As the recent death of famed children’s book illustrator Maurice Sendak made clear, even geniuses don’t live forever. Fans of Japanese toon maestro Hayao Miyazaki, now 71, have long speculated about who will succeed him at Studio Ghibli.

Among the heirs apparent are Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed “The Secret World of Arriety” (2010), and Goro Miyazaki, the master’s son and director of “From Up on Poppy Hill” (2011). Both toons were the top B.O. hits among domestic pics in their years. However, because the senior Miyazaki scripted the pics and supervised their production, it’s still not clear that his two would-be heirs can uphold his standards on their own.

Outside Ghibli’s confines, a crop of younger animators has been wowing critics and winning fans with toons that are similar to Miyazaki’s in their humanistic themes, richly imagined worlds and hand-drawn techniques.

One is Mamoru Hosoda, whose upcoming “The Wolf Children Ame and Yuki” follows two kids who move with their human mother to a rural town after their wolfman father dies. Hosoda won armloads of domestic prizes for his two previous features, “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (2006) and “Summer Wars” (2009). The latter earned $20 million — outstanding for an anime based on an original story instead of the usual comic or TV toon franchise.

Another contender is Hiroyuki Okiura, director of the well-received “A Letter to Momo.” Seven years in the making, “Momo” relates the adventures of a girl who must contend with three trouble-making goblins she meets in her new island home.

Still another is Makoto Shinkai. His 2011 fantasy adventure “Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below,” about a lonely teenage girl who enters a strange underground world in pursuit of a mysterious boy, recalls the many Miyazaki epics featuring spunky young heroines, though Shinkai’s poetic visual sense is definitely his own.

Finally, there is helmer Keiichi Hara, whose direction on the long-running “Crayon Shinchan” toon comedy series brought it critical kudos as well as B.O. riches. Similar to Miyazaki, Hara views social issues (environmental destruction in 2007’s “Summer Days with Coo,” teen suicide in 2010’s “Colorful”) through the lens of fantasy.

Meanwhile, the workaholic Miyazaki is directing a toon skedded for release in summer 2013. Ghibli has revealed little about it, though Miyazaki has said the hero is the designer of a weapon of war who considers himself a failure.

Annecy Intl. Animation Film Festival 2012
Crossing over into toon town | Del Toro bullish on several projects
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