Oct 26 2011

Film Blog: Barbican Retrospective of Studio Ghibli

by Iggy Cortez

A still from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, 2001. 

Studio Ghibli, the animation studio behind modern day classics such as Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1998) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), doesn’t need any further introductions to the greater public. However, the London Barbican Centre’s retrospective of the Japanese animation studio’s films could not have come at a more pertinent time, running right before Barbican Animation Studio’s highly anticipated release of Arietty (directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi) and in conjunction with the multi-faceted art space’s exhibition on the history of animation. The film retrospective was not only a fantastic opportunity to see the animated movies on the big screen but also a chance to think about the enormous impact Studio Ghibli has had on other branches of the arts.

Steve Ross’s excellent piece in The Guardian, “Studio Ghibli: Leave the boys behind,” argues that Ghibli breaks the Disney mould for female heroines in animated epics. Whatever sass or pluck Disney princesses have demonstrated in recent offerings, the Disneyfied princess always ends up content with her prince, reinforcing the fantasy of marriage and wealth as the ultimate aspirations.

Not so with Studio Ghibli’s female leads. To cite but some: The princess of Princess Mononoke (1997), a fearless warrior raised by wolves; Sophie, the heroine of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), doesn’t let a curse that transforms her into an elderly lady diminish her quest for world peace; and, of course, Chihiro in Spirited Away (2001), who begins the film as a bored and bewildered child and is transformed into a mature heroine after coming in contact with the spirit realm. In many of Studio Ghibli’s films, the heroines undergo an interior transformation from insecure child to self-assured adult.

Ghibli worlds are often fantastical but far from straightforward parables and allegories; they insist on ambiguity, associative order and irresolution. I have yet to find a fan of Spirited Away who can give a straight answer to why the film, with its enigmatic metaphors and seemingly random parade of curious characters and non-sequitur events, provokes such a rush of awe and recognition. Perhaps the film’s genius, one it shares with most other Studio Ghibli films, is that it allows us to identify with that which is strange, unknowable and unconscious in all of us. 

But Studio Ghibli’s films don’t merely traffic in the realm of dreams; they have always stressed the value of moral purpose. Themes such as selflessness, or resisting tyranny and friendship across gender, class and even species, mark each film, with the protagonists hanging on to an innocent conviction in the nonnegotiable importance of being good. Before seeing Princess Mononoke—a film that unabashedly alludes to the historical prejudice against Japan’s northern Emishi tribes (perhaps related to the Ainu), and the environmental sacrifice made during the nation’s single-minded industrial development in the 1960s-70s—I thought of other works that have used animation to explore politics and ethics, such as Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), or the works of contemporary artists, Paul Chan and Kara Walker. While it is impossible to trace any direct influence from Studio Ghibli in the work of these other practitioners of animation, without Ghibli’s incredible contribution to the genre over the past twenty-five years, perhaps we wouldn’t have the same established sense of animation as a medium which can engage ethics, politics and fantasy.