Saturday, June 09, 2007

Masters of Animation: Studio Ghibli

This is an entry for the Ghiblog-a-thon going on this weekend at Joe's Movie Corner.

Hayao Miyazaki has come to be known as the “Japanese Walt Disney.” The description is both apt and inapt. While he has been financially successful, he has not built a commercial empire for himself. But he has been an innovator, an experimenter, and a great storyteller, as Walt Disney was during the best of times. Still, the appellation is a little diminutive; he is not the Japanese Disney. He is Miyazaki.

Hayao Miyazaki was born in Tokyo on 5 January 1941. It was during childhood that Miyazaki had experiences that would frame not only his worldview, but important themes that run through each of his films. Firstly, his father was a director for the family business, Miyazaki Airplane, which made rudders for Zero planes. It developed in Miyazaki a fascination with not only flying machines, but flight itself. Secondly, Miyazaki was influenced by his mother, a strong, vocal woman who read voraciously and questioned social conventions. Miyazaki credited her for his skeptical bent.

But more than that, he was influenced by his mother’s illness. She underwent spinal treatment for her tuberculosis from 1947 to 1955. The Miyazaki family moved often as a result, and young Hayao was forced to grow into a responsible person very quickly, even as he felt very vulnerable. This is reflected in many of his films; a major theme of his is survival through an adversity that is often faceless, a force of some kind that threatens from without and within. His films deal with the ability of love and emotion to transcend the horrors of the world, even if only partially.

An artistic child, he developed a fascination with animation in high school and, after graduating from Gakushuin University in 1963 with degrees in economics and political science, immediately dove into animation as an in-betweener for Toei Animation. He worked on shorts, TV series, and films through most of the sixties; he caught the attention of his bosses while working on Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon, a 1965 film he in-betweened on. He wasn’t satisfied with the film’s scripted ending, and pitched his own, which was accepted and used. While working at Toei, he met animator Isao Takahata, a mentor with whom he would develop a lifelong friendship.

Isao Takahata was slightly older than Miyazaki. Born on 29 October 1935 in Ujiyamada, he graduated from the University of Tokyo in 1959. He immediately joined Toei, which at the time was brand new. He joined as a director; in fact, he doesn’t draw and had never worked as an animator. He jumped right into directing his first feature film, Hols: Prince of the Sun (1968), for which Miyazaki served as chief animator, scene designer, and concept artist. The film was artistically well-received, but was a financial failure, and Takahata became ostracized within the company.

An amazing sequence from Hols:

Miyazaki, by contrast, rose very quickly, doing work on a number of films, including key animation, designs, storyboards and story ideas for Kimio Yabuki’s Puss in Boots (1969) and storyboard, characters, designs, animation, and construction on Animal Treasure Island and Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves (both 1971). But Takahata was a huge influence on Miyazaki, and when Takahata left the company in 1971, Miyazaki joined him.

The two got work at another company, A-Pro. The situation wasn’t much better, but both men received more responsibility. Both co-directed six episodes of the TV series Lupin III, then headed to Sweden to meet with Astrid Lindgren about a TV series based on her Pippi Longstocking books. For whatever reason, the series fell apart and did not go into animation. Instead, they turned their attention to a short, Panda! Go, Panda! (1972), which Takahata directed. Both men wrote, animated, and designed. It was highly popular, and a second short was produced. The next year, Miyazaki and Takahata left for another animation studio, Zuiyo Eizo. While there, Takahata directed the TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps (1974), a very popular series that remains popular today and has been credited with sending a great many Japanese tourists to the Swiss Alps. Miyazaki did designs and layouts, as well as some animation. In 1976, Takahata directed another series, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother; Miyazaki did layouts.

Miyazaki, however, wanted to direct, and was given his chance on the 1978 series Conan, the Boy in the Future, for which he directed all 26 episodes, as well as designing the characters and story, layouts, and storyboards. It was the first project that was completely Miyazaki’s creation, though it is based on an Alexander Key novel. Takahata worked on the series, as did Yoshiyuki Tomino, an animator who had written for Osamu Tezuko’s Astro Boy, and would go on to create Mobile Suit Gundam. Conan was a bout a boy on a quest to save a kidnapped girl in a feudal world that had survived a nuclear holocaust.

