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UW Cinematheque features Japanese works from Studio Ghibli that take cartoons to a new level
Animation as art
Kiki's Delivery Service. For more photos, click gallery, above.

Whether you associate animation with Saturday mornings from your youth or the latest Disney creation, chances are good that you think of it as children's entertainment. Foreign-language films often come with the opposite assumption: that they're not suitable for kids, or that they can't hold kids' attention.

Well, prepare to have your preconceptions shattered if you attend UW Cinematheque's series "Castles in the Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata and the Masters of Studio Ghibli" (through May 12 at the Chazen Museum of Art). In addition to screening 35mm prints of films that have had a significant impact on Japanese cinema, Cinematheque is proving that animation is an art form people of all ages can enjoy.

Hayao Miyazaki is the Studio Ghibli animator best known to American audiences, if only for his Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, about a girl trapped in a spirit world who must save her parents. The Cinematheque series provides an opportunity to view many of his best-known works, as well as films from his colleagues lesser known in America.

Miyazaki and Isao Takahata met while working on television and film projects in the 1970s, including the Lupin the 3rd television series and its subsequent feature film, 1979's The Castle of Cagliostro. Miyazaki also wrote manga (comic books, or graphic novels). His breakthrough film as a director, with Takahata as producer, was a 1984 adaptation of his manga Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The wild success of Nausicaä enabled Miyazaki and Takahata to form Ghibli in 1985.

'I smile, and smile, and smile'

"Ghibli" is the Arabic word for "hot desert wind," and the name of Italian scouting planes used during World War II. Wind and air figure prominently in Miyazaki's style, as the most exhilarating moments in his films involve flight, from a witch-in-training on her broomstick in 1989's Kiki's Delivery Service (March 17) to a World War I pilot mysteriously transformed into a flying ace pig in 1992's Porco Rosso (March 3).

Miyazaki is often called the "Japanese Disney," but his films are very different in tone and content, especially in regard to young female leads. Unlike many of Disney's princesses, Ghibli's heroines are self-determined problem solvers who want to understand the world they live in. Romance and relationships are seen as the awkward, messy affairs they can truly be rather than the solution to all problems.

Both Miyazaki and Takahata are masters at transforming simple observations into vivid gestures and expressions. Trained in the limited animation style of television anime, they understand the importance of stillness, even in their fully animated features.

Takahata's Only Yesterday (Feb. 17) highlights the power of quiet observation. Taeko, a young single woman, has flashbacks to when she was 10 years old. When she tries her first pineapple with her family, Takahata subtly captures her excitement, then disappointment, then stubborn insistence when the others do not like it and she does not want to admit that she feels the same way. This moment seems closer to a family drama from Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story, for example) than what we might expect from an American animated feature.

But even in the realistic style of Only Yesterday, Takahata uses the power of animation for expressive effect. When young Taeko finally confronts a boy on whom she has a crush, Takahata uses stillness and silence to extract all of the tension and awkwardness possible before punctuating the end of the scene with an unexpected burst of movement that's as exhilarating as Miyazaki's aerial sequences.

In 1988, Studio Ghibli ambitiously released two critically acclaimed feature films, Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (Feb. 24). (Roger Ebert wrote about the latter: "Whenever I watch it, I smile, and smile, and smile.") These films help illustrate how Japanese animation has tackled a much wider range of subject matter than American feature animation, with the exception of mavericks like Ralph Bakshi.

Totoro is a charming and effortlessly spellbinding film for children of all ages, while Grave is a harrowing portrait of two young siblings facing starvation in post-World War II Japan. Totoro generally meets American expectations about animated feature-film subject matter, but Grave is far from what people would expect from Disney, Dreamworks or even Pixar.

American graphic novelists such as Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman, who focus on thorny real-world subjects, have struggled to present their work in a comics industry dominated by superheroes. Japanese manga, on the other hand, is targeted to a wide range of audiences: young and old, male and female. So perhaps it's easier for Japanese to accept mature subject matter in animated features. Ghibli releases have been major events in Japan. In 1997, Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (April 21) became the top-grossing film in Japanese box office history, beating James Cameron's Titanic. It held this record until 2001, when it was overtaken by another Miyazaki film, Spirited Away.

