Browsing: TIFF’s Spirited Away:The Films of Studio Ghibli

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There’s no justice in a review of Ponyo without a little bit of gushing. I suppose I am biased in my opinions when it comes to Studio Ghibli films, but in equal terms I want to see fit that they get a healthy amount of praise for their uniqueness and universal appeal. I believe that director Hayao Miyazaki is one of the best animation directors out there. What he creates are some of the most beautiful collections of imagery within the anime industry and this makes him ever provocative when it comes to the competitive global animation market. As co-owner of the infamous small Japanese film studio, his creative output is easily recognisable and revered as some of the most original and stylised feature animations. Miyazaki was previously an Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature with Spirited Away (2001) and his follow up film was a similarly appraised fantasy based Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). After these he seemed to take a bit of a career step back and he took a very different turn in narrative set compared to what viewers were perhaps expecting to follow his critically acclaimed successes.

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For The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), screenwriters Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa adapted the children’s classic novel The Borrowers by Mary Norton. The writers, along with director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have successfully created a beautiful world of their own and were free to do what they wanted within the oft told story since it was the first time the story has ever been animated, even though it’s been told on film or TV several times since 1973. That meant that the limitations of technology were of no concern to Yonebayashi and the Studio Ghibli crew.

The story is of Arrietty (Mirai Shida), a 14-year-old girl who lives with her parents Pod (Tomokazu Miura) and Homily (Shinobu Otake). They are known as Borrowers, humans that only grow to about four inches tall and live off taking things from full sized humans that they wouldn’t miss. They are adamant that they are not thieves; they borrow what they need (Which kind of sounds like a rationalization if you ask me. How are they going to return a sugar cube after they’ve used it?)

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The tale of Princess Mononoke is one that already is worthy of your time, and admiration. A brave warrior named Ashitaka is placed under a wicked curse during battle, and in order to save his life, he must embark on a journey for the cure. During his travels, he finds himself in the middle of a horrific war between humans and the spirits of the forest. He believes both sides can come to terms, but instead they see him as an enemy meant to do harm to both of them. With the help of a beautiful princess who was raised by a wolf-god, they will try to end the suffering, one way or another.

Although all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films have a sense of wonder and are insanely gorgeous to look at, his filmography showcases something else that makes him unique: his ever-willing-and-able ability to change his tune of his vibrant whistle. With movies like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, he captures the heart of a child-like fantasy world that we all deserve. With Princess Mononoke though, he dives head-first into a boisterous world that’s heavy on heart, adventure and the will to prevail through tremendous adversity.

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The Cat Returns (2002) is a charming little film from Studio Gibli. It has all the warmth and character you would expect from a Gibli film all condensed into a tight little 75 minute picture. The cat that returns is the character of The Baron (voiced by Yoshihiko Hakamada in the Japanese version, Cary Elwes in the English language version) who was previously featured in the Gibli feature Whispers of the Heart (1995).

The main story focuses on Haru (Chizuru Ikewaki), a normal teenage girl who is reasonably normal and leads a relatively normal life until she saves a cat from being hit by a truck. The cat stands on its hind legs bows to her and thanks her. Shocked, she goes home and tells her mother about it. She is told that when she was little she said she could talk to cats after she gave a starving kitten some fish cookies.

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Take Me Home, Country Roads acts as a gentle lullaby for all of the hustlers and bustlers of Tokyo as they live through their career-centric lives without being afforded the time to properly dream. Finding a soulmate in a tangled web of concrete and misplaced priorities is a tricky proposition for the aimless dreamers of the world as entrance examinations for the next phase of schooling take precedence over Shizuku Tsukishima and Seiji Amasawa’s burgeoning dreams of becoming a writer and violin maker respectively. They share similar passions and literary obsessions, but anything that detracts from the objective path laid before them by parents and instructors is seen as an unnecessary distraction. They sing a different kind of country blues in a land covered by concrete, but the wistful spirit of the dreamer is still quite alive in the crisscrossing power lines and unending sea of concrete that constitute Tokyo on the unavoidable precipice of modernization.

