It’s been a busy week for Studio Ghibli as their announcement caused widespread panic about the end of an era, as fans feared their complete closure. Since then sites like Kotaku and others have shown that the translation actually is closer to a “break” or “rest” for the company much to the delight of many. The possible loss of a predicted 300 jobs and a pause in Ghibli films is still cause for alarm though and this gives an opportunity to look at a unique studio in the film industry which merits such chaos and passion.
Sunday night Toshio Suzuki appeared live on Japanese television to announce that the prestigious studio Ghibli was ‘closing’ its production office. Different facts and thoughts have been thrown in and mixed around, the ifs and whys and how longs abound on the rumour circus we love as the internet. Often the media fray can be as accurate as a shotgun in the hands of a rabid, blind ape (unless James Franco can help it!) but every now and again an endearing company like Ghibli makes you cling to each aimless rumour. Production costs, low box office success in some countries and the retirement of top writer Hayao Miyazaki all allegedly contributed to what is being discussed as a possible hiatus while a new strategy is formed. Or at last that’s what the anime lovers hope for.
Now this may sound like an exaggeration in such a cutthroat industry where 15 minutes in the limelight is a good run and studios come and go like the seasons. Those fond of Ghibli would be quick to remind you however that this is pretty much the equivalent of Disney quitting making movies…yeah that’s right, imagine the crying children who’s imaginations just died screaming in equivalent-land. True Ghibli isn’t quite the empire that is Darth Mickey’s Disney, who’s white gloved hand reaches over animation, live action tales, theme parks, marvel comics and every fairy tale story known to man and media. Ghibli however has had nearly 30 years of success in what in Most of the world is a niche market. A visit to Ghibli’s frankly staggering museum shows their history and success as well as showcasing their style vividly. Nausicaä: valley of the wind in 1984 catapulted Ghibli onto the world stage as the pinnacle of anime, when the company fully formed in the following year.
The animation is the obvious charm, in its natural home of Japan where the expression is the main form of communication this was often lost in translation for us Europeans especially in terms of humour. The jokes culturally in Japan weren’t about the set up or delivery but were instead about the reaction and often overreaction, which often the western side of the globe would struggle to relate to. Traditionally we Europeans would tend to find the more blatant and goofy humour about as amusing as doing your taxes with Adrian Chiles. Ghibli however found a happy medium between this method and a dry, often witty script to marry the humours. The animation is true to anime style with dark outlines and sharper edges to objects and people, but even more beautiful as it doesn’t stray so far to the unbelievable that it seems too ridiculous for the rest of the world. Anime is often seen by many to be characters with eyes often larger than their face and who shout almost sporadically. Or with women highly over-sexualised and over-proportioned for shameless effect. Ghibli though mostly avoided these pitfalls while staying true enough to keep the hardcore fans happy. Also the studio used many different intensities of art style to suit the stories they told. The lighter touch used to compliment the astounding cuteness of Totoro, the zany almost distorted art for the crazy Yamadas or the careful artistic meld of west and east for the deep fantasy stories Mononoke and Nausicaä. Later the sharper polished pictures earned them and Oscar for Spirited Away and critical acclaim with the more rounded and western influenced style for the ironically well-grounded film The Wind Rises.
The story for myself though is where Ghibli stands tall, while most other films are very much style over substance they truly break the mould. In a time where Michael Bay rules as a dark and twisted king of sun glare and explosions, Ghibli had both guts and imagination in super-sized helpings. The studio laughed at formula as frankly ridiculous tales of lovable far-fetched cat bus creatures and demonic pig demons were followed by deeply serious and sentimental films about children saving their club house or a brutal life tale of siblings surviving a war torn county with literal escapism. Each film contains its own world and beautifully crafted mythos of deep characters without cashing in on a franchise. The films barely connected with maybe one spin-off in The Cat Returns and a couple of recurring cast. This seeming respect and confidence is refreshing as our beloved characters are often milked dry of their liquid money and drained of all appeal. So many times when a sequel or remake is announced my reaction is “why?” and “please don’t kill it dead and trample it’s nostalgic corpse”, Ghibli meanwhile leave their stories resolved and moved steadily onto the next fresh idea. The commitment to story is shown by the frankly embarrassing yet understandable mourning in which the world undertook when head writer retired. While in our own Western cinema writers are famously overlooked with producers, directors and actors enjoying the tasty, tasty credit.
Like any form of magic, the appeal of Ghibli is hard to nail down. I do still remember vividly though the awe as a young boy when I watched Laputa, it was my first Ghibli film and I unashamedly marvelled as I had genuinely never seen anything like it. I had little appreciation for art or spinning a ripping yarn but even then it just felt epic and different. While I know there are better films the very good Laputa is a firm favourite of mine due to the memory attached. The highest compliment you can give a creative work, is when you can only sum it up with the feeling it invokes. Unless the creation is James Cameron’s Avatar and the feeling it invokes is searing boredom and nausea inflicted upon my soul….
Who knows what the future holds for Ghibli, after branching out into video games with the luscious animation for the fantastic Ni No Kuni the scene seemed so bright for the studio. This news of a hiatus is surprising and saddening but I hope only temporary and thought through. Suzuki has now said Miyazaki may return to create something new and Miyazaki himself has voiced his desire to create 3 short films set at the Ghibli Museum which he sees as “the only place” fitting for his new project.
Whatever the outcome, in a market of saturation and spinning cheap efforts for cash, Studio Ghibli clearly show pride and honour to their art. Maybe other studios of their kind will benefit as the artists and writers step from under from the shadows of past glories and champions to produce their own original legacies. Maybe Ghibli should be praised, stopping doing what they love while the wonder is still there, before they stagnate or business chokes the imagination. Sequels, theme parks, summer blockbusters and the next big idea abound in Hollywood and the world of film. Maybe Ghibli decided the time for their storytelling is done and had the heart to do what everyone else in this industry seems to fear, to simply stop. Whatever the future does hold all I can do is praise Ghibli. Praise them for the wonder they create, the respect they show their art form and the bravery in which they let the next chapter begin by allowing this one to end.
It’s also worth noting that many cinemas are currently showing Ghibli creations with a new film due every week. Please check screenings with pages like ‘Studio Ghibli UK’ on Facebook and see for yourself what the fuss is about.