AURORA | Frederic Lahey didn’t allow students to draw on animated films when he taught a course devoted to the development of film expression.
Lahey, director of the Colorado Film School at Lowry, said his intent was to convey the craft of the camera, the artistic possibilities that came from the proper use of lenses, perspective and old-fashioned filmmaking. Even so, Lahey admits he would have allowed students to break that rule for the animated work from Studio Ghibli, the Japanese company responsible for films such as “Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“I never allowed students to analyze animations. I wanted them analyzing the true craft realized by a camera,” Lahey said. “But the Studio Ghibli films would be the exception to that … They use filmmaking technique in terms of perspective and the idea of lenses. It’s such a strong and beautiful aesthetic that is used throughout, incredible craftsmanship and detail.”
Studio Ghibli’s keen attention to detail will be the focus for the coming weeks at the Denver Film Society headquarters on East Colfax Avenue in Denver. The DFS is hosting “Castles In The Sky: Miyazaki, Takahata And The Masters Of Studio Ghibli,” a film series that includes the best-known work by the best-known animators at the Japanese studio that has redefined the art of animation. All of the selections will be presented in new, 35-millimeter prints.
“We’ll have two films a week for the next several weeks,” said Programming Manager Keith Garcia.
In addition to well-known imports to the American film circuit like “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away,” the remaining weeks of the series will also feature lesser-known masterpieces. For example, Tomomi Mochizuki’s “Ocean Waves,” a 1993 film detailing a love triangle between three friends, will run during the first week of September. “Only Yesterday,” a 1991 animated drama written and directed by Isao Takahata, will run during the final week of the series starting on Oct. 4, and the screening is a big lure for Studio Ghibli fans in Aurora.
“I believe it’s a great way to get people who are real fans of animation and of Studio Ghibli to get to see some of the films that they have not been able to,” said Philip Wesley, CEO and co-owner of the local specialty store Animation is Art. “Many of these are very difficult to find. ‘Ocean Waves’ and ‘Only Yesterday’ have never been released on DVD here in the U.S.”
Those films bear trademark stamps of the Studio Ghibli studio, Wesley said. A careful attention to detail, an unparalleled expertise in the exacting hand-drawn craft of traditional animation and a knack for intimate, immediate storytelling have helped distinguish the work of the studio since it released its first film in 1986. Directors like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata have brought a different narrative pace and style to Japanese animation, touches that have helped make the genre a success for Western audiences.
“The Studio Ghibli films, they create these little worlds and create likeable characters in those. They give me something to enjoy. It’s kind of like catching up with an old friend … It’s like you’re sitting around at a coffee table with these characters and they’re telling you how their day went,” Wesley said. “Studio Ghibli represents some of the greatest traditional animation out of Japan today. They’re traditionally animated films where no one does traditionally animated films any more,” he added, pointing to the popularity of computer animation. “There’s a craft to it.”
For Studio Ghibli directors, part of that craft has included mythic landscapes and fantastical creatures. The characters in “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away” are creatures pulled from the realms of pure fantasy; supernatural guardians protect the forest landscape in “Princes Mononoke,” and witches and talking animals make up the cast of “Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“These stories are all of mythic proportion,” Lahey said. “Miyazaki, I think, is the greatest animator alive. What his animation has is a strong level of detail — when the characters are walking, there are little puffs of dust that come up behind their heels … To me, this is a Japanese Pixar, only it’s dealing with more mythic level of confrontation. There’s tremendous sophistication in the subtext and in the realization.”
For devoted animation fans like Wesley, the mythic themes and careful attention to setting underscores a deeper reward of the films from Studio Ghibli. For an American who grew up with the simplistic narrative structures of Disney cartoons like “Duck Tales” and adventure series like “G.I. Joe,” the films were a peek into a different culture and a separate everyday reality.
“They’re a wonderful introduction to that kind of Japanese culture. Anyone who wants to know about Japanese culture, it should be required to see a Studio Ghibli film. All of them are worth seeing,” Wesley said. “They’ve done more good for the anime industry, for Japan as a whole, than many diplomatic efforts. I believe that the way we get to know and appreciate other cultures is to indulge in them … We may find that we’re able to relate to the characters’ setting. We’re given an ability to project ourselves into that character.”
Reach reporter Adam Goldstein at [email protected] or 720-449-9707