This leg of the anime syllabus was mostly a fantastical spin. Like both the first leg and the second leg, there were moments where I drifted from the story at hand. However, this time around my focus was retained more than the last few selections because this time out I caught all of my entries on a big screen.

This stretch of watching – all of which were Ghibli films by the way – began with Miyazaki’s CASTLE IN THE SKY from 1986. The funny thing about this selection is that I actually haven’t the foggiest clue how I ended up choosing it, because it wasn’t on the original watchlist (no was it suggested by anyone after the fact). Part of me thinks I got it mixed up with HOWL’S FLOATING CASTLE.

Regardless, I recently heard Pixar director (and undeserving JOHN CARTER scapegoat) Andrew Stanton call it one of his favorite traditional animated films of all time, so I must have been on to something.

As I watched it with a packed house, I found myself a little shifty in its first half. The adventurous tale of the “sky pirates” and the way the kids navigated the peril felt a little reminiscent of the Astro Boy episodes I used to watch as a kid. However, as the final act began and the story finally arrived at the castle in the sky I was drawn in. That beautiful giant robot…those cute little woodland creatures, and the ultimate fate of the castle and all its would-be looters. In the final forty minutes or so, I felt like a kid again for the first time in the series.

A slightly unexpected development, and one I might not have been party to had I watched this at home amongst the usual distractions.

Not only was the next film definitely on the list, but it was the first one Miss Kittle wrote down for me last fall. I have to start this part with an anecdote:

The TIFF Bell Lightbox that presented all of these Ghibli films has been showing both dubbed and subtitled versions of the films – paying close attention to telling would-be patrons which version was showing at which time. Want to see a packed house of anime fans get restless in a hurry? Tell them they’re seeing the subtitled version and then start up the dub. (Happily, Lightbox rethreaded the film and unspooled the subtitled in a mere ten minutes).

WHISPER OF THE HEART was a curious selection, which Alex recommended as a great romance/drama between two young protagonists (sidenote: Are anime protagonists ever grown-ups?). At first folks, I was beginning to think she was a little nuts. The film seemed to be going down a similar road as 5CM PER SECOND, but without the visual elegance.

But then, right around the time my focus was waning, a handful of old dudes joined the central young couple to act as a back-up band on a truly beautiful version of John Denver’s “Country Road”. From there, the film takes off as Shinzuku feverishly writes her fanciful tale. So for the unassuming way in which it became so delightful, the precocious cat that I won’t soon forget, and the fact that I still haven’t got that damned song out of my head, this selection is a truly inspired one by Alex.

Finally, at yet another full house, I finally arrived at PRINCESS MONONOKE. My anticipation for this title was a smidge high knowing how truly beloved it is by devotees of the genre. I also found myself a bit worried given how much I’d heard about “The Second Half of Mononoke”. What the heck happened in the second half? Was the whole cast taken over by leprous goats?

With my expectations as high as they’ve been in this series since I started it all with SPIRITED AWAY, I settled in and hoped not to be disappointed. I’m happy to report that I was not even remotely disappointed.

The first half wowed me, and got me thinking that this was the sort of story Kurosawa might tell if he ever felt like incorporating scary, wormy monsters. For the first time in the series, the action showed up and showed me what happens when the format marries all of this fancifulness with some true energy and violence. As for that second half, hopefully someone can leave me a comment about what puts people off about it. For my money, it was some of the most imaginative visuals I’ve seen in the series since SPIRITED AWAY and PAPRIKA, and really played up the mysticism of the whole story.

Getting to see these three selections together on a big screen was an unexpected treat, and I suspect went quite a ways in drawing me deeper into the genre. Interestingly, I enjoyed ’em all despite crowds peppered with fans that were giggling at details I didn’t get. However, I was undeterred. I drowned in those bright colours and all of that endless energy on the screen. I came to these titles at just the right time, and now am eagerly anticipating the close of the syllabus next month.

No matter what happens next month, I think we can call this experiment a success.