Princess Mononoke - Studio Ghibli

Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli released what looks uncomfortably like its final film in Japan in July 2014. Next week, almost two years later, When Marnie Was There reaches UK shores, but it’s far from the only Ghibli game in town. Instead, it’s got all 19 of the studio’s other productions up against it, as distributor StudioCanal celebrates 30 years of Ghibli with a comprehensive retrospective season, Studio Ghibli Forever.

There are a lot of hallmarks of the quintessential Ghibli film from across that storied history. Beautiful animation is, unsurprisingly, almost a given. There are the persistently curious, strong-willed protagonists – often children, almost always outsiders and outcasts. There are moving central relationships, occasionally romantic, but more often platonic or familial. But perhaps the most unshakeably Ghibli element of them all is the one that they tend to share the least in common: their unique, colourful, fascinating, magical settings; always striking, always unforgettable, and yet never repeated.

There’s the dank, mystical forest of Princess Mononoke, contrasted sharply with the smog and smoke of industry outside them; the vibrant, shifting bathhouse of Spirited Away; the feline paradise of The Cat Returns. Some are drawn from Japanese folklore; others, like Grave of the Fireflies, from its history. Howl’s Moving Castle and Tales from Earthsea take western novels for their starting points; Ponyo comes from nowhere but writer-director Hayao Miyazaki’s own mind – excepting a loose inspiration from The Little Mermaid.

The Cat Returns - Studio Ghibli

The worlds themselves are as far apart as their sources. It would be hard to find much common ground between the sun-dappled coastal bay in which When Marnie Was There finds its home and the dark woods of Princess Mononoke, just as each is worlds away (literally) from Spirited Away’s spirit world bathhouse. But, just as with the best of Pixar, a source of frequent comparisons with Ghibli, the mark of the studio’s presence and influence is immediate. In every case the setting becomes as rich as important to the film as any character or plot point could hope to be. It’s easy to imagine that each film started out not with a story or a protagonist, but with a vision of its setting – plumes of smoke rising above Mononoke’s forest; the Marsh House slowly revealing itself across the bay in Marnie.

This retrospective season offers a particular excuse to revisit some of Studio Ghibli’s lesser known worlds. There’s Porco Rosso, in which pirates roam the air and pigs literally fly; Pom Poko explores a society of tanuki, prevalent in Japanese folklore with rather large, uh, ‘racoon pouches’, as the English dub would have it. Each is quintessentially Ghibli, filtered through their unique blend of pop culture, mythology, and madness. If we have seen the last of the company, it’s a tragic loss for film – but at least they’ve left us an incomparable wealth of places to get lost in.

Studio Ghibli Forever runs across the UK until July 28th. The company’s final film, When Marnie Was There, is out June 10th.

Words by Dominic Preston