Studio Ghibli: Japan's Anime Dream Factory

Back to Contents of Issue: December 2003

Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki's magical kingdoms are very Japanese

by Tony McNicol

STUDIO GHIBLI IS DIRECTOR Hayao Miyazaki's world, the animation studio he established in 1985 with fellow filmmaker Isao Takahata. Now part of publishers Tokuma Shoten, Ghibli is one of a clutch of animation studios built along the Chuo line in far western Tokyo, where land was once cheap.

But things have changed dramatically for Miyazaki and Ghibli since their early yen-pinching days. Just this year, Miyazaki's Spirited Away picked up an Academy Award for best animated feature film, becoming the highest grossing movie ever in Japan. More than 23 million Japanese saw Spirited Away.

Miyazaki's last two movies were distributed by Disney in North America and Asia, and teaser trailers are already showing in theaters for his forthcoming film, due out in summer 2004.

Recent years have seen Miyazaki drawn rather reluctantly from the seclusion of Ghibli's suburban office into the harsh glare of the Japanese media. The studio hasn't issued photos of the director for six months primarily because Miyazaki can't go out without being recognized. Miyazaki is that rare thing: an acknowledged auteur in an industry more accustomed to seeing its creations on junk food cartons than in the annals of movie history.

"I believe Miyazaki is an authentic genius," enthuses Helen McCarthy, author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation. "I compare him with the great live action director Akira Kurosawa. Both have the ability to extract the maximum impact from either epic sweeps of vision or tiny telling details. And they both have such a humane worldview.

"Miyazaki has superb craft skills in all areas. I don't know if anyone else will be able to attain his position again, at least in the world of anime."

Ideal worlds
Of the seven Studio Ghibli movies directed by Miyazaki, My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is the one most representative of the animator's talent. Set in an idyllic postwar Japanese countryside, Totoro tells the story of two young sisters' encounters with magical forest spirits, including the eponymous Totoro, a furry creature that lives inside an enchanted tree. Critic Roger Ebert has described it as "a children's film made for the world we should live in, rather than the one we occupy."

Grave of the Fireflies (1988) was directed by Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata and released alongside My Neighbor Totoro. Fireflies is a mournful mirror image of the other film, featuring two young siblings -- but this time the setting is an impoverished and despairing wartime Japan. In My Neighbor Totoro, only the children can see the magical forest creatures, while in Grave of the Fireflies, the suffering children are all but invisible to the preoccupied adults around them.

My Neighbor Totoro has become a symbol for Ghibli in much the same way that ET has for Steven Speilberg. According to Ghibli's Junichi Nishioka, the reason My Neighbor Totoro's characters feature on such a large proportion of the company's merchandising is that the other movies, for all their popularity with children, have characters that aren't quite as cute.

"But," he adds firmly, "we don't make our movies based on marketability."

Not Disneyland
Although Studio Ghibli is often described as the "Japanese Disney," Miyazaki isn't planning to build a globe-spanning merchandizing and theme-park empire. The nearest thing the studio has to a theme park is the Ghibli Museum on the edge of Inokashira park -- a far cry from fantasyland.

Instead, the not-for-profit museum is a space for children to explore the world of Miyazaki's films with an interactive dimension, which also makes it popular with adult fans of the films.

Like the Studio Ghibli office, the museum was designed by Miyazaki himself. The director looks forward to the day when its buildings age and merge with the surrounding trees and grass. The museum is barely two years old, but "it has already become pretty shabby," Nishioka notes with a mix of gratification and glee.

For all Studio Ghibli's success in its home country, and even with its recent Oscar win, Nishioka admits that it has yet to crack the American market. Although Spirited Away (2001) took in about three times as much as 1997's Princess Mononoke, the company concedes that box office figures are disappointing. Miyazaki's films are much more popular in France and Southeast Asia than in the US.

Culture gaps Princess Mononoke in particular drew mixed receptions from Americans. Set in the turbulent Muromachi period of Japanese history, it's a film about the relationship between man and nature, greed and progress. The film lacks the sort of clear-cut moral certainty that marks most Hollywood products: There are no unambiguous heroes and villains amongst the film's young samurai, villagers, and forest spirits, and there is no Disney-esque happy ending.

While some critics have seen this as evidence of an East-West culture gap, author McCarthy disagrees. "What audiences see in Miyazaki's depiction of the basic humanity of his characters is not just a Japanese way of seeing. It's a humane way of seeing."

Miyazaki's present project has a European setting. The director is working on an adaptation of a children's novel by British author Diane Wynne Jones.

According to Nishioka, two of Miyazaki's recently holidays have been in France and Kazhakstan, so fans can expect more than just the book's original British setting. But that doesn't mean that Miyazaki will be adopting a Western aesthetic.

"We are Japanese so we are going to make a Japanese film," Nishioka declares. "The film has a Western setting, but we're not about to make a film where good overcomes evil -- and everything ends happily." @

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