Interview: Jesse Wente on Studio Ghibli

Spirited Away The Films of Studio Ghibli

Jesse Wente would probably bounce around the room if he could. Seated in his office at the TIFF Bell Lightbox preparing for this week’s re-launch of their incredibly successful retrospective of films from master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli, Wente can barely contain his excitement.

The Head of Film Programmes for the Lightbox, Wente is most immediately looking forward to the kick-off night of Round 2 of Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli this Thursday (a Master Class looking at Miyazaki’s 1986 classic Castle in the Sky with TIFF friend and beloved filmmaker Guillermo del Toro leading a post-screening discussion), but also to the chance to show local audiences to what might be the studio’s greatest and rarest work on Friday night when he introduces Grave of the Fireflies – a film that due to its rarity was unable to be screened during the last showcase.

He’s incredibly happy for the whole thing to start, and immense quality of the films themselves aside it’s hard to blame him. When TIFF first ran a retrospective of Ghibli films in their new home back in the spring of last year, the response was enormous and heartening. Screenings for most films were selling out the largest auditorium in the complex; even with multiple showings that offered options to see either the subtitled original or English language dub. It was an event that brought near unprecedented electricity to the building for a series that had no major guests attending on a regular basis.

Since we covered the series last time it played (you can catch Sasha James’ great primer on Ghibli here, only updated to reflect the new schedule and showtimes), we decided to chat with Wente about his feelings towards Ghibli and what the films mean to him. We also chat about the iconography behind My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, hidden gems in the program people might not be aware of, how the films of Studio Ghibli encompass the very goals the TIFF Bell Lightbox strives towards as an organization, and why he’s honoured to be a part of this showcase of films by not only a great filmmaker, but one of the greatest artists the world has ever known.

Dork Shelf: First off, I was wondering if you could share with us what your first experience with a Studio Ghibli film was.


Jesse Wente: I guess it would have been Nausicaa on a really badly dubbed VHS tape sometime around 1986 or something like that. That would have been the first one I would have seen, I guess, and at the time I knew it was a good time. I think at that point I was at the age where you begin exploring movies that are beyond your boundaries a little bit. And I had a good network of people that I could trade tapes with, and stuff like that. That would have been my real introduction, so I would have, from that point on, seen them within about a year or so of their initial release. Then in the early 90s when they started to get more traditional theatrical releases I would catch those. So I’ve been a big fan for a long, long time now.

DS: I remember something similar from working in a video store when My Neighbor Totoro came out, which was the first that I could remember seeing, and that video rented huge when it first came out. And that film seemed to me like a gateway for a lot of kids that were growing up in the 90s to find the films of Studio Ghibli.

My Neighbor Totoro

JW: Totoro was absolutely the movie that financially set Ghibli up for future financial and continued success. It’s actually an interesting story because at the time they made Totoro, which was around ’85 or ’86 or somewhere in that area, they weren’t yet self-sufficient as a studio. They actually had to get an outside financier to make the movie, and that financier wanted to make a different movie – they wanted to make Grave of the Fireflies. That was the one the financiers thought would be the biggest sure-fire hit. Totoro was like Miyazaki’s long gestating pet project that the financier thought no one would necessarily care about. So the deal that Ghibli struck was that if they make Fireflies, they also get to make this other movie and release them together as a double bill.

Grave of the Fireflies

When they came out, they let the theatres decide which order to play the movies. So many people would have had very different experiences. What Ghibli found, ultimately, was that when they showed Grave of the Fireflies first, most did not stay for Totoro. But when Totoro played first, they would stay for both films.

And they are, of course, very different movies, but this speaks to the way animation is treated in Japan versus how it’s treated in North America. The pairing here would be truly odd because no parent would ever be able to understand how to do it. There adults engage with animation as much as children do. It’s not seen as an art form that’s restricted to children. In North America it’s been like that for a long time, at least in terms of its commercial history. Now that very double bill is in movie history, probably as one of the most significant ever produced because Grave of the Fireflies garnered them all sorts of worldwide critical acclaim – Roger Ebert famously called it this transformative experience – and Totoro was the one that made them all the money and gave them sort of what would become their Mickey Mouse-like mascot.

