When Marnie was there
Courtesy of Studio Ghibli

Ever since master animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in September 2013, the question hanging over Japanese animation has been: Who, if anyone, will step into his very large shoes?

This search for the “new Miyazaki” began long before the Oscar-winning auteur released his 2013 swan song, the WWII-themed “The Wind Rises.” Studio Ghibli, which was Miyazaki’s creative home for nearly three decades, has raised several putative successors, including Miyazaki’s son Goro, who directed “Tales From Earthsea” and “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and “The Secret World of Arrietty” helmer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who made Ghibli’s last feature to date, this year’s Oscar-nominated “When Marnie Was There.”

But no animator working in the Japanese industry today has approached Miyazaki’s spectacular earnings for 2001 coming-of-age fantasy “Spirited Away.” Its $300 million domestic take reset the all-time record.

The shape of the post-Miyazaki animation landscape became clearer with the December announcement by leading distributor Toho that it will release two films by up-and-coming animators with Miyazaki connections.

One is “The Red Turtle,” the first feature by Academy Award-winning Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. The film is being co-produced by Studio Ghibli and a consortium of French companies, with release set for September.

The other is “Your Name?,” the first feature in three years by Makoto Shinkai, who has often been labeled a “new Miyazaki” for an imaginative scope and attention to visual detail that recall the master’s, though Shinkai’s lush style and favorite theme of young love are distinctively his own. Release is set for mid-July — a peak school holiday slot long associated with Miyazaki.

Shinkai is not the only animator to wear the “new Miyazaki” label. The most successful so far is Mamoru Hosoda, whose original fantasy “The Boy & the Beast” earned $49 million following its July release by Toho in Japan, representing the second-highest total for a domestic film last year.

Ghibli itself will not make features for now. “It really is over (for them),” says Jonathan Clements, author of “Anime: A History.” “It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.”

“The Red Turtle” is not a true Ghibli film, contends Clements, despite studio production support, with Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata serving as “artistic producer.” “It’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history,” he explains. “Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if ‘The Red Turtle’ is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.”

But whether or not Ghibli again makes feature animation, or subsides into a legacy business, as now seems likely, the Japanese anime industry keeps rolling along.

“We have a library of great works by Ghibli, which we constantly
refer to, either consciously or unconsciously.””
EDDIE MORIYA

Last year, the kiddie-targeted, Toho-distributed animation “Yo-Kai Watch the Movie: The Secret Is Created, Nyan!” earned $66 million and bragging rights as the highest-earning local film of 2015, though it had no Miyazaki or Ghibli connection whatsoever. Part of a multiplatform franchise that began in 2013 with a hit role-playing video game for Nintendo, “Yo-Kai Watch” has since generated a successful sequel and looks likely to join the ranks of other enduringly popular local anime series.

Of the top 20 Japanese films at the box office last year, 10 were animation and seven belonged to long-running anime franchises, including “Detective Conan,” “Doraemon,” “Dragon Ball,” “Pokemon,” “Crayon Shinchan” and two “Naruto” films. Most kids get hooked on the franchises by watching the TV anime series that spawn the films, some of which have been broadcast for decades.

“These works that target the general and family audience have a steady and long-term popularity,” says Eddie Moriya, chief business development officer for the Polygon Pictures digital animation house, which launched in 1983 and produces several top series for the under-12 set.

Hit features also emerge from another of Polygon’s areas of expertise, the so-called late night animation genre — TV series aired long after most “Yo-Kai Watch” fans have gone to bed. These films are both animated (“Girls und Panzer”) and live-action (“Attack on Titan”), and the main sources of revenue have historically been Blu-ray discs and various spin-off products — but Moriya says revenues are growing in overseas sales and streaming deals.

In the anime industry, there have long been far more studios like Polygon, producing for a wide market range, than Ghibli, which from the start was dedicated to making high-quality feature animation, with its accompanying high costs and high risks. “The other studios could not compete with Ghibli in quality, since they would need to finish work on a large quantity (of animation) within the same time,” says Moriya. “Therefore other studios cannot suddenly do the same thing as Ghibli.”

One partial exception is Hosoda, who has started his own animation house, Studio Chizu, and has steadily been building box office clout, with each new film earning more than the last. “His position is the closest to that of Ghibli,” says Moriya.

Also, though Hosoda, Shinkai and other “new Miyazakis” may still produce anime with a 2D hand-crafted look, the realities of the business — fewer animators with the necessary skills and ever greater pressure to push out product — has led to the widespread introduction of digital technologies, with Polygon in the forefront.

“Even in the realm of hand drawings, (animators) will switch from using paper and pens to working with pen tablets,” Moriya says. “In addition, there will be more studios like ours that work with cel-look CG characters.”

The Japanese industry, however, is resisting a complete Hollywood-style switchover to 3D CG animation, despite the success in that format of Takashi Yamazaki’s “Stand by Me Doraemon,” which earned $170 million worldwide following its 2014 release. A mix of a 2D look and CG technology seems to suit the local market, where the pull of the Miyazaki and Ghibli tradition remains strong.

“We have a library of great works by Ghibli, which we constantly refer to, either consciously or unconsciously,” Moriya says. “Each studio’s effort to try new ways of expression, while referring to Ghibli and other great works, is what brings progress and advancement to the anime industry.”

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