Studio Ghibli is Already Dead

spirited_away_01The much talked recent comments by Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki caused a stir and it wasn’t hard to guess why. To fans of animation, Studio Ghibli is one of the standard bearers of the art form. To everyone else, Studio Ghibli is the only redeemable part of the whole tawdry anime genre that is otherwise solely devoted to nudity and violence. What most people seemed to miss is that Studio Ghibli has been effectively dead since Hayao Miyazaki retired because Studio Ghibli has almost always been merely a vehicle to produce Hayao Miyazaki movies.

So no matter what happens in the future – barring something along the lines of pulling a younger Hayao Miyazaki from an alternative timeline – Studio Ghibli is now a different beast that happens to share the same name and history of an earlier animation company. Kind of like how the new Cleveland Browns football team is technically a continuation of the earlier franchise when in reality the original franchise left the city and became the Baltimore Ravens.

Names have power, though, and keeping the Studio Ghibli name going is something I and many other people definitely want to see happen. Pursuant to that happening I have a few suggestions.

Get New Talent

The obvious solution is for Studio Ghibli to acquire new talent. This has worked for other animation studios. For example, the chronically under-performing Studio Deen peeled Shinichi Omata away from the Shaft animation studio with the chance to direct a series and he’s now turned out two marvelous series for them – Sankarea and Rozen Maiden (2013).

wolf_childrenFrom my amateur armchair thousands of miles away, even I can see that Mamoru Hosoda is the most obvious choice. Over the last eight years his three movies The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, and Wolf Children have collectively been consistently better than Studio Ghibli’s output over the same time period. Further bonus points are earned because he can already make a “Studio Ghibli” movie as Summer Wars and Wolf Children demonstrate. The only problem with this scenario is that Studio Ghibli has already salted that well when they brought Mamoru Hosoda in to direct Howl’s Moving Castle only to kick him out for not being “Studio Ghibli” enough for the company. They probably could get him back with a sweet enough offer and enough apologizing but I don’t really see the old guard of Studio Ghibli doing that.

Jason over at Blogsuki mentions the possibility of Masaaki Yuasa being Studio Ghibli’s savior. Yuasa definitely has the storytelling chops to do it and the themes he likes to weave into his works would carry over to a Studio Ghibli movie but I’d really hate to lose Yuasa’s unique animation style in a bid to make his work more appealing to a mainstream audience.

Another very strong contender would be Yasuhiro Yoshiura. The creator and director of imaginative original works including Mizu no Kotoba, Pale Cocoon, Time of Eve, Harmonie, and Patema Inverted has already shown that he can excel at the sense of wonder vibe that populates so many of Studio Ghibli’s works. With Patema Inverted he’s also shown that he can work at the feature film length and knows how to create a work that thematically would fit within Studio Ghibli’s powerhouse.

Mai_Mai_Miracle01Yet another strong contender would be Sunao Katabuchi. He’s probably best known for directing the action anime series Black Lagoon, which I haven’t seen – yet. For me, it’s his movie Mai Mai Miracle that screams the need for Studio Ghibli to consider hiring him. Mai Mai Miracle is an example of how one can create a powerfully imaginative animated movie for kids and include a darker subtext that older viewers will get, giving the movie a sharper bite to it and making it an adult movie as well. If Mai Mai Miracle is not enough of a calling card then his earlier animated move – Princess Arete – should put any doubts to rest. This movie is about a young princess who wants to leave the tower she’s locked in and see the world and then what happens after she’s put under a curse and gets her wish. Once again, it’s a kids movie that intertwines a weighty subtext that also turns it into a mature movie that will stay with the viewer. Sunao Katabuchi has also worked under Hayao Miyazaki before, which includes being an assistant director for Kiki’s Delievery Service.

Other directors that could be counted on to create a strong movie for Studio Ghibli, provided there was solid source material and a quality screenwriter, would include Takahiro Omori and Tatsuya Ishihara. Both directors have shown that they can consistently create high quality anime across many different genres. Takahiro Omori’s credits include directing the first season of Hell Girl, Baccano!, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Durarara, Kuragahime, and Samurai Flamenco. Tatsuya Ishihara has directed Kyoto Animation’s Air, Kanon, Clannad (both seasons), The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Nichijou, and Love, Chunibyo & Other Delusions. (Bonus points for Tatsuya Ishihara because he works for a company that can create near Ghibli quality work on a much smaller budget.)

5cmpersecondI would be remiss if I failed to mention Makoto Shinkai. Hailed by some as the new Miyazaki, though he humbly disagrees, he would seem like a good fit for Studio Ghibli. The startlingly beautiful visuals he creates in his works invoke the very best animation moments of Studio Ghibli without being a simple aping of the studio. The problem with giving him complete rein over a Studio Ghibli movie is that so far his storytelling ability has lagged behind his animation prowess and so he would probably need a very good screenwriter to either write or co-write the movie.

There are, of course, many other talented people who could be called upon to create the next Studio Ghibli masterpiece but the likelihood of them tapping someone other than an experienced director at this point is exceedingly miniscule.

