By Marty Mulrooney
Western fans of the animation masters at Studio Ghibli will no doubt agree that, somewhat disappointingly, information about the studio is often severely lacking beyond the special features available to us on DVD. I was therefore highly intrigued when I noticed that Kamera Books were about to release Studio Ghbili: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. But would this finally be the book to accurately detail Ghibli’s history down on paper for English-speaking fans, or merely become a rehash of what we already know?
I am glad to say that, for the most part, this book falls into the former category. Decidedly academic in its approach, both through presentation and tone, reading the book soon gives way to beautiful passages of insight intermingled with impressive moments of factual prowess. This is a history lesson much more approachable than initially meets the eye.
The remarkable films of Studio Ghibli show, without a shadow of a doubt, that cinema can be art. Often the term ‘art’ and ‘cinema’ result in products that distance audiences, but Ghibli make films that touch the soul, that can enrapture and delight everyone from toddlers to pensioners.
After the notably respectful introduction, early sections cover the various themes visited by Ghibli throughout their films. I was very impressed with these opening passages, learning several titbits that had until now completely eluded me as a fan. I was particularly enthralled with the parts detailing Japanese culture: I will now be able to re-watch certain films in Ghibli’s catalogue with fresh eyes, adding to my enjoyment of repeat viewings.
There are, of course, many people working for Studio Ghibli, but the most notable are its founders.
The major players from Ghibli are of course animator/directors Hayo Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. It is highly pleasurable to read how they rose to prominence from their early animation days, giving some solid pretext before the book delves into the studio’s films one by one.
One area I was slightly disappointed with however was the book’s decision to not comment on the English language dubs of the films at all. This somewhat makes sense from an academic standpoint (covering the films in their native tongue alone) yet I still feel that, love them or hate them, the dubs are as much a part of the history of Studio Ghibli as the original voice work, especially for Western fans.
If My Neighbour Totoro is a nostalgic look at the past, Spirited Away is a lament for it from the perspective of the present. But there is hope. Although her parents’ generation has let her down, Chihiro nevertheless has the spirit to restore these fading values. The future lies in the hands of the children.
Luckily, this minor annoyance is balanced back out by the wealth of insight and knowledge offered for each individual film. Some slight spoilers are of course revealed during the discussion of each release, so it would be advised to perhaps not tackle the book beginning to end unless you have seen the whole body of the studio’s work first (as I have myself).
As an academic work, this book is wonderful, a treasure-trove of information and insight. I actually covered Studio Ghibli during a presentation for my university degree… this book would have certainly made things a lot easier for me at the time! The layout makes it easy to pinpoint a certain film (the book works its way forward in time up until the latest release, Ponyo), with the index and bibliography at the back both comprehensive and clear. This will be the jackpot for any academic writer looking for quotes relating to the studio.
On the other hand, as a book to be read simply by fans, your mileage will undoubtedly vary. Images are kept to a minimum, offered only in the middle of the book. Also, the tone of the writing is not one simply keen to divulge trivia: this is a serious, almost philosophical book that isn’t afraid to delve deep into the thematic makeup of the studio and its output.
The results of this incredible labour are apparent on the screen in the organic way the waves lash on the shoreline or in the incredible opening sequences set beneath the waves where schools of jellyfish undulate in the underwater turbulence. The sea itself becomes a central character in the film, lashing out or rolling gently in as expressive a way as any humans or creatures. The effect is that the animation feels right – it feels alive and organic.
In other words, I would not recommend those unfamiliar with the studio to use this as a starting point. To do so would be frustrating at the very least (the authors assume a fair prior knowledge of the subject at hand) and off-putting at its worst (something we don’t want at all!) This is a book for long-time fans and academics to pour over and ponder. If you are new to the studio, watch a few of the films first to see what all the fuss is about before investing in this comprehensive companion.
To conclude, I was very impressed with this book. Regardless of any minor blemishes visible in its execution, I can hardly fault authors Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc overall: they have created the authoritative English language text on Studio Ghibli, and for that I applaud them.
9 OUT OF 10