Cinemas across the UK are gearing up for another season of ‘Studio Ghibli Forever’ this summer. Famous and obscure hand-drawn films from across the Japanese studio’s three decades are once more going to be available on the big screen.
Ghibli fans tend to be devoted (obsessive?) enough to stream into cinemas year after year, so more than just the old standards can be expected to play. In showing some of the less cinematic jaunts like Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday alongside Hayao Miyazaki’s flights of fancy like Oscar winning Spirited Away or eco-fantasy masterpiece Princess Mononoke, Studio Ghibli Forever offers an interesting look back at the studio’s legacy, at what has and hasn’t passed into the animation canon.
This year’s celebration of the studio is well timed for that kind of examination, as the reign of Ghibli’s two most famous directors seems to have come to an end. In 2013 both Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata released what they announced were their final films – both made their way to UK cinemas in 2014 and 2015 – and this summer will see the UK release of When Marnie Was There, the second Ghibli film helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and his first not to be written by Miyazaki.
Of course, that end of an era story is complicated by the fact that Miyazaki first claimed to have retired in 1997, and seems to still be working away on short films. Still, with Ghibli now on ‘hiatus’ following Marnie’s release, now seems to be the time to look back at the different ways the studio’s two superstar directors – and founders – dominated Ghibli and the animation world for three decades.
When setting out to achieve world domination, it helps to hit big early. Studio Ghibli was built on the success of the Miyazaki-directed Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (say what you like about the abortive, cut up American version, but at least the syntax in the name Warriors of the Wind was easier to digest), and both directors ensured the studio’s success by putting together four classic films in its first three years. For good measure, those included one of the most beloved children’s movies of all time in My Neighbour Totoro and the work widely regarded as Takahata’s best – the devastating Grave of the Fireflies.
Those two films played back to back in Japan, a bittersweet double A side that doesn’t make too much sense in retrospect, but certainly hit hard at the time. My Neighbour Totoro is a dreamily plotted slice of childhood life, with only the surprisingly prosaic drama of a sick mother hinting at its emotional depths. Meanwhile, Grave of the Fireflies was one of the bleakest war movies ever produced, told from the based-on-real-life perspective of a boy whose decisions lead to he and his sister dying of malnutrition during World War II. Supposedly the original author was punishing himself for the death of his sister, who died in the same way.
So by 1989 both directors had proven themselves capable of making remarkable films, and were hinting at different preoccupations. Plenty of themes Miyazaki would return to throughout his career are present in My Neighbour Totoro – flight, whimsy, strong young female characters and grandmothers would be vital elements in any game of Miyazaki bingo. Meanwhile Takahata was not only revealing himself to be a more spiky, hard to digest filmmaker, but was also showing off a penchant for didactic films with strong moral messages.
Towards the end of Grave of the Fireflies, the main character Seito gives a brief, seemingly accusatory look to the audience. It’s a divisive moment, but a perfect one to sum up Takahata as a director. He felt it was his moral duty to lecture the young people of 80s Japan about their attitudes, but in choosing to do it with a risky postmodern cinematic flourish at the climax of his otherwise classically told story, he just about earns the right to criticise his audience. It’s both subtle and daring, and about as elegant as being clipped around the ear can be.
As if to highlight his own deftness, two films later Takahata would show off a prime example of how not to lecture an audience. 1994’s Pom Poko is an environmental film, and it wants you to know that. It once again ends with a character, this time the cutest talking raccoon dog out of a cast of cute talking raccoon dogs, turning to the camera. It’s anything but a formal flourish this time though, as the tanuki starts asking the humans watching to be a little more considerate about the environment. It loses all the subtlety of Grave of the Fireflies and provides the kind of shock that pulls everyone right out of the film.
It doesn’t help that the structure of Pom Poko is a little all over the place. There is plenty to respect in the film – the way the tanuki’s character models change as they go from purely animalistic to cutesy to completely fantastical; some of the core ideas about human progress and animals’ response to it; even the fun of watching the American dub try to tiptoe around the untranslatable testicle-themed humour – but nothing that gels together into a consistently watchable story. Ultimately, the series of short vignettes that make up the film don’t feel short enough, while losing the impact that a longer story would allow for.
Takahata would keep on experimenting though, bringing back the vignette structure in a slightly more appropriate way for My Neighbours the Yamadas in 1999. Again there isn’t enough of a throughline to keep everyone engaged for a full movie’s running time, but the sheer amount of experimentation is notable. Aside from the structure, and the underlying concept of a family as representative of Japan as the Simpsons are of America, the most obvious departure from the norm is the art style. All watercolours, minimalism and white space, it’s a revelation that would reap real benefits when painted onto stronger emotional material in future. On top of all that, this was the first film to be fully shot digitally, a major change for a studio known for its hand-drawn aesthetic, and one that was made for artistic reasons – so that Takahata could get his watercolour influenced look.
Not to suggest that Miyazaki was standing still for ten years. By 1999 he had already completed his (first) opus and retired once. Princess Mononoke did a few unusual things in 1997, but it is more remembered for its sheer quality than for anything too groundbreaking. It did that most remarkable thing – making an environmental message subtle, complex and organically woven into the story.