Diversify

Studio Ghibli does one thing – make big budget tent pole animated movies – and they do it pretty well; however, anytime a company or city focuses on one thing and only one thing there is potential for trouble. For my hometown of Youngstown, it did one thing well and that was making steel. The times were good and the money flowed in to the point that at one point if one had 10 years in at a steel mill that person would get 13 weeks of vacation a year (!!!). Eventually competition arose and when measures were not swiftly enacted to ensure the competitiveness of Youngstown steel then the industry folded, followed by the city. For Studio Ghibli, it did one thing well and that was making Miyazaki movies. Sure there were other directors but they were the sidelight to the main attraction. Eventually, though, time catches up with even a creative genius like Hayao Miyazaki and suddenly Studio Ghibli is now drifting at sea without its rudder. In lieu of suddenly acquiring another guaranteed creative and financial genius, Studio Ghibli will need to diversify its interests.

only_yesterday01
On some days I’d say that Only Yesterday is the best Studio Ghibli film ever.

There are two relevant threads to this discussion. The first is that Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya doing badly at the box office isn’t surprising. Of the four prior animated movies he created at Studio Ghibli, two were commercial failures – Grave of Fireflies and My Neighbors the Yamadas – and two were successes, just not Miyazaki style successes – Only Yesterday and Pom Poko. Of the successes, Pom Poko is the more successful of the two and the closest Takahata comes to making a Miyazaki movie. This illustrates how when Studio Ghibli wanders away from making “Studio Ghibli” movies (Princess Kaguya and Yamadas feature different animation styles, Fireflies is extremely depressing and not for kids) they won’t bring in “Studio Ghibli” money.

The lesson then seems to be Studio Ghibli needs to stick to making “Studio Ghibli” movies and this thought raises the second thread. Looking over the list of works from Studio Ghibli one notices the studio seems to have abandoned much of the variety it embraced early on so it can turn out movie after movie that are practically the same as an earlier movie. Quick, guess the Ghibli movie I’m referring to – it’s an adaptation of an English novel. Not enough, let’s narrow it down to an English novel adaptation from the last six years. Not enough, let’s narrow it down to an English novel adaptation from the last six years that the setting was moved to Japan. Still not enough, ah, maybe Studio Ghibli has a problem.

So, on one hand, Studio Ghibli gets punished for going outside of their perceived brand and on the other they’ve started to repeat themselves which turns people off. What should they do? They could diversify their brand and/or they could innovate their brand.

An example of diversifying their brand would be Pixar. Every movie they’ve put out is a “Pixar” movie and people can expect certain aspects to be similar to past movies but look at the variety of subjects – Toy Story to Monsters, Inc to Finding Nemo to The Incredibles to Wall-e to Up to Brave to their upcoming Inside Out.

frozen_02A recent example of innovating within a brand would be Disney’s Frozen. It took the Disney standard princess movie and completely gutted it before replacing it with a shift in focus, a change in the customary inter-character dynamics, smart writing, clever dialogue, a surprising twist or two, a sidekick character who wasn’t annoying, and a really good musical number (though to be fair there has been many Disney movies with a very memorable musical number in it). The result was complete box-office dominance all while still being a Disney movie. In Japan, Frozen remained the country’s number one movie for sixteen weeks and was still the top movie two weeks before Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There opened.

Which leads one to wonder if the Studio Ghibli movie opened so softly because viewers were not willing to see a by-the-numbers Ghibli movie so soon after watching (and rewatching) Disney’s Frozen.

Another way to diversify themselves and break out of the small box they’ve put themselves in is to try something outlandish. For example, recently the SciFi channel (no, I’m not going to use their dumb spelling) ran a show where contestants competed in a contest with the winner offered the chance to become an employee of the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. I don’t often like shows like this but the amount of creativity on display just drew me in and I was hooked. At the end I realized this show was a win-win-win-win all around. The SciFi channel got a good series to air, the winner got an amazing opportunity, the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop got a very talented employee and a lot of free publicity, the viewer was entertained and learned a great deal about the sheer volume of work that goes into the work at the Creature Shop and will never look at puppeted characters in the same way. Studio Ghibli could do a similar thing where the contestants are brought to their studio and tasked with creating a short 3-4 minute animated piece each week based on a specific theme or genre. The eventual winner would become an employee of Studio Ghibli and given free reins to make a short. That short would then be shown somewhere like in front of the next Studio Ghibli movie or as a special on TV.

Studio Ghibli would benefit in much the same way as the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop did as well as having viewers see the studio attached to new things. Imagine for a series such as this when the contestants got to Mecha week or Shounen action hero week or Shoujo magic girl week or Josei romance week or Alien landscape week or Choreographed fight scene week or etc..

Speaking of TV shows, another obvious way to diversify is to get into TV series. The risk is less because of the diminished expectations and a smaller budget. A TV series can provide a training ground for employees to gain experience towards the goal of one day creating the next movie classic because they’re working under an experienced director. The subject matter could be something further afield then a typical Ghibli movie and the animation style could experiment with the standard Ghibli style.

