Studio Ghibli may celebrate its 40th anniversary this year by quietly ceasing feature filmmaking. But its place in animation history is secure. On its 20th anniversary, the Busan festival is recognizing the company as its Asian Film Maker of the Year.
Founded in 1985, Studio Ghibli is the most successful company in the history of the huge Japanese animation industry, if success is measured by box office numbers and international prizes. Most of those prizes and numbers belong to studio co-founder and mainstay Hayao Miyazaki, who also gave Studio Ghibli its name from a WWII Italian aircraft, with ‘Ghibli’ being an Arabic word for the hot desert winds of North Africa.
Miyazaki and his co-founders — animator Isao Takahata and producer Toshio Suzuki — intended to blow fresh winds through an industry focused on making quick profits from cheap entertainment for kids.
From the beginning, Ghibli aimed higher, with quality feature animation that soared on the wings of Miyazaki’s fertile imagination while being grounded in painstaking hand-animated craftsmanship. In the early days, however, audiences did not come in hoped-for numbers – and a corporate crash and burn looked possible. Suzuki later told this writer that “We were betting the company with every film.”
But Miyazaki’s 1989 coming-of-age fantasy “Kiki’s Delivery Service” became the highest-earning Japanese film of the year, starting a box office streak that did not end until Miyazaki’s last film before his September 2013 retirement from feature animation, the WWII-themed “The Wind Rises.”
Along the way came “Princess Mononoke,” a fantasy set in pre-modern Japan that shattered the all-time box office record for a domestic film with earnings of nearly $150 million. This mark was exceeded by “Spirited Away,” Miyazaki’s 2001 film about a girl’s adventures in a world of folkloristic spirits that earned JPY30.4 billion ($253 million) – the highest total ever for any film released in Japan.
“Spirited Away” was also showered with honors, including an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. And the list doesn’t end there: Studio Ghibli films have been nominated for a total of four Oscars, as well as winning many other prizes, domestic and international.
Ghilbi’s films, with Miyazaki’s in the lead, spurred a worldwide boom for Japanese animation, though its founders’ first experiences with foreign distributors were not always the happiest, beginning with ham-handed edits. When Miramax Films bought North American rights to “Princess Mononoke” and chairman Harvey Weinstein suggested shortening the film for US audiences, Suzuki sent him a Japanese sword and a note saying “no cuts.”
Studio Ghibli has since established strong ties with distribution partners around the world, including Disney, though Miyazaki famously dislikes being called the “Walt Disney of Japan.”
Also, Miyazaki has many fans among foreign animators and directors, starting with Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter who has described Miyazaki as “one of the greatest filmmakers of our time.”
Another fan is “Pacific Rim” director Guillermo del Toro, who conducted a master class on Miyazaki’s first Ghibli film, the 1986 “Castles in the Sky,” at the 2013 Toronto film festival, telling the audience that “There are hints of Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki in everything, bread crumbs of influence left all throughout today’s animation styles.”
Now that Miyazaki seems determined to stay retired, at least as a feature filmmaker, can Studio Ghibli survive?
Takahata, who is considered Miyazaki’s equal by anime cognoscenti, temporarily stepped into the breach in 2013 with “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” a gorgeously animated retelling of a 10th Century folk tale. But Takahata is now 79 and unlikely to make another film.
Another Ghibli stalwart, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, had a modest hit (by Ghibli standards) last year with “When Marnie Was There,” a sensitively told tale of female friendship. Since then Studio Ghibli has been on an extended hiatus and studio international rep Mikiko Takeda says: “We have no current plans to make a feature film.”
Its reputation, however, is secure. And the always-outspoken and long-politically- active Miyazaki is anything but silent. At a July press conference for foreign reporters held at his Ghibli atelier, Miyazaki expressed his opposition to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s successful drive to revise Japan’s pacifist Constitution. “I think it’s despicable,” he said.
When he isn’t lambasting rightist politicians, Miyazaki has been busy working on a new short film about the adventures of a hairy caterpillar. Intended for screenings at the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, which displays the work of Miyazaki and other Ghibli animators, it will be animated using CG technology. Miyazaki, however, has repeatedly said he intends to keep drawing by hand – his preferred method throughout his five-decade career — until he can no longer hold a pencil.
However this creative combination turns out – even the film’s completion date is still up in the air — it is sure to keep Miyazaki in the news. And Studio Ghibli? As a company, it may fade, but the wind it started back in 1985, sending animation masterpieces around the world, still blows strong