Monday, December 10, 2012

Studio Ghibli festival hits Vancouver!

There's a major Miyazaki Hayao/ Studio Ghibli retrospective starting this week at Vancouver's two arthouse cinemas (Vancity Theatre writeup here, Cinematheque here). I normally don't have much fondness for family-oriented cartoons, truth be known; I find Disney product particularly annoying, and often wonder if they bought the rights to distribute Ghibli products on DVD in North America with an eye towards overpricing them so as to lessen the competitiveness of Ghibli with their own studio's (far crasser) output.
Seeing Ghibli product on DVD priced at $30 and above in North America has long bugged me - I'm not sure how wise it was for Ghibli to have entered into a deal with a company that regards them very much as competitors, since Studio Ghibli films often outperform Disney product in Japan, and Disney may want to make sure such a thing never happens here. Frequently I've contemplated buying a few of these DVDs, and been stopped by the exorbitant pricetags. It's a shame, because Miyazaki, the main force behind Studio Ghibli, is a gifted artist, and a non-pandering, sensitive storyteller, with genuine respect for his audiences, which I don't for a minute believe Disney has. (There's a great song by Dutch punk band The Ex about Disney and Hollywood and such - they're after my heart on this one; hear it with lyrics here).

Disney-gripes aside - I was first introduced to Miyazaki's work in the 1980s via what at the time seemed a rather magical VHS release called Warriors of the Wind. I have since learned that it was a disrespectful North American re-edit of Nausicca Of The Valley Of The Wind. Nausicaa is my favourite of the Ghibli films, but even the truncated, dubbed version - click the title for the Wikipedia page, including stories as to the changes made - there was clearly more meat to chew on than in thousands of North American-produced children's films. The original story, like Warriors of the Wind, follows the "hero's journey" template (tho' Nausicaa is, in fact, a heroine), but is packed with ecological meaning that the American version downplays. The film is so visually rich, creative, and ambitious that its rather stunning to realize it was Miyazaki's first; the original version will screen at the Cinematheque in Japanese and at the Vancity Theatre in English, which is the pattern for several of the screenings in this series.
Certainly Spirited Away is also a must-see, if you've managed to miss it (Vancity listing, Cinematheque). The film follows the adventures of a young girl who inadvertently gets her first job at a public bath for Gods and spirits, working under a witch (voiced in the English language version by Suzanne Pleshette, whom I used to have a crush on back in the days of early Bob Newhart, but I guess I don't need to include that detail). While generally I prefer to watch animated films in their dubbed versions, so as to focus on the imagery, I first saw this film in Japan, in Japanese, without subtitles, and was so impressed that I went back for a second viewing, even though my Japanese was so rudimentary, I couldn't really follow the plot, which does get rather... unusual. Some sense of the richness available to people who understand the film in its original language can be gotten from looking at the original title, Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi. The concept of kamikakushi was explained to me by the student I first saw the film with; it involves being abducted by Gods or ghosts or such - which makes "spirited away" a pretty apt translation. The first part, though, refers to the abduction as pertaining to "Sen" and "Chihiro," who are actually the same person; people who have seen the film will recall the scene where the witch steals Chihiro's name, and gives her back one character in it, which can be pronounced as "Sen." This sets up a bit of wordplay in the title, which has to do with the fact that "sento" is the Japanese word for public bath. So "Sen and Chihiro's Divine Abduction" also reads as "Bathhouse Chihiro's Divine Abduction" - a level of meaning that really can't be appreciated if you delve no deeper than the English-dubbed version. Then again, if you don't speak Japanese, a lot will be lost on you anyhow...!
True die-hard Ghibli fans will want to take special note of two particular screenings, both at the Cinematheque (and only seeable in Japanese with subtitles). The Ocean Waves, directed by Mochizuki Tomomi, has never screened in North America previously; there's also Takahata Isao's Only Yesterday. I haven't seen either of these films, but I'm familiar with Takahata's better-known Pom Poko, which I hope I'll have a chance to catch; that one is a story of magical, mischievous tanuki - a sort of Japanese raccoon, often called "raccoon dogs" in translation, though there's not much doglike about them. As with many of these films, Japan's nature-worshipping pagan past is a highly visible element, though people with no real knowledge of Japanese culture can still find a lot of magic here.
Most of these screenings are all-ages friendly; anyone with film-loving, creative children should attempt at least one of these films, while you can see them on the big screen. There are tons more films in the series that I have not mentioned. Of the ones I've seen, I'm also a big fan of My Neighbour Totoro, and had neighbours in Japan who had their hedges cut to resemble totoros... but I'll leave you to explore the listings on your own. Thanks to the Vancity Theatre and the Pacific Cinematheque for putting this series on; I'll probably only catch one or two films, my life bein' what it is these days, but even getting to see Nausicaa on the screen (for the first time ever!) makes me amply grateful...!

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