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Studio Ghibli Retrospective TIFF

Studio Ghibli retrospective arrives at TIFF Lightbox

This week marks the beginning of Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a near-exhaustive program full of the films that made the studio one of the best and brightest animation studios in the world.

From Castle in the Sky to Ponyo, Studio Ghibli knows how to tell all kinds of stories, whether an environmentally charged fantasy such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, to a rowdy comedy like My Neighbors, the Yamadas or an endearing contemporary romance like Only Yesterday. Ghibli has created some of the most memorable family-friendly films and characters of the last 30 years and almost all of them are being screened at the Lightbox. Below are a few of my favourite selections.


Studio Ghibli doesn't just create environmental odes or fantasy adventures, several of their core films are about contemporary Japanese life. In Whisper of the Heart, the story revolves around a pair of earnest teenagers, primarily Shizuku, an aspiring writer and her crush, Seiji, a talented young violin-maker. When Seiji travels to Italy for training, Shizuku embarks on an obsessive writing binge with a series of stories about a cat 'The Baron' and his adventures, to explore her talents until Seiji returns.


Definitely the most famous Studio Ghibli film in the west, Princess Mononoke ushered in a wave of commercially viable anime features in North America that were targeted at adults instead of children. A serious and beautiful reflection on environmental sustainability, the film follows a male protagonist Ashitaka (uncommon for Ghibli) who is dying from an uncurable poison and caught in the middle of a lethal battle between an industrial settlement and the forest creatures and spirits affected by their clear-cutting.


A pseudo-sequel to Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns takes a dip into the fantastical, proposing a 'What If' scenario. What if the Baron (mentioned above) was really alive? In this story, Haru, a quiet teenager saves a cat from being squished by a truck and discovers that there exists a secretive feline world and monarchy that she is now a part of. The cat she had saved is the prince of the cat kingdom and now she must marry him. A kindly voice leads her to the Baron, the only cat-person who can help her with this mess and yet another adventure begins.


The namesake of this series, the first time I saw Spirited Away it reminded me a bit of Alice in Wonderland thrown in a blender and mixed full of Japanese folk history. While moving to a new home, our protagonist Chihiro and her parents find an abandoned amusement park that is devoid of guests but still has food and drink a-brewing. Suspicious of the feast, Chihiro watches in horror as her parents are turned into pigs and herded away. To save her parents she has to decide who is a friend and foe in this alternate-reality, trusting and tangling with witches, dragons and spirits alike.


Probably my favourite classic Ghibli film, 24 years ago the world was introduced to Totoro and the Catbus and fandom has never been the same. Sisters Satsuki and Mei move to the country to be near the rural hospital where their mother is currently convalescing (another example of Ghibli's focus on family and rural life) and they befriend some forest spirits who introduce them to Totoro, a kind-hearted gentle giant who leads them on fanciful adventures. But stress due to their mother's illness takes a toll and when Mei goes missing after a confrontation with her sister, Satsuki begs for Totoro's help to find her.

Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli is running through April 13 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. All films will screen multiple times except for Ponyo, Howl's Moving Castle and My Neighbors, the Yamadas. The only Ghibli films not included in this retrospective are Tales from Earthsea, Grave of the Fireflies and The Secret World of Arrietty, the latter of which can still be seen in the first-run cinemas. Be sure to check the website as both dubbed and subbed versions of most films will be screened. Tickets are $12 for adults and can be purchased at the cinema or online.

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