Michaeline: Summer Ghibli Film Festival

A giant old tree that resembles Totoro.

A narrative can take surprising shapes and forms. Tree of Totoro, by contri via wikimedia commons.

It’s week three of summer vacation here in northern Japan, and my daughter decided to remedy a terrible gap in her education by renting 10 Ghibli DVDs last week. Ghibli is a world-famous animation studio, and you may know their films – Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro  and Kiki’s Delivery Service are just a few of the internationally released full-length features.

I’m trying to figure out what structures underlie the films. I’m not seeing a lot of 100 percent evil personified – this seems to be such a standard trope in fantasy. In Totoro, the only “evil” may be the mother’s illness, but that doesn’t drive the plot. Mei’s opinionated attitude does drive the plot, but can one really count the willfulness of a four-year-old as “evil”? LOL, it can be hard to deal with, but it’s not evil.

In Howl’s Moving Castle, the evil looks like it is anthropomorphized in the Witch of the Waste. But half-way through the film, the character makes a complete break with the character in the original Diana Wynne Jones book. Her power is drained, and she is turned into a doddering old woman – which contrasts nicely with the heroine, Sophie, who has been turned into a hale old woman by the Witch.

Without an antagonist, the conflict becomes softer and murkier. We get compelling tales, still, but they are about forming the bonds of community and society against bigger evils that individuals can’t control. Things like sickness or war or neglect.

The stories are absolutely charming. Sometimes the narrative leaves me scratching my head in confusion, but the details are often so perfect they leave me in tears of nostalgia. The Japan in a Ghibli film is a narrow slice of Japan, but it captures what was or what should have been so well. This attention to detail is most noticeable for me in the Japanese stories, but it also is apparent in realms where I don’t know what the “real thing” looks like. One feels so grounded and comfortable in a Ghibli film, and it gives a viewer a base on which to build emotions.

And let’s face it, Ghibli films are tear-jerkers. I don’t start watching one without making sure a tissue box is nearby. I learned my lesson from The Wind Rises when I ran out of tissue half way through the screening, and being in the theater meant I had no chance to pause the film and go find a box.

So, let’s turn the question over to you – what stories do you love that don’t have an obvious three-act, conflict-based structure? What makes you love them?

And as for me, I will pop a batch of popcorn and put the next DVD in the player. August is a great time for a film festival.

2 thoughts on “Michaeline: Summer Ghibli Film Festival

  1. I’ve never seen a Ghibli film, and I was very tempted until you said they’re tear-jerkers. I don’t willingly watch movies or read books that make me sad. The emotional legacy of a book, or movie, or play, or any piece of art, seems to stay with me for a long time, which is great if it’s upbeat and inspiring, not so good if it’s a heart-breaker. This is probably why I read so much romance 😉

    When I first read Terry Pratchett in the ’80s I thought his books were not very structured, or at least that wasn’t the point of them. I never read them for the plot but for the fabulous characters, brilliant use of language, wonderful jokes and lots of heart.The later books had great plots, too, and then I really fell in love.

    I also really like Anne Bishop’s urban fantasy series of the Others, beginning with Written In Red. There is a Big Evil, but the story is about how communities and society (the humans and an older, powerful supernatural race of Earth natives) change and interact with each other in the face of the Big Evil with the heroine (Meg) as a catalyst. Meg has a challenging personal arc too, and a wonderful slowly-developing love story. Book Four is scheduled for release on March 8th next year, not that I’m counting the days or anything 😉

    • (-: I’m not generally into tear-jerking, either, when it comes across as manipulative. “Oh, I need the reader to feel something, so I’m going to kill the dog, now.” I feel that a lot of the Ghibli sadness comes out of the basic situation. For example, I cried way too much at The Wind Rises. Part of the problem was that I saw it with a friend who was a crier, too, and maybe the resonance of the tear chemicals made us cry all the more. There were very sad situations in the story — earthquake, war and finally the final thing. But it rang true, and the thing is that Ghibli films have such perfect detail that it carries things through. Miyazaki’s love of the wind and of aircraft really shines through in The Wind Rises, and it’s fascinating to see how he captures that. My god, the way those baggy 30s style linen trousers hang off the hips of the hero, and billow in the wind . . . my heart still swoons remembering that detail.

      Pratchett is also someone talking about deep. There seems to me to be a plot or a through-line to all his stories, but it’s mostly a washing pole to hang all those details and observations off of.

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