Miyazaki was gratified to have directed a series, but what he really wanted was a film. He was doing work on Takahata’s next series, Anne of Green Gables (1979) when Tokyo Movie Shinsha offered Miyazaki a chance to direct a feature. The company had had a minor hit with The Secret of Mamo, a film based on the series Lupin III. They wanted to make a sequel, The Castle of Cagliostro (1979). Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay, trying to deepen the characters and make them more three-dimensional, and tighten the plot and pace. The film that was supposed to be a commercial quickie became an unexpected artistic and commercial triumph. The film is richly detailed and has had a stealth influence on some American filmmakers. Steven Spielberg has mentioned the film as a favorite, and the influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark is obvious. The intricate scene of Lupin and the villain, Count Cagliostro, dueling on the gears of a giant clock was effectively plagiarized by the 1986 Disney film The Great Mouse Detective--it's worth noting that the Disney film uses computer animation, and Miyazaki's does not--and director Gary Trousdale admitted he was influenced by the film when making Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

The film was well-received, but for now it was back to television, where Miyazaki directed the first six episodes of Sherlock Hound (1982). An intriguing proposition soon came the way of Miyazaki and Takahata from Hemdale Corporation and Tokyo Movie Shinsha. Producer Yutaka Fujioka was taking on the film Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, based on the iconic comic strip by Winsor McCay. The adaptation had been conceptualized by Ray Bradbury, and the script at the time was by Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Some of the animators attached to the project include Disney icons Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and historian extraordinaire John Canemaker. Brian Froud, a British illustrator who had designed the characters for Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, had designed the look of the film. Takahata was to direct, with Miyazaki animating and storyboarding. But this dream project stalled and Takahata and Miyazaki left the project over creative differences. The film would undergo several changes before it was released in Japan in 1989 and America in 1992.

While Takahata instead turned to directing a film version of Kenji Miyazawa’s Gauche the Cellist (1982), about a cello player who is helped to become a success by forest animals, Miyazaki, dejected by the rejection of his most recent screenplay, focused on turning it into a manga (comic book) series. It ran in Tokuma Shoten’s Animage magazine, and was well-received and very popular; there was a desire for a film version. Miyazaki was initially reluctant to make the transfer; the manga was richly detailed and contained many subplots; how could the film be faithful and come in at an acceptable running time? Miyazaki enlisted Isao Takahata to produce Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which was released in 1984. The end result is a film that creates a strange but utterly convincing world that is appealing, complex, and credible. It may wear a little just in terms of sheer length. In addition to dealing with some of the themes mentioned above, there are some recurring motifs that Miyazaki establishes in this film. For example, a lack of true villains; everyone in a Miyazaki movie has complex characterization, acting with shades of gray. Instead of a simplistic, good vs. evil worldview, characters behave in the complicated way people do. Also, this film established ecological themes that continue throughout most of Miyazaki’s work. The film takes place in a world where some kind of environmental disaster has occurred, and some of the characters are greatly concerned with keeping a delicate ecological balance.

Miyazaki was in need of animators. In 1977, Rankin-Bass, the creators of the classic American animated specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, among many others, had collaborated with producer Saul Zaentz, who owned the film rights to the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, on a TV movie version of The Hobbit. The animation work had been done by a small Japanese animation company called Topcraft. Rankin-Bass worked with Topcraft over the next few years; they animated the 1980 TV movie The Return of the King, the underrated 1982 films The Flight of Dragons and The Last Unicorn (based on the Peter S. Beagle novel), and the TV series Adventures of the Little Koala (a hit on Nickelodeon in the States) and ThunderCats. After this last, Topcraft went to work for Miyazaki on Nausicaa. With the financial success of that film, Miyazaki and Takahata were able to create their own animation studio, Studio Ghibli. The Topcraft animators formed the core of the company.

For Studio Ghibli’s initial production, Takahata would produce Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986), written and directed by Miyazaki. The film is tighter than Nausicaa, but states the same sort of ideals: that love can transcend the negative forces, that the environment must be cherished, that escape is not always healthy, and that there are still wonders in the world. It deals in finding the human potential and warns that technology may be fleeting. Both Nausicaa and Laputa deal with what has become the typical Miyazaki heroine: a young girl, often prepubescent, who comes of age during harsh circumstances. It is Miyazaki’s childhood vulnerability mixed with the need to grow up quickly and become responsible. In the heroines of both films, Nausicaa and Sheeta, Miyazaki attempts to find a balance between the freedom of youth and the responsibility of adulthood.

