Thirty years ago, veteran animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata joined forces to open a film studio. The goal was to raise the artistic standards of animation in Japan. This was around the same time that the Japanese style known as anime was beginning to make its presence felt in the West. Worldwide, the medium was in a lackluster state, bifurcated into material that was suitable only for children or only for adults. These two filmmakers shared a vision for animated films that could be appreciated by all ages. Resisting the hyperkinetic qualities of Western animation, their work meditated on both the quotidian and larger questions regarding nature and spirituality. These beautiful, emotionally rich, gently fantastical films became box office giants in their home country. By the 1990s, the Walt Disney Company took on the role of distributing them in North America, which has ensured that they stay in wide circulation ever since.
It is my great privilege to announce that I’ll be watching the twenty films of Studio Ghibli, in chronological order, next month.
Twenty films in thirty years — a steady stream of output, but no rush jobs, and only one semi-sequel released seven years after its predecessor. Still, that round number has a sad ring to it, because at this point there isn’t a twenty-first film in the works. Miyazaki has retired from directing feature-length movies. Takahata, at 79, is nearly six years older than Miyazaki and has no plans, to my knowledge, of making another film. The younger directors and animators at the studio can certainly continue to make worthwhile films, but whether they will do so under the Ghibli banner is an open question. With Disney leaving traditional hand-drawn animation behind, the loss of Studio Ghibli would be a crushing blow to the medium. Regardless of what happens next, this retrospective will take in both the beginning and the end of an era.
The Disney Animated Canon consisted, at the time of my journey through it in 2012, of 52 films; Steven Spielberg’s filmography in 2013, 28; the French New Wave (as I chose to define it last year), 32. This year’s group is comparatively small, but with an added wrinkle. Every Studio Ghibli film but one exists in a dubbed English version as well as the original Japanese. Ever since the 2000s, when I first started watching anime, the dubbed versions were what I watched, almost exclusively. Disney has typically been good at attracting interesting vocal ensembles for these movies, but there are serious questions about the artistic purity of the process. If I’m watching a live-action film, the presence of dubbing feels wrong immediately, so why should animation be different? I intend to study the matter extensively, watching nineteen of these films in two different languages, back-to-back. (Takahata’s Only Yesterday is the exception, having never been distributed on this continent; I purchased a copy from overseas.) In other words, the retrospective will take a little more than a month, concluding as usual with a wrap-up post on this blog, which may or may not include a “top” 10 since that’s half the films right there.
Studio Ghibli makes for a fine capstone to my film education this year. Not only did I start a series of blog posts about movies that exist in two different versions, but the overall plan of attack in my movie-watching was to put a dent in a tremendous personal blind spot — contemporary world cinema. Before this year, I had acquainted myself with the likes of Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, and Tarkovsky, at least, but I was still extraordinarily ignorant of the foreign films released since I was born. So I decided to watch five films each by seven (technically eight) filmmakers from Europe and Asia: Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, the Dardenne brothers, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lars von Trier, Jia Zhangke, and Pedro Almodóvar. Along the way, I also saw one or two films made in the 90s or later by the following: John Woo, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi, Ana Lily Amirpour, Céline Sciamma, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Bong Joon-ho, Tsai Ming-liang, Joachim Trier, and Jean-Luc Godard. It’s a fine start, if I do say so myself. And now those auteurs will shortly be joined by six directors from Japan.
Tenkû no shiro Rapyuta (Castle in the Sky) — Miyazaki, 1986
Hotaru no haka (Grave of the Fireflies) — Takahata, 1988
Tonari no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) — Miyazaki, 1988
Majo no takkyûbin (Kiki’s Delivery Service) — Miyazaki, 1989
Omoide poro poro (Only Yesterday) — Takahata, 1991
Kurenai no buta (Porco Rosso) — Miyazaki, 1992
Heisei tanuki gassen ponpoko (Pom Poko) — Takahata, 1994
Mimi wo sumaseba (Whisper of the Heart) — Yoshifumi Kondô, 1995
Mononoke-hime (Princess Mononoke) — Miyazaki, 1997
Hôhokekyo tonari no Yamada-kun (My Neighbors the Yamadas) — Takahata, 1999
Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) — Miyazaki, 2001
Neko no ongaeshi (The Cat Returns) — Hiroyuki Morita, 2002
Hauru no ugoku shiro (Howl’s Moving Castle) — Miyazaki, 2004
Gedo senki (Tales from Earthsea) — Gorô Miyazaki, 2006
Gake no ue no Ponyo (Ponyo) — H. Miyazaki, 2008
Kari-gurashi no Arietti (The Secret World of Arrietty) — Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010
Kokuriko-zaka kara (From Up on Poppy Hill) — G. Miyazaki, 2011
Kaze tachinu (The Wind Rises) — H. Miyazaki, 2013
Kaguya-hime no monogatari (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) — Takahata, 2013
Omoide no Mânî (When Marnie Was There) — Yonebayashi, 2014
As with previous years, I won’t do much writing during this time, besides capsule reviews for each film on Letterboxd. I’ll try to squeeze in a “My Favorite Movies” post in November again, but my other ongoing series will call it a year after October. Of course, there’s plenty of October left, and I’m very excited about the movies I’ll be taking a look at here in the next few weeks. But it was time to set the table for my next project, one that I’ve been looking forward to all year.