Certainly, I think there’s something truly magical about Totoro and what it’s meant for Ghibli. To this day it has endured. Last night, we just had this screening of it for Lightbox members, and this little girl came up carrying the stuffed Totoro, and to just see little kids today react in the same way that they would have over twenty years now since the movie came out is pretty extraordinary. With kids, certain Disney stuff also has that same kind of feeling, but there’s that real sense of awe and wonder that Totoro’s about that can generate in viewers of all ages. That’s the one that I think blanketed the world in the Ghibli vibe. That, and of course, when John Lasseter and Disney got heavily involved in the promotion of the films and they got Oscar nominations and started getting even more recognized to a point where everyone is familiar with and loves these movies now.

DS: That double bill, which I actually never knew before right now was an actual thing that happened, also speaks to how unlike other companies like Disney or Dreamworks, Ghibli never adhered to a specific formula or genre. This was a studio that could produce more serious fare like Fireflies or The Wind Rises, but also make films younger children can really enjoy, like Totoro or Ponyo, or even big adventure and mythology epics like Princess Mononoke. And this time out you guys get to showcase an even bigger cross section of the studio’s diverse work.

JW: Yeah, and last time we did this, it was a huge success, but we weren’t able to show Grave at the time. It just wasn’t available to us then, and thankfully in the year and a half since has been resolved. And for me, Grave of the Fireflies is – as much as I love the other movies – the real prize. For me it is the greatest animated movie that’s probably ever been made.

Jesse Wente - F2I think in terms of what you’re saying, it’s kind of like what Roger Ebert said about Grave. I mean, it’s kind of a loaded thing to say about a movie, but I think there’s a lot of truth in what he said. For many people outside of Japan – for the most part I think – I think it’s a film that can alter your perception of what you think animation can do. I think we mostly associate animation with the same kind of emotions that Totoro would use, which is wonder and awe and a certain childlike innocent. In Totoro, you’re embracing those emotions and going on a journey with them.

Grave of the Fireflies is totally different in how it uses emotions, and they’re conveyed in such a way that I’m not sure any live action film would be able to convey as effectively. In part because it’s a story that’s so horrific that if it wasn’t drawn, I’m not sure if you could stand watching the movie. The movie is devastating as it is, but in some ways since it’s animated it allows you to live in the movie in a way that I’m not sure we would have had with a live action movie.

It speaks very much to the influences of Ghibli, and particularly Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who directed Grave. Takahata was born in 1935, so that means he would have been 10 when the firebombing of Tokyo that’s seen in the movie would have happened. That is the thing that you would remember at that age. That is what would dominate your memories for the rest of your life, I would think. That singular event. It’s also based on a Manga that was written by someone who lived through it and lost his sister, much like the character in the movie does.

I think Takahata, and to some extent Miyazaki, are drawing from many other kinds of films that aren’t necessarily animated movies. Grave of the Fireflies, I think, is a lot more closely related to something like The Bicycle Thieves or other movies from Italian Neo-realism than it is contemporary or even historic Japanese animation. I think they are doing similar things – the dream sequences in Grave are less tied to realism – but the central part of the film is animated realism. It’s meant to be in the moment and presented as real.

I think that ultimately speaks to what you’re saying. I mean, Pixar to a certain extent does something similar in that they often aren’t influenced by other animated movies. They’re influenced by other worldly things. They aren’t always treading upon the same symbols and imagery. They’re transferring the energy from one to the other. They also, of course, have modeled their entire process quite closely around the Ghibli process, which favours story over a lot of other things. For Ghibli I would think they are all mostly humanist in what they’re trying to present. They are reaching for the sort of content that I think European art movies or classic foreign language films reach for, and not what animation has reached for traditionally.

Everyone knew that Grave of the Fireflies was going to happen and that it was kind of going to be critically acclaimed in Japan. Something like The Wind Rises, to me, feels like a movie that’s very thought out. That’s a film that comes at a very specific time in an auteur’s career, and it’s as much about his own body of work as it is about the central figure of the film. I think that’s sort of what’s fascinating about it, and it touches upon why people like Guillermo del Toro and myself see them as being different from other forms of animation. We’re dealing with masterworks here, whether they’re hand drawn or not, because they’re in line with classic filmmaking traditions just as much as it is animation.

That’s probably a very long winded answer. (laughs)

DS: Actually, that was great. (laughs) This year you get to showcase these films, including a couple of new ones for even longer than you did last year.

The Secret World of Arrietty

JW: Yeah, we do. I mean, The Wind Rises we didn’t get because that comes out here early next year theatrically. But actually in the year and a half since the last one, two MORE movies from them came out in theatres. (laughs) So we wanted to include The Secret World of Arrietty and From Up on Poppy Hill, and Grave is the other major addition.