Though Laputa was successful, and Studio Ghibli was on its way, two things marred the experience of the film. First, Miyazaki’s mother died in 1984. One of the characters in the film, the air pirate leader Ma Dola, is based on her. Also, Nausicaa was severely cut and badly dubbed and released internationally under the title Warriors of the Wind. Miyazaki has denounced this cut.

Studio Ghibli next entered into a brief partnership with Shinchosha, a publishing company that wished to branch out into the world of filmmaking. They wanted to make a film of an autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka that they had published, and Isao Takahata wanted to direct it. The film was one that many international fans consider the best of Ghibli’s movies, Grave of the Fireflies (1988). The story deals with two children, Seita and his five year-old sister, Setsuko, who become orphans during World War II. The film focuses on the two of them as they try to survive in a society that doesn’t have the resources—or the compassion—to provide for two orphans among many in a time when nationalism and pride have given way to anger and endless monotony. Their countrymen, including their own aunt, are callously indifferent to their plight, and famine is widespread as a result of constant bombing. Eventually, both children die from malnutrition, the little girl going first, her brother blaming himself for her fate. It is, without a doubt, one of the most emotionally harrowing movies ever made. It is anti-war, but not stridently so. In subtle ways, it criticizes Japanese society for not understanding the root causes of war and its failure to address its own responsibilities. It even intimates that, had Seita chosen survival over his pride, he and Setsuko may have lived. The final shot of the film—the ghosts of both children looking out at modern Japan—is especially pointed, as if to say that Japan had not yet dealt with the ghosts of its own past and acknowledged their part in world history. But the film accomplishes this by simply being observational, focusing on the lives of two children whom nearly everyone resents in some way, and the tragedies they live with as the world moves on around them. It is one of the most beautiful films ever made.

Even before the film was made, there was some sense that, because of its historical content, school children would be taken by bus to see the film. Knowing the emotional content of the film, Takahata suggested that Shinchosha produce two films, adding a lighter children’s movie as a second feature to restore the hope of the audience. They would play as a double feature. This allowed Miyazaki to make the film he wanted, but which no one had previously wanted to finance. His proposal had been in place at least since Laputa was finished, but potential backers felt the project was uncommercial and, ironically for a character who has appeared on every object under the sun since the film’s release, hard to merchandise. Takahata’s deal meant that Miyazaki could make this film: My Neighbor Totoro (1988). The two films were made side by side.

In many ways, My Neighbor Totoro remains Miyazaki’s signature work. It is his first truly great work, and it is assured in ways that his earlier films weren’t. Bringing all his themes together, he manages to strengthen them. Totoro tells the story of two girls, Satsuki and Mei, who are growing up in a new home with their father while their mother convalesces in the hospital from an unnamed illness. The children make friends with the forest world around them, personified in peculiarly mammalian creatures. The totoro of the title is a large spirit who appears with either two other totoros or two other aspects of itself, which in their dynamic—big, middle, and little—mimic the family dynamic of the film—papa, Satsuki, and Mei. The story is really about Satsuki and her journey into adulthood. Concerned for her mother’s illness, there is a vulnerability that threatens to harden. She is still in her childhood years, enjoying the freedom that comes with it, but is also forced by circumstance to be more responsible and help care for the family. If the totoros symbolize her family, there is a reason we see the middle one the least often; because Satsuki does not yet see a place for herself in the family, but sees herself as caught up between being big and being little. What the film suggests most beautifully is that Satsuki is growing up while holding on to her childlike innocence and the ability to appreciate life in the way a child does. It is a simple, graceful message in a delicate, sophisticated film. To this day, the Studio Ghibli symbol is the totoro.

Both films were marketed towards children and their parents, but Grave of the Fireflies failed financially. It was just too depressing for families. Still, it remains (deservedly so) one of the most acclaimed modern films. My Neighbor Totoro, conversely, was extremely popular and continues to be. Both films are very similar, and very different. Both are sophisticated and beautiful. And both are among the greatest films ever made.

