Studio Ghibli, the legendary Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, has been responsible for a creative output that has no parallel in the last thirty years.
Classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Howl’s Moving Castle, Whisper of the Heart and Ponyo are each masterpieces in the realm of feature film animation.
2013 saw the symbolic end of Studio Ghibli. Both Miyazaki and Takahata released films (The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, respectively) that were considered their last. In 2013, Miyazaki was 72, and he announced his official retirement. Some people were not convinced, seeing as how it wasn’t the first time he’d “retired” (he did so for a short time after making 1997’s Princess Mononoke and again after 2001’s Spirited Away), but most people thought at his advanced age that this time was the real thing.
Say it ain’t so, right? Well, it ain’t. On an NHK documentary released last year, Miyazaki is seen working on a short film for the Ghibli museum, featuring a hairy little caterpillar. At the end of the documentary, he presents his producer Suzuki with a proposal for a feature length film, to be completed by 2019.
The situation isn’t completely clear, though. Reports suggest that the film will be a feature-length version of Kemushi no Boro, the caterpillar short that Miyazaki has already been working on, but any details of Miyazaki’s proposal are blurred out in the NHK documentary. Additionally, the film apparently has not been officially green-lit, and the documentary shows Miyazaki being hesitant about its prospects. When asked if he is working on storyboards for the new film, he responds, “I’m just testing. After I do 100 or so, it’ll be clear whether it’s worth trying or not.”
Kemushi no Boro (the short film version) will be completed this spring and will start showing at the Ghibli museum sometime this summer. It will be 12 minutes long, and Miyazaki’s first foray into a fully CG work.
So Miyazaki himself is unpredictable, as usual. But Studio Ghibli represents more than just its most famous filmmaker. What else lies in store for the most influential anime studio on the planet?
Ghibli’s future has long been a point of speculation and contention. Several heir-apparents have come and gone. The studio’s best film to be directed by neither Miyazaki nor Takahata is 1995’s Whisper of the Heart, a simple and beautiful tale of young ambition. It was written by Miyazaki, and directed by Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo had been a Ghibli animator for some time and stepped up to the plate for his first feature.
The film could not seem more in line with Ghibli’s vision: small, gorgeous moments, breathtaking animation, the energy and conviction of young people, and a little bit of explosively imaginative fantasy thrown in as well.
But the studio, and Miyazaki in particular, have long been known for their backbreaking work ethic and pace. In 1998, only two and a half years after the release of Whisper of the Heart, Yoshifumi Kondo died at age 47 of an aortic dissection. Miyazaki’s comments after his death mention that Kondo continued working, despite having serious health problems.
Another potential baton-taker was the now-famous Mamoru Hosoda, acclaimed director of films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. In the early 2000’s, he was working at Ghibli as an animator when his talent was noticed by Toshio Suzuki, who offered him the role of directing the upcoming Howl’s Moving Castle.
He accepted, but once work started on the project, he continually clashed with Miyazaki and the studio about creative decisions, which ultimately led to his departure.
The last hope for Studio Ghibli’s future seemed to be Miyazaki’s own son, Goro Miyazaki. In 2006 he directed Tales of Earthsea, which is often considered the studio’s worst film. His follow-up, 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill, was much more successful, drawing some critical praise, but all told, Goro never fully materialized as the successor to his father’s throne.
Where does this leave us, then? Is Ghibli more or less dead? Will Miyazaki work until his death, as he often likes to joke, and then leave his beloved studio to dissipate? It’s hard to say. But echoes and continuations of the studio’s legacy can still be found.
This past year, Studio Ghibli took part in its first international co-production, The Red Turtle. Directed by the French animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, the film is a silent tale of a man deserted on an island, whose isolation is interrupted by the appearance of a gigantic red sea turtle. The film is getting terrific reviews, and earned an Oscar nomination for best animated film.
On another hand, a movie that looks much more like a classic Ghibli production is on its way as well. Ghibli alum Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed the studio’s The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, is directing a new film for Studio Ponoc.
It’s called Mary and the Witch’s Flower, and the trailer premiered recently. Former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura is also on board.
This past week also saw the American release of Studio Ghibli’s first foray into television: Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, based on Astrid Lindgren’s story of the same name. It’s co-produced by Ghibli and directed by Goro Miyazaki.
Its CG animation style sets it apart from its 2D predecessors, but the character designs are classic Ghibli. The show originally premiered in 2014 in Japan. Amazon bought the rights and made it available just a few days ago in the US.
Finally, a follow-up to the 2013 video game Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is expected this year. The original game, a JRPG, featured cutscenes produced by Studio Ghibli. The sequel, Ni No Kuni: Revenant Kingdom, will not have Studio Ghibli’s direct involvement, but does have former Ghibli animator Yoshiyuki Momose on board.
Both the original and the upcoming sequel also feature scores by longtime Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi (whose influence on Studio Ghibli’s style and success can never, ever be overstated). The first game was a huge success, and the sequel is highly anticipated.
So the truth is, the future of Studio Ghibli is still uncertain. The studio itself continues on, though less vigorously than before: co-producing films by foreign directors and CG animated TV series. Maybe Miyazaki’s purported return to feature length filmmaking will really happen, and the studio will be revitalized.
But perhaps more hopeful is the widespread influence Ghibli has had on the animation world, from Yonebayashi’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower to the continued success of Mamoru Hosoda’s films, and even in the realms of video games and live action filmmaking.
Miyazaki is now 76. Whether or not he works until he dies is yet to be seen, but it seems pretty likely at this rate. “I no longer have the passion I had in my thirties,” he said in the NHK special.
“Then what makes you want to work now?” a producer asks. “Maybe because doing nothing is too boring?” Miyazaki says. We’re lucky to have him, but he won’t live forever. Fortunately, his legacy, and the legacy of his studio, will outlive him for generations.