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January 25, 2012

Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

Posted in: Animation,Anime,Movies

edit nausicaa11 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

"Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind" began as a manga, but Hayao Miyazaki's story became incredibly popular, and an animated film was released in 1984. Nausicaä, a brave, glider-flying princess, lives in a valley with strong winds that protect its inhabitants from a sea of toxic spores and giant insects. When a warship crashes in the valley and invades Nausicaä's home, she sets out to prevent war and find a solution to the ecological crisis. (Studio Ghibli)

edit castle21 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

Miyazaki's love of flight is explored in "Castle in the Sky," a lush fantasy about a young boy and girl who battle air pirates in a quest to find a mysterious floating island. (Studio Ghibli)

edit totoro21 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

The furry monster from Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro" is available everywhere as a stuffed animal, making it the most visible symbol of Ghibli's marketing prowess. This is Miyazaki's Mickey Mouse. (Studio Ghibli)

edit porco51 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

"Porco Rosso," released in 1992, follows its title character, a daredevil bounty hunter, who acquired his porcine, if bogartian, alter ego after losing his friends in wartime. Porco pilots his beautiful red seaplane high above the Adriatic while a beautiful nightclub singer waits below. (Studio Ghibli)

ocean waves1 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

"Ocean Waves" was a TV movie that was the first Studio Ghibli film to not be directed by Miyazaki or Takahata. Ghibli attempted to make a film about a high school love triangle, that could be done cheaply with all the animators in their 20s and 30s.

edit pompoko41 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

The 1994 film "Pom Poko" chronicles a group of tanuki, raccoon-like creatures from Japanese folklore who possess skills of illusion that allow them to shape-shift. The tanuki mount a resistance when their forest home is threatened by suburban development. (Studio Ghibli)

edit mononoke51 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

"Princess Mononoke" (1997) tells the story of a young man afflicted with a curse that gives him extraordinary power on the battlefield but will lead to his eventual death. This lush fantasy follows his quest to stop the curse from claiming his life. (Studio Ghibli)

kiki1 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

A teenage girl's struggle to become independent is the central theme of "Kiki's Delivery Service." Miyazaki's film follows a 13-year-old witch in training whose sole talent is her ability to fly her broom.

edit spirited81 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

The breakout hit "Spirited Away" out-grossed "Titanic" in Japan and won an Oscar for best animated feature. It tells the story of a young girl stranded in a bathhouse for Shinto gods after her parents are turned into pigs. (Studio Ghibli)

howlsmovingcastle1 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

Based on the novel by Diana Wynne Jones, "Howl's Moving Castle" is the story of a teenage girl named Sophie, hexed with an old woman's body, who seeks out handsome wizard Howl in her quest to reverse the curse. (Studio Ghibli)

Disney and Pixar Chief John Lasseter has called Hayao Miyazaki, the co-founder of Japan’s revered Studio Ghibli, one of the greatest animators of all time.

Starting Thursday, the American Cinematheque is showing 14 examples of his studio’s genre-defying works, including the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away,” the children’s fantasy “My Neighbor Totoro” and the more adult fantasy “Princess Mononoke” (featuring an English-language adaptation by fantasy heavyweight Neil Gaiman) at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.

“There’s a humanity in these films,” said Eric Beckman, whose company GKids put together the current touring retrospective. “Even the fantasy films are based on a real sense of magic and wonder in everyday things. Every tree or blade of grass or rock or animal has this spiritual essence of life.”

Founded in 1985 by Miyazaki, his mentor Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s films are consistent box-office smashes in Japan — out-grossing even James Cameron’s “Titanic.” Miyazaki is seen as something of a Walt Disney figure and the studio has its own whimsical museum, a cross between a fine arts museum and a theme park, in a suburb of Tokyo.

The exact source of Ghibli’s magic is hard to discern at first glance. Like so much of its competition, the studio traffics mostly in lush fantasy and cute furry creatures, but somehow stands apart.

“If you were to ask Miyazaki, he would say the films he makes are not anime,” said Simon Richmond, author of “The Rough Guide to Anime,” who credits “Totoro” as the film that cemented his love of the form. “They’re animation films. They’re very distinct from the rest of the animation industry in Japan.”

Part of that distinction is in the level of exacting detail put into each film. Up until a few years ago, tricky visual effects were created entirely by hand. (Though Ghibli films use computer aids now, they still retain the hand-drawn look and eschew the slick computer animation style of some Hollywood-style animation).

miyazaki1 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

Legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki photographed at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2009. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

“I once asked Miyazaki-san if all that effort put into a shot that goes by in a split-second was really worth it,” said former Walt Disney Studios executive Steve Alpert, who handled Ghibli’s overseas division for 15 years and is now semi-retired. “He told me, ‘You may not think you see it, but you feel it.'”

Ghibli’s films can be sprawling and rambling — and that nonlinear structure can be frustrating to some viewers.

Miyazaki’s first major box office success, the pro-environment “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” was severely edited, altered and redubbed and retitled “Warriors of the Wind” for its American release. The story line was unrecognizable to the horrified Miyazaki, and the studio avoided releasing its films in the U.S. for a decade.

mononoke11 Hayao Miyazaki: Studio Ghibli films spirited away to the big screen

Claire Danes provided the voice of San in the American release of "Princess Mononoke" in 1997. (Studio Ghibli)

When producer Harvey Weinstein suggested several edits to “Princess Mononoke” to improve the film’s commercial chances in the U.S. in 1997, Miyazaki’s producer mailed Weinstein a samurai sword with the message, “No cuts.” Weinstein didn’t edit the film.

Although Miyazaki’s films have gained the most notoriety, Takahata’s creations offer their own distinct adult pleasures. His 1991 film “Only Yesterday,” which will have its Los Angeles premiere as part of the Cinematheque retrospective, follows a 27-year-old Tokyo office worker during her vacation in the Japanese countryside and the memories she has of her childhood. Not a giant-fighting robot or a busty girl in a school uniform in sight.

Other Ghibli films on tap include “Porco Rosso,” Miyazaki’s love letter to 20th century flight about a dashing pig aviator and his dogfighting battles in the skies above a post-World War I Europe, and “Pom Poko,” about magical shape-shifting raccoons doing battle with a human construction crew in their forest home.

“These films demand to be seen on the big screen,” Beckman said. The retrospective concludes Feb. 12, but viewers will have another opportunity to catch Ghibli’s spirit on the big screen. On Feb. 17, Disney will release an English-language version of “The Secret World of Arrietty,” an animated adventure based on Mary Norton’s acclaimed children’s book series “The Borrowers,” produced by Studio Ghibli.

– Patrick Kevin Day

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