Best of 2012: Castles in the Sky

In downtown Vancouver, on Howe Street between Davie and Helmcken Streets, there is a little art-house cinema called The Cinematheque. And through this December into early January, they are running a season of Studio Ghibli films.

While I’m not obsessive about it, I do love every Studio Ghibli film I have seen to date. The quality of animation and the imagination of their storytelling is absolutely unparalleled, particularly those of visionary director Hayao Miyazaki – easily the world’s greatest living animator.

At the Cinematheque, these films are being presented as new 35mm subtitled prints. No English dubs (though the more recent dubs are perfectly serviceable, it’s nice to hear the same performances that Japanese audiences did).

Unfortunately the season had to run at a time when I’ve worked night shifts and so I’ve missed a few that I haven’t seen before. The season is not yet over, so there’s still time for me to catch a couple fresh ones, though not as many as I’d like.

The first evening I arrived the first showing (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) had sold out, but I made it into the second bill, which was Castle in the Sky aka Laputa: Castle in the Sky, which I had not seen. This film is ASTONISHING. Just, absolutely incredible. I’ve no idea how I managed to get this far through my life without seeing it, especially considering I used to live with a Ghibli fanatic.

These robots are either terrifying deadly machines, or quietly sad lonely gardeners. Or both.
These robots are either terrifying destructive war-machines, or quietly sad, lonely gardeners. Perhaps both.

There’s like, this castle, and it’s in the sky. And there are people who live in a kind of Welsh mining town. And everyone flies around in crazy airships, and a girl falls from the sky. And they’re being chased by pirates and the military, and ultimately it’s all about the hubris of man and the lust for power.

On my second evening I managed to catch the full double bill of Princess Mononoke and My Neighbour Totoro, which I think are my two favourites of the studio’s work. Princess Mononoke is brutally violent in places, and a lot of the imagery is surprisingly dark. A monstrous boar covered in writhing black demonic worms, a young woman raised by a wolf god with blood smeared across her face.

If I were a kid watching this, I'm pretty sure this would be the scariest thing I ever saw.
If I were a kid watching this, I’m pretty sure this would be the scariest thing I ever saw. I don’t think this is a movie for children.

It’s also pretty much all about war, hatred, revenge, and the greed of humanity. Refreshing to see something where the humans are essentially the bad guys (though Princess Mononoke is largely beyond such binary moral distinctions). A story of genuinely epic proportions, still one of the greatest achievements in traditionally animated film ever produced (though some computer animation was also utilised).

Thankfully the darkness of the first film was swept away by the pure childlike joy of the second, My Neighbour Totoro, which I think is probably the best film for children ever produced. It’s sweet, it’s touching, it has the cutest giant hairy monster you’ll ever see, and best of all, it’s a celebration of the imagination of children, and the magic of childhood that is often lost as we grow up.

This film could melt the hearts of even the most cynical human being on Earth.
This film could melt the hearts of even the most cynical human being on Earth.

The children in this film are so incredibly likeable that it’s hard not to get swept up in the film’s charming and inviting world. That and the fact that this film features a two extremely iconic characters, Totoro himself, and even better, the Catbus, literally a giant cat-looking thing that is also a bus. Never again will anyone ever create a thing so delightfully ridiculous as the Catbus.

Last night I was able to catch another double bill, this time of Howl’s Moving Castle, followed by Spirited Away. The former is probably my least favourite of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. It’s not that I dislike it, it’s that I don’t think it really deals with all of its themes particularly well. I heard someone in the theatre say afterwards they much preferred the latter half, but I think my problem is with the middle of the film, where it seems to want to do something with the war subplot (Howl as a giant bird flying through dark skies taking on enemy wizards is awesome), but that gets sidelined in favour of a bunch of wacky fun magic stuff. Thankfully in the tail end they manage to round out most of the characters really well, especially Howl. Also, the titular castle itself, is a pretty incredible design, a character in its own right.

It is a castle of sorts. It moves. Howl owns it. Pretty much exactly what you'd expect.
It is a castle of sorts. It moves. Howl owns it. Pretty much exactly what you’d expect.

I think it works, just not as well as it could. This might sound like an odd complaint, but it almost seems like too much time spent with characters and not enough on the plot.

Spirited Away is still incredible however. Again, it’s a little too dark by western standards to call it a kid’s movie. There’s a lot of monstrous vomiting, bleeding and hideous oozing going on. But the imagination on show in the character design and the beautiful animation shines through.

If it offers you gold, DO NOT TAKE THE GOLD.
If it offers you gold, DO NOT TAKE THE GOLD.

The story is a really strong hero’s journey. Chihiro is an endearing character, but for me it’s No Face that steals the show, with its disturbing desperately lonely moan as it offers gold to the greedy bathhouse staff. Of all Studio Ghibli’s films, I think this might be the only one that I could probably watch without subtitles and still fully enjoy.

The season is not yet over, and I hope to catch a few more before it closes. Unfortunately I will miss more than I will be able to see, but the season has done two things for me: reignited my love of Studio Ghibli, and introduced me to a wonderful film theatre that I shall likely continue to frequent.

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