A world apart from the rapacious, cyclopean tentacle-dicks of Overfiend-style hentai, and from the sugared-cereal-fueled multimedia franchises of Pokemon, the work of Japan’s Studio Ghibli has long been anime’s artistic gold standard. Visually inventive and profoundly humanistic, Ghibli’s animes walk a painterly line between the fanciful surrealism of childhood and adult-sized emotions, being as likely to tell the tale of a dashing pilot magically cursed with a pig’s head (Porco Rosso, 1992) as they are to painstakingly document the slow decay from malnutrition of children during WW II (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988).
Hayao Miyazki and Isao Takahata have spent their entire careers doing ‘toons, moving up the ranks from comic book–format manga to the animation wings of Japanese movie studios before branching out on their own. Their collaboration began with 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, which was directed by Miyazki from his own manga and produced by Takahata. Nausicaä wasn’t the first anime to earn auteurist props for its director (fans had, of course, long been keeping track of names, styles, and dates) but it laid down a definite operating paradigm for the studio, mixing aggressively filled production design, loopy flights of magical fantasy, and a willingness to open what are usually adolescent emotional frames to adult or topical reference. From the encoded environmental cautions of the role-playing-game-like Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) to Fireflies‘s horrific re-creations of carpet bombings, Miyazki and Takahata have never shied away from Akira-type evocations of Japanese history and nightmare, but they’ve made their points from a curious middle ground, eschewing the hard-edged sci-fi excesses that most japanimation uses to keep things historically or socially real.
The 10-picture survey now on view at MOMA, pegged to Miramax’s upcoming wide U.S. release of Miyazki’s Princess Mononoke, encompasses Ghibli’s entire catalogue, moving from Takahata’s PETA-like fantasy of animal rebellion, PomPoko (1994), to My Neighbor Tortoro (1988), Miyazki’s grand, unabashed cute-fest about a giant flying fur ball that can only be seen by the littlest children. Ghibli’s been called “Japan’s Disney,” but the comparison only reflects stunted, adult reactions to cartoon sentimentality—Ghibli takes risks that would be unimaginable at the House That Walt Built. (Although, between Mononoke‘s Miramax connection and the fact that Mickey’s in-house video distributor Buena Vista has the rights to most of Ghibli’s catalogue, the “Japan’s Disney” thing does take on a certain ominous, corporate-octopus coloring.) No American animator, except for maybe an oxymoronic, Prozac-blissed Ralph Bashki, would make a ‘toon like Takahata’s Only Yesterday (1991), a meditative memory play about a young woman’s trip to the countryside. Yesterday intercuts the rhythmic banalities of train rides and meetings with old friends with vivid flashbacks to ’60s-era schoolyard hijinks, its single toony flourish a fifth-grade crush scene punctuated by a joyful girl running straight up invisible stairs and into the sky. Some might object that Yesterday closes with an extended Japanese-language cover of Bette Midler’s “The Rose,” but in Ghibli’s world this isn’t an embarrassing lapse in taste—it’s a kind of homage to all the mixed-up and often beautifully incongruous ways people believe.