As Makoto Shinkai’s Your name lands in US theaters this month, more contemporary anime films begin to seek success and viewership within foreign audiences. What have younger generations of animators been doing as old giants like Studio Ghibli seem to be slowly slipping away from the spotlight?
If you were to ask anyone who has paid attention and watched film in the last two decades, they are more than likely able to identify what Studio Ghibli is and what have they have done. Some would reminisce over their first exposure to anime in theaters with Spirited Away, others may go on about their collection of numerous plushies of the fluffy, forest creature, Totoro. But would just as many people be able to identify who Studio Ghibli is? Just as Studio Ghibli has specific images coming to one’s mind, the name Hayao Miyazaki easily rolls off the tongue in the same sentence. But besides Hayao Miyazaki, who has defined Studio Ghibli’s brand and the work they have created over the years?
Studio Ghibli was officially founded in 1985, after Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released. Prior to Ghibli, the conglomerate of animators that would eventually form the eponymous studio were in a now-defunct studio called Topcraft. Topcraft not only produced work local to Japan, but contributed to works under Rankin/Bass, credited under such shows like Thundercats. When the studio dissolved, one side of the freshly dropped animators would go on to form Ghibli and the other side of the split would move on to work at places such as Pierrot and Walt Disney Animation Japan. Although largely attributed, and technically wrongly, as a Ghibli film, Nausicaä’s production background is unique in that it was conceived and produced in Topcraft’s final years by generally the same people who would just so happen to become Ghibli’s founders.
Since Nausicaä, Ghibli would establish years worth of films that became household status in Japan. These numerous titles and years worth of art would largely go unnoticed for a while in the United States.
It was suddenly in the distant year of 2003, that Spirited Away (or alternatively, The Spiriting Away of Sen & Chihiro), would become one of the first biggest anime feature box office hits on a global scale. To this day, the film continues to boldly hold the title of being the only anime feature to have won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (at the 75th Academy Awards). A catalyst for anime’s social and artistic recognition in the West, Hiroki Azuma observes the phenomenon in his book, Otaku, stating the film gave renowned recognition for “the otaku form.”
Disney would later acquire rights to publish other Ghibli works, including re-dubbing titles such as a once-heavily censored and cut version of Nausicaä and My Neighbor Totoro. As of today, Ghibli’s more recent films have been distributed and handled by GKIDS. We have to give credit where it is due: it is truly Spirited Away that set the precedent for Ghibli’s more outreached success from the 2000s to onward. What would have happened to Ghibli if its audience remained only in Japan and minimal parts of Europe? Ultimately though, through its direction and in every fine detail of the final product, Spirited Away is all truly and intrinsically Hayao Miyazaki. In one way, we can revere the film for its catalytic impact on communicating Ghibli and anime to the 21st century, but as the hype train runs out of steam, our attribution and dependency on Miyazaki to keep producing an epic work has paved the way to actually hurting Studio Ghibli.
After the failure that was Tales From Earthsea, sordid expectations left the impression that no one can do it better but the original Miyazaki - and not Goro. Since Howl’s Moving Castle, Studio Ghibli has been unable to revive the hype that was Spirited Away as they used to, save for selected theaters and the eyes of animation enthusiasts. The studio has even struggled to maintain box office height locally within Japan, facing competition as the growing globalisation of art has become reality when even more American films intrude Japanese theaters. It was with Miyazaki specifically and his fame gained through Spirited Away that distributors understood the man to have some sort of overseas appeal. (Spirited Away’s success story is also one that we should not overlook that was perhaps carried with the aid of Disney due in part to the remarkable friendship between Miyazaki himself and John Lasseter.) It is not coincidental that other directors within Ghibli have been overshadowed, such as Isao Takahata (Only Yesterday, Pom Poko, The Tale of Princess Kaguya), despite having been active and claiming their own directorial roles since the Studio’s birth. Others would argue that a number of his works seem to have specific themes that largely only resonate with a Japanese audience.
