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Arts and Culture

Unwrap the Gift of Miyazaki's Films

From 'My Neighbour Totoro' to 'Spirited Away,' don't miss Vancouver's mini-fest this holiday season.

Dorothy Woodend 1 Dec

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday. Find her previous articles here.

The Pacific Cinematheque and Vancity Theatre have seen fit to give Vancouver an early Christmas present this year -- a big overflowing basket of cinematic goodness in the form of a major retrospective of Studio Ghibli films. All the biggies are here: Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle, as well as a couple of rarely seen titles -- Only Yesterday and The Ocean Waves -- almost all on new 35 mm prints. Vancity has the dubbed version and Pacific Cinematheque the subtitles. 

This is indeed a rare gift. What's more, all ages are welcome, so gather up the kids, take grandma along as well, even a surly teen or two, because it is time to go back to the movie theatre. These films are as precious and wonderful as your first new bike on Christmas morning.

The Studio Ghibli are some of my favourite films of all time, not only because of their beauty and wonder, but because they contain something altogether more rare. They have soul. I don't mean this lightly or without due thought; having watched My Neighbour Totoro almost every day for weeks on end when my son Louis was younger, I am intimately familiar with every scene, every nuance, but even understanding all of the component parts of the film does not take away from the overall magic. The mysterious alchemy by which story, sound and character add up to atmosphere still confounds me. No matter how many times I have watched this film, I am always swept away in its richness and depth. It makes me homesick for a place I've never been.

Lush, real film

The story is simple. Two little girls move with their father to the countryside to be closer to the hospital where their mother is convalescing from a long illness. Mei, 4, and Satsuki, 10, are like most sisters. They fight, struggle and love each other with all the ferocious intensity of childhood.

After moving in, the girls discover that their new house is home to a number of curious creatures. Soot sprites live in the walls, and a family of fuzzy creatures are busily going about their business in the back garden. These mysterious beings trudge about gathering seeds, apparently little noticed by the rest of the world. Until, that is, Mei catches sight of them and sets about figuring out who they are and where they came from. Her quest takes her down a mysterious tunnel in the undergrowth into the tangled mossy base of the huge camphor tree next door. Here she meets the one and only Totoro. Who or what Totoro is never really explained; he just is, and that is quite enough. Whether he is asleep in a patch of sunlight, attended only by the occasional butterfly, or swirling dizzily above the fields on warm and windy nights, his business is his own.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Mei and Satsuki wait at the bus stop on a dark and rainy night for their father's bus. I swear you can almost smell the wet air in this scene, so palpable is the physical reality of the world recreated through animation. The arrival of Totoro is itself a marvel of timing and invention. Bent on his own mysterious errand and awaiting the arrival of his personal mode of public transit, he borrows Satsuki's umbrella and makes off with it aboard a bus that resembles a Chesire cat. All the two girls can manage is open-mouthed surprise as the lights of the cat bus recede into the distance.  

Despite the more magical moments, this is a film that is deeply grounded in the real world. From the drowsy heat of a summer afternoon to the patter of rain on your umbrella, the feeling of summer and childhood is veritably Proustian in its power and pleasure. But despite its loveliness, or maybe because of it, there is a shadow that lies across the heart of this film. The reality of death, as much as the reality of summer and sunshine, share the same earth. You can't have one without the other, which is why these moments are so precious, all the more so, for being so brief. 

If you hang around in the natural world long enough it moves over, accommodates you, and eventually you become part of the action. The grand indifference of trees, plants, and animals when you're very young feels entirely normal. Nature doesn't care if you're there, as long as you don't make a fuss. It is only when you grow up that the perilous demands of the adolescent ego make this lack of interest intolerable. That's when the siren call of the city and the town kicks in.

More Miyazaki magic

Luckily, for older kids itching for a little independence and adventure, there is Kiki's Delivery Service.

Upon turning 13, young Kiki (a witch in training) ventures forth with her best friend Jiji, a rather sardonic black cat, to make her way in the world. The film opens with Kiki lying on her back watching giant white clouds move across the sky while her transistor radio plays nearby. Despite the gorgeousness of the summer day it is the radio that is the key part of this scenario. The outside world is calling; the grownup world of jobs, first love, responsibility and the first tenuous steps of adult life.

Kiki and Jiji set sail, radio draped across the front of Kiki's broomstick, bound for distant climes and adventure just over the horizon. In a seaside town Kiki gets a job at a bakery, and discovers that growing up is a bit of a painful process. Stranded in the no-man's land between child and teen, she is brave enough to attempt daring rescues and is still so awkward and easily embarrassed that she hides in the bathroom at the sight of a strange man. The grace is in the details, and more importantly the time spent to invest even the smallest scene with close observation. This is what real little girls do. They grope and flounder their way forward, making mistakes, learning the hard way about the nature of the world and their own characters.

It is this same story that is at the heart of what may be the studio's master work Spirited Away. When a young girl named Chihiro wanders away from her parents in an abandoned theme park, she finds herself trapped in another world inhabited by all manner of spirits, spooks, dragons and witches. In interviews about the film, the director Hayao Miyazaki said that he was inspired to create the character of Chihiro by the 10-year-old daughter of a friend, who the director affectionately described as a lazy bum. "Which is exactly the way my favourite 10-year-old girls are," he says.

Chihiro may start out as a bit of sulky lazy bum, but like the many girl heroines before her, everyone from Jane Eyre to Mary Lennox in the Secret Garden, she is forced to come to terms with what she is made of, to trust her own strength and courage. She does this by getting a job in a bathhouse to the Gods. If you have never seen the film before, I envy you. The level of invention is such that the first time I saw it I was almost flummoxed. There is simply so much to see, but despite the Rococo detailing throughout, the one scene that remains with me is a simple train ride. The world slides by outside the window, other lives slipping softly by, people get on and off, and the train moves on.

The majesty and heft of Spirited Away has at its heart a simple message of self-reliance. This is a message that doesn't come too often to girls; that hard work is its own reward, bravery and toughness are to be prized, but kindness and compassion are ultimately the only things that matter. 

Many a film critic has searched for superlatives to describe Miyazaki's films, but words aren't enough to capture the power of the night sky, when the clouds break across the moon and you feel your spirit physically expand in your chest, aching to break free of heavy flesh and soar upwards. Nor are they enough to describe what it really feels like to be a kid when summer afternoons stretch like warm taffy into soft night and the world is still big enough to contain all your longing and your dreams.

The most important and wonderful thing about all of these films is that they respect the strength and intelligence of children. Kids understand melancholy, grief, doubt and suffering as much as they know happiness and fun. Ghibli films neither pander nor preach; they simply tell a hell of a good story, and not just for kids, either. One of the greatest old lady characters of all time (Captain Dola of the pirates) makes a grand appearance in Castle in the Sky. So too, the magical testicles of the raccoons of Pompoko may force you to rub your eyes a little and think, "Did I really just see what I thought I did?" Yes, Virginia, those are some magic nuts.

These films are a gift. Unwrap them!  [Tyee]

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