We knew that we wanted to bring it back – not only because it was hugely successful, because you would obviously want to do that – because we love these movies and any opportunity to see them on the big screen is something I always want to experience.

DS: And these are definitely “big screen” movies in terms of their scope.

JW: They are! And most people haven’t seen them on the big screen, which is not uncommon of people who aren’t of our age…

DS: Or they saw them like we first saw them on terrible, pan and scan, dubbed VHS rips.

JW: (laughs) Exactly. And there’s also something that I would say about how like last year we are doing both the dubbed and the subtitled versions of the films. Of course, as a purist, I prefer the subtitled versions. There’s something about watching these films in the original Japanese that adds to the magic of it, in part because I think you see it as a foreign movie, and when you view a film through that lens you realize more that it’s speaking to emotions that connect you culturally in a way that you might not have thought about if you just see the Hollywood versions.

There were initial rumblings a while ago that maybe Miyazaki-San may be stepping away. It seemed like we were hearing that earlier this year when Wind Rises came out in Japan, where the film had a separate life from its current North American life. So while we were looking at doing this it became clear that this was going to happen; the likelihood that he was going to retire was pretty high. The fact that we could show all of it and that we could do it at a time like Christmas was great.

And doing it at a time of year like this it allowed us the largest flexibility to get kids in there, and people aren’t working, and we can screen them all multiple times. Maybe now that we have all of them, it’s sort of an appropriate moment. Stars don’t often align when you could see one of the great filmmakers retire and then a month before that happens, see all of the movies as a lead up to what I think might be a rather moving acceptance speech at The Oscars. Or at least that’s how the script would play out in my mind, at least. I think that also presents an opportunity that we really couldn’t pass up. I mean, you don’t always want to repeat yourself, but in this case, it felt like there was a very valid reason to repeat ourselves on this one.

I’d also add that by the end of our last series, these films were always selling out our biggest auditorium on a regular basis. We could have gone on and on and on with these movies, so I wanted to bring them back. And this time we are doing some more cool stuff. There’s going to be a life-sized Totoro that you could get your photo taken with in the lobby. I think that should be up on Thursday in time for Guillermo. And we’re also going to have a lot more merch this time, which we didn’t have enough of last time. It feels like a fuller opportunity to do everything, and the timing was just perfect all around.

DS: I remember last year during those screenings just being here and there was such a great energy that I hadn’t felt before in the building even when it was at its busiest or during the festival. There was definitely a feeling of happiness and like something special was going on even when I came here to see something different that wasn’t a part of the program. This building really came to life over those few weeks.

JW: It was amazing, and it led to a story that I still love telling. The last screening that we did of Totoro, which was the last film we did and I think is actually the last film we are doing this time around, was sold out. There was over 500 people. I brought my kids and the energy was amazing, but also Guillermo was there with his kids, and Atom Egoyan was there, too. I think David Cronenberg might have even been there. Cameron Bailey was there. It was like anyone who was in film and based in Toronto was in that theatre at that moment. They all showed up to see this one movie.

That really speaks to what this building is about and what cinema can do. You have this collection of people all coming to pay respect to one of the greatest animated movies ever made. I just remember sitting there with everyone a few rows in front of me and thinking that this was insane!

DS: And it was nothing that you guys had to actively set up. These people just came out to see the movie.

JW: Guillermo just walked in! No one expected him. Atom is here all the time, and, I mean, Guillermo is, too, but no one was expecting everyone to come in.

And I was just thinking: We don’t even have a guest for this. It’s just the movie. Miyazaki isn’t going to be here. Was there another movie that we could have shown where this same audience would have appeared? I don’t know. Pick the classic. Maybe something like La Dolce Vita, but I don’t know. And that right there is the field that Ghibli films are playing on. If I was to rank these films, that is where I would place them. I wouldn’t say “Is this film better than The Aristocats?” I’m thinking in the pantheon of cinema history that this is where they would play.

My Neighbors the Yamadas

Of the 17 films over the course of the studio’s history, they never made a bad movie. There is no other studio that will probably ever be able to claim that history. From day one to Wind Rises, they’re all fantastic. Even the films that we don’t talk about very much, like My Neighbors the Yamadas, are fantastic. When will we see that again? There are some modern studios that can’t even produce a single good film over the course of ONE YEAR! (laughs) Pixar has a pretty good track record, but probably not quite Ghibli’s.

