaki gave Ghibli much of what makes its great films great: beautiful animation, sympathetic portrayals of interesting characters, and a knack for switching between poignant nostalgia and ripping yarn at precisely the right moment.
Miyazaki’s films contain a number of recurring motifs. Almost every one includes fantasy elements, ranging from magical creatures that appear only to the lead character, to entire fantasy worlds. More emblematic of Miyazaki’s work, though, are visions of childhood and nostalgia. A large number of Miyazaki’s films have a young female lead and, taken together, Miyazaki’s explorations of his subjects’ psyches and interactions with the world around them present a rich tapestry of childhood experience. The films tend to be stylized: narratives evince folkloric simplicity, and explicit character descriptions are thin. By leaving much unsaid, the main characters develop organically, drawing from the viewer’s own experience, while the animation, given space to grow, becomes a character in its own right.
Miyazaki’s distinctive traits are directly are particularly evident in My Neighbour Totoro and Princess Mononoke. In My Neighbour Totoro, two young girls move to the countryside with their father to be closer to the hospital where their mother is recovering from a long-term illness. They meet a magical koala-like creature they call Totoro and then undertake a miniature odyssey to find their mother and give her a present of a sheaf of corn. The soft, watercolour-esque animation imbues the girls’ adventures with Totoro with a sense of wistful nostalgia, and gives the mission to deliver the corn the sense of a sweetly ironic epic. In Princess Mononoke, an epic of true proportions in which humans battle gods for worldwide ascendancy, alternating portrayals of gritty realism and glowing psychedelia realise visually the complex relationship between both the humans and gods, and, more specifically, the two main characters, the human Prince Ashitaka and the liminal demigod Princess Mononoke. More recently, Miyazaki’s films have become superficially cutesy, as in Ponyo, where the main character is a toddler fish-girl who speaks in squeaky monosyllables, and Arrietty, a saccharine retelling of the The Borrowers which Miyazki screen wrote but did not direct. The Wind Rises, probably Miyazaki’s last film, may reverse this trend. Released in the UK in May this year, the film is a fictionalized biography of the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter aircraft used by the Japanese in World War II.
Discussions of Studio Ghibli often stop at Miyazaki; however, there is another person worth mentioning. Isao Takahata, five years older than Miyazaki, was the other co-founder and has himself taken leading roles in seven Ghibli films—five as director and screen writer; two as producer. The films that he directed have had some success on the Japanese market, but in general are far less well-known outside Japan than those by Miyazaki. This is in part because the subject matter is more integrally Japanese. Epics and fairy tales translate easily, whereas many of Takahata’s films are filled the lovable banalities everyday life. My Neighbours the Yamadas comprises a series of family vignettes—the father, deciding that he doesn’t spend enough time bonding with his son, instigating some reluctant pitching practice; the mother panicking, while out, about whether she’s left the stove on. Each moment is presented with touching levity. Only Yesterday deals with the reminiscences of its 27-year-old female lead as she wonders whether or not she’s been true to her childhood dreams. It is far more nostalgic than My Neighbours the Yamadas, but the narrative is similarly situated in the Japanese experience. One of Takahata’s better-known films is Grave of the Fireflies, one of the most powerful war films ever made. The action focuses on Seita, a 14-year-old boy, and his toddler sister as they try to survive wartime Japan after the death of their mother and abandonment by their unsympathetic aunt. Astonishingly it was first released as a double bill with My Neighbour Totoro—a profound and haunting pairing that explores sibling relationships similar but for their very different circumstances.
The BFI missed a trick by failing to recreate the Grave of the Fireflies–My Neighbour Totoro double bill. However, the opportunity to catch Ghibli’s older films on the big screen is a rare one, and the BFI should be celebrated for its initiative. Some of Studio Ghibli’s films are more obviously intended for an audience of children than others, but the best films, a number of which I’ve mentioned, are genre-defying masterpieces. The schedule of films is available on the BFI website: standard tickets sell for £11 and £8.50 concessions are available to students.
M. C. Roberts
For more information about the BFI retrospective, please visit their website.