Following this lull, Ghibli continued to struggle when it came to the movie machine’s game and Miyazaki announces retirement perhaps the umpteenth time. Ponyo was later produced, marketed as if wanting to recall the glory days of My Neighbor Totoro. To no avail, it nowhere reached near the same level of mass merchandising and critical appeal. In this time period, many former full-time artists switched to freelancing positions or simply left. Toshio Suzuki, one of the studio’s founders, stepped down from his producer role and additionally had to clarify his comments regarding re-evaluating the Studio’s uncertain future.
Although as of late Miyazaki has declared trying to get back into the game, one cannot deny worry over Ghibli’s standstill when their last full-length film was made in 2014 - When Marnie Was There directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who is officially noted as the youngest director of Studio Ghibli when he directed The Secret World of Arrietty earlier.
Studio Ghibli’s fall from grace was that did it not allow itself to foster its own its own identity, but handed it all specifically to Hayao Miyazaki. It is a common mistake to think the two names as synonymous, and more often than not people tend to generously grant Miyazaki credit to certain Ghibli films that he took no part in whatsoever. What is created is a dilemma in which Miyazaki is no longer an auteur as his own individual but an auteur as representing studio. Who can argue the least when one of his greatest success lies within Totoro, a creature who has become so recognizable beyond the film’s frame and towards merchandising within things such as toys and kitchen and lifestyle products. Studio Ghibli’s logo is no less the silhouette of the furry creature itself, perhaps a decision made by Ghibli unanimously to to deliberately owing much of their identity to Miyazaki: Miyazaki himself is Studio Ghibli’s mascot.
Pre-the 2000s era of Spirited Away, trying to follow and watch anime in the United States that was not available on television in some form of cut, censored manner was an expensive lifestyle.
It could have meant spending frivolously by accumulating individual VHS tapes from under the table at comic shops (with no foreseeable completion as VCRs were beginning to see their fate.) It could have meant that despite somehow getting these tapes to work on your VCR, you would have to tolerate an English soundtrack of questionable writing quality. Likewise, it could have also simply meant you never found what you were looking for.
A general limitation of titles and genres that somehow made it to the US shaped this idea that anime was a singular monolith of gratuitous violence or comical pornography. Parents simply forgot that Pokemon and Sailor Moon were anime when they were lumped in with Saturday Morning Cartoons™. (Not to say that Pokemon did not have its own fair share of controversy.) As animation as a whole still faces an identity crisis today, anime was often confused and intertwined between the kids section or adult entertainment at a Blockbuster.
It was through these quirks of what was once an underground hobby that shaped a generation of people who would remain fans or even possibly became animators themselves. Through those that understood this lifestyle, the market has been shaped to better appeal and resonate with themes that pull the heartstrings of today’s anime fan - if not perpetuated by a new industry that is run by fans themselves.
As with many who have been touched by Ghibli in their childhood, Makoto Shinkai’s viewing of Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky - a film he continues to call a favorite - may have directly influenced his current career.
When Spirited Away broke records, the generation of anime fans contemporary to that time were defined. As of today, Your name has usurped the title of the biggest anime box office hit of all time on a global scale, dethroning Spirited Away by surpassing its original numbers. Compared to Spirited Away, what makes Your name stand out for today’s audience? Judging it by the surface, Your name may seem like it simply borrows cliches standard to most television anime series: boy (sorta) meets girl, high school angst, comical misunderstandings, and inevitable romance. What about it makes it so universally appealing that Studio Ghibli has failed to garner in recent years?
Although lauded for straying away from many anime conventions and hailed as their own art forms, many Ghibli films themselves are still arguably tropey, with themes such as love at first sight, the eternal bond between childhood friends, school days, and other variations of pubescent drama that trends in many titles as previously mentioned. Perhaps the appeal in Makoto Shinkai’s Your name is in being more similar to a Ghibli film than one would think.
