Sprited Away (2001)
Sprited Away (2001)

By Tom Ue.

From 24 December to 10 January, the Toronto International Film Festival screens Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli, a programme of 22 feature films from one of the world’s most influential film studios. In what follows, I discuss the enduring appeal of Ghibli films with Chance Huskey, the Manager of Distribution at GKIDS. A New York-based distributor of award-winning feature animation for both adult and family audiences, GKIDS handles North American theatrical distribution for the famed Studio Ghibli library of films. Huskey is from Nashville and a graduate of  New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies.

Tell us about your own experience of Ghibli films.

My childhood best friend had the apocryphal 20th-Century-Fox VHS tape of My Neighbor Totoro (1988). My mom and I rented Spirited Away and watched it after I’d had my tonsils removed. The first one I saw in theaters was Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) back when theatrical releases were still on film and of course it blew me away. As a member of the distribution team here at GKIDS, I can say we go to great pains to present the films in the best possible quality, in theatrical settings, as the filmmakers intended them to be seen.

What, in your view, distinguishes them from other animations?

For me, it is the amount of care that goes into the details. Just as great writers imbue their work with just the right amount of precise detail, the filmmakers work to bring seemingly every corner of their worlds to life. A hallmark of Studio Ghibli titles is the depth of each character’s range of movements and the way he or she interacts with his or her environment; from the bow and arrow in Princess Mononoke (1997), to the bicycle in From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), to the fiddle in Whisper of the Heart (1995) and the koto in The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (2013).

Is there something unique about hand-drawn animations?

I think hand-drawn animation has the unique ability to reflect the humanity of its creators. It feels odd to say about Studio Ghibli’s films in particular but I think that the hand-drawn aspect allows for imperfections to shine through, and gives you an appreciation of the enormity of the task of animation. It’s just like any truly artisanal craft.

There’s a considerable amount of Japanese anime. What do you think contributes to Ghibli’s global popularity and its enduring appeal?

I think Studio Ghibli’s films possess emotional truths that are rare in cinema in general, let alone in Japanese animation. Their popularity, to me, speaks to the quality of their films above anything else. People want to share their love for Studio Ghibli films because they genuinely love them.

TIFF’s third edition of the retrospective features Goro Miyazaki’s Tales from Earthsea (2006) and Ghiblies: Episode 2 (2002). Tell us about these additions.

It was important to us and to Studio Ghibli that we included all the films in this edition. Ghiblies: Episode 2 was originally included on the theatrical release of The Cat Returns (2002), which is itself an underappreciated title in North America. The short was partly a way to experiment with the animation style ultimately featured in the 1999 film My Neighbors the Yamadas. In that way it serves as a missing link in the Studio Ghibli catalog and gives one a greater appreciation for the adventurousness (and humor) of the animators during this time. They were up to more than just Spirited Away. With Tales from Earthsea, the film’s initial release in North America was both delayed and a little perfunctory, so I feel audiences never got to evaluate the film on its own merits. As a fan of Le Guin’s work, I feel that Earthsea has a strong visual aesthetic of its own and ought to be seen in a theater. I’m very glad to help bring it back to North American screens, at TIFF Bell Lightbox and beyond.

Other gems in the series include Ocean Waves (1993), which is rarely seen. What do you think the juxtaposition of more realistic dramas like this with the fantasies of Miyazaki reveals?

One could say that Studio Ghibli, particularly in North America, is most famous for its works of fantasy. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate after working with their titles is the breadth of their catalog. I love their realistic dramas – some people call them “slice of life” – which include Ocean Waves (featured at TIFF in a new 4K restoration), From Up On Poppy Hill, and Whisper of the Heart among others. Some fans see those films as exceptional within the Studio Ghibli catalog but I see them as just as characteristic of the studio’s work as any of the fantasy films. Take Whisper of the Heart, for instance. It’s one of my favorite films, and it’s about a young girl who is writing a novel. That is a film very much about discovering the fantasy in the everyday. Even in Ocean Waves, in which the main character falls in love with a mysterious and erratic classmate, there is an exploration of the space between fantasy and reality. To what degree is his notion of her a fiction? Who is she really and, by extension, who is he really?

What’s next for Studio Ghibli?

I can’t speak for Studio Ghibli but I am excited that they participated in the international coproduction The Red Turtle (2016). I look forward to seeing how audiences consider its place within the Studio Ghibli catalog.

Tom Ue is Banting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of English at the University of Toronto at Scarborough. He has published widely on Studio Ghibli and is currently at work on a book about Hayao Miyazaki.

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