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Why Studio Ghibli is the most distinguished production company in history

Yesterday I was saddened to read news about the impending closure of Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese animation production company whose films include perennial titles such as Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbour Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery ServicePrincess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises. A blaze of reports followed a weekend TV appearance from studio co-founder and general manager Toshio Suzuki, who announced the company would be downsizing its staff, halting production and focusing on managing trademarks and copyrights for its 20 feature films.

Outpourings of grief went viral as fans and news outlets mourned the end of an era. Later in the day reports surfaced casting doubt on the veracity of these stories, suggesting Suzuki had been mistranslated and that Ghibli is instead “taking a break” or “restructuring“.

The original reports would have come as no surprise to those in the know. Last year the studio’s most prized asset, revered anime auteur Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement. Only a couple of weeks ago an insider reportedly said Ghibli’s latest film, the yet-to-be-released When Marnie Was There, may be its last. And in a recent documentary Miyazaki reportedly told the filmmaker (again, there are issues with translation) the studio was “going to fall apart” and its demise “inevitable.”

Let’s put it this way: Studio Ghibli’s future is, at best, uncertain. When I read about the company’s purported end, how its future is going to be defined by something as awfully adult as copyright management, my mind — after the initial surprise — went to a strange and tranquil place. It went to childhood memories of My Neighbour Totoro, Miyazaki’s 1988 heart-warmer about two girls and their relationship with the eponymous mythic creature.

I recalled visions I saw, so long ago now, of that big, lumpy, strange-looking cuddly creature with wide eyes, huge teeth and a tiny umbrella flying across a rainy skyline with his two young human friends in tow, shielding them from the elements. It was as if I was a kid again, keen to rush home and put the DVD on or pester mum to buy it at the shops.

But here’s the weird thing: I never watched My Neighbour Totoro as a child. I discovered the film (and much of Ghibli’s back catalogue) as a university student in my early 20s, expanding my knowledge and appreciation of international films.

Somehow Totoro has sparked an atavistic effect in me, as if I’d consumed it in my formative years and it had helped define, in some obscure way, the person I was going to become. Not necessarily in a earth shatteringly profound way, more like memory of a refuge — somewhere a little magical, insulated against the cold realities of life, where you could visit and not worry about things for a while.

Ghibli’s films, from the hallucinogenic rainbow highs of Howl’s Moving Castle to the darkly ethereal allure of Spirited Away, evoked that sense more than other animation studio’s portfolio, partly because they came with the feeling the creators weren’t setting up a framework to lead viewers down a path to sequel number 47, or designing characters according to the criteria of whether or not they’ll look good in a Happy Meal box.

Isao Takahata’s masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies (released the same year as Totoro) is possibly the saddest animated film of all time – an intensely affecting anti-war polemic that begins with its protagonist dying of starvation in a train station and includes visions of his mother’s maggot-ridden corpse being stretchered away. Try turning those characters into soft toys.

It would be naive to suggest Stubio Ghibli productions, typically colourful and energetic, weren’t commercial ventures, and plain wrong to suggest that they didn’t cash in on ancillary markets and merchandise (on this matter I can speak personally: I am immensely fond my Totoro tissue box holder). But Ghibli seemed to do business with a heightened sense of integrity that no other animation studio — particularly in the western world, and particularly with relation to the Big Mouse — the juggernaut cartoon ruler by which all others are measured — exhibited.

For a while, with its intelligent scripts and Oscar-lined awards cabinet, Pixar seemed to also have a unshakable resolve to create a culture with original visions at its core. Of the studio’s 14 feature films, one of the first ten (from 1995 to 2009) was a sequel. Pressures from the powers that be presumably became too great. Three of four of Pixar’s previous titles have been spin-offs (Toy Story 3, Cars 2 and Monsters University). Studio Ghibli never “did” sequels.

If somebody out there has evidence of a bogus Ghibli cash-in, something like a Kiki’s Delivery Service nose hair clipper or a Princess Mononoke tiara, well, fine — the point remains that these guys are (were?) distinguished in ways unparalleled by other studios. The richness and complexity of their films and their sophisticated tone had a trickle-down effect that informed everything.

