Festival preview: Ghibli's worlds of wonder

Animation • Five-week retrospective will show 15 of Japanese studio's magical films.

By Sean P. Means | The Salt Lake Tribune

Published August 3rd 2012 11:59 am



When movie audiences in Japan see the giant rabbitlike figure of Totoro, it's much the same as when Americans see Mickey Mouse on the logo of a Walt Disney animated movie.

Totoro is the symbol, and one of the first stars, of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio famed for the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" -- as well as "Ponyo," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and many others.

But Ghibli films -- 15 of which will be shown in a five-week retrospective, "Castles in the Sky," starting today at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas -- are different in tone and philosophy than Disney cartoons, according to Lien Fan Shen, assistant professor of film at the University of Utah.

"Because of the hegemony of Disney in the United States, audiences are so used to a culture of happy-ending animation. They are reassured that everything will be fine," Shen said in a phone interview. "That's quite distinct from Studio Ghibli.… [Ghibli's stories] give them a de-assurance of something that is going to happen. There's no real happy ending in Studio Ghibli films."

Not that the movies are downers, but the stories are more ambiguous.

Shen cites one of her favorites, "Princess Mononoke" (1997), which depicts a battle between forest-dwelling villagers attuned to the animal spirits and a technologically advanced town that has mastered gunmaking.

In "Mononoke," Shen said, "there are conflicts between humans and nature, technology and the mountain gods. The problem is not really solved in a humanistic way. The problem still remains. But at that moment [at the film's end], there is still harmony."

The retrospective has played in cities such as New York and Nashville, said Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit group that runs the Broadway and Tower theaters.

"It was not easy to get, because everybody wants it," Baker said, adding that she hopes family audiences -- which don't usually attend art-house theaters -- will be drawn to Ghibli's films.

Nine of the 15 films in the retrospective were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, acknowledged as the grand master of Japanese animation. Miyazaki, Baker said, "has this uncanny ability to see the world through children's eyes."

One of Miyazaki's trademarks is that his lead characters are often young girls -- such as in "Ponyo" (2008), "Spirited Away" (2001), "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989), "Castle in the Sky" (1986) and "Nausica? of the Valley of the Wind" (1984, made before Ghibli's founding but considered the beginning of the studio's canon).

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When movie audiences in Japan see the giant rabbitlike figure of Totoro, it's much the same as when Americans see Mickey Mouse on the logo of a Walt Disney animated movie.

Totoro is the symbol, and one of the first stars, of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio famed for the Oscar-winning "Spirited Away" -- as well as "Ponyo," "Howl's Moving Castle," "Kiki's Delivery Service" and many others.

But Ghibli films -- 15 of which will be shown in a five-week retrospective, "Castles in the Sky," starting today at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas -- are different in tone and philosophy than Disney cartoons, according to Lien Fan Shen, assistant professor of film at the University of Utah.

"Because of the hegemony of Disney in the United States, audiences are so used to a culture of happy-ending animation. They are reassured that everything will be fine," Shen said in a phone interview. "That's quite distinct from Studio Ghibli.… [Ghibli's stories] give them a de-assurance of something that is going to happen. There's no real happy ending in Studio Ghibli films."

Not that the movies are downers, but the stories are more ambiguous.

Shen cites one of her favorites, "Princess Mononoke" (1997), which depicts a battle between forest-dwelling villagers attuned to the animal spirits and a technologically advanced town that has mastered gunmaking.

In "Mononoke," Shen said, "there are conflicts between humans and nature, technology and the mountain gods. The problem is not really solved in a humanistic way. The problem still remains. But at that moment [at the film's end], there is still harmony."

The retrospective has played in cities such as New York and Nashville, said Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, the nonprofit group that runs the Broadway and Tower theaters.

"It was not easy to get, because everybody wants it," Baker said, adding that she hopes family audiences -- which don't usually attend art-house theaters -- will be drawn to Ghibli's films.

Nine of the 15 films in the retrospective were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, acknowledged as the grand master of Japanese animation. Miyazaki, Baker said, "has this uncanny ability to see the world through children's eyes."

One of Miyazaki's trademarks is that his lead characters are often young girls -- such as in "Ponyo" (2008), "Spirited Away" (2001), "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989), "Castle in the Sky" (1986) and "Nausica? of the Valley of the Wind" (1984, made before Ghibli's founding but considered the beginning of the studio's canon). [2] =>

Having a young female heroine plays against the typical male-hero story expectations, Shen said. "We know the [male] hero is going to fight for what he wants, and the hero will get what he wants. That storyline never happens" in most of Miyazaki's films, Shen said.

"Spirited Away," for example, tells of a little girl who is sucked out of reality and into a fantasy world of spirits. Like Dorothy in Oz or Alice in Wonderland, she must make her way back home -- but to do so, she must labor in a Japanese-style bathhouse that caters to strange spirits.

"Spirited Away" is perhaps the Miyazaki film best known to Americans, having won the animated-feature Oscar in 2003 -- after breaking into the U.S. market with the help of the Walt Disney Company. Disney got involved thanks to the lobbying of Pixar's John Lasseter, who oversaw an English-language dub of the movie.

According to Baker, Miyazaki resisted releasing his films in the United States for years, until Disney promised to put the resources behind good dubbing. The English-language versions now boast Hollywood stars such as Kirsten Dunst (on "Kiki's Delivery Service"), Christian Bale (in "Howl's Moving Castle") and Liam Neeson (in "Ponyo").

As a fan of Ghibli's films, Shen is excited for the retrospective at the Broadway. "I have seen all of these, except one, but I've never seen any of these in 35mm projection," she said.

movies@sltrib.com

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Studio Ghibli at Broadway

“Castles in the Sky,” a monthlong, 15-film retrospective of the films from Japan’s Studio Ghibli.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

When • Aug. 3-Sept. 6.

Passes • $100 for an all-access pass for all 15 films ($60 for Salt Lake Film Society members); $35 for a five-movie ticket package ($25 for SLFS members); regular prices for individual screenings.

Information • Go to saltlakefilmsociety.org.

Film schedule

P All films dubbed into English, unless otherwise noted.

Aug. 3-9 • “Pom Poko,” noon; “Kiki’s Delivery Service,” 4 and 7 p.m.; “Whisper of the Heart” (subtitled), 9:30 p.m.

Aug. 10-16 • “Castle in the Sky,” noon; “Princess Mononoke,” 4 and 7 p.m.; “Only Yesterday” (subtitled), 9:30 p.m.

Aug. 17-23 • “Ponyo,” noon; “My Neighbor Totoro,” 4 and 7 p.m.; “Howl’s Moving Castle,” 9:30 p.m.

Aug. 24-30 • “Nausica? of the Valley of the Wind,” noon; “Spirited Away” (subtitled), 4 and 7 p.m.; “Ocean Waves” (subtitled), 9:30 p.m.

Aug. 31-Sept. 6 • “The Cat Returns,” noon; “Porco Rosso,” 4 and 7 p.m.; “My Neighbors the Yamadas,” 9:30 p.m.