On a weekend in the fall of 2002, I went with a group of friends to watch The Ring. I didn’t want to go (I’ll admit, horror movies scare me to death), but I went along anyway – and thank goodness I did, because playing at the same cinema, and consequently the movie I ditched my friends to watch instead, was Spirited Away. It was the first anime I watched in theaters, and it remains one of my favorite movie viewing experiences.
I might say that watching that marvelous film hooked me on Studio Ghibli, but to be honest, I was already infatuated before that. Two years prior, Princess Mononoke introduced me to non-kiddy anime in a forceful, evocative way, and led me down the trail of wonderful Ghibli movies – I had seen most of their catalog even before I went to this film, and I considered myself an adoring Miyazaki fan.
So why is it that as When Marnie Was There, perhaps Studio Ghibli’s last film, reaches my city, I’m not particularly excited about going to see it?
For most of us, our obsessions decline in age – that certainly has been the case with me and Studio Ghibli, though I still support most of their films with an almost blind obstinance. It’s more than that, though – it’s the declining quality of the studio’s work. I’m glad Miyazaki left with a masterpiece like The Wind Rises, because I would have been unhappy if his last film had been the forgettable Ponyo or even the merely almost-great Howl’s Moving Castle. Recent films by the other directors have largely been very good, but fall just short of “classic,” which is what almost every one of the first dozen releases by the studio qualified as. The last film release from Ghibli, the Oscar-nominated The Tale of Princess Kaguya, sits on my DVD shelf, unopened from the day it was purchased. I regretted buying it almost immediately after I did so.
Perhaps I need to rewatch Whisper of the Heart, my favorite Studio Ghibli film; or the aforementioned Princess Mononoke, which I consider its finest; or My Neighbor Totoro, which my kids love almost as much as I do; or Nausicaa, which features as good a Christ figure as there is in anime.
At it’s best, Ghibli dug into the complexities of the human condition (Porco Rosso); showed the horrors of war as well as any film ever made (Grave of the Fireflies); presented the beautiful plainness and simplicity of growing up (Only Yesterday); stirred our desire for fairy tails and adventure (Castle in the Sky); encouraged us to overcome despair and circumstances (Kiki’s Delivery Service); and made us think about the love and pain that is family (My Neighbors the Yamadas). For anyone who dismisses anime, or animation in general, as something that can’t convey emotion, intelligence, depth, and truth as well as live action can, Studio Ghibli is the incontestable response.
It’s too bad that that Ghibli left years ago.
Still, most of the studio’s films from recent years have been very good, if not masterly. For every Ponyo and Tales from Earthsea there was an Arrietty and From Up on Poppy Hill that were thoroughly enjoyable and well-devised.
Here’s hoping that when I watch When Marnie Was There this weekend, it’s among Ghibli’s better efforts the last decade and not their worst. And with a little luck (or return to craftsmanship), it’ll be even more than that, a celebration of what Studio Ghibli brought us, something that can never be repeated – apparently even by itself.
*Other beauties I found in my old ticket stub file include Big Daddy, The Vertical Limit, The Animal, American Pie 2, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Gone in 60 Seconds three times (though that one was totally worth it).