Ghibli: Magic at the Cinema

Do you remember the first moment of magic you ever felt at the cinema? I’ve been around for a while, so I’m not sure I do, but I definitely remember one magical moment from the first time I saw a Ghibli film in Japan. The year was 2010, I was at the end of my first stint living in the country that has come to own my heart, and I decided to see The Secret World of Arrietty before I returned home. In that film, there’s a scene where Arrietty’s father sends her up to their ‘hunting grounds’ on a makeshift elevator, and the movement and sense of scale in that moment…in that darkened cinema, it simply took my breath away. I walked out of the cinema that day wishing from the bottom of my heart that this would not be the last time I would experience that magic. In July 2010, it seemed pretty bleak for Ghibli: Takahata Isao had not directed in years, and Miyazaki Hayao was still in his second retirement.

As we know, both Miyazaki and Takahata have returned since then—Miyazaki for the second time. But more importantly, anime has become big enough that even old classics are coming to cinemas overseas, bringing that magic I experienced to a whole host of new viewers. Towards the end of August this year, Madman Entertainment launched a month of Ghibli films, hosted at cinemas across Australia. Thankfully, my local cinema was screening every single one of them, subbed and dubbed, at least once. The more popular films, such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, were listed multiple times. Thus, despite missing the opening week (and the special poster Madman offered fans who went to see the opening show!), I managed to catch just about everything that I’d hoped to see.


First on my list was My Neighbor Totoro, which was simply fascinating. Despite multiple recommendations from friends over the years, I’d simply never gotten around to it—well, they’ll be glad to know this blip on my anime history has now been rectified! And I understand why this is so beloved in Japan; watching Mei and Satsuki on their adventures with their large furry friend and in that fantastical catbus made me want to return to my childhood, even if only so that I can fully enjoy the Ghibli museum in Mitaka. I really can’t wait to introduce Totoro to my neice and nephew!


Kiki’s Delivery Service was another film that I wanted to see. One of the reasons being that I’ve had a little Gigi keychain for ages now (it was a gift!), and it was just strange not to know what this character was like—I must admit, I thought Gigi was a girl! Other than that, what I remember most of the film was actually the theme song, “Rouge Message,” which we first hear on Kiki’s journey to her new home town. It sounded incredibly familiar, and I initially thought I might have heard it at karaoke sometime, back when I lived in Japan. After all, that’s where I’d heard old classics like “Cutie Honey” and “Gakuen Tengoku” for the first time. But when I looked for the song on my computer…turns out that I’d come across it courtesy of Durarara!!, because Celty’s character song from the first series had been a cover of “Rouge Message”! Come to think of it, a friend’s description of Kiki as being “incredibly hard-working” also fits for Celty, huh? Brings back memories indeed! In any case, I found Kiki quite enjoyable too; it’s just not one of my favourites.


But now we come to what was, for me, the highlight of the Ghibli Showcase. One Monday, I decided to spend the afternoon at the cinema, watching both The Tale of Princess Kaguya and the documentary that covers how Takahata Isao went about creating it. In my humble opinion, the documentary is necessary viewing. I was already astounded by the sheer extravagance of movement in the animation, but knowing what Takahata was aiming for—a style that really captures Kaguya’s sheer zest for living, which involved translating the soft linework of animator Tanabe Osamu into motion—I immediately wanted to sit down and watch the film again. Takahata’s strong desire to always seek something new, to explore the boundaries of what is capable in hand-drawn animation, is something that the structure of the industry really does not support. Constant innovation greatly increases costs from having to pay animators for so many years, and most projects simply would not be able to recoup those costs. But I dearly hope that the industry continues to create and maintain spaces for innovative spirits like Takahata (and Kyoto Animation’s Yamada Naoko as well) to thrive.


One other thing I’d like to mention from that documentary is a little disconnect I felt about Takahata’s take on Kaguya’s life. What struck me was the way he seemed to focus on Kaguya as realising that she was the one at fault for ‘not living fully’, as opposed to how I saw it on my first viewing—that it was her father and the world preventing her from doing so. I think this might be a more Westernised view—one reviewer even framed the story as being about “this child of nature…repeatedly kept from happiness by the forces of patriarchy.” So I’m really curious about how other Japanese people interpreted it, and whether there is indeed an East-West divide here. If you’ve seen The Tale of Princess Kaguya, what’s your take?


But for the moment, let me finish by talking about the experience that meant the most to me. Besides those four that I hadn’t seen before, I also wanted to revisit several others. But why pay money to watch four films I own on BD? Well, as I noted above, I need to thank Yonebayashi Hiromasa, for though The Secret World of Arrietty isn’t all that well regarded, catching that film on the big screen in Japan was the reason I wanted to take this trip down memory lane. There’s simply no question about it: Ghibli films need to be seen on the big screen. That said, I don’t really have much to say about Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, except that they were definitely worth the price of admission. I just want to gush about the film I saved for last.


Of course, it’s was just pure luck that Whisper of the Heart was the last film I saw during that one month. I’d originally planned to see it earlier, but with my credit card hurting from this slew of films straight after my US trip, I was incredibly grateful when my local cinema scheduled another screening two weeks later. And I really cannot express how much of a joy it was to catch this magical little story once again. It was originally introduced to me when I got to uni for the first time, by a friend who loved the romanticism imbued in those old library cards. Having spent a few years with them myself, I definitely get that, especially now. That fateful day in September actually started rehabilitating a particular kind of story for me, and I’ll write about that little journey a bit more in coming weeks.

More importantly, however, Shizuku’s journey of discovery in Whisper of the Heart means a lot to me. The lesson she learned about herself and her dream—that her talent is but a rock that she has to polish, until she uncovers the jewel that lies inside… That too, is what I need to do. Keep on working hard to polish myself, now and probably forever. It was exactly the encouragement that I needed at this point. So thank you Madman, for bringing this showcase down under again!

About karice
MAG fan, translator, and localization project manager. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

One Response to Ghibli: Magic at the Cinema

  1. Pingback: Worth Reading – 11/10/2017 – Apprentice Mages Lounge.

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