Perhaps Ghibli’s most resounding achievement is that it didn’t let the context around its films and the vagaries of consumer behaviour corrode the work itself. Yes, audiences were treated as consumers, (such is the nature of the movie business), but Hollywood goes much further. It treats audiences as both consumers and products; in addition to bums on seats they are commodities to condition and create. Build a culture of huge and snazzy blockbusters and the audience will continue to want and expect them, and know precisely where to go to find them.

McDonald’s playgrounds operate on a similar conceptual level. Only after childhood we are capable of realising they exist not to enrich our lives but as strategies to augment a broader business plan. Kids play on elaborate equipment and pester parents to take them to McDonald’s again; children and adults alike wolf down food scientifically designed to taste pleasant and — at least to some extent — both link the experience with positive memories. The children grow up and have their own children, and the cycle repeats.

The cumulative effect for both fast food and multiplex cinema (both industries survive by the provision of sugary drinks and salty snacks) is a constant reach for the centre and a flavour that grows increasingly vanilla. Designed to appeal to the widest audience, Hollywood’s biggest risk is appealing to nobody, thus all the bells and whistles designed to get crowds through the door (Celebrities! Special effects! 3D glasses!).

The brilliance of Studio Ghibli was that it shot outwards, not inwards: the company’s many great films challenged people outside the realms of what was conventionally achievable, at least insofar as the western world is concerned, and it is on the peripheries of pop culture their work will always linger.

Let’s assume the initial stories were true and Ghibli’s production wing is wrapping up for good. Fans will understandably be sad that no more works can come out of the dream factory, but what is sadder: a studio that closes without compromising its ideals or one that pumps out sequel after sequel, spin off after spin off, toy deal after toy deal, in order to squeeze every last buck from its fan base?

A part of me hopes those initial reports are correct and Studio Ghibli’s death will come soon. That way the integrity of its work will remain preserved, forever resting some place vaguely out of sight — like a time capsule tucked away in Totoro‘s garden, ready to be found and loved.

Main image: a still from My Neighbour Totoro.

9 responses to “Why Studio Ghibli is the most distinguished production company in history

  1. What a lovely tribute to Studio Ghibli, Mr Buckmaster – one of my favourite columns of yours. And all the comments above are an absolute treat, too.

    Happily (or sadly, depending on your point of view), apparently the rumours of Ghibli’s death have been greatly exaggerated (sorry, couldn’t help it!). Regardless, this was a great read :)

  2. Beautiful, haunting films. I can’t wait until my children are old enough to watch them (starting with the delightful Ponyo!). Studio Ghibli did have some misfires – Le Guin’s Wizard Of Earthsea, made into a film by Miyazaki’s son, was a great disappointment.

  3. I discovered Studio Ghibli trying to find something less commercially oriented than the Disney stuff for my children (which I admittedly grew up with), and have now consumed their entire catalogue with vigor, most of which I have watched without my children!

    My two-year-old, bless his cotton socks, asked me to read a chapter from Howl’s Moving Castle before bed tonight (Ponyo, Howl and Totoro have awesome picture books. Kiki too, but my boys haven’t got hooked on that one yet).

  4. The films are also very personal, and they have the flavour of being one peson’s artistic eye, and obsessions (all those wonderful flying things!). It was inevitable that would end with Miyazaki’s retirement one day. I bought the box set for my niece’s birthday one year and it still the best present I ever gave.

  5. I have to say, I share your hope that it’s a quick and honorable demise for Studio Ghibli Luke. They’ve produced some of the most lovely, magical films ever made.
    It would be an awful shame, if they degenerated into a repeating sausage machine.

    Time to grab a disk and revisit the magic. :-)

  6. This is a sad day if Studio Ghibli is to fold. I watched Porco Rosso in my thirties and became a follower after that. Grave of the Fireflies brought tears to my eyes. That was a fine epitaph, Mr Buckmaster, and the company will be sorely missed by those who favor heart and intelligence over profitable pap. (I regret also that Hayao Miyazaki and Ursula LeGuin never managed to reach agreement on making a film of the Earthsea trilogy).


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