Ghibli’s next film was Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), the story of a young witch who makes the transition to adulthood in a way that is earned. Miyazaki had agreed to produce the film while in production on Totoro, and a screenplay had been written that Miyazaki didn’t approve of. After My Neighbor Totoro was completed, Miyazaki wrote his own screenplay and decided to direct the film himself. It had been intended as an hour-long TV special, but Miyazaki threw himself into it and came up with a 102-minute feature. With this film, Miyazaki started to aim at a more grown-up audience, making contemplative films that were more complex than much of the American animated films of the time, which were starting to get away from experimentation and return to more obvious kiddie fare. What became apparent in Totoro was that Miyazaki liked simple observation and a great deal of quiet, and found that this quiet could be just as effective in storytelling terms as noise; perhaps more effective. Though Kiki’s Delivery Service is a bout a 13 year-old witch and her cat, there is a delicate maturation about it. The lesson of the film is that completeness as a person comes with a great deal of responsibility. It was a lesson most of Japan learned; Kiki was the highest grossing film of 1989.

Takahata’s next film was Only Yesterday (1991; the original Japanese title is much more lyrical, Omohide Poro Poro, literally Memories Like Falling Raindrops). Takahata was faster than Miyazaki to aim directly at the adult audience, having matured a great deal with Grave of the Fireflies. Only Yesterday is more like a tone poem than a story, and is appropriately lyrical. Taeko, a 27 year-old woman, goes to Yamagata on holiday and finds herself increasingly nostalgic for her childhood, remembering herself as a schoolgirl in 1966. The film is at once expressionistic and realistic, dealing with life in a believable way, but filtering it through the way one remembers certain details more than the whole. The film is considered progressive for dealing with themes that aren’t usual dealt with in animation. I have a problem with people who think Japanese animation is more “mature” (this is the word many have used with me) because they are more violent or more sexual. But Only Yesterday is, indeed, a mature film. Taeko remembers becoming a woman, her first period, for example, or her first crush on a boy, and then wonders, in the present, if she has been true to the dreams of her childhood self. The film was a surprise box office smash with a large adult audience.

[Note: Disney owns the distribution rights to all of the Studio Ghibli movies except for Grave of the Fireflies, which they decline because it didn’t fit in with their image—a sad statement, since Disney should be a home for the best in animation, not the best in family-friendly animation, and Grave of the Fireflies is a film that everyone must see. They’ve also listed the DVD release of Only Yesterday as “shelved indefinitely” for similar reasons. Disney continues to let its audience down by doing their thinking for them.]

Miyazaki also aimed squarely at the American audience with his next film, Porco Rosso (1992), the story of a former Italian World War I flying ace who works as a bounty hunter. Marco Pagot has been cursed and has the head of a pig, and is known as Porco Rosso (the Crimson Pig). The shame of this transformation has caused him to withdraw from a humanity that he despises, as well as from the woman he still loves but whom he does not believe can love him back because of his deformation. There is a strong implication that Porco gave himself over to a life of duty that made him disillusioned with mankind, and that disillusionment turned him into a pig. His faith in humanity has been lost, even as he finds himself drawn into interacting with that humanity, carrying on a rivalry with an American solider of fortune. He strikes up a begrudging friendship with Fio, the daughter of a mechanic, and feels the need to protect her from the world as it is. She restores his hope, if only for a brief moment, and he makes sure her innocence isn’t ruined. All of the same Miyazaki themes are here, but presented in a much more detailed and contemplative way. There are some themes running through that perhaps only an adult who has worked and sacrificed can understand, and it speaks directly to them. The sense of world-weariness, which is in some ways autobiographical, is very palpable. Miyazaki was 51 years old when this film was released.

For perhaps those reasons, this is the Miyazaki film I’ve always felt the closest to. He said of Porco Rosso: “This film was made for middle-aged men who in their youth dreamed of a pure life, faithful to their principles, but who, little by little, are transformed into ‘pigs’ through the pressures of working like madmen. Despite their intention to reject merely mercenary goals, they are drawn into the world of hyper-consumerism, and when they look for the purpose of their lives, they feel themselves alienated...these men live in solitude and regret.”

