Spirit fades for famed Ghibli animation studio after Miyazaki signs off

Reuters

The artistic legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, the reclusive and bearded Academy Award-winning director and animator sometimes called Japan’s Walt Disney, has never been more certain.

Yet at the same time, the commercial future for Studio Ghibli, the privately held Tokyo studio he left behind in retirement, has never been more in doubt.

Under Miyazaki, Ghibli became famous for intricate, hand-drawn animation and imaginative coming-of-age story lines that made films like 1988’s “My Neighbor Totoro” into an international hit. A dozen years later, he masterminded what remains today as Japan’s highest grossing film, the Academy Award-winning “Spirited Away.”

In recognition, Hollywood is about to add its ultimate honor by giving Miyazaki, 73, a lifetime achievement Academy Award.

But the animation studio is finding that life after Miyazaki, who retired last year, is tough going.

Ghibli’s first release since the legendary animator’s departure, “When Marnie Was There,” has failed to catch fire with Japanese moviegoers over the summer.

Besides the gaping hole left by Miyazaki, Ghibli, like Japanese companies in other industries, faces a range of challenges: high payroll costs, low productivity and the rise of new and cheaper hubs for production elsewhere in Asia.

In six weeks, “Marnie,” the story of an asthmatic high school girl sent off for what becomes a summer marked by an unexpected and mysterious friendship, has taken in just $28 million at Japanese theaters. The mediocre takings come as Ghibli’s fans and critics debate how and whether the studio will survive without the commercial magic of its founder.

Senior producer Toshio Suzuki made waves last month when he said in a series of interviews that Studio Ghibli might have to dismantle the expensive production system set up under Miyazaki, which included employing full-time animators in Japan.

“We’re going to spring clean and restructure,” Suzuki, 66, said in an interview with TBS broadcasting.

Suzuki said the studio would take a break and could re-launch with a different and lower-cost business model that could shift production from Japan to Southeast Asia or Taiwan.

“Ideas will be formed in Japan and the animation could be made in another country,” he said. “It will be ‘Made in Asia.'”

Ghibli declined to make Suzuki or Miyazaki available for comment. A studio spokeswoman, who declined to be named, said the company had no further comment on its plans.

Famous for starting production without a complete script, Miyazaki insisted on working in pencil and spurned computer animation, resulting in intricately drawn frames and very long production spans. Some feature animations consist of about 10,000 drawings, but Ghibli’s sometimes exceed 80,000.

In fact, Ghibli, under Miyazaki, made a virtue of its high-cost approach, doing everything — and working deliberately — from an ivy-covered, three-storey building in Tokyo’s western suburbs.

Ryusuke Hikawa, an expert on Japanese animation, estimates Ghibli was averaging just five minutes of animation production a month, given its recent pace of producing a feature every two years.

That was sustainable when the studio, with Miyazaki at the helm, was turning out consistent hits. The nine Ghibli films that he directed averaged a box office take of $115 million.

“Spirited Away,” which came out in 2001 and won the Academy Away for best animated feature, remains Japan’s highest grossing film, taking nearly $300 million at the box office — ahead of both “Titanic” and Disney’s “Frozen”.

Box office takings are particularly important for Ghibli because the company has limited spinoff merchandizing, another break from the approach of Hollywood studios that long ago abandoned hand-drawn animation for computers. In June, Suzuki, 66, told a podcast for fans he had cautioned staff to keep merchandizing sales below $100 million to sharpen the focus on movie-making.

In part, as a result, Ghibli has had a volatile earnings record, according to credit rating agency Tokyo Shoko Research, which audited the studio’s books. In the fiscal year that ended in March 2012, it earned $9 million. That dropped to $5 million in 2013 and then jumped to $30 million in the just-ended fiscal year, reflecting the success of Miyazaki’s last film, “The Wind Rises.”

Fans are focusing on “Marnie” because it is the first Ghibli film shaped entirely without the involvement of Miyazaki, Suzuki or the other famed Ghibli director, Isao Takahata.