Prior to Your name, Makoto Shinkai was more famously known for the heart-wrenching 5 Centimeters Per Second, following a young man as he grows up and learns to love, lose, and learn how to move on. His short film, Voices of a Distant Star, focuses on a long-distance relationship literally distanced by space and time, in which a girl struggles correspondence with her boyfriend back on Earth as she is orbits in space. A more recent work prior to Your name, The Garden of Words, explores fleeting love.
Compared to much of what was on Ghibli’s plate, Shinkai’s work looks to the future and accepts that the present is ever-fleeting. When things do not go well, don’t linger - it is always possible to move on. When Shinkai looks into a tomorrow, further conveyed by his recurring incorporation of sci-fi elements into his stories that are grounded in urban, industrialized locations, Ghibli looks back on yesterday’s givings as we roll through lush, scenic country townhouses and pastures. What ultimately unifies Ghibli and Shinkai as similar is largely their themes on the power of love itself.
Directed by the late Yoshifumi Kondou, his only directorial role, Whisper of the Heart focuses on the budding romance and the youthful ambitions of two high school students in a more humble part of Tokyo. Goro Miyazaki’s (much more) successful From Up on Poppy Hill shares similar themes of young romance, added with the additional soap operatic drama of a post-war era place during Japan’s Shouwa period. Only Yesterday, directed by Isao Takahata, follows a woman’s personal journey back to her hometown. Much of the film depends on flashbacks and concludes that one should hold on to the past and embrace it. Much of Ghibli’s non-Miyazaki films carry these themes reminiscing for a certain era of Japan that is no more. That is to say, Miyazaki does not shy away from these same themes, preoccupied with themes of escapism and alternative history through elements of 20th-century European aesthetics and technology.
Trying to shake Japan with anti-nationalistic, environmentalist messages, it is also undeniable that despite consistent praise overseas, Ghibli has also regularly faced harsh critics in its homeland through the political messages deliberately conveyed across their films. Miyazaki particularly doesn’t shy away from his anti-war rhetoric, having been the receiving end of backlash with his last film, The Wind Rises. Beyond the front of mythical creatures, Spirited Away for instance, carries numerous allegories regarding pollution. Unlike the works of someone like Shinkai, Ghibli did not shy away from that heavy social issues that even infuriated Japanese critics.
Meanwhile, much of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography hold no facade, simply presenting dramas in their purest form that were sometimes laced with elements of sci-fi and the otherwordly. It is nothing but symbolic as Studio Ghibli had vigorously animated to criticize the ills of humanity and embracing nostalgia via classical tradition of paper, whereas Makoto Shinkai provided his takes on the highs and lows of pure, adolescent love and an optimistic future through his personal Mac and Photoshop. The gritty, yet fantastically beautiful world of Studio Ghibli has probably become less appealing to the masses in today’s zeitgeist, especially creating worlds much engrossed in critiquing a a past that will never be changed neither return. When Ghibli sought to linger on love’s power, Shinkai acknowledges the meaning and power of loss when love may falter.
What Shinkai understands in today’s industry is that he distances himself from Ghibli through openness - his own relationship to growing up with animation and societal problems contemporary today give his work the empathy and sense when catering to a new generation of anime fans and potential future animators whose fandoms have been validated by streaming services such as Crunchyroll, Netflix, and Funimation. To be short, much of Shinkai’s work focus on narratives more relatable to a very digital generation that has been further distancing themselves from the atrocities of World War II and a dead vision of Japan.
However, it is an “overestimation” to call Shinkai “The New Miyazaki”, in “getting” today’s audience that Ghibli has struggled with thus far; Shinkai is merely representative of the growing number of young anime directors entering mainstream popularity who were once considered niche or fringe.
