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.
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).