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Studio Ghibli’s Spaces of Escape and Longing

This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.

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Studio Ghibli have spent a generation crafting spaces to escape to. The worlds of their films feel so porous, as if we could disappear into them and yet, remain forever closed. Despite being picked from the encyclopedia of videogame spaceshub worlds, institutions, labyrinthsthey are flat images, not 3D spaces. For this reason, we will never occupy them, and they will always haunt us.

The Bathhouse Spirited Away

We enter through a side door. The grand entrance may catch our eye, glowing with the light of a thousand lanterns, but it is the sidegate, the secret entrance, the hidden way which draws us in. Through a garden of grassy islands, down a rickety staircase that wanders this way and that, to a small stone shelf bathed in the light of a single bulb. Around us the pipes twist and the steam rises and far below a train runs through the night full of people with somewhere to go. Or perhaps empty of everything but glowing yellow light. That yellow light fills the bathhouse, sets it against the deep night sky as a sanctuary, its compartments and corridors filled with cloud and light and the promise of something more.

We would happily be set to work. Scrubbing the floors with steaming foam, cleaning the tubs of oozing slime, ferrying the gods from floor to floor. A routine that gestures at magic, and yet cements that magic with the practicality of it all. Bathhouse to the gods. We see their shadows flickering along a long hallway of paper screens, the dance of the lantern flame playing across the walls.

The institution. A place of rules and regulations, of systems and order. Here the individual is welcomed in, their responsibility plucked from their back like the traveller’s load. Forget yourself, forget your name, remember instead to do your duties. Here’s your uniform. Enter the bathhouse. Escape.

There is magic in hard work, in being of use. Serving gods that are as tangible as the yellow smoke, the steaming pipes, the paper screens. Pure mystery is too distant to escape to, too aimless. Who longs to be lost in a land where they understand nothing at all? No. As the corridors of the bathhouse are opened up to us, frame by frame, they reveal familiarity as much as mystery. This is how the boiler is fuelled. This is how the baths are filled. Now we clean. Now we eat. Now we sleep. How easy would it be to enter through the side door, climb down the staircase and slip beneath the warm blanket of routine? To leave this world and find ourselves in another, simpler, more colourful, and filled with spirits and steam and light. Give me a job.

Such a request will never be granted. All the rules will never be revealed. The schedule never uncovered, nor the work detailed. What we are given is a suggestion, the shapes of bathing giants through slatted windows alongside the skeleton of an institution ready to erase our identity.

The door remains closed. The world we long for is little more than the shadows of gods cast on a paper screen.

The Island Porco Rosso

The Adriatic sea is as blue as a SEGA sky.

We see the island first from the air, a dark dot on an overworld map. A lighthouse twinkle brings us in, to gardens and terraces and a sign etched in neon red. The seaplanes moored around the pier speak of a place where journeys both begin and end, a hub of all adventure.

The sound of the sea outside shuttered windows. The texture of summer suits. Towns that tumble down wooded hillsides into that ever blue sea. Romantic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Our hero visits the bank, buys weaponry, stocks up. You can almost see his inventory filling up, his money tumbling down, and somewhere in a corner a glinting experience bar ticking along.

The next time we see the island it is from an almost isometric angle, its gardens and piers angled for the camera, ready to be explored. We zoom in with unflinching focus. Dark entrances into the white walls draw our eyes, portals to a network of tunnels we will never explore. These, along with the wooded gardens and the attic windows suggest a tightly wound knot of secret passages, corridors to be walked through again and again, the rhythm of their twisting shapes as familiar as the arrangement of rooms of a childhood home. A cut takes us to a concealed terrace with a white table, an arch, a pagoda, a stone causeway. Low, at the far left of the image, is a barred tunnel leading into open sea. There are six entrances in this shot, ways of looking in, passing though. They catch our eyes with the possibility of entering into a hidden interior, of coming home.

