The Studio Ghibli Collection: 1984-2009 (GKids, ratings vary)

film ghibli_75Two films per day, each day, equals 14 total Ghibli films you can see in the theater in a week. And you should damned well go to all of them, if your schedule allows it.

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Say, are you going through movie withdrawal now that this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, the single best SLIFF I’ve attended in the past 15 years, is over? Do you want to camp out in movie theaters all day, seeing great movies while the rest of the world is dealing with stupid Christmas shopping and cold weather? Well, I have just the thing for you! From Friday, November 30, until Thursday, December 6, Plaza Frontenac is running a Studio Ghibli retrospective, where they’re showing most of the fantastic and beloved Studio Ghibli feature films from newly struck 35mm prints (an increasingly rare thing to happen) for a week straight. Two films per day, each day, equals 14 total Ghibli films you can see in the theater in a week. And you should damned well go to all of them, if your schedule allows it. (I know I’ll be there.)

Studio Ghibli is better-known as Hayao Miyazaki’s studio, he being the single greatest figure in animation since Walt Disney, and director of such modern classics as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, which are two of the highest-grossing movies ever in Japan. (If you’re thinking, “Hey, what about Pixar and John Lasseter?” in reference to that “best since Disney” claim, Lasseter himself would tell you the same thing; he’s always been outspoken about how much he loves Miyazaki and how influential his films were on him and the rest of the Pixar team.) Miyazaki has worked with truly astonishing quality both in terms of story and animation for virtually his entire career; Studio Ghibli is the studio he began with the financial success he earned from 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (11/30 at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.), which is the earliest film in the Studio Ghibli Collection that we’re getting.

This tour began last year at the IFC Center in New York over the Christmas holidays under the collective title “Castles in the Sky,” and I was insanely jealous to be stuck here in St. Louis; I love Studio Ghibli, I love New York, and I love the IFC Center. When distributor GKids started taking it around the country over the course of the past year I allowed myself to get excited, and for it to make it to St. Louis now is near-perfect timing: I’m the opposite of movied-out after such a strong SLIFF, and also the weather was weirdly nice during it, so now that it has finally gotten cold, my want to hunker down in a movie theater and stay there can be sated by this.

I’ve seen all but one of the 14 films before—the one holdout is the 1991 Isao Takahata film Only Yesterday (12/6 at 4:30 p.m. and 9:45 p.m.), which is virtually impossible to see in the United States outside of this tour. And while I’m quite anxious to see it, its inclusion does point to the one thing you might want to complain about regarding this series: what it lacks. The most glaring omission is Takahata’s much-loved and totally devastating 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies, the rights to which have long been kind of goofy on this side of the Pacific (Disney owns the U.S. distribution rights on nearly all of the Studio Ghibli titles, but not that one). Also, in iterations of Castles in the Sky showing elsewhere in the country, they’re getting Tomomi Mochizuki’s 1995 film Ocean Waves, which I also haven’t seen, and which we don’t get here. And then we’re missing The Secret World of Arietty from earlier this year (which I was a big fan of), but the fact that this series covers only 1984 through 2009 is right there in the title. This time frame also excludes Miyazaki’s feature debut, The Castle of Cagliostro, which he made in 1979, before the creation of Studio Ghibli.

Among the 13 films in this retrospective that I have seen, six viewings have been in a movie theater from film prints. I can attest that this is far and away the best way to see them—it’s absolutely worth your trouble and money to go, even if you own these movies on DVD or Blu-ray and have watched them a million times. Chief among my fond memories of Ghibli movies in the theater is when the Tivoli ran Miyazaki’s 1988 film My Neighbor Totoro (12/2 at 11:45 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 7 p.m.) at midnight a few years back. Totoro—which, oddly, originally showed in Japan as a double bill with the tonal 180 Grave of the Fireflies—is perhaps my single favorite animated feature film of all time. That’s right: ever. Depending on your age and/or how experienced with Miyazaki’s back catalogue you already are, you may have caught 1997’s Princess Mononoke (12/6 at 11 a.m., 1:45 p.m., and 7 p.m.), 2001’s Spirited Away (12/1 at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.), 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle (11/30 at 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.), or 2008’s Ponyo (12/3 at 1:45 p.m. and 7 p.m.) in their original run. My personal first exposure to Miyazaki’s world was when Princess Mononoke premiered here in 1999, and at Plaza Frontenac, no less; it’s nice that my Miyazaki experience is coming full circle.

The other three Miyazaki films included in the series that I haven’t already mentioned are 1986’s Castle in the Sky (12/2 at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.) and 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (12/1 at 12:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.), which continued to escalate Miyazaki’s stature as one of his home country’s greatest filmmakers upon their release; and 1992’s Porco Rosso (12/3 at 4:15 p.m. and 9:15 p.m.), which is viewed by many as Miyazaki’s biggest failure. Even so, it’s a great film, a testament to his reliability that a film this good could be seen as a failure.

The remaining four films in the series are directed by non-Miyazaki directors at Studio Ghibli. Second to Miyazaki in terms of prominence and importance is the aforementioned Isao Takahata, whose 1994 film Pom Poko (12/4 at 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas (12/4 at 4 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.) are playing the Studio Ghibli Collection, in addition to his Only Yesterday. While I like My Neighbors the Yamadas, Pom Poko is probably the weakest entry in the retrospective. Again it’s still perfectly good; just brace yourself for a lot of lost-to-culture references to sitting on one’s testicles, or employing them as a parachute, or many other novel uses along those lines (large, noticeable ball sacks are an integral part of the legendary tanuki the film concerns itself with, or so I’ve read). Finally, the last two films are Hiroyuki Morita’s 2002 film The Cat Returns (12/5 at 1:45 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Yoshifumi Kondo’s mostly overlooked 1995 gem Whisper of the Heart (12/5 at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.), which shares some characters with The Cat Returns.

You’ll be hard pressed to have a better time in the theater this year than you’ll have in attending the Studio Ghibli Collection, so take the opportunity while you can. And for My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, bring the whole family. Actually, bring the whole family to all of them, but be warned that some of the movies, like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, can get kind of scary. (Mononoke’s rated PG-13, even.) The series has already returned to the IFC Center in New York, where its run last year was hugely successful; this year, they’ve stretched it over a month, and have included Grave of the Fireflies and Ocean Waves, alongside all the rest. Maybe if we’re lucky and it’s also a huge success in St. Louis, we’ll be treated to the same thing this time next year. | Pete Timmermann

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