And to just go back to Grave of the Fireflies, when I took the job here and if you asked me to name five movies in history that I would have wanted to play here, that would have been one of them. It’s just so rarely screened for a variety of historic reasons, but we’ve screened it a couple of times now, once just for the staff and once for press, and most people haven’t seen it. And many of them come because they hear it’s Ghibli and they might come in thinking it’s something different than what it actually is, but everyone leaves affected and moved by the film. For me, that alone was enough for me to want to remount the whole thing; that ONE movie. But I think there was just so much else that it would have been a crime to not have done it all, in a way.

DS: We’ve talked about Grave quite a bit, which wasn’t actually directed by Miyazaki, but if you had to pick a few films for people to see from the program that viewers unfamiliar with Ghibli outside of the biggest productions might not know, what would you suggest they make a point of checking out?

Pom Poko

JW: Pom Poko, which was from Takahada, who did Grave of the Fireflies. Takahada and Miyazaki are generally very different directors. Takahada generally did films about somewhat older kids that were typically less fanciful and less playful than Miyazaki’s movies were. EXCEPT Pom Poko, which is REALLY weird, and sort of delightfully so. It’s also so… how do I put this? It’s not at all like anything you would ever see in North America. It has raccoons with enormously large testicles. (laughs) That’s one that I remember I specifically came to see at the last series, because when do you ever see something like that? It’s actually very rarely even available on DVD, and I think it’s an absolute blast of a movie to sit through.

From Up on Poppy Hill

I was very moved by Poppy Hill, and again, that’s also an older kind of film. That one is more about teenage emotions than a lot more childlike stuff. But it’s classic Ghibli in terms of what it’s trying to convey. And I would say, also, My Neighbors the Yamadas, because stylistically it’s very different from what we would expect from Ghibli, but also a very great movie. And if you want to explore something outside of what I think we would call “the Miyazaki style” these are much less so. I mean, with Pom Poko and Graves, you can see a bit more of that, though.

Porco Roso

I do love some of the oddities in there, though. Something like Porco Roso is so great and so crazy! It’s a dogfighting pig in Italy! And I love that stuff! They are boundary free in terms of where they go with a story like that. But Porco Roso also ties in a bit with some of their other best known work because they have that common thread of war and their expressions of conflict. Because, again, these are filmmakers who would have been born or grew up in the midst of a World War, and it’s a perspective that I think a lot of us in North America would have a difficulty trying to grasp. It’s the inverse of our own experience. It’s interesting to look at something like Porco Roso and how it ties into something like Grave, Mononoke, or the movies that we tend to talk about that are dealing with these kinds of more global conflicts. But Porco Roso is also just batshit crazy. (laughs) And I love that.

For me, I could walk into any of these screenings and still be amazed. I just sat through Totoro again last night. I have now seen that movie I don’t even know how many dozens of times, but every time it comes up I just want to sit down and watch the whole thing again. It never gets old. I’ll be bringing my kids once again to see that one.

And, like I said, Grave of the Fireflies is the real prize for me that I am excited for people to see, and it’s almost close to selling out, so I would encourage people to get their tickets soon for that one. And I’m really excited to be doing an intro for that and talking a bit about that history that you and I just discussed.

DS: What’s it like getting to do an intro for a movie that you love, in front of a packed audience, and for a film that you might never have been able to see on the big screen otherwise?

JW: It’s a dream. It really is. And for me it’s funny to talk about Ghibli because I tend to get quite emotional about it. And it’s not just about the past of the movies, either. Sometimes I think I transfer a lot of that to my kids. With kids you get to show them all the stuff that you loved as a kid, and watching them watch something like Totoro – and my daughter loved it – and seeing her have a lot of the same connections with it that I did even though I was much older than her when I saw it is a delight.

But to stand in front of Grave of the Fireflies and introduce it, that’s a programmer’s dream. You don’t get movies and opportunities like that very often, even if it’s twenty years later. It will be pretty cool. It will be a packed house and we’ll talk a bit about the history, and hopefully they’ll learn a little bit from it. And for those who haven’t seen it, what I hope to set them up for is one of those once in a lifetime cinematic experience.

We here at TIFF say that we want to change the way that people see the world through film, and this is a movie that changes the way you see a whole lot of things within an animated 90-minute movie. It will absolutely change viewers in a completely profound way.

So yeah, it’s a complete honour is what I would say it is to introduce it. Then there’s also the pressure to do justice to a film that my own words could probably never do justice to.

Spirited Away: The Films of Studio Ghibli runs from Thursday, December 12th to Friday, January 3rd. For tickets and information, please visit the TIFF website.