All Roads Lead Home: Studio Ghibli Forever and Ever

Writing for Alt:Mag gives me the opportunity to do some really amazing things. Talking to like-minded people about their opinions. Connecting with other artists and writers. Playing video games for hours for... research. Yeah. Research... But when I heard about the new Studio Ghibli Forever and Ever season at Home (formerly Cornerhouse) in Manchester, a new opportunity presented itself. I'd love to say I was excited to cover a cultural event, but, in reality I was more excited about being able to watch a lot of Studio Ghibli in a short space of time.

Firstly, I think it's important to say Home is an amazing venue. The loss of Cornerhouse was a sad day - a real old school cinema that showed a range of films you wouldn't see at a multiplex. Home keeps the ethos of Cornerhouse (and the reasonable prices) but does everything on a slightly bigger scale. The three screens are now five, theatre productions have been added to the roster and regular art installments take place. The food and drink are good value and make it a real contender for pre-film/pre-theatre dining, despite the competition in the city centre. In short, there's an energy about the place - a mesh of old and new. Do I miss Cornerhouse? Part of me does, though I admit it's just nostalgia. Home is a far better replacement than I could ever have hoped for and every visit there in this season was a joy.

First in the season was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It's the logical place to start as it's considered to be the birth of Studio Ghibli, even though it was originally released before the studio's inception. Based on the manga of the same name by Hayao Miyazaki (the film's director), Nausicaa encompasses everything you'd expect from a Ghibli film; fantasy, quirk, warmth and charm. The chopice of this as the first film of the season was doubly fitting for me as, in my formative teenage years, this was the first Studio Ghibli film I ever saw. This is a masterpiece of dystopian sci-fi fantasy. The film is set on a post-apocalyptic planet (presumably Earth) in which mankind has destroyed the environment so much the only way for certain plants to survive is to become even more toxic than the pollution. On the face of it, insects have grown into monsters in an effort to survive - angered by human activity, but it soon becomes clear they might not be quite as evil as they first appear. Is Nausicaa perfect? Not quite. The studio's later films are more touching in terms of characterisation. The animation isn't as sharp as, say, Howl's Moving Castle and it doesn't have the magic of Spirited Away. yet, that doesn't make it any less Ghibli. The over-riding messages are those that would appear in later films again and again - anti-war sentiment, environmentalism, and humanitarianism. All of that makes this, in the narrative of Home's season, the perfect place to start.

A few days later I was back for Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I have to admit I did not see this film in the best of circumstances. I'd had a long day of cafe work before and a migraine attack, but the burger and ginger beer in the restaurant before the film certainly helped me feel a little more myself. I was lucky to have regained the power of sight by the time the film started (always a bonus for a visual medium, I find) but I was still exhausted. Yet, this didn't scupper my enjoyment of the film. Following in the steps of Nausicaa, the first official Ghibli film has a real epic fantasy feel. Laputa follows Sheeta who, for reasons unknown at first, is trying to escape two groups attempting to kidnap her and her magical locket. She meets Pazu, a young boy who promises to help her. The pair are thrown into political intrigue and fantastical struggles in which they meet air-pirates, robots and armies, befriending some and doing battle with others, The film is a joy - from the almost madcap structure of the story to the amazing set pieces of the final confrontation. The animation is as beautiful as you'd expect, but none more so when they reach the eponymous castle in the sky - it's crystaline structure and temple-like rooms are captivating. Once again we see an anti-war Studio Ghibli film with its basis in friendship and love. Another film of warmth and charm, despite its epic scope. Personally, I'm not sure the film needs to be over two hours, though that could have been migraine talking. But, as a criticism weighed against everything Laputa has to offer, this is a very minor fault and one I'm not entirely sure exists.

I've lost count of the amount of times I've seen My Neighbour Totoro, but the first time I fell in love with it and that love remains. What was clear as over one-hundred of us waited to enter the screening room is that so many others feel the same way.
"I had a Totoro themed wedding," one woman told me. "My musician friend even did an alternative arrangement of the theme song. We had Totoro napkins, stills of the film at the reception." She paused. "Actually, now I think of it, my husband still hasn't seen it."
In case this isn't evidence enough of the film's impact, almost the entirety of Studio Ghibli's merchandise is Totoro based. One reason it surprised me that the film, upon its release, was a commercial flop, or so Steve Henderson of Skwigly magazine told us in the film's opening talk. His speech was warm and informative and captivated the hearts of the fans in the room; an ideal start to the evening. And that's when it struck me. Yes, this film is hugely loved, but it's with with the warmth normally reserved for a lose friend or family member. Any film someone is willing to base their wedding on is a film they carry for life. That screening felt like everyone in the room was going to do the same.

My Neighbour Totoro follows two sisters as they adapt to life in a country town while their mother is in hospital. They meet dust-bunnies, a cat bus, and the magical Totoro - the spirit of the forest. You'd be forgiven for thinking that's where the magic of the film lies and that's true - but there's magic in the relationships forged in the film too. Mei and Satsuki feel like real siblings. They would do anything for one another and, though they often get frustrated with one another because of their differences in age, they share a real sisterly bond rarely captured on screen. To see their father be able to cope with his wife's illness thanks to the love of his daughters is truly touching. But there's more than just this to My Neighbour Totoro. It's an ode to the countryside - one we're rapidly losing - and one that made me quite emotional. I've recently moved to Manchester from a small countryfied town and Totoro reminded me of everything I love about small-town life. It takes a special work of fiction to give a person a revelation like that.

Over a week went by before I stepped back into Home and I'm sure I was suffering Ghibli withdrawal symptoms. I lost my sunny disposition, it was harder to smile and everyday life seemed that little bit more banal. It was lucky then that for my final visit in this season, that it was for a double-bill. First was a documentary of the company entitled The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. It's an apt title. This was a captivating film, following the studio as they make two films simultaneously - The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya. But, more than anything, this feel like a character study of the studio's most prolific director, Hayao Miyazaki. He's a fascinating man, it has to be said - cynical in a way filled with hope for the future, and philosophical in the way of his films. We hear his musings on the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the art of film-making and trying to find his place in the twenty-first century. It's sad that the documentary came at the time of his retirement, yet it's only right it was documented. In short, this is a wonderful documentary, the tone of which could easily place it in the Studio Ghibli canon.

The season ends with Kiki's Delivery Service - a film that holds a 100% 'fresh' rating on Rotten Tomatoes (something of a rarity). It follows the young witch Kiki as she leaves home to start her training and chronicles her adventures in the town she settles in. This, to me, is one of Ghibli's strangest films. Not in terms on content, but plot structure. I only say that because, in the strictest sense of the word... this film has no plot. Don't get me wrong, this is in no way an empty film. In keeping the plot loose - Kiki settling into her new life - Miyazaki was able to focus on character development and genuinely touching relationships. Of the early Miyazaki films, except My Neighbour Totoro, this is probably the film in which he does this best. This is the film's triumph, which leaves very little to say. In my opinion, there are better Ghibli films, but to see what the company was all about it's a fantastic place to start.

It's sad that Studio Ghibli has ceased production. For 30 years they brightened the lives of millions, so much so that, the day after the season ended, I bought two Ghibli films I hadn't seen before. I can feel the withdrawal symptoms coming on soon. It's the magic, the warmth and the charm of these films that made the Studio Ghibli Forever and Ever season a joy to chronicle and a venue called Home the perfect place to view it.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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