From the archive: The beauty of Studio Ghibli

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Upon the release of Spirited Away in 2003, Eddie Harrison took a deep dive into the mastery of Hayao Miyazaki

If you can stop looking at the pictures for a moment, I want to tell you about a spirit loose in our cinemas. In 1999 I was working as an AFI Film Festival usher in the El Capitan cinema, directly across Hollywood Boulevard from Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It was owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, and the staff whispered nervously that it was haunted by the spirit of a man who went in to see a matinee performance of the Emilio Estevez kids-on-ice hockey drama The Mighty Ducks. After ten minutes, he realised he’d seen enough, so he produced a gun and blew his brains across the back row.

Apparently, this critical spirit was only seen in rotten films, so as I tore my last ticket and tipped back my chair to watch Princess Mononoke, a two-and-a-half hour long Japanese cartoon about tree-hugging ecology, I feared the worst. I’d always had such scorn for anime and manga nerds in the corners of parties, dribbling on about Japanese animation. I thought cartoons were for kids, so I kept my torch pointing at the door.

When the lights came up, I’d been visited by spirits and seen an adventure story like I’d never witnessed before. It was something from another culture, something fresh, original and alive. Created at Studio Ghibli in Japan, Princess Mononoke offered some of the most beautiful images I’d ever seen, and some of the ugliest. When the two were together on screen, this wasn’t just cinema, this was art. I wanted to take it home with me and stick it on the wall.

The movie that won the best Animated Film at this year’s Oscars is the latest Studio Ghibli project, Spirited Away. It’s the story of Chihiro, a little girl who travels through a tunnel into a spirit world, where her parents are transformed into pigs and she’s forced to trade her own name in order to find work in a spiritual bathhouse for gods. Like most Ghibli films, Spirited Away draws on the Shinto religion, suggesting that everything in the physical world has a spirit that governs it. Aside from these fabulous creatures (six foot Easter chicks, babies the size of houses, witches who turn into crows) it’s Chihiro’s relationship with a masked man, a polluted river-spirit whose intentions towards her are never entirely clear, which lends it such a haunting pathos.

Now that I’m a Ghibli junkie, I covertly hunch over my computer at work, trying to buy soot monsters or an inflatable Totoro, then rush home to fly on my magical catbus. I even flew as far as America to buy a copy of Spirited Away because Amazon’s shipping wasn’t fast enough.

Who are these gods at Studio Ghibli who toy with my emotions so? Although he hates to be compared to Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki is a one-man animation studio who personally corrected, by hand, more than 80,000 of Princess Mononoke‘s 144,000 animation cells. Miyazaki’s job title is ‘shocho’ which means head of the office, and although he’s always threatening to retire, he’s so hands-on that he never quite manages it. He’s even been known to cook noodles for his entire staff at the end of a hard working day.

The Studio Ghibli philosophy is a business orientated one with 3 H’s: High Cost, High risk and High return. But unlike Disney, Ghibli’s merchandising is usually an afterthought. It took the company two years to realise that cuddly Totoros would be big sellers, but the character is now more recognisable in Japan than Mickey Mouse.

It also tries to take as much care with its animators as with its animation. Rather than hiring and firing, Ghibli used the success of their 1989 hit Kiki’s Delivery Service to introduce a fixed salary system for employees that doubled their income. When they moved from a rented floor to a new studio for which Miyazaki had personally drawn up the blueprints, he made sure there were twice as many ladies’ toilets as men’s, even though the workforce is evenly split. A smart move if you’re a ‘shocho’.

The word Ghibli means ‘hot wind blowing through the Sahara desert’ and was used during the Second World War by Italian pilots to describe their scouting planes. When he set up the company with director Isao Takahata, Miyazaki said ‘Let’s blow a sensational wind into the world of animation.’ And that’s exactly what his films do.

Take The Crimson Pig, a film about an Italian fighter pilot cursed to live as a pig, or Kiki’s Delivery Service, a twilight fantasy about a little girl whose training as a witch allows her to prevent a Zeppelin disaster. My Neighbour Totoro features a cat that’s also a bus. It’s called a catbus. And I haven’t even mentioned My Neighbours The Yamadas, or Nausicaa or The Valley of the Wind or The Castle of Cagliostro. These characters all fly, literally and metaphorically.

Pushing the boundaries further, Grave of the Fireflies depicts the small deaths of two children suffering from radiation poisoning in Hiroshima. From the opening line – ‘In 1945, on the night of 21 September, I died,’ – it’s a heart-rending adaptation of the novel by Akiyuki Takahata, who saw his own sister die of starvation. It shows the depth of Miyazaki’s belief that their output ‘probes into the depth of the human mind, that which illustrates the joys and sorrows of life as they really are.’

Studio Ghibli films come to us from another culture, and the experience of watching them is like hearing a new story as a child. Think of the first time you experienced The Wizard of Oz or Alice in Wonderland or Star Wars. They’re that good. And Miyazaki is still not retiring, currently at his desk directing an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s book Howl’s Moving Castle.

So come and join me in the corners at parties, and lets’ talk about ships that fly over rainbows, castles in the sky, and the places where the spirits come to rest. Look at the pictures, and let’s get Spirited Away.

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