Miyazaki is also an "animator's animator" who's had a considerable influence on Pixar cofounder John Lasseter. A plush toy of Totoro, who is also the Ghibli mascot, appears in Toy Story 3. And in the liner notes for a Ghibli laser disc, Lasseter wrote:

"At Pixar, when we have a problem and we can't seem to solve it, we often take a laser disc of one of Mr. Miyazaki's films and look at a scene in our screening room for a shot of inspiration. And it always works! We come away amazed and inspired. Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Mr. Miyazaki."

Disney vs. Ghibli

It took some time for Ghibli's stature to be recognized in the U.S. Nausicaä was significantly altered for the American market without Miyazaki's permission and was retitled Warriors of the Wind. After that, Miyazaki and Ghibli insisted on far more control when negotiating foreign-language distribution rights. In 1996, the Walt Disney Corp. made a deal with Ghibli's parent company, Tokuma Publishing, that gave Disney global-distribution rights outside Asia.

Kiki's Delivery Service, the first film released in North America under the deal, was more or less compatible with the Disney brand. The next film, however, was more difficult to figure out for the American market. Rated PG-13, Princess Mononoke is a complicated ecological adventure that replaces the clear-cut good and evil of Disney films with a gray scale of conflicted characters. The supposed villain of the film, Lady Eboshi, threatens to destroy the forest for her iron mill, but she does so to liberate young women from brothels and give them new economic and social opportunities.

Disney decided to distribute the film through its art-house subsidiary, Miramax, which was not known for kids' fare. (In fact, another one of its releases, Larry Clark's controversial 1995 release, Kids, was still fresh in moviegoers' minds.) Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, however, was known for his tendency to "improve" foreign films for their American release. Legend has it that Miyazaki sent Weinstein a katana sword as a gift, with a short note attached: "No cuts."

The Disney deal has been very good for some Ghibli films reaching American audiences. Each subsequent Miyazaki film has had a well-dubbed theatrical release, and several Ghibli films have been released on home video. Disney has promoted the home-video release of The Cat Returns (May 5), but it has been more difficult to see that film's predecessor, 1995's Whisper of the Heart (March 24), the only film by the late Ghibli protégé Yoshifumi Kondö. The Cinematheque series solves this problem.

The series also includes Ghibli rarities. One example is Takahata's My Neighbors the Yamadas (April 28), a hard-to-find 1999 film that stretches the boundaries of Ghibli's "house style." Though it looks like it uses the hand-drawn style of Bill Plympton, it is actually the first Ghibli film animated and painted entirely on computers. The episodic nature of its portrait of Japanese family life makes it a hard sell for kids, but it's a delight for anyone who recognizes the daily obstacles couples face in sustaining a marriage, raising kids and forging a future together.

Opening young minds

When Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle (May 12) came to Madison in 2004, the now-defunct Westgate Art Cinemas inadvertently showed one of the few subtitled prints circulating in the U.S. I was delighted, but staff mentioned to me that parents had complained about the subtitles. Subtitled films present an opportunity not only to expose kids to a different kind of cinema, but also a different kind of cinema-going experience. The Cinematheque series' mix of dubbed and subtitled prints is well documented in its publicity materials, so parents should know what to expect.

I showed my 8-year-old niece, Hannah, a subtitled film from the Ghibli series, Takahata's Pom Poko (March 10). It was fun to watch her watch it. Her eyes opened wide when the naturalistic animation of the opening sequence, showing the hardships of the tanuki (Japanese raccoon dogs), suddenly turned into a cartoony battle between tanuki tribes. (Her "What is going on?" look was unmistakable.) She had difficulty with words she didn't recognize, mostly names and cities, but she was able to follow along. She was most curious about what the film was rated, because there were some details one wouldn't expect in a Disney film, like a few gags about the transformative powers of tanuki genitalia.

Some kids reject the unfamiliar; others are drawn to it. If you have an adventurous, curious kid, you might consider taking a chance on the Ghibli series.

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