Of course we don’t want our kids to go out and get bitten by wild animals, but there’s something about that early domestication scene in 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, where the eponymous heroine stays calm as a critter sinks its teeth into her finger, that seems like pure positive-role-model stuff. Not just because the girl is tough, but because she fully understands what she’s dealing with.
It’s a scene from which many momentous later scenes and later films would flow: beautifully imagined variations on the theme of youthful feminine intelligence prevailing over pettily vindictive, planet-ruining violence. As a new retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive reminds us, such variations are a particular, seasonally welcome specialty of the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli.
Full of but not limited by kid-friendly delights, Ghibli films are more nuanced than a first glimpse of their familiar wide-eyed, westernized anime faces might suggest. Built from distinctly topographical exhilarations, these 2-D handiworks stand gently but resolutely in opposition to the blaring, solicitous CGI of American animated films, not to mention the over-controlled amazements and environmental or romantic platitudes of certain pricey James Cameron movies.
Many of Ghibli’s mythic metamorphoses and human comings-of-age occur within a wondrous matrix of enveloping vegetation. Like feminism, environmentalism seems innate: Here, the natural world is a source for every fantasy world — be it castle in the sky or garden sun room in a gorgeous country house. By extension, the films don’t feel manufactured as mere vessels for their own mechandising rights. Which isn’t to say we have any shortage of My Neighbor Totoro plush toys, just that the figurative Ghibli iconography importantly includes primitivist tree-spirits and moss-covered robots too.
Admittedly a campus screening room might not seem very inviting during a season of long days, but the PFA’s chosen dozen Ghibli films are anything but airless. They’re instructive for kids and parents alike, proving that a summer gone to the movies isn’t necessarily gone to waste.