Shot after shot shows archways, windows, entrances, all leading to and from a hidden garden. We can look through the leaves, but never stand in their dappled shade.

Our hero remains in the sky. The island, after all, looks best from the air. Its arrangement of levels and passages, grottos and gardens laid out like a map of longing.

The Castle Howl’s Moving Castle

It’s the first thing we see, clanking through the mountain mist on its chicken legs. A pile of turrets, towers and terraces stacked like dirty dishes. Three shots in and we start to see windows, rooftops, and what look like bits of a house hanging from its flank. Portholes dot the upper limit of a bulbous storey clad in metal. This mangled mess walks past a mountain hut, as if someone trying to compare the two.

It’s a kind of mobile command center, for want of a better name. A base of operations that walks. A house that hobbles.

A single lantern hangs over the back door, a welcoming sign that we’ve seen elsewhere. A single, humble door in a pool of yellow light, an aesthetic code that chimes so easily with our imaginations. A door must be opened.

Doors that lead to different rooms, even different cities. The film plays a game of doors, revealing view after view, location after location, always behind creaking hinges. We reach the ultimate end of this game halfway up the castlea door opens to a vast landscape, a thin metal balcony rail between us and a mountain paradise. Greens and blues like we’ve never seen, all capped in cleanest snow. A red and white awning flutters at the top of the image, a detail among details that seems to capture something beautiful. The delicacy of colour, of fabric, the shape of a distant world. Beside the balcony, steel steps descend among riveted iron. They lead out of shot and then …

The castle is built from ways out and ways in, windows to see through and stairs to descend. These details seem desperate to lead us out of shot, to pull us away from the continual moving on of plot and pace, to idle a little in this world. We can see how easily we might move from one space to the next, to climb down a ladder, lift a hatch and enter into somewhere else. The void that lies beyond the frame.

Inconceivable detail. To the point where even if we studied each chamber there would still be items and alleys we couldn’t quite figure out. Howl’s glittering bedroom is filled with the magic of objects that are beyond comprehension, countless devices serving purposes we can only imagine. Functionality is thrown from the highest tower to shatter into a thousand brilliant pieces below. How could an inventory hold such a wealth of objects? How might a world of function and purpose allow for such wayward designer? If we were to hold each one of these objects in our hand then would we have gained a vast fortune or lost something shimmering and distant?

The castle eventually severs its ties. Closes its portals and wanders off into the mist. But its doors still open to new revelations, as if rooms were dreams and we could enter and exit them as we liked. Howl’s bedroom becomes an earthen tunnel, studded with glittering gems. We wander down it, candlelight leading us on. Surrounded by toys and trinkets we reach a split in the way, two tunnel mouths leading off into the night. One remains untravelled, a way that leads to pregnant dark. Another door leads to a mountain meadow, a place away from time. Beside the bluest pond a small water mill sits in golden sunlight, its front door firmly closed. We enter it later on, by a different and darker way, through a door found in a pile of rubble that used to be a moving castle. As if the door might outlive the building, and become a symbol of the promises it offers.

The castle has a final trick. It takes to the sky like a bird, and floats on a SEGA blue sea like an island. We see it from above, in full isometric view, balconies, stairs and doors all suggesting ways to go, new entrances that might be opened to lost dreams. A telescope sits on a sunlit terrace, half a door hiding in the shadow. The shot holds long enough to let your eye wander, to let you wonder what the view might be from that hidden place. Perhaps the telescope would reveal distant islands on the sea, or great structures on far off mountsides. It might direct your eye to all kind of edifices, and to the windows and doors that dot their white walls. However it would not, despite the illusion it creates, bring you any closer to these hidden interiors, these spaces of escape and longing. In fact, as the flying castle rides the summer winds you would forever be drawn further and further away.

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This article is part of Film Week, Kill Screen’s week-long meditation on the intersection between film and videogames. Check out the other articles here. And, if you’re in NYC, grab tickets to our Film Fest at Two5Six on Friday, May 15th.