Yesterday, statements from Studio Ghibli’s general manager Toshio Suzuki on Japanese television set off a firestorm online lamenting the end of the legendary animation house. What Suzuki actually meant remains unclear – although initial reports in English claimed that the studio was being dissolved outright, subsequent translations (and the absence of a similar pandemonium in Japan, where Studio Ghibli is rightly venerated) have suggested that the animation house may just be pausing production and recalibrating in response to declining ticket sales and a lack of creative direction.
But whether the legendary studio is just ‘taking a break’ or closing its feature department for good, it is clear that, in the wake of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement last year, we have arrived at the end of an era. For 29 years, Studio Ghibli has been the world’s greatest animation house – only Pixar deserves to be in the same conversation. The passing of the old guard is a sad day for cinema.
Studio Ghibli was founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata following the success of Miyazaki’s fantasy epic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and has released 20 films since, including nine written and directed by the master himself. Suzuki’s statement that the studio would be downsizing its staff and focusing on managing pre-existing trademarks and copyrights suggest a company feeding on its past and devouring itself, rather than pushing on with indelible imagination that marked its golden years.
Everyone has his or her memories of Studio Ghibli. Growing up in the last two decades, Ghibli films were the rare and precious alternatives to the computer-animated barrage from Disney, Dreamworks, Sony and their ilk. They were meditative where their contemporaries were bombastic; gentle where others were violent; inclusive rather than didactic. The studio’s hits were never the subject of crass tie-ins, and resisted sequels, prequels and the deluge of pop culture references. When American film effectively abandoned hand-drawn animation, the animators from Japan only stove for greater heights of artistry.
A Ghibli film was rarely seen on a Saturday afternoon with a huge cadre of friends hopped up on soft drink and popcorn – it was an experience that had to be sought out, or shared via an oft-played copy of Princess Mononoke from a video store or elder sibling’s shelf. To see a Ghibli film was to be transported to another world – often ethereal and magical, where joy was inevitably tempered by melancholy, but forever beautiful. For many like myself, it was gateway not just for anime, but cinema itself.
Part of the pleasure of Studio Ghibli was the diversity of their output; they could switch gears within a year from the realistic family drama Only Yesterday to the high-flying wartime fable of Porco Rosso. Yet despite their resistance to branding or wanton franchising, a Ghibli film remains immediately recognizable, not only for the deft animation but a dedication to moral complexity and measured storytelling. Though one may easily spot a Ghibli hero – often a strong-headed girl on the cusp of adolescence – very rarely in their oeuvre do we find an outright villain. In tales populated with the bizarre, the grotesque, the weak, the greedy, the misguided and the vain, no one is entirely beyond understanding or love.
Attempting to distil the magic of Ghibli, my thoughts return to a single unhurried scene towards the climax of Spirited Away, my first taste of Miyazaki. The heroine, Chihiro, boards a train on a flooded plain, in search of a witch in a distant hovel. Buying at ticket on the platform, she is joined by No Face, the masked spirit who caused such devastation at the mystical bathhouse, feeding on the greed of the workers (and then simply feeding on the workers). Rather than scorned the spirit – defeated, diminished and lonely – Chihiro accepts him as a companion, and they board together. Side-by-side sit the film’s hero and supposed villain in silence, surrounded by shades in the garb of rural commuters, peering out the window as the train glides across the waters. They pass floating stations and solitary island homes, the carriage emptying. Afternoon gives way to dusk, then evening, until only the stars and kerosene lamps light the way. There is little action, nor plot. Yet that gentle moment, with all the dissonance of a dream– the casual acceptance of the strange, the beauty of the unknown cloaked in the mundane – has never left me.
Although Studio Ghibli is synonymous, particularly outside of Japan, with the films of its resident creative powerhouse, Hayao Miyazaki, to conflate the two is to do a disservice to a stable of remarkable artists. Foremost of these is co-founder Isao Takahata, responsible for a bevy of additional masterpieces under the Ghibli banner, most notably his devastating WW2 ‘home front’ tragedy Grave of the Fireflies. The Ghibli story is similarly not complete without Yoshifumi Kondo, director of Whispers of the Heart, whose early death derailed the succession plans of Miyazaki and Takahata; new directors Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki (the master’s son) have yet to produce films as accomplished as those by their forebears. Beyond these marquee names are yet hundreds of Japan’s best animators and visual storytellers, talents undimmed, who will be forced to seek out new professional homes.
Nonetheless, it is Miyazaki’s retirement that has set off the studio’s seeming fall. The great director has announced his departure on multiple occasions over the last 15 years – this time it promises to hold. His last picture, The Wind Rises, reads so easily as a farewell, and a memoir. At its centre is an optimistic creative with a tortured legacy, the military aircraft designer Jiro Horikoshi, attempting to wrest beauty from a world of violence. For Miyazaki, whose films have so often reveled in the miracle of flight, it is one last journey into the space between reality and imagination, still resistant to cynicism and despair. Rare amongst artists who venerate the natural world, as he has the forests, rivers and open skies, Miyazaki evinces in a belief too in man’s ability to create objects deserving of an equal and complimentary wonder. Overloaded with subplots and sidestepping the grim militarism that Jiro’s creations served, The Wind Rises may not be a masterpiece in the order of the simple and sublime My Neighbour Totoro, but it attests that he leaves us, after eleven films, still at the height of his powers.
Despite the Internet alarmism, Ghibli’s fate is not yet certain. In the immediate future, the studio will continue to produce television shows and license its past works. Perhaps the feature department will fire back up in time. But the old guard is taking flight, and it remains to be seen whether artists of similar vision will succeed Miyazaki and Takahata. One hopes the studio could continue on like Disney after Walt’s death – to cultivate and train a new generation of animators, and in time produce new classics.
Perhaps the train can continue to glide across the water, though the tracks have disappeared into the blue. Common sense insists it will rust, or sink – but Studio Ghibli was always buoyed by a little faith in magic.