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Studio Ghibli is renowned for its crazy yet captivating stories that spin everything on its head, creating entire playful, intricate universes for each of their stories, only linked by their visual style and thematic attachment to innocence. Porco Rosso is much the same in the canon but where the others promote strong female characters that aren’t traditional, this is lead by a anthropomorphic pig pilot who fights air pirates that threaten the sea and air, and is sometimes a bit uncomfortable to the women of the story. Many moments revolve around Fio’s “bum” which is “bigger-than-it-looks”, feeling uncomfortably sexualised, as Porco says that them alone on an island isn’t safe because he’s a man which hints towards rape and also by her being ashamed of her gender and youth. Whether it’s all purposeful because of its 1930 period setting is another thing but it may be ignorance or just downright offensive, causing the audience to waver; it’s uncomfortable, unexpected.

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More than anyone since perhaps Walt Disney (and arguably more than even the Mouse King himself), Hayao Miyazaki understands the magic of imagination, the endless possibilities of childhood, and the emotional landscape of tentative maturation. Though Miyazaki has used the medium of animation to tell stories for all ages, he has never felt freer, bolder, or better than when he takes on childhood and reminds us all of the magic that surrounds us in the world. Spirited Away is a breathtaking act of world-building, a gorgeously realized realm in which Miyazaki can play out his fable on a canvas only he could fill in.

Chihiro (Daveigh Chase in the English dub) is a timid girl, not quite over her anger at her parents, who are forcing her to move far out into the country. When the family discovers an abandoned theme park, Chihiro meets a boy who warns her to leave before nightfall. Her parents won’t listen, though, and soon night falls, trapping Chihiro in the spirit world, and turning her parents, who gorged themselves at a buffet, into pigs for their gluttony. In order to save herself and her parents, Chihiro must learn to be brave, responsible, persistent, and a person of integrity. The film’s premise is the stuff of standard animated fare, but what sets Spirited Away apart is the verve with which it is presented.

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What may one say about Totoro that truly does it justice? This bizarre yet wonderful tale of childlike wonder, enthusiasm, and liveliness shares a very real yet hardly acknowledged existence of the marvelous. As an adult, one might forget the sense of majesty or grandeur—things are beyond ones self—that nature beholds. One might lose touch of the spirit of miraculous experience. There is something highly ornamental and expressive in nature, and only as children might one recognize this. In My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Mei and Satsumi view the world through unfiltered eyes. Full of grace and curiosity, they unrelentingly present themselves to the exorbitant spirit of nature. Their energy and vibrancy permit life to take fuller shape, for elements of the unknown to coalesce with present reality. In their experience, miracles are not only possible, but perceptible. Totoro’s ethereal figure is detectable by their open minds; prophets of his existence, they are attuned to the primal energy of life—what gives life momentum.

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Though technically legendary film director Hayao Miyazaki’s second feature length animated film, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is the first film that captured the master’s career long preoccupations with fanciful machines of flight, devastating environmental interference by a short-sighted mankind seemingly hellbent on its own destruction, and fantastical worlds of immense imagination from the mind of a creative and conscientious artist. Its animation techniques lack the expressive depth and aesthetic complexity of his more recent films, and its desolate post-apocalyptic wastelands are heavily influenced by animators like Ralph Bakshi, but the imaginative spirit still abounds and the preoccupations of one of animation’s (and cinema’s) greatest auteurs begin to take shape in his phenomenal second outing.

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Howl’s Moving Castle introduces us to Sofi, a young girl who doesn’t quite believe in herself. She works in a hat store and she enjoys it, but she just can’t find happiness outside of her workroom. Outside her window, the promise of a war involving humans and wizards grows bigger and bigger, and while she walks home one day, she encounters a wizard Howl, and things just spiral from that point. The Witch of the Wastes finds out about their meeting, and turns Sofi into a woman in her 70’s with the plan to lure out Howl so she can steal his heart. Sofi finds his home, a ‘moving castle’ where she meets some of Howl’s friends, Calcifer and Markl. Together they form a bond that has to last through the trials of war, Howl’s ever-growing inner burdens and the quest of turning Sofi back to normal.

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