Just for the heck of it, here are two minutes from Porco Rosso:

Ghibli next released their first television special, The Ocean Waves (1993), which was designed to give the younger animators a chance to prove they could make a reasonably cheap film. Tomomi Mochizuki directed. The film went over its schedule and its budget. Takahata, meanwhile, released his eighth film as director, Pom Poko, in 1994. The characters in this movie are tanuki, raccoon-like shapeshifters whose home in the woods is threatened by continual development in the suburbs of Tokyo. Of all the Ghibli films, this is the one that I personally feel meanders here and there. The film is concerned with the encroachment on nature by an ever-expanding populace. But it does take its time to get where it’s going. It also seems bizarre to some Western viewers, because the tanuki use their testicles as part of their shapeshifting magic, which some find off-putting. The tanuki are a part of Japanese folklore.

Miyazaki, now in his fifties, was beginning to look for a replacement as head of Studio Ghibli, and found him in Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo had been with Miyazaki since the mid-seventies, and probably met him while working on Lupin III as a key animator. Among his projects over the next few years, he animated on Panda! Go, Panda! and Conan, the Boy in the Future, as well as serving as animation director on Takahata’s Anne of Green Gables. He started at Ghibli as animation director on Grave of the Fireflies, then worked alongside Miyazaki and Takahata both on Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, and Pom Poko. Miyazaki decided it was time for Kondo to direct a film of his own, and worked closely with him to conceive a new project.

That project was Whisper of the Heart (1995), a film which Miyazaki wrote, produced, and storyboarded. The film is one of the supreme achievements of Studio Ghibli, which makes it one of the supreme achievements of animation. A teenage girl, Shizuku, keeps her head in the clouds and likes to write, and one day follows a cat into a curiosity shop where she meets the elderly shopkeeper. She’s fascinated by him, as well as a statue he keeps of a cat dressed in fine clothes and a top hat called the Baron. Shizuku is being pursued by the boy her friend likes, but is drawn to the shopkeeper’s son, Seiji, who wants to be a violinmaker. It’s a coming-of-age story about Shizuku’s journey into maturity, reflected in her desire to write a book. To her, finishing this novel will be the accomplishment that proves that she can do what she wants, even at the expense of her grades. Some of the best sequences in the film are fantasy sequences that take place in her book, with her alongside the dashing Baron, having adventures. But there are also scenes of quiet, watching Seiji make a violin or play “Take Me Home, Country Road,” that soar equally as high. It’s quite beautiful, and proved very popular. The scenes with the Baron were so popular that audiences demanded a movie just for him.

My favorite moment in the film:

Also in 1995, Miyazaki directed the music video On Your Mark for Chage & Aska. It’s a trifle, really, but even a Miyazaki trifle is more worth watching than some features. Here it is:

Miyazaki felt like it was time to retire, and decided to make one last film. It was his most ambitious project to date: Princess Mononoke (1997). Set in the past, it tells the story of Ashitaka, an Emishi prince who becomes infected with a demon curse after killing the Boar God Nago. Miyazaki had always told stories with shades of gray before, and this film begins with them. Nago is a god who has been corrupted by a ball of iron, a bullet which had turned him into a pure being of anger and wrath. Because he is infected, Ashitaka is banished from the village and decides to undertake a journey to find the source of this iron. The quest leads him to Irontown and Lady Eboshi, a former prostitute who now mines iron ore and makes guns. She is under attack by the Wolf Goddess Moro, trying to defend her forest from the pollution and exploitation of Irontown. With Moro is a human girl she has raised, San. San is one of Miyazaki’s greatest creations, a girl stuck between the old world of nature and forest spirits, and the new world of technology and progress. She is at once very alien and vulnerably human. The animal gods are firmly animals, unpredictable and anxious. Meanwhile, an opportunist is hunting down the Forest Spirit, a benevolent god in the form of a deer with a human face, whose head may grant immortality. And the Boar God Okkoto wants revenge for Nago’s death and intends to make war on Irontown with his army of giant pigs.

So much happens in Princess Mononoke, a very sophisticated film that deals with deep emotions, shifting loyalties, and the inevitability of change. The end of the film is as complicated as the rest, eschewing a happy ending for partial victories and compromise. Miyazaki wanted the film to be his masterpiece, and it is one of his many. He worked very hard on the film, personally working on 80,000 of the 150,000 individual cels that make up the film. This was also the first time he used computer animation, but very sparingly. Mononoke was so popular in Japan that, for a time, it was the highest grossing film ever released in the country (it was supplanted by Titanic), and even won Best Film at the Japan Academy Prize (one of the thirty honors the film has received). Miyazaki was ready to retire, knowing that his ecological message had been loved by audiences around the world. The film was released in the States by Miramax in 1999 with an English translation by Neil Gaiman. This time, the film made it to America completely uncut; after Harvey Weinstein proposed reediting the film for an American audience, Studio Ghibli sent him a katana blade with the words “NO CUTS” engraved on it.

