Starting tonight, the Aero Theatre will be showing nine films from Studio Ghibli over the course of a weekend. Writer Quinn Johnson explains the special quality of Ghibli films and how he successfully converted his friends at a past retrospective.
“Look, I love you, but don’t waste my free time because I never have any of it. I’m not gonna waste it watching anime. “
I am sitting with my best friends Chris and Jane. Chris is an actor/writer and Jane is a bookkeeper and budding fashion designer. I have been trying to convince Jane (unsuccessfully) to come watch Studio Ghibli's Whisper Of the Heart with me at the American Cinematheque's retrospective. But as soon as she found out it was animated, it was a no-go.
The idea that anime is for children is one that is hard to alter. In its native Japan, anime is considered an alternative to conventional narrative film and comes in all types and genres. In the 1990s, Japanese film could not compete with Hollywood. Instead they found their niche in the emerging manga/anime and video game market. There weren’t a lot of opportunities for people who aspired to direct traditional films to go into that medium. Take Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki’s lesser-known founding partner of Studio Ghibli, for example. He was inspired to direct after he saw the stark Italian Neorealist films of the postwar era, and sought to make slow, detail-oriented cinema capturing the human condition and day-to-day life. This realistic approach infuses Takahata’s films, which take place in a recognizable world we all inhabit. These are films for adults with the concerns of an adult world.
It’s impossible to discuss Studio Ghibli without reckoning with Hayao Miyazaki and the shadow he casts over anime and film in general. His imagination, his worlds, his characters, his technical abilities. Painstaking in his concentration of little details, from small artifacts in the background to drawing each water droplet individually in a scene of falling rain. Miyazaki’s characters are neither all good or all bad, never making it too easy for the audience.
Today in our culture, I feel “strong female character” is an empty buzzword. Give a girl a gun and an action role, and she's strong. But Miyazaki's female characters shine because they are rich with substance. We see into their inner life, how they think and feel and deal with challenges. His women defy traditional roles while celebrating femininity. They have lovers and men who support them, but never depend on them. There are times when watching Ghibli films that I wonder how a bunch of men could have written these scripts. Though this all adds to Studio Ghibli’s charm, I don't think this alone is what makes Studio Ghibli movies truly special.
Someone once asked Miyazaki why he spends so long focusing on details that people would never consciously be able to appreciate. His reply was that you may not be able to see it but you’d feel it. He is entirely correct. You feel his movies. Both Miyazaki and Takahata were obsessed with the small moments in life. That's what makes their movies exceptional. Miyazaki will capture the small human behavior of the way a little girl ties her shoes or how a man has to grab his hat in the wind or how two people adjust while trying to sleep next to each other. He’ll spend time on every little nuance, taking a pause for the character to observe and reflect on the world around them instead of just moving the plot forward from action to action. He illustrates the tiny parts of existence we take for granted. Watching Miyazaki’s movies, you begin to feel nostalgic about life. Many of his films aren't so filled with huge stakes to move the plot forward as they are with well-captured reflective moments. They celebrate them, because that's where the magic really is.
Fast forward: Chris, Jane, and I are at the Aero Theatre for the double feature screening of Ghibli’s Porco Rosso and Whisper of the Heart. I somehow convinced Jane to come, even though she’s still resisting as we take our seats. As Porco Rosso begins, Jane turns to me with eyes of contempt. “Is that a pig flying a plane?” she asks. I whisper to give it a chance. She turns back to the movie and in a couple hours it ends. As the lights come on, I hear Jane say, “Yeah, it was alright.” I think she liked it more than she’s letting on, but I don’t say anything. We start the Whisper of the Heart. Halfway through, in a scene where the lead female character descends to the patio of an antique shop that looks over all of Tokyo... the girl takes in the view and the music rises... I can feel myself beginning to be moved in my chest. Jane is clearly feeling the same way and trying to hold it together. She looks at me and whispers “Oh Quinn.” This leads to a scene where the characters begin to sing John Denver's “Country Roads” And as I look over, Jane is visibly shaking and sobbing. By the end of the movie, she is clapping louder than anyone in the theatre and we have to quiet her down a bit. As Jane leaves the theatre she’s singing “Country Roads” and in the car ride home I’m talking to her about how in the movie the characters love for each other is captured in the moments they share with one another. Like this, I think to myself. Like going to a great movie with your friends. Like the car ride home when you talk about it. The tiny details of being alive we all take for granted. But Miyazaki reminds us to remember. That night I recall the wonder of not just seeing film, but feeling it long after the credits fade and the lights come up.
Quinn Johnson has long been a fan of anime and Japanese role-playing games, having grown up with them during the 1990s. His first encounter with Miyazaki was 1997's Princess Mononoke and he has been a Studio Ghibli fan ever since. Quinn dreams of A&Ring hip hop for a major label and adapting anime/manga properties for TV shows in America. When not spending time doing those, you can find him bartending at your favorite pub in Hollywood or DTLA. Find him on Facebook at QuinnRJ