Yuichi Maeda, a movie critic, said the film’s director, 41-year-old Hiromasa Yonebayashi, had delivered brilliantly drawn animation, but without the energy of a Miyazaki film. The studio said overseas distribution plans have yet to be decided.

Maeda said he did not believe Ghibli could prosper without Miyazaki’s guiding hand. “Ghibli’s popularity, unlike Pixar or Disney, depends on who directs its movies,” he said. “I don’t think Ghibli without Miyazaki can succeed.”

  • GBR48

    Ghibli is a global brand whether the studio like it or not. Fans certainly won’t mind if merchandising pays for the studio, or if there is some outsourcing to keep costs down, as long as the style, the honesty, the charm, the humanity and the lack of cloying sentimentality that has always been a feature of Ghibli’s films, is retained. In short: the desire to communicate through the medium of a well-made film in the spirit of Miyazaki.

    Ghibli merchandise sells well online and makes for perfect tourist purchases. It was a surprise to find so much Disney stuff in Kiddyland-I was looking forward to wall-to-wall Ghibli. Merchandising is not inherently tacky. Folk sometimes think that because it is so often done badly. Done well, it is an excellent way to spread joy. Don’t fear or demonise success and profit. It can be useful. Creative artists have to pay rent too. And every child deserves a Totoro of their own to cuddle up to.

    Just fix the foreign distribution. Waiting over a year for the staggered releases of sometimes rather sugary Disney dubs has done the studio fewer favours than such a tie-up might have been expected to. A voice with a famous face really isn’t worth that sort of a wait, although it might have prodded more towards imported disks and consequently to accept Japanese audio and subtitles. These always seem like a better fit with Ghibli films, especially with an outstanding (Japanese) soundtrack such as accompanied ‘From Up On Poppy Hill’.

    Hollywood, with its hopelessly cautious focus groups and blind devotion to its vision of a typical movie-goer (giant box of popcorn, centre-right politics, IQ under 50), will never accept that many of us often prefer to read the subs and hear the Japanese dialogue.

    The internet has made Japanese TV, music and film more widely available than ever before-a Commodore Perry moment from which there is no turning back. The entire Japanese entertainment industry now needs a kick up the backside to get it to come to terms with this and release more stuff with good subtitles (or dubs) – including TV boxed sets (at Western prices). There is so much profit to be made in sharing Japanese filmed culture with the rest of the world. Embrace the fan subbers: employ them rather than treating them as a copyright problem. They are already largely responsible for publicising Japanese filmed drama to the world, generating more tourist revenue than any government campaign ever will. Those uploads you want to take down as copyright infringements? More free global advertising than you could ever afford. Go capitalise upon it!

    Indie DVD labels have made valiant efforts to release so many determinedly art-house works for so long, that they are in danger of twisting foreign perceptions of Japanese TV and film as opaque, slow and rather dull. Get the mainstream stuff out there for people to buy and watch.

    ‘Monkey’, ‘G-Force’ and ‘The Water Margin’, just three series, implanted a seed of interest in things Japanese in an entire generation of young Westerners (myself included). Tourism and foreign currency followed. There are millions of people beyond Japanese shores who can appreciate the fundamentally insane ‘Girls und Panzer’ and the stylish ‘Haruhi Suzumiya’ now that they have global releases. What about the rest? The world could certainly benefit from seeing all of those ♥Ueto Aya♥ Jdramas you’ve been keeping to yourselves. The overseas market is much bigger than the domestic one. Take a leaf out of the AKS book of commercial expansion. The world isn’t flat: you won’t fall off the edge. Follow the path that Ghibli have been forced to tread alone for so long and boost your revenues.

    Studio Ghibli will evolve and prosper. It’s heart is in the right place. As Whovians are all too aware, regenerations can be scarey things. Have faith. It is the jewel in the crown of Japanese animation. It will be back.

    For the rest of the Japanese TV and film industry: Subtitles & dubs + Global releases = Profit. How hard is that?