Then tragedy occurred. Yoshifumi Kondo died of an aneurysm, just 47 years old, on 21 January 1998. The aneurysm was caused, it seems, by the stress of excessive work. He was serving as animation director on Princess Mononoke, and it may be that Miyazaki felt partly responsible. He took it as a warning to slow down, and announced his intention to retire. Miyazaki went on an extended vacation.

Takahato directed the next Ghibli film, the wonderful My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999). Based on a comic strip by Hisaichi Ishii, Takahato’s film deliberately mimics the minimalist look of a comic strip. It was also the first Ghibli film to use digital animation, including an excellent mimicry of a watercolor wash. For a Ghibli film, it is experimental (in look) and stands apart from the rest because of it. There is no story so much as a series of vignettes about an average middle class Japanese family, the Yamadas, and the little and big things in life that can make a family experience joy, pain, grief, adventure, and the thrill of being alive. There is no sugarcoated sentimentalism here; just the presentation of honest emotions. And it’s a wonderful thing, full of laughs and smiles, tears and fears, and lots of love. Sadly, the film only received decent reviews and fared poorly at the box office, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Here's a lovely sequence here.

While on his vacation, Miyazaki spent some time with friends who had a young daughter. Watching her and her friends gave him the idea for another movie, and he came out of retirement to write and direct Spirited Away (2001). His friend’s daughter was the inspiration for Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who is trapped in the spirit world when her greedy parents are turned into pigs. She is pressed into service to the witch Yu-Baba, working as an attendant in a bathhouse for spirits. Chihiro also attempts to make friends with Haku, one of Yubaba’s servants who protects her when he can, and the strange No Face, a spirit with no real identity. It’s a hard movie to describe in terms of plot. What the movie is really about, of course, is the journey from childhood to responsibility, and it’s symbolic that the modern, spoiled Chihiro is confronted with Japan’s traditional beliefs, cultures, and manners made manifest. Chihiro has to try not to lose herself along the way, but she also has to realize which things are of genuine importance, and which things will not last. The film advocates the resistance of greed; No Face offers gold, but swallows those who take it, while Chihiro’s parents are cursed for eating food that doesn’t belong to them. And, like Mononoke, there is an environmental message. The spirits of polluted rivers appear, including one, integral to the plot, who cannot remember his own identity because his river has been drained to make room for apartments. The loss of Japan’s natural beauty, Miyazaki is saying, is the loss of Japan’s true identity.

Here's a sequence from the film. This simple train ride seems to resonate the most with people; a number of people I've known count this as their favorite scene. It showcases how well Miyazaki uses quiet to set a mood and tell a story.

The film quickly became the highest grossing film in Japan’s history, displacing Titanic, which itself had displaced Princess Mononoke. It was the first movie ever to earn $200 million worldwide before being released in America, just one year later. Of the 21 awards the film won, one was the Japanese Academy Prize, and one was the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. The success of this film prompted Disney to enter into its distribution deal with Studio Ghibli. The deal was overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter. It’s also worth pointing out that by this time Ghibli had also started to distribute foreign animation, including in 2002 the excellent French film The Triplets of Belleville. And in 2001, the Ghibli Museum opened to the public, complete with a new Miyazaki short that only plays there, Mei and the Kittenbus, featuring some of the characters from My Neighbor Totoro.

In 1999, a theme park contacted Miyazaki about doing a short film about cats. Miyazaki, remembering the public wish for another film about the Baron, decided the short would be about him. Some work was done, but the theme park cancelled the project. So Miyazaki took the existing work to use it as a testing ground for new animators. Soon, the project grew in length, from a planned 20 minutes to 45. It was finally given to Hiroyuki Morita, an animator who had worked on several animated series (including Tenchi Forever) and had come to Ghibli as an animator for My Neighbors the Yamadas. He storyboarded it, and Miyazaki liked the storyboards so much that he gave the go-ahead to Morita to turn them into a feature film. He especially liked the main character, Haru, whom he felt was very real.

