In our Blue Filter series, we are inviting our writers to reflect on the films that they have connected with through challenging or upsetting times, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and before. In the latest entry of the series, Film Editor James Hanton looks at how the wondrous films of Studio Ghibli have become an important part of his long-distance relationship.
Studio Ghibli. A company renowned for films lavished by fantastical, hand drawn visions of nature, a deep reverence for the way that our world intertwines with the spiritual, and a transportative appeal to childhood innocence. At their best the Ghibli films are beautiful beyond belief. Depicting worlds of magic and spiritualism residing just beneath the fabric of our everyday, humdrum realities is an exercise in grace and escapism. It’s a colour and soul in high demand at a time when the wider world feels so grey, lifeless, and—for many—genuinely dangerous. Such is the evocative power of Studio Ghibli that you can be thrown into strange new places without even leaving your couch. Even better, you don’t have to do it alone.
The pandemic has put strain on the relationship with my girlfriend. Being without one another for such a long time has caused heartache for both of us. During the first lockdown last spring and summer, we were at least both in Edinburgh, meaning we could spend some valuable time together during windows of relaxed restrictions. But after she graduated she returned home to Leeds. Travel restrictions and the continued threat posed by the pandemic means that either of us making the journey to see the other is rife with difficulty and risk. With both of us working and (quite rightly) having lives that include more than just our work and each other, we are yet another couple who have to make do with video calls and messages in place of physically being together.
We were both well aware of Ghibli beforehand. We also knew that Netflix had bagged the rights to almost the entirety of the studio’s filmography last spring. I had seen Spirited Away several years earlier and even wrote an essay on it for university, but wasn’t too familiar with the rest of the studio’s output. One particular evening, when we were both feeling decidedly down and bothered, we decided to flick on one of their classics, My Neighbour Totoro, and we couldn’t quite believe what we had been missing out on.
From that point on we were firmly under Ghibli’s spell. We worked our way through almost everything they have to offer, from the widely-celebrated classics like Princess Mononoke and Kiki’s Delivery Service to lesser-known entries like Porco Rosso and Ocean Waves. There are still so many we have yet to experience either, Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind the most glaring gaps in our watchlist. Then there is the odd one that we may not get to see for some time, entries that are not available at the touch of a button. The heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies, for instance, is a notable absentee from Netflix’s collection.
Among all of these, My Neighbour Totoro sticks out as a favourite of both my partner and myself. Partly because it is short, partly because it is also full of wonderful fluffy creatures who would never possibly harm you. And, perhaps, because it is also what you could term cinema without conflict. From an early age, I was taught that some form of conflict is essential to drive a plot forward and to make a story interesting. Ghibli’s now-retired maestro Hayao Miyazaki can prove otherwise. Look at Totoro; there is no almighty argument, war or even conflict of interest that feels inseparable from the fundamentals of the narrative. Instead, this is a story about respecting and caring for the natural world which, in turn, will respect and care for you, especially if you embrace all that is mystical and amazing about it. In the hands of lesser creative talents, perhaps it would be dull as dishwater. But in the hands of Miyazaki and the rest of the Ghibli team, My Neighbour Totoro is a rich river of thematic depth and breathtaking beauty.
Totoro is far from the only Ghibli film this particular analysis can apply to. There is a case to be made that Kiki’s Delivery Service and to a lesser extent Ponyo (both also Miyazaki films) fit the bill. What they also have in common, and the reason they have come to mean so much to me as works of art, is how they have bridged the physical divide between my girlfriend and I. Over these past few months, rarely have we felt closer and more at peace when wrapping up in something warm with a hot mug of tea and some snacks, letting one of Studio Ghibli’s mesmerising adventures will our worries from existence. And all it takes is a little glance from the TV to my phone, seeing my partner’s face alive with her typically adorable smile and loving eyes, to remind me how much this precious time means to both of us.
Cinema brings all of us together in the name of something wonderful. It is what I have missed the most about the big screen experience. But some great films don’t need 4K visuals, pioneering CGI and a plot that ties itself up in knots (in short, a great film does not need to be directed by Christopher Nolan). Studio Ghibli’s films have accomplished something they were never designed to do, but that they are nonetheless perfect for. They have allowed our love to remain as strong as ever. Witches, pig people and acorn-guzzling woodland spirits have bridged the distance between us. When there is so much pain and heartbreak never far away, I’m unconvinced that words will ever do justice in expressing how much these films to me.
Words by James Hanton.
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