Books

Studio Ghibli inspires endless adaptations

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

As one of the most important and acclaimed animation studios in not only Japan but the world, it’s unsurprising that Studio Ghibli has also inspired a wealth of printed material. Helen McCarthy’s “Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation” about the studio’s most celebrated director and Miyazaki’s own “Starting Point: 1979-1996” essay collection, as well as numerous art books, provide fascinating insights into the workings of the studio and its creative staff, but what about those just looking to sit down with a good story?

Perhaps the most direct transfer from screen to page is in the form of film comics — books that take still images from the films and add speech balloons to retell the story. All Studio Ghibli films have been adapted in this manner by Japanese publisher Tokuma Shoten, with Viz Media having published English editions of many of the best-known stories, including “Castle in the Sky,” “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and most of the studio’s recent output.

Since the images are drawn directly from the films, the stories follow the movie plots very closely, meaning that “Princess Mononoke” is just as dark and violent as its cinematic counterpart, while “My Neighbor Totoro” is every bit as idyllic and innocent. Of course, this also opens up wider questions as to the extent of their value as discrete products. Beyond their (not inconsiderable) use as a means of keeping children quiet on long car journeys, the Ghibli film comics are essentially neatly produced but lesser versions, lacking the sweep and grandeur, the details captured in the animation, and the rich sounds and music of the films, while adding little of their own.

For young children, picture books offer a more specific and targeted adaptation, retelling the movie stories through a mixture of text and film stills in large-sized, sturdy hardback editions. Tokuma published English versions of a few of these in the early 1990s, although once again Viz Media holds the rights now, publishing them as part of its Ghibli Library imprint.

Since the target audience of the Ghibli picture-book series is young children, the books pass over the darker, more mature stories in favour of the explicitly child-friendly Totoros, Kikis and Ponyos — stories which are ideally suited to the format, with the bright, colorful film stills and their richly painted backgrounds making the books ideal bedtime stories and providing vivid prior familiarity for children as they begin learning to read for themselves.

In addition to this series, mention must be made of children’s author Tsugiko Kubo’s novelization of “My Neighbor Totoro.” Illustrated beautifully in inks and watercolors by Miyazaki himself, it’s one of those books that parents will tend to buy for their children based on nostalgic notions of what they wish children liked rather than the brash, trashy reality. However, it’s also the kind of book, like “The Little Prince,” where story and images work together to conjure up an unforgettable atmosphere — one that many children will be thankful for having had imposed on them when they grow older.

Of course, many Ghibli films are adaptations of a work in another medium, and there is plenty of source material to explore. “Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones, “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton and most recently “When Marnie Was There” by Joan G. Robinson are all original English-language novels that have been brought to the screen by Studio Ghibli, while Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Earthsea” quintet is far superior in its original novel form to Goro Miyazaki’s underwhelming “Tales From Earthsea.”

Of the Japanese source material, there is unfortunately no official English version of Aoi Hiiragi’s original “Mimi wo Sumaseba” (“Whisper of the Heart”) manga, but her spinoff, “Baron: The Cat Returns,” has been published in English (Viz again.) Annick Press published an English translation of Eiko Kadono’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service” novel in 2003.

Perhaps the most intriguing and fascinating original material, however, remains director Hayao Miyazaki’s own manga. Many of his shorter works were collected in the Japanese volume “Hayao Miyazaki’s Daydream Note.” Although sadly no official English version exists, his story “Crimson Pig: The Age of the Flying Boat,” which served as the basis for his 1992 film “Porco Rosso,” was serialized in Animerica magazine in 1993. In addition, Miyazaki’s original 1980 version of “Princess Mononoke” will be published in English by Viz Media on Oct. 21 as “Princess Mononoke: The First Story,” offering a very different take from the 1997 movie on the tale of a girl raised by forest spirits, some elements of which were to end up right at the other end of the Ghibli spectrum in “My Neighbor Totoro.”

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is Miyazaki’s magnificent, epic manga “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,” part of which was adapted, with a significantly truncated ending, into the pre-Ghibli 1984 film of the same name. The seven-volume manga mixes environmental fable, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, adventure, war story and Shakespearean drama in a powerful, violent and gripping fashion. More than just a companion piece to the film, the “Nausicaa” manga is one of the greatest comics ever written.