In short, do just about everything Studio Ghibli isn’t doing with their TV series that comes out this fall – Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. This anime will feature the greenhorn Goro Miyazaki as director and the animation will be 3D CG and handled by Polygon Pictures, who most recently did Knights of Sidonia. The subject matter will be an adaptation of a Swedish novel (which is at least slightly different than being an English novel).

Bringing it all Together

What is underlying any move by Studio Ghibli to successfully continue making animated works is the need for talent. Buy it or develop it, without it Studio Ghibli has no chance surviving.

Since I’m at the 2000 word line, I’m going to close with my recommendations for what Studio Ghibli needs to do to ensure their survival for the next 30 years as one of the premier creators of animation in the world.

  • Disney allowed its good name in animation to become so tarnished that it nearly killed their brand. Studio Ghibli needs to ensure that every movie they put out is a high quality movie. If the director lacks the talent to do so, find someone else. Once people see a bad/mediocre movie or two from Studio Ghibli it will be much more difficult to convince them to continue spending their money and time on the next movie.
  • Get Mamoru Hosoda back. He started an animation company, Studio Chizu, to help him finish Wolf Children. Buy that company with a generous deal and do whatever apologizing is needed and then give him free rein to create an original work (no adaptations).
  • Get Yasuhiro Yoshiura and his company Studio Rikka. While not having quite the strong and long track record as Mamoru Hosoda, Yasuhiro Yoshiura can be counted on to create something unique and awe-inspiring. The pair would bring the magic and energy back to Studio Ghibli which has been missing for a decade now.
  • Bring in an accomplished veteran director to head a TV series unit. This director needs to be able to handle a variety of genres and be willing to nurture the talent within Studio Ghibli to produce future directors and be able to work quickly and within budget. I mentioned two directors, Takahiro Omori and Tatsuya Ishihara, and there’s definitely more to choose from.
  • Makoto Shinkai gets an amazing level of animation with almost no money due to being very adapt with a computer. Even if he’s not ready to helm a Studio Ghibli movie alone, hiring him to educate the animation department on how to maximize their efficiency and thereby lowering the cost of the animation work in a movie would be a smart move.
  • Don’t be afraid to hire specific talent from outside the company on a temporary basis. Gen Urobuchi might just be the best script writer in anime right now. It might be a touch difficult for him to write something that doesn’t include killing buckets of people but something along the lines of Suisei no Garugantia would have the ingredients to make a good work for Studio Ghibli.
  • Studio Ghibli needs to be very careful about any decision to downsize and/or outsource overseas their animation department in a bid to save money. It might not be possible to get animators back once they’ve been cut and overseas outsourced animation will never look as good. Kyoto Animation can handle their animation in house and has no problem remaining profitable. If the animation department is costing too much money then that probably means it’s the fault of management for picking poor works to animate which have little chance to recoup costs and by not realizing the full potential of the animation staff.

And finally, the news that Hayao Miyazaki might come out of retirement one more time does not materially change anything I’ve written here; at best, all it does is temporarily postpone things a bit.

Agree? Disagree? Was there something I missed? I’d love to hear what you think.

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5 thoughts on “Studio Ghibli is Already Dead”

  1. This was a really informative and thorough look at this issue, so thanks for that. I’m honestly sort of new to this conversation so the specific examples you provided were very helpful.

    I don’t know if you realize this yet or not, but apparently Ghibli is doing a TV series this fall, and it actually is being directed by a little Miyazaki (Goro Miyazaki). The plot overview reminds me a little bit of Princess Mononoke with words like “tribe” and “forest.” Here: http://anilist.co/anime/20617

    I guess I’m not as attached to Ghibli as a lot of people are, so I’m not too worried about it dying a death, I just don’t want it to be an embarrassing death. Like you said, if they release two bad movies then it’s going to make things very difficult for them. Time to start thinking about the potential that the studio has outside of just being Miyazaki’s movie factory.

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  2. Seeing how many blogs I used to read are inactive now, I am glad to see that you are still writing! I just have returned from a long break of a few years myself…

    This is a very serious issue, and I am impressed by how much thought and time you devoted to this topic. You suggestions make sense, but it is not clear what Ghibli will do, and whether this will have any effect.

    Personally, I would like to see more original stories. People can criticize Shinkai, and, certainly, I am one of his critics on some aspects, but he is genuinely trying to make something original, even if it fails to some extent sometimes.

    Only Yesterday is a wonderful example of such work (it was based on a manga, but written by Takahata). I hope to see more of such films, but one of the saddest parts for me is that the 2D animation is gradually disappearing and people tend to aim for “safe” projects…

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  3. @Kitsune: It’s so good to see you back and thanks for reading. Even though I did give it a good long thinking, I’d probably be very embarrassed if I found out someone from Studio Ghibli actually read this – though it would be exceedingly cool if they thought it was actually worth reading 🙂 .

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  4. Well, that’s what makes a good management – they listen to everyone, but wise enough to implement only the key suggestions. If I were them, I’d definitely solicit feedback.

    Yoshida of FFXIV is an excellent example. He completely turned around the game from a failure to a great success, in part, due to careful listening of everyone involved and trying to get feedback from as many resources as possible.

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