The rare retrospective to get a victory lap soon after its first run, TIFF’s recent spotlight on the eighteen acclaimed films from Japan’s much-admired animation studio gets a second lease on life with Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli. A major hit with families when it showed at TIFF Bell Lightbox last spring, the retrospective returns with some key modifications, including a couple of prized screenings of 1988’s Grave of the Fireflies, which was unavailable for the last round.
Seldom projected in Canada and never given the royal Disney treatment afforded to the studio’s other major films, Grave of the Fireflies is an idiosyncratic entry in the Studio Ghibli canon, a film Roger Ebert famously cited as being capable of singlehandedly changing critics’ minds about what animation could do. Directed by Isao Takahata and based on the partially autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, the film is a moving depiction of World War II as glimpsed through the eyes of Seita, a fourteen-year-old boy who must take care of his young sister Setsuko when an American air raid destroys their home and kills their mother. By turns warm, melancholy, and bleak, the film, which is routinely ranked among the greatest animated pictures, is an episodic account of the children’s increasingly desperate lives as they amble through the countryside looking for food and shelter. As a gesture to its importance both to the history of animated filmmaking and to the studio’s development, the first screening will be introduced by Jesse Wente, Head of Film Programmes at TIFF.
Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful film but not necessarily the best fit for children, unlike the bulk of the programme’s offerings. Those seeking something a bit more family friendly would do well to take in the marvelous My Neighbor Totoro, the studio’s first international smash and arguably its most beloved work. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, the most prolific and well-regarded of Studio Ghibli’s filmmakers, the film tells the story of Satsuki and Mei, two young sisters who discover that their new house is also occupied by a number of dusty spirits, and find that the forest just past their front door is home to the enormous titular creature. Since the film’s success, Totoro has become Ghibli’s equivalent to Mickey Mouse, and for good reason: he’s a sweet and gently surreal creation, an undomesticated teddy bear who, in one of the most beautiful and strange sequences in the film, delights in the mere sound of raindrops falling on his comically undersized umbrella. More than its fantasy elements, though, what makes the film special is its staggering attention to detail and its emotional depth. This may be one of the most sophisticated children’s films to come down the pike, in part because of how astutely it renders the psychology of its young heroines, a preteen and a toddler trying to make sense of their mother’s illness and cope with their new surroundings while keeping their imaginations alive.
Plucky heroines are a Studio Ghibli staple, and they tend to lie at the heart of its best offerings. Among these, we’re especially fond of Kiki’s Delivery Service, a delicate coming-of-age fable about a young witch who leaves home at thirteen, as per tradition, to live on her own and find her footing in the big city. In addition to featuring some of the most impressive flying imagery ever rendered on film—several notches more realistic and affecting than the computer-generated trickery of most modern superhero movies—Kiki’s Delivery Service is also one of maybe a handful of children’s films to treat depression with seriousness and good faith, investing the young witch’s distressing time in the city, which results in the temporary loss of her powers, with real pathos.
The crown jewel of the retrospective, though, is surely Spirited Away. The studio’s lone Academy Award winner for Best Animated Film and the source of the retrospective’s title, Spirited Away might be Miyazaki’s most graceful fusion of his environmentalist politics, his sympathy for youth in distress, and his mythological storytelling. The film follows its young protagonist Chihiro’s eventful trip into a spirit world housed in an abandoned amusement park, where she comes into herself as an adult by learning to take on a new identity in a hostile place. Spirited Away is as good as young adult narratives get—a rich fantasy that’s ultimately about children’s real world anxieties about change.
The retrospective unofficially kicks off Thursday night with a masterclass on the studio’s first major film, Castle in the Sky, run by acclaimed genre filmmaker and TIFF ally Guillermo del Toro, whose fantasy films (particularly Pan’s Labyrinth) owe an obvious debt to Studio Ghibli. Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli runs until January 3. For more information on tickets and prices, see TIFF’s website.