Ghibli’s Moving Pictures

29 August 2016

August 2016 marks 30 years since the release of powerhouse Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli’s inaugural feature film, Laputa: Castle In The Sky (1986). A whimsical tale of airships and floating kingdoms, its success provided the newly-founded Studio Ghibli a platform to create some of Japan’s most beloved characters and tales. With the twin releases of My Neighbour Totoro and the much darker Grave of the Fireflies in 1988, the studio positioned itself as the foremost animation house from Japan – albeit with subtle western accents in the architecture, locations and stories of its features.

It begins with the studio’s name: Ghibli, an Italian word that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki borrowed from a World War II aircraft. Despite this flagrant link to war, the studio has always expressed deep pacifist sentiments, which are woven throughout its entire filmography and extends to its business decisions and public image.

The moment when Studio Ghibli found widespread acclaim and popularity outside of Japan was arguably with the release of Spirited Away in 2001, receiving the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature as well as becoming the highest grossing film in Japanese history. Ghibli features are a slow burn – following release in Japan, they usually screen at film festivals across the globe and are later dubbed and distributed in overseas territories. The studio has produced 21 feature-length films over the past three decades until 2014, when there was an announcement of an indefinite hiatus in the wake of Miyazaki’s retirement. Studio producer Toshio Suzuki elaborated,

“I guess you could say Ghibli is still open but not operating. We’re not really sure about what to produce next. Thinking about the state the world is in, it’s difficult to say what we should make”.

In terms of creative output and universal popularity, Ghibli is often seen as Japan’s answer to its North American distributor Disney and whilst the two share many traits – most notably box office success and critical acclaim – they are also unalike. This isn’t to say Disney and Ghibli aren’t mutual admirers of each other’s work, as Ghibli’s most famous character, Totoro, has a brief cameo in Pixar’s Toy Story 3 (2010).

Much of the emotion of a modern animated film is left to animators to mimic human responses – part of the success of Pixar films has been built on the advanced technology used to create increasingly lifelike facial reactions. For Ghibli, its universal animation style, abandoned only for My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999), isn’t advanced technology at all. The backdrops are usually simple hand-drawn affairs and the character designs can be recycled by substituting different hair colours or outfits. The emotion of a Ghibli film lies in the journey of its characters. Where Disney resolves most of its plots neatly with minimal damage to the characters, Ghibli’s endings can be painful and the plot twists permanent. When Kiki loses the ability to speak to her cat Jiji in Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), she never regains it. When the tanuki raccoons lose their habitat to urban expansion in Pom Poko (1994), the ending reveals a few remaining tanuki inhabiting a golf course.  

The fundamental difference between Studio Ghibli and Disney is, beyond the language and animation styles, the heart of Ghibli features. Disney operates and owns different animation studios, either under the Walt Disney Animation Studios umbrella or through a separate entity such as Pixar. Conversely, Ghibli is strictly an in-house studio, employing a small team of animators to craft its films with a distinct disregard, especially among their earlier films, for commercial marketability outside Japan. The heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies (1988) or even the nostalgic but at times painful Only Yesterday (1991) contain themes that are far too mature for Pixar to touch. Compared to Pixar, Ghibli operates with far less commercial pressures and limitations which inevitably arise when closely attached to a major corporation.

This independence enables Ghibli to penetrate much deeper than its rivals, often touching on man’s impact on the planet, the melancholy nature of childhood and perhaps most consistently, the horrors of war. Whilst the sanctimonious environmental message of films such as Wall-E (2009) seems to contrast Disney’s own environmental track record, Ghibli has mostly avoided such contradictions. Disney has previously faced numerous child labour and sweatshop allegations – in 2011, it was alleged that factories producing merchandise for Pixar’s Cars (2006) in China were violating labour laws and employing workers as young as fourteen. The idea of children, Disney’s target demographic, working illegally to fuel its wasteful merchandising practises inevitably darkens the warmth of its features. Ghibli’s unique position that is unattached to major Hollywood corporations allows it a particular sincerity in its storytelling, untarnished by the realities of major studios.

Of course, even the most illustrious institutions have their dark spots – Pixar has Cars 2 (2011), Scorsese has New York, New York (1977), even Britney Spears has Britney Jean (2013). For Ghibli, it was 2004’s Tales From Earthsea, which scored a low 40 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes whilst their other offerings consistently scored in the high 90s, even the coveted 100 per cent. Critically, it has been the studio’s only major faux pas – although recent offering The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2014), whilst critically acclaimed, fared poorly at the box office. Still, the studio’s final production before the hiatus, When Marnie Was There (2014), drew an Academy Award nomination and current ‘It’ girl Hailee Steinfeld for the English dub.

Before enjoying a Ghibli film, one must decide whether to watch it in its native Japanese with the aid of subtitles or view the English dub, substituting in voices as varied as Christian Bale, Lucy Liu and Anne Hathaway. The English dubs of Ghibli films often use Disney Channel actors for the voices, although they have previously employed stars as varied as American Horror Story favourite Kathy Bates, Sofia Coppola muse Kirsten Dunst and even über A-lister Cate Blanchett.  

This past December, I ventured to the sleepy town of Mitaka in suburban Tokyo – home of the greatest collection of artefacts commemorating the studio, aptly titled the Studio Ghibli Museum. And whilst the global popularity of its characters would surely warrant a much larger site à la Disneyland, the museum is decidedly tasteful. Carefully designed by Miyazaki, it displays early sketches and reels of films and allows visitors to screen one of four special short movies made on film and unable to be seen anywhere else in the world. The museum doesn’t allow guests to take photographs inside and it is located on a small site within a leafy park. On the day of my visit, the museum screened Koro’s Big Walk (2002), a short film about an adventurous dog that spends a day running through a typical Japanese suburb. It was beautifully made, had an optimal running time and was enjoyable for both the small children and middle-aged adults in attendance. It was pure Ghibli magic.

Overall, the museum had a dignified air, fitting for a studio whose founder famously refused to accept his aforementioned Academy Award for Spirited Away as a protest to the US invasion of Iraq. Perhaps part of the magic of Ghibli and indeed what makes the indefinite hiatus so concerning, is the studio’s protectiveness of its films – including its strict no editing rules for international releases. A Studio Ghibli producer reportedly sent Harvey Weinstein (legendary producer of Miramax, a production company that was owned by Disney at the time) a katana, as a way of telling him not to cut any scenes in the English release of Princess Mononoke (1997).

In essence, Ghibli is the real deal – box office success second to well-crafted and animated stories that are closer to contemporary art than a children’s feature film. Whilst crafting a new Disney film likely involves a boardroom meeting of men in suits on maximising marketing opportunities, conceptualising a new Ghibli feature is a far more organic exercise. The indie cred of Ghibli cannot be understated. Whether the ambiguous nature of the hiatus is a brief lull or a dignified end, the characters, stories and legacy of Studio Ghibli will ensure its continued popularity and appeal for all new generations.

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