Just as Pom Poko delved into the past phases of a Japanese town to make its point, Miyazaki went all the way back to the unfashionable Muromachi period to tell a story of proto-Japanese people and forest spirits with animal forms all bristling together in the face of new technology and expansion. The story begins with protagonist Ashitaka taking down a rampaging boar god to defend his village; an item was found within the boar that made it crazy, and Ashitaka heads into the unknown to discover what the item is and whether he can be free of a curse the boar left him with. It seems like a standard enough fantasy premise, but it lends a clear human motivation to a story wound up perfectly in its themes. The item turns out to be a bullet, the latest development in a human settlement’s war to take the forest’s resources, and Ashitaka finds himself in the middle, bound up by forces as elemental as love and death.
Fantasy loves a villain, but by this point in his career Miyazaki clearly didn’t. His only film with a clear cut, unambiguous baddie might be Castle in the Sky, Ghibli’s first feature. Princess Mononoke benefits from his careful understanding of everyone’s motivations better than any film – Lady Eboshi would be a believable leader even today. She needs the forest’s resources and is willing to fight for them, but people are willing to fight for her too. She takes in women and lepers on the understanding they will work, and she finds herself at the head of immense power and advancement. She’s not evil, she’s pragmatic – and fascinating.
If Miyazaki didn’t ever chase novelty and advancement the way Lady Eboshi or, say, Isao Takahata did, it may be because the seam he mined for decades was so rich. His pet obsessions, wistful animation style, complex themes and natural storytelling gifts came together to produce a seemingly endless cycle of varied films. He was Ghibli’s most prolific director and writer, and certainly its most consistent too.
His final film, The Wind Rises, was always going to have that nostalgic victory lap feeling as a result. Wisely, he went to the roots of his obsessions and produced a biopic that also plays as a self-portrait. One of a few throughlines that keeps popping up throughout the film is the sentence “planes are beautiful dreams” – the unlikely protagonist Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japan’s famous Zero fighters, had the equally unlikely childhood dream of being an aeronautical engineer. The film’s best set pieces are its dream sequences, which do the vital work of capturing the spirit that animates Jiro’s life. By virtue of its subject matter, this is a deeply conflicted story, and it needs the pure joy of the dream sequences so that it has something to contrast against the rest of the film’s personal and historical drama.
Most importantly, it feels like a personal film. It’s possible to see the focus on designing planes as one big metaphor for making art. The moral stakes hanging in the background throughout are simply a way of dramatising the question of why people make art and what it is worth. In comparison to many Miyazaki works which feel like they were made with other people in mind, like the child who inspired Spirited Away, the strength of The Wind Rises is in the care and love Miyazaki has for the story, and in the conflicted, melancholic and overall adult tone that leads to.
If Miyazaki’s final work was a summary and examination of his past, Takahata’s may instead be the culmination of his decades long attempts to improve himself. His back catalogue is uneven, and it was starting to seem inevitable that he would be remembered simply as the creator of Grave of the Fireflies, the good Ghibli film that wasn’t by Miyazaki (a view that is also unfair on Yoshifumi Kondo, director of the excellent Whisper of the Heart and, until his early death, the bright young hope of Ghibli’s future).
Takahata was always a perfectionist, and always strived to make new and interesting choices, but that left him with an uneven body of work and perhaps a reputation as a better director than writer. As he struggled to complete his last film The Tale of Princess Kaguya on time, Miyazaki’s completed The Wind Rises and was set to overshadow him.
Then Takahata released a masterpiece. He took a Japanese folktale, gave it exactly as much specificity as it needed to become a feature length film, and returned to the minimalist visuals he first experimented with in My Neighbours the Yamadas. It was the best possible choice for the deeply elegiac story, which – true to the depressing form of Takahata’s best work – turned out to be nothing less than a two hour fable about death.
A bamboo cutter is going about his work when he finds a tiny girl inside a golden bamboo shoot. Bringing the ‘princess’ home, she grows up at an alarming pace and enters the world of nobility. As she grows beautiful and attracts proposals of marriage, Takahata gets to indulge in some of his vignette storytelling when each suitor goes on a different quest to win her over. The story’s devastating main theme reveals itself with a sudden dark turn after she escapes from the advances of the Emperor: Kaguya is not of this world and needs to go back where she came from. That means forgetting everything: her past, her life on earth and every feeling she has had. From the moment of that revelation, the film is as stark in its message as any Takahata has produced. The moral is simple and could easily have been eye rolling – some things are inescapable and appreciate everything you have, essentially – but somehow it is pitched perfectly.
Everything is told with those haunting white visuals and blotches of colour. When the film’s climax brings Kaguya back to her childhood roots, the feeling of intense nostalgia is possibly the best that cinema has produced. As the story wraps up, it rivals Grave of the Fireflies as a prime example of the prolonged Takahata gut punch. He always was a more bitter pill to swallow than Miyazaki, who even in his best works began to feel twee at times. In contrast, Takahata ended his career by embracing the stark, sometimes genuinely upsetting storytelling that may have been his secret weapon all along; the hidden fangs hidden just under smiles of those cute raccoon dogs.
Nowadays it is almost strange to think that Miyazaki and Takahata started Studio Ghibli together, that they worked side by side for so long. By the end of three decades together they were very different people, in their working styles, their attitudes, and certainly their films.
When both released their final works in the same year, those films took on a very different role for each of them and said different things about them. As it turned out, the one thread linking both together was simply their quality – a level of quality that may well see these films appearing in cinemas forever.
Studio Ghibli Forever takes place across the UK this summer