The Pick: The lush, whimsical and stark visions of childhood in the films of Studio Ghibli

The Pick: The lush, whimsical and stark visions of childhood in the films of Studio Ghibli

Chihiro meets No Face in Spirited Away (Image: Courtesy Nibariki) 

About a week ago, The Guardian reported the discovery of 500 previously lost German fairy tales. The stories are refreshingly dark and untainted by the sanitizing influence of the last century, cataloguing the stark and often frightening truths of childhood. These days, that spirit has been all but exiled from children’s popular culture—but the films of Studio Ghibli are a notable exception, a consistent reminder that kids’ media doesn’t have to be saccharine and safe. Beginning this week, the Japanese studio’s haunting, gloriously weird anime films get a retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

The anime studio breaks from the frothy, schticky children’s movies of today and instead hearkens back to the darkly beautiful honesty of the European folklore tradition. The films—many of which are anchored by the visionary imagination of director Hayao Miyazaki—manage to be enchanting without sacrificing their complexity. In Spirited Away, for example, a young girl’s parents are transformed into pigs, and she must earn their freedom by working as a servant to a population of witches and spirits in a bathhouse; the experience accelerates her adulthood, but also teaches her tenacity and courage. In Ponyo, a bizarre, poignant riff on The Little Mermaid, a young goldfish falls in love with a human boy, leading to an examination of identity and independence.

Ghibli’s films are lush, grand and whimsical, but they avoid condescending to their young audiences—instead, they render the pain, fear and difficulty of childhood and adolescence with refreshingly frank candor. The stakes are always high, the emotional impact always intense. Rather than washing over you, these movies get under the skin.

The details: To April 13. Various times. $13. TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W.,