Earwig and the Witch doesn’t look like a Studio Ghibli film.
It’s the famed studio’s first foray into CG animation, and it’s a big departure from lush, hand-drawn films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. It’s also Ghibli’s first animated film since 2014’s When Marnie Was There.
That’s a big task to take on, and leading the charge is director Goro Miyazaki, son of studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. After reluctantly following his father into animation — Goro originally spent years working as a landscape designer — this is his third film, following Tales from Earthsea, a controversial adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic novels, and the charming period piece From Up on Poppy Hill.
Earwig is based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, and it follows a precocious young girl who has been adopted by a witch who quickly puts her to work. It may not have the visual style of a classic Ghibli film, but it touches on many of the elements of whimsy and fantasy that have made the studio’s works so beloved.
Miyazaki says that production of the film wrapped up last year, just before the Japanese government called for a state of emergency, so it wasn’t impacted much. “We were very fortunate in that way with this film,” he tells The Verge. That said, he’s no stranger to troubled productions: during the creation of Poppy Hill, Japan was struck by a massive earthquake, and the team had to work around rolling blackouts. “There was still hope and positivity,” he says of that time. “But now with the current situation, there’s so much uncertainty. It’s very challenging, is all I can say.”
The new film debuted on television in Japan in December, and it’ll be out on HBO Max in the US on February 5th. (It’ll also be playing in select theaters starting February 3rd.) Ahead of Earwig and the Witch’s English debut, I had the chance to talk to Miyazaki about his career so far, the shift to CG, and the existential question of what a Studio Ghibli film actually is.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
All three of your films are very different in terms of story and style. How do you decide what projects to work on?
It mostly comes out of my conversations with our producer, Toshio Suzuki, rather than the decision being solely mine. Through the conversations I have with him, he will maybe suggest something: “Do you want to do an adaptation of this story or that story?” And then if I feel like it’s something that I can do, then it becomes a project that I take on.
What was it about Earwig and the Witch in particular that spoke to you?
One of the things that I loved about the story was the protagonist Earwig not being your typical well-behaved girl. When it’s necessary, she can be manipulative of people around her, and when somebody treats her bad, she thinks of how she can get back at them. It’s not your typical heroine from a lot of Japanese animation where they’re very honest, pure, and beautiful. Earwig is very different from that. When she faces a difficult situation, she is not someone who would just persevere and wait until somebody saves her. She’s the one that actually acts and tries to change the situation herself. So that I found was very interesting for me.
How did the visual style come about?
In terms of the visuals, this being the first 3D CG anime from Studio Ghibli… Studio Ghibli has always done hand-drawn-style animation, so we knew that we weren’t able to recreate that through 3D CG, so it was a matter of which direction we wanted to go with. Whether it’s going to be a very photorealistic visual, or trying to find a different path. That was when I referenced stop-motion animation, using a lot of puppets. I felt that was quite fitting for what we were trying to do with this project. I referenced that a lot in creating the visuals.
I read that because so few people at Ghibli understood 3D animation, you were given pretty free rein on this project. Is that true?
It is true.
What does CG offer compared to hand-drawn animation in terms of what you can do and how you can express yourself?
One of the things I found was that with hand-drawn animation, you have to rely on the hands of a very talented animator to bring out a great performance from the character with facial expressions, emotions, and so forth. There’s a limited number of very talented animators that can do so. That’s one of the big challenges with hand-drawn animation. But with 3D CG, you’re able to have different people working on different expressions of one character, which worked well for us.
One of the things that struck me about the movie was so much of it took place in a single location. Was this a conscious decision?
The original story is about the girl being confined in that house, and dealing with the witch she lives with. However, what we did was, because there are limited locations, we wanted to make sure that each set was high quality, that it was very rich in details. If you think about trying to recreate that with hand-drawn animation, the art department would go crazy because it would mean they would have to redraw all of that clutter and small details a million times. In that sense, the 3D CG approach really worked.
Since this is Ghibli’s first CG film, and also the first new film from the studio in years, did you feel any extra pressure compared to your previous projects?
Not really, not much pressure. Because by the time I started working on this film, Earwig and the Witch, Hayao Miyazaki had already started working on his new film [How Do You Live?]. So I was able to kind of hide behind that and not feel much pressure from the outside. It was like me hiding in the garage without people noticing what I was doing.
When you take out the hand-drawn aspect, what do you think are the elements that make a film a Ghibli film?
That question is kind of a puzzle. What makes a film a Ghibli film? People who have seen Earwig and the Witch will tell me “It’s actually more Ghibli than I expected.” And I wonder why they say that. I wish somebody could give me an answer.
So is it like a feeling? You know it when you see it?
Probably so. Someone told me that maybe it’s just something in the blood.
Now that you’ve directed three films, how do you think you’ve grown or changed as a director?
With each project, I feel like I’m doing something for the first time, so it’s hard to tell whether I’m growing or not. After working on this film, I feel that I like things that are lighter, with humor, and not too serious. And with humor, I really like the dry humor that you can see in Diana Wynne Jones’ story.