Calling Hayao Miyazaki the “Walt Disney of Japan” is reductive, but not entirely inaccurate. The co-founder of Walt Disney Productions and the co-founder of Japan’s famed Studio Ghibli are dramatically different as animators and storytellers. Miyazaki’s characters have always been willing to venture into darker, more bizarre fantasies than Mickey and Co., and Miyazaki’s overall tone is warmer and less antic. But as businessmen, both spearheaded the creation of production houses that came to fully embody the character of their nation’s cartoons. And just as the Mouse House evolved to reestablish its artistic identity after Disney passed away, Studio Ghibli is now looking over a future of change as its architect takes less of a hand in its day-to-day business. The latest Ghibli product to reach America, Ronja The Robber’s Daughter, is the studio’s first foray into computer animation, and into episodic TV. (The series just launched on Amazon Prime.) Change is in the air across the Pacific.
Miyazaki, who co-founded Ghibli (along with fellow animators Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, and financier Yasuyoshi Tokuma), has retired, un-retired, half-retired, and floated vague plans to retire more times than Jay Z and Michael Jordan put together. After every new feature, he murmurs about calling it quits, but he’s always returned for more. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2013 about his self-proclaimed final feature, The Wind Rises, Miyazaki said, “I know I’ve said I would retire many times in the past. Many of you must think, ‘Once again.’ But this time I am quite serious.” Even that announcement was a red herring, as he announced back in November 2016 that he’d take one last job, with the developing project Boro the Caterpillar being his final final film.
The real hook of that news item wasn’t so much that Miyazaki was back for the umpteenth time — that happens every few years. The real shocker was his announcement that Boro the Caterpillar would be his first computer-animated feature, an extension of a recent 12-minute short he used to get his feet wet with the technology. He wasn’t pleased with the finished product and wanted to give it another pass, a surprising move for an artist who has been such an ardent proponent of old-school hand-drawn animation. However, this move to grow and expand is entirely characteristic of Ghibli’s open-minded attitude toward its own future. The ability to adapt to a shifting marketplace could keep the studio alive, vital, and thriving in the years to come.
A Miyazaki-less Ghibli will be left in good hands. Fans have already had a lot to enjoy beyond his movies, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Some of the studio's finest works have come from other creators. Co-founder Takahata has directed such magnificent pictures as Only Yesterday, Grave of the Fireflies, and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. Some of the studio’s other animated gems, like The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There, reach the bar Miyazaki set, too. Outside the auspices of the Ghibli banner, the artists he trained and influenced have carried on his legacy; former Ghibliites Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura established a sort of spinoff in Studio Panoc, currently readying the visually and conceptually familiar Mary and the Witch’s Flower for release this summer. These films all appeal to the audience Miyazaki cultivated by striking the same harmonious tone of story he established — simple but poignant, rooted in human universalities like family and coming of age — but with new visual and narrative strategies.
Ghibli’s latest endeavor, Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, sees the studio breaking new ground by ceding a bit of control. In the most literal sense, Ghibli’s TV debut is another Miyazaki production; Hayao’s son Goro gets director credit on the 26 episodes. But Ghibli sacrificed a bit of its absolute authorship with this project, taking a “co-producer” position as Polygon Pictures (the studio behind Disney Channel’s Tron: Uprising and the latest Transformers series, Robots in Disguise) handled the actual animation. As such, it looks and acts like its own independent entity; the computer-animated technique of cel-shading gives the program a visual aesthetic that splits the difference between the warmth of hand-drawn animation and the fluid sophistication of full CGI. What’s more, making the jump to a serialized format and taking to the Wild West of streaming sites suggest Ghibli has an eye toward staying lean and agile in a rapidly reconfiguring media climate.
Ghibli has remained an important player in the world of animation in part by rethinking its studio’s role in the production process. Ghibli has been on a miniature hot streak lately, having recently brought the theatrical feature The Red Turtle into wide release after it spent the better part of a year bouncing between festival showings. But Ghibli was primarily a coordinator and facilitator during the development of the French-Belgian-Dutch co-production, rather than part of the animating or design team. Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit discussed Ghibli’s involvement in The Red Turtle in a September Q&A at the Toronto International Film Festival: “I had a deep confidence with Studio Ghibli. When we first sat together in Tokyo, I already had written a synopsis, some parts of the script. I start asking [Takahata] questions, saying, ‘What do you think of this, what do you think of that?’ Takahata was surprised, he said, ‘Hang on, did I understand properly, you want our opinion?’ And I said ‘Yes, I really do, because basically it's my first feature, you have lots of experience.’”
Both Ronja and The Red Turtle reintroduce Ghibli as a curating force first and foremost, shepherding efforts that have earned the studio leadership’s personal stamp of approval through the hassles of securing financing and assembling a production team. A worldwide panic broke out a few years ago when it appeared that Suzuki was announcing a full-scale Ghibli shutdown, but that came with a few grains of salt as well. While the studio hasn’t animated its own new movie since 2014, its employees aren’t sitting on their hands. Both projects are novel visions — Polygon’s cel-shading gives Ronja a sheen reminiscent of the graphics in Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and the dialogue-free Red Turtle script boldly goes where Ghibli has never gone before. But both projects also have a Ghiblish feel. Like Miyazaki’s best, The Red Turtle tells a story of strong primal emotion by blurring the line between the natural and mystical worlds, romantically pairing a shipwrecked traveler and a woman who assumes the form of an oddly colored marine reptile. The plucky female heroine of Ronja would fit right in with Kiki of Kiki’s Delivery Service fame or Spirited Away’s Chihiro, too. Both projects suggest that Ghibli’s top brass could refashion the studio as a sort of impresario for like-minded creators, fostering the animation they'd like to see in the world.
Think back once more to Disney. Today, the company’s brand isn’t as unified as it once was. But Walt Disney Studios has still been responsible for bringing some excellent entertainment to audiences who appreciate it. By establishing smaller production branches, Disney has expanded to nature documentaries, wholesome live-action films (the company had a hand in last year’s Queen of Katwe and The BFG, to name a couple), and even put down roots in Bollywood. Likewise, Ghibli can remain a force for good in the entertainment industry even if it isn’t the same studio we knew and loved in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether that change takes the form of integrating digital technology, reaching across the aisle to TV, or using its name-brand recognition to champion worthy causes, Ghibli can continue to make cinema a Ghiblier place. For all we know, Miyazaki will transcend death itself, and keep retiring and un-retiring for centuries to come. But in the event that the animator isn’t some form of deity bound to Earth, his greatest creation will continue to carry out his legacy.