Since Studio Ghibli “restructured” in August 2014, output has been mostly limited to a picture book; a retrospective art exhibition; and a co-production role in Dutch-British animator Michaël Dudok de Wit’s feature film debut this year, The Red Turtle. But the Frida Cinema in Santa Ana reminds us why the groundbreaking Japanese anime house is so special with a Studio Ghibli Festival that runs Friday through July 21. Nineteen films will be shown daily and nightly over that span, with many getting repeat screenings throughout.
Ten of these animes were directed by Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki, whom Roger Ebert praised in 2002 as perhaps the best animation filmmaker of all time and upon whom the governors of the Academy Awards bestowed an honorary Oscar to in 2014 for his impact on animation and cinema. It was Miyazaki’s retirement that led the studio to restructure.
The festival includes Miyazaki’s 2002 Best Animated Feature Academy Award winner, Spirited Away, as well as other Oscar nominees Howl’s Moving Castle (also Miyazaki), The Wind Rises (Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (by the other studio co-founder, Isao Takahata, with Yoshiaki Nishimura) and When Marnie Was There (Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Nishimura).
Kicking things off Friday is Castle In the Sky, Miyazaki’s tale of a boy helping a girl who fell from the sky. That’s followed by one of the greatest animated films of all time, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki’s adaptation of his own manga series. Nausicaa, princess of the Valley of the Wind, tries to preserve peace with giant jungle insects. Incensed by the edit of what was released in the United States as Warriors of the Wind in 1985, Studio Ghibli instituted a “no cuts” policy for future projects.
In Howl’s Moving Castle, which screens Saturday morning, 18-year-old Sophie is transformed by the spiteful Witch of the Waste into a 90-year-old woman. In search of a cure, Sophie ends up working as a cleaning lady in a magical moving castle run by wizard Howl, who uses magic to stop a war. More Miyazaki follows that afternoon with My Neighbor Totoro, which has two girls being moved by their father to an old house so they can be closer to the hospital treating their ill mother. Nearby, the kids discover a forest inhabited by woodland spirits and magical creature Totoro, who leads them on adventures. Then comes Tales From Earthsea from Miyazaki’s son Goro, who set his animated tale in the kingdom of Enland, where wizard Ged investigates recent natural disasters, diseases and dragons fighting over the clouds. Next, it’s daddy Miyazaki’s masterpiece, Spirited Away, the most successful Japanese film of all time, about a family that takes a detour on their way to a new home and winds up in an unknown spirit world where the parents have been turned into pigs and their 10-year-old son is forced to work in an evil witch’s bathhouse. That’s followed by Miyazaki’s historical epic Princess Mononoke, which has the last Emishi prince burdened with a curse that gives him superhuman fighting abilities that will eventually kill him if he is not cured in time. The prince travels west for a cure, only to be embroiled in a war between forest gods and a mining company. Perhaps a package sent to Harvey Weinstein allowed Americans to see how masterfully Miyazaki captures the forests and villages of Japan’s tumultuous Muromachi period; when the then-Miramax co-chairman suggested edits to make Princess Mononoke more marketable, a Miyazaki producer supposedly sent an authentic Japanese sword and the message “No cuts.”
Sunday morning brings a Miyazaki story with a familiar ring to it, Ponyo. Five-year-old Sosuke finds a goldfish trapped in a container on the beach, names her Ponyo and keeps her as a pet. Little does he know that Ponyo is the daughter of a mysterious aquatic wizard named Fujimoto, who retrieves the fish who longs to be human, having developed feelings for Sosuke. The Little Mermaid, anyone? That afternoon brings Yonebayashi’s directorial debut, The Secret World of Arrietty, which is a critically acclaimed adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers. While staying with his aunt for a week, young Sho catches a glimpse of Arrietty, a miniature, 14-year-old member of the Clock family that has been secretly living in the walls and the floors of the house for generations. The discovery completely changes the Clocks’ way of life. Then it’s back to Miyazaki and his hilarious homage to aviation history, Porco Rosso. The titular character is a World War I ace-turned-bounty hunter who often rescues the hostages of air pirates—even though an unusual curse turned him into an anthropomorphic pig. Sunday evening begins with Miyazaki’s tale of a 13-year-old witch trainee, Kiki’s Delivery Service; living on her own, Kiki discovers the transition to adulthood is more difficult than she imagined. Among the most sobering entries in the Studio Ghibli catalog is Takahata’s Grave of Fireflies. Based on Akiyuki Nosaka’s semi-autobiographical short story, the anime features two children struggling to survive in World War II-torn Japan after they lose their mother to an air raid; as things get grimmer, they keep their spirits up by watching entertaining fireflies.
The festival shifts to two-a-days Monday with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Takahata’s adaptation of the 10th-century folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. The title character discovers a miniature baby inside a glowing bamboo shoot. He and his wife raise the girl as their own, and when she rapidly comes of age, her beauty becomes well-known throughout the land and several nobles propose to her. Monday concludes with a repeat showing of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.
On Tuesday, we drop in on My Neighbors the Yamadas, Takahata’s drastic departure from traditional anime as it’s hand-drawn in almost a comic-book style. The Yamadas live a common middle-class life in contemporary Tokyo; the parents struggle with the difficulties of modern parenting, and a live-in grandmother drops pearls of wisdom. Another Howl’s Moving Castle showing closes out Tuesday.
Wednesday begins with the 2014 film that triumphantly proved Studio Ghibli has a future post-Miyazaki. In When Marnie Was There, Yonebayashi expertly crafts the tale of a 12-year-old girl who meets another girl in an abandoned mansion, sees their friendship grow, then begins to wonder whether the new friend is real. Next is a Spirited Away rerun.
The Wind Rises, the final film of Miyazaki’s 50-plus-year career, rolls Thursday, July 14. Young Jiro Horikosho loves the skies and wants to be a pilot, but his nearsightedness disqualifies him. A dream persuades Jiro to engineer planes instead, and he rises to prominence in the field—only to meet a series of misfortunes. The day is capped with another My Neighbor Totoro showing.
The festival continues with repeat screenings of many of the films mentioned above as well as Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns, Goro Miyazaki’s From Up on Poppy Hill and Takahata’s Only Yesterday.
Studio Ghibli Festival at the Frida Cinema, 305 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; thefridacinema.org. Opens Fri. See website for show times. Through Thurs., July 21. $8-$10, with some $1-$7 matinees.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.