“That time at Ghibli made me feel like I was lost in a very mysterious country.” This is how Jake Cunningham must have felt three years ago as he began the Ghibliotheque podcast with his friend Michael Leader. Jake had never seen a Studio Ghibli film before, and Michael took it upon himself to solve this by starting a podcast to get him to explore this foreign territory. Now, after more than 70 episodes covering the filmography of the world’s greatest animation studio, a collaboration with the British Museum, and a trip to the Ghibli Museum in Japan, it is fair to say he is no longer a stranger. Last year, the pair wrote and published a book, Ghibliotheque from A to Z, which they presented last Monday at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Together with the presentation, they introduced the masterpiece Spirited Away and Sunada Mami’s tragically obscure documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness in a double bill as overwhelming as it is rare.
The tone throughout the event was certainly a celebratory one. The room was crowded for the Spirited Away screening, with everyone ranging from devoted parents wanting to share the film with their kids, to hardcore fans who had seen it more times than they can remember. Then, later, we were rewarded with trivia questions and Blu-rays as rewards for correct answers. The youngest members of the audience, however, must have had the most highlighted experience.
Miyazaki Hayao says in the documentary that he makes films for children. This is debatable. Anyone that saw Spirited Away as a kid will tell you of an image that has stuck in their brain since, often accompanied by a complaint about how much it traumatised them. But his claim gives us an appropriate lens to look at this film: Miyazaki and his team take Chihiro’s emotions as gospel, elevating her childish hope, love and wonder above the cynicism and entitlement that mark the mature characters. The logic of the story is secondary to the emotional journey. Sometimes it makes us feel like we are watching arbitrary vignettes rather than a cohesive narration, but the children get it.
The screening for The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness brought in about a fifth of the people. We were welcomed as the “die-hard fans of Studio Ghibli” by Cunningham, before we were read an emotive email from the director (as I quoted at the top).
The film is unjustly overlooked (despite being available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK), having forced Studiocanal to dig for it in their archives after a limited release in 2014. It follows the making of Miyazaki’s last film The Wind Rises with complete access to the studio and everyone in it. Sunada could have easily chosen the nostalgia path using clips from the already beloved Ghibli films. Instead, we get a wonderfully intimate portrait of the men behind the legend, juggling comedy and emotion to truly get below the skin of the filmmakers. The genius of Miyazaki is revealed to be not one of filmmaking but one of living. His distinct outlook on life permeates all his films, with infinite empathy, highlighting the hard-to-find humanity he struggles to see in the contemporary world. He strives to find motivation in the work that he once loved in the same way that he strives to find meaning in a society that has lost touch with itself and the world around it. He makes films for kids to find and share that same appeal again, some meaning in the times before everything got so complicated.
Watching these two films, one regains that irrational hope for life that we had as kids, in the beauty of the mundane and the joy of sharing the struggle. Some of us came out of the last screening with tears, nostalgic for the past and hopeful for the present, with a real sense that, after these four hours, our lives were richer than we thought possible.