Masaaki Yuasa is perhaps one of the more noticed names currently to the point that he is gaining ground in animated work overseas. Known for his extremely unconventional, cartoonish style, one can easily put two of his works side by side and they would bear no similarities. With several projects in production, The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, will be his second adaptation of a Tomihiko Morimi novel, his first being The Tatami Galaxy.
In the television series world, Sayo Yamamoto had recently came into the spotlight because of Yuri!! On Ice, fostering growing exposure to female anime directors and encouraging women-empowered work, such as her own interpretation of an established franchise with Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine.
Similar to Shinkai, Mamoru Hosoda creates youth dramas if otherwise stripped of their fantastical and sci-fi elements. For example, in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, based on a novel, a schoolgirl faces the typical woes of high school and adolescence further challenged by her sudden ability to time travel. Films like Summer Wars and Wolf Children have a stronger focus on the topic of family sprinkled with issues that are nothing but current or foreseeable.
What these names all share - and as many others not mentioned - is that they are representative of their individuality and not a brand or studio.
Interestingly enough, Hosoda was commissioned as early as 2001 to direct Howl’s Moving Castle. Eventually, one thing lead to another that encouraged Hayao Miyazaki to return to the throne in the director’s seat. Would things have turned out any differently for Ghibli today, if Hosoda, a director who more famously holds Digimon and Wolf Children to his name, broke down the studio walls in who could have easily been the first outsourced artist to direct a Ghibli film?
Much earlier attempts to foster different talent into the director seat was attempted through Yoshifumi Kondou’s Whisper of the Heart. Kondou was predicted to some day become the new frontrunner after Miyazaki. Sadly, Kondou died from an aneurysm in 1998 at the age of 47, in which his colleagues speculate was a result of overworking himself. (Miyazaki’s own recurring and ever-changing public announcements of retirement actually dates as early as a direct response to Kondou’s death, in what became an anxious habit wrought out of the fears of his own fate that we, his audience, have unfortunately assumed to shape as comical and irrational.)
Kondou’s death, a tragedy that although occurred early in the Ghibli timeline, was perhaps a dark mark on what would shape his colleagues’ perceptions of production and the Studio’s own future.
That said, Ghibli did not completely give up on trying to swerve things into a new direction as previously mentioned. Hiromasa Yonebayashi broke the Miyazaki-streak when he directed The Secret World of Arrietty. A grim future is left, however, given When Marnie Was There has been the last Ghibli feature for a while, if not perhaps Yonebayashi’s last Ghibli film indefinitely. (Yonebayashi, no less, will officially leave Ghibli as elaborated later.) It is hard to speak optimistically when even attempts to change seem too late.
Makoto Shinkai and other animators did not crack the code of what makes a successful anime in today’s era: they are today’s era and therefore better empathize with the values that are more familiar and appealing with today’s audiences. Studio Ghibli can continue to thrive if it opens its heart to the scary industrialized world if it simply means removing itself from trying to repeat the shadow of the Miyazaki tradition as opposed to nurturing new legacies. In addition, it also takes the weight of overseas marketers to value and better understand that the true spirit of Ghibli means acknowledging the craft of all artists equally. Studio Ghibli was never about Hayao Miyazaki alone. Likewise, Makoto Shinkai cannot be the “New Miyazaki” because he is himself as Miyazaki is his own. Studio Ghibli may be a collective, but a collective is always comprised of individuals each with their artistry to offer.
Lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and several other animators, such as Hiromasa Yonebayashi, have since left Ghibli to form Studio Ponoc. New work has already begun production. The name of the studio was chosen to signify “beginning a new day.” As Topcraft collapsed and initiated the birth of Studio Ghibli, perhaps Ponoc’s own future may determine Studio Ghibli’s fate. Regardless of what happens, Ponoc’s future is looking bright and the promise of a new day will surely be welcome.
Your name debuted in Japanese theaters back in August 2016, and previews screened at Anime Expo early in July of that same year. The film will officially open in US theaters this April.