Ever since Disney released an edited version of Naussicaä of the Valley of the Wind to director Hayao Miyazaki’s dissatisfaction, American distributors have struggled to bring his anime masterpieces to English-speaking audiences. Story has it that a producer for the Japanese film distributor Toho Company Ltd. sent a samurai sword to Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein with a note saying “no cuts” in order to emphasize that Miyazaki prohibited any changes for the American releases of his films.
In light of Toho’s historic restrictive copyright policies, it is an exquisite pleasure that the Carolina Theatre will be premiering a limited edition retrospective of Miyazaki’s films under the title of Miyazaki’s production company. The Studio Ghibli Collection opens for one weekend only, starting this Friday, at the downtown Durham theater. The premiere, which showcases six of Miyazaki’s films, four of which are in the original Japanese, is made possible through an exclusive licensing deal with GKIDS, a New York-based international film distributor. Jim Carl, the Senior Director at the Carolina Theatre, commented on the rarity of such a deal. “For years, film programmers have been trying to find an American distributor who was willing to take on the costs of negotiating with Toho to bring the original Japanese films,” Carl noted. “GKIDS finally stepped up to the plate.”
Not only was the acquisition of thirteen of the best Miyazaki prints by GKIDS an exciting new development for cinemas across the U.S., the individual contract struck by Carolina Theatre is a testament to its clout among distributors. Just getting access to The Studio Ghibli Collection was a challenge. “There’s only a limited number of prints,” Carl explained. “And because this retrospective is very popular, the prints are in very high demand.”
Now, if “anime” seems culturally inaccessible to an American audience or “animated” connotes the narrative simplicity of Sunday morning cartoons, a pitch to those unfamiliar with the genre might be necessary. These films have too much industry influence and emotional potency to be glossed over.
That is, if you’ve enjoyed any of the American animation masterpieces born during the turn of the century—Up, Toy Story, Mulan, Alladin, Tangled, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, to name a few—then you will undoubtedly appreciate, if not adore, the groundbreaking anime classics by Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The creators behind the aforementioned Disney and Pixar successes have all cited the Japanese storyteller as a chief influence. John Lasseter, director of Up, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story series, has consistently credited Miyazaki as a primary source of inspiration. “What I love about Miyazaki is he takes a breath and he lets something just be there,” Lasseter said in a 2009 interview for Entertainment Weekly. “And that makes what comes after it all the more amazing.”
Maybe references to the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s don’t seem relevant enough. Alright, then: the effect of Miyazaki’s animation can be seen even as recently as James Cameron’s 2009 3D epic, Avatar. I find it hard to believe that Cameron imagined Pandora’s entrancing alien landscape without first exploring the elaborate jungle of Naussicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
A relevant aside: before Avatar, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away broke Titanic’s record as the highest grossing film of all time. I hope that underscores the gravity of Miyazaki’s contribution to the film canon.
Yet I don’t mean to focus solely on Miyazaki’s role in cinema ancestry, however notable it may be. His films are wonderful irrespective of their impact, as both engagingly complex allegories and splendid escapes to the fantastical.
Take Princess Mononoke, which seamlessly blends imagery from post world-war industrialism, Japanese traditional culture and 50’s Westerns as a prime example of Miyazaki’s firm grasp on narrative. The film follows a prince, Ashitaka, as he mediates the conflict between the destructive expansion of the warring “Iron Town” and the threatened forest spirits. In doing so, he confronts San, the titular Princess Mononoke, as she seeks to protect the forest from the encroaching human military.
The film typifies Miyazaki’s work for having a strong female lead, a clash of magical and machine forces and an emphasis on the dangers of environmental destruction. But Princess Mononoke, to make clear, isn’t a progressive manifesto disguised as an anime sci-fi; Miyazaki wouldn’t stoop to such pedantry. Rather, it is protagonist Ashitaka’s conflicting allegiances that makes the narrative complex, while the dark, Japanese medieval aesthetic grants the story an adult richness.
I dearly hope Miyazaki escapes the art-house cinema niche—he’s worth a broader audience—because his films appeal to anyone still clinging to a shred of youth. If you want to deepen your understanding of contemporary animation, or simply escape into one of Miyazaki’s colorful landscapes, the Carolina Theatre offers a rare resource to experience the filmmaker’s work.