Studio Ghibli probably makes the best children's movies on earth. From its inception in Tokyo in the mid-'80s, its founders—Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki—have consistently produced genre-defining animated features whose fantastic, adorable characters and universes leap over cultural divides. Where most highly regarded anime remains in the realm of entrenched fandom, Ghibli (pronounced: gib-lee) titles like My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke have a long history of smashing box offices and wowing Western critics.
Which makes it awesome that OMSI's Empirical Theater, the unofficial headquarters of Portland animation and the biggest screen in town, is playing a huge collection of Ghibli classics over the next two weeks. It's also showing one restored feature that's new to American theaters.
Portland has a surprisingly large appetite for anime, says Russ Repp, who programmed the Ghibli retrospective and everything else showing at the Empirical Theater. The museum got a big response from Katsuhiro Otomo's dystopian sci-fi Akira, screened as part of OMSI's animation festival in 2014, and decided to go deeper. Three screenings of ultra-popular Ghibli title Princess Mononoke all sold out in January 2015. Russ doubled down in 2016 with the first festival dedicated to Ghibli, which was a huge success.
OMSI is kicking off its second retrospective with a panel discussion of the impact of Ghibli productions on art and culture, followed by a screening of the one Ghibli title most attendees will not have already seen: Ocean Waves.
Directed by Tomomi Mochizuki and first aired on television in 1993, Ocean Waves portrays a teenage love triangle between two friends vying for the affection of a new girl who arrives in the small island city of Kochi. It's not uncommon for fans to bootleg and subtitle undistributed films themselves, but this is the first time the film has officially come to the United States, following a digital 4K restoration.
"We're probably the fifth or sixth theater nationally to screen it," and the first in the Northwest, says Repp. "It's an honor for us to be selected." Ocean Waves will screen with Ghiblies: Episode 2, a short collection of vignettes from Ghibli animators from 2002 that also went undistributed in the U.S. until now.
In addition to Ocean Waves, the Empirical Theater will screen 12 Ghibli classics, including the critical heavy hitters and deeper cuts like Takahata's story of a bamboo-dwelling spirit girl The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), Hiroyuki Morita's The Cat Returns (2002), and Miyazaki's story of a WWI Italian fighter pilot-turned-pirate hunter pig, Porco Rosso (1992). And for those who want to bust out their handmade Totoro costumes, Portland anime convention Kumoricon will be hosting a cosplay contest on the final night of the retrospective, Jan. 22.
Many attendees will know these films like the backs of their hands. For neophytes who want to make heads or tales of a studio whose catalog is treated by fans as something like a cross between the Beatles and the Bible, here are three films you—and your kids shouldn't miss.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
This is the big dog, or big bear, rabbit or benevolent monster of both this festival and anime in general. In rural Japan in 1958, Satsuki and Mei are young girls who befriend the cuddly forest spirit Totoro who protects them while their mother recovers from illness in a nearby hospital. An adorable, magical snapshot of childhood, My Neighbor Totoro is widely considered one of the best animated films ever made and catapulted Ghibli and now legendary director Hayao Miyazaki to stardom. The titular character is widely recognizable (think Japan's answer to Mickey Mouse), has been parodied by South Park and has made appearances in Spongebob Squarepants and Toy Story 3 (2010). 4 pm Monday and Sunday, Jan. 16 and 22. Dubbed in English.
(courtesy of Studio Ghibli)
Spirited Away (2001)
We've all been there before: You're on a road trip with your folks, who take a wrong turn into a magical spirit land and end up transformed into pigs by a witch who forces you to work in her bathhouse until you can free yourself and get back to Earth. Another hit from Miyazaki, Spirited Away is the only anime to win an Oscar for best animated feature and is the highest-grossing Japanese film in history. Jan. 13 and 20; English subtitles. 6 pm Monday, Jan. 16; dubbed in English.
If you've got older kids, or like a little more action in your cartoons, here's the flick for you.
In a post-apocalyptic future, princess Nausicaä fights against a kingdom that tries to use an ancient weapon to destroy a toxic jungle full of giant insects. Although it isn't technically Ghibli, Nausicaä is the film that prompted Miyazaki to found the studio in 1985, and is generally accepted as part of the studio's canon. Jan. 17 and 22. English subtitles.
SEE IT: OMSI's Studio Ghibli Film Retrospective opens Thursday at the Empirical Theater. Ocean Waves and Ghiblies: Episode 2 screen at 7:30 pm. Visit omsi.edu/theater for tickets and a full schedule.