Arts and Entertainment

Ghibli Fest: Totoro Returns to Theaters

Select Studio Ghibli films return to theaters over the summer to recapture the magic of hand-drawn animation.

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By Celise Lin

“I would like to make a film to tell children it's good to be alive,” Hayao Miyakazi once said in an interview. This is the spirit that embodies every one of the films produced by the legendary Studio Ghibli, which Miyakazi helped found. Born in suburban Tokyo in 1985 with the collaboration of Miyazaki, an animator, renowned director Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli has since established itself as an international icon of creative moviemaking. 

The gorgeous animation style and profound storylines exemplified in films such as Princess Mononoke (1997) and The Wind Rises (2013) allow the studio to appeal to both adults and children equally. Joe Hisaishi, who has composed most of the soundtracks for Miyakazi’s films, further cemented the Ghibli brand with his music (see: the instantly recognizable “Merry-Go-Round of Life”). Over the years, Studio Ghibli has produced 23 feature films, almost all of which utilize the same distinctive hand-drawn animation style. This year, The Boy and the Heron won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. It’s clear that Ghibli’s popularity has not declined since its founding.

This is why the Ghibli Festival, in which old Studio Ghibli films are screened in theaters nationally, is so successful. Ghibli Fest began in 2017, screening only six movies and lasting from June to November. Since then, it has only expanded its reach (the only exception being when it was canceled during the pandemic). This year, Ghibli Fest began on April 27 and will continue until December 11 with the final showing of the 14th film, My Neighbor Totoro (1988). 

This event offers an opportunity for new generations of kids to experience the wonder of viewing such carefully handcrafted pieces of art in their originally intended environment: a dark cinema with a huge silver screen. The lush visuals of these films make them perfectly suited for movie theaters—going to the movies inspires an appreciation for art and film from young audiences who weren’t alive at the time of their original release and reignites nostalgia for older generations.

Thus, here are three recommendations for what to see at Ghibli Fest:

Princess Mononoke (1997) — July 13, 14, 15, 16, 17

Princess Mononoke is easily one of my top three Studio Ghibli movies. I was 10 when I first watched it with my siblings, and a lot of the themes flew over my head, but nonetheless, it’s a beautiful movie with spectacular character design and visuals. The film is set during the Muromachi period of Japanese history and draws inspiration from Japanese mythology and nature, which is evident in the plot. 

Despite being released in 1997, Princess Mononoke’s central theme of environmentalism is portrayed through a conflict between greed-driven manufacturing and the preservation of natural landscapes. As I’ve become more aware of the climate crisis, Princess Mononoke’s message carries all the more poignancy and weight. Miyazaki, who has frequently expressed his desire that nature might flourish again if given more breathing room from oppressive industrialism, carefully refined a kid-friendly message of love for our planet.

Ponyo (2008) — August 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Ponyo is another example of Ghibli’s powerful depiction of nature, this time highlighting the beauty of the sea and its influence on our lives. “I like Ponyo because it doesn’t take the traditional mermaid route when it comes to ocean cartoons,” junior Nathalie Cuevas said in an online interview. “The colors are beautiful, and it reminds me of standing in front of an aquarium because there are so many fish. I love the storyline, and I also enjoy how people don’t question anything out of the ordinary in that movie.” Miyakazi’s characteristic use of magical realism in the film helps capture the childlike wonder that pervades all his best films. Ponyo is the first Ghibli film I ever remember watching; its DVD occupies a permanent spot in one of my family’s bookcases.

Whisper of the Heart (1995) — August 25, 27

Ghibli’s masterful take on the fantasy genre has given the studio many of its most highly acclaimed films, such as Spirited Away (2001) and My Neighbor Totoro (1988). However, the truly distinct element of many Ghibli films is their approach to showing the beauty of everyday life; this is what creates a balance between magic and nostalgia. “I feel like Studio Ghibli never has a bad movie,” junior Maegan Diep said. “I really like Whisper of the Heart because of its depiction of young love and its overall plot. I can’t really say I had a personal connection or something with it, but I just felt really sentimental because, in some aspect, the characters also are like a proxy for us. I feel like the fact that these animations are produced around the late 1900s and early 2000s also associates a feeling of nostalgia that adds another layer of sentiment and wistfulness to it.” Whisper of the Heart is a sentimental romance that centers around the dreams and dynamics of its two teenage main characters. The delicacy with which Studio Ghibli treats the classic coming-of-age story beautifully captures the intimacy of young love and our ordinary lives.

As animation undergoes drastic change in the film industry due to the development of new technology, it becomes more important that we absorb the near-universally acclaimed skills of animators from the previous generation. Ghibli Fest disproves any tech-mogul who calls hand-drawn animation a “dying art” that will soon disappear. It is an invaluable opportunity to experience Miyazaki’s unforgettable artistry and, more broadly, the beauty of the medium of animation itself.