The film in question was The Cat Returns (2002), which brought the Baron back to screens in his own movie. The main character is Haru, a shy schoolgirl who has suppressed her odd ability to speak to cats for so long that she thinks she dreamt an encounter with one as a child. As the film begins, she saves a cat from being run over, only to discover that said cat is Lune, the crown prince of the Cat Kingdom. In return for her kindness, the Cat Kingdom sends her gifts and tells her that she will marry the prince. To get out of this deal, she’s led to the Baron, who takes her to the Cat Kingdom and fights to save her from a king who wants to force her to stay in his realm long enough to become a cat herself. Of all the Ghibli films, this is one is perhaps the slightest, but it’s breezy and enjoyable, mostly because the Baron is such a dashing and adventurous character.

Miyazaki was still nominally retired, but couldn’t resist the lure of directing once again. Mamoru Hosada, a Digimon director, was initially supposed to direct Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), but abruptly left the project. Miyazaki had written the screenplay, based on a novel by Dianna Wynne Jones, and now slid into the director’s chair. The film fits neatly into Miyazaki’s oeuvre, developing the same themes. The main character here is Sophie, an 18 year-old girl who is connected to Howl, a wizard who lives in a gigantic, walking fortress. Sophie is cursed by the Witch of the Waste and becomes an old woman, so she finds Howl and his castle and stays with him while trying to figure out how to end not only her curse, but a strange curse laid on Howl and on Calcifer, a fire demon who powers the castle. All three of their destinies are linked together. Here Miyazaki makes an interestingly visual point about the journey to maturity. As Sophie becomes braver, she grows younger on her own; the more afraid she is, the older she gets. He also makes the same point he made in Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away: that men who give up a part of themselves to gain something often become twisted into something barely human. Somehow, the animation design here is more ornate than in his other films; the details are rich, but not distractingly so. It is another Miyazaki masterpiece.

In 2006, Ghibli released their fifteenth film, Tales of Earthsea, directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro and yet to be released in the United States. The film caused a brief falling out between father and son over whether Goro was ready to direct his first film.

Studio Ghibli remains one of the most popular animated studios in the world, and it’s easy to see why. For now, Isao Takahata is at work in his first film in nearly a decade. Hayao Miyazaki, too, is working on his next, Ponyo on the Cliff. It is to be his last film.

At least, that’s what he’s saying now. But we hope it won’t be.

For more on Studio Ghibli, there's an excellent blog from which some of these pictures come: Conversations on Ghibli. A little on the proprietary side, perhaps, but very nice and probably the best-organized Ghibli-related website I've seen in English.


J.D. Judge said...

I think you already win Best Participation Post. Excellent work.

SamuraiFrog said...

Thank you. I always meant to right this for my animation history series, but without the Ghiblog-a-thon, it would probably have been years since I wrote it, because I'm still in the 1940s!

Anonymous said...

Great post. This is a keeper.


J.D. Judge said...

You're welcome. You rock!

SamuraiFrog said...

Noel: Thanks!

J.D.: Not often, but I try.

Kilgore said...

I have wanted a Totoro toy for ages. When I saw Lost In Translation, Bill gives Scarlett a similar toy (called Louise). I contacted the company that makes them, but they were permanently out of stock. I would weep greatly if I could get ahold of one.

SamuraiFrog said...

It took a while, but I found a stuffed one at a comic book convention several years ago. I also found a kodama from Mononoke.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Ah! An excellent essay! I'm duly impressed by your work. You managed to cover just about everything, which is very good considering most Americans only know Miyazaki from his last couple of movies (and they barely know Takahata at all).

One note: there's been a longstanding thing about Miyazaki's imminent "retirement," which gets played up in the West a lot. It's been around since the director said something about retiring from in-betweening after Mononoke, which was mistranslated.

I'm not aware of the old master proclaiming that Ponyo would be his final film. On the contrary, he was openly boasting after completing Howl that he could continue doing this for another decade, at least. He's simply too much of a workaholic to ever walk away. Heck, while Goro was making his Earthsea film, Father Miyazaki created three short films for the Ghibli Museum and built a clock. Oh, and I think there was a Howl Circus, too.

As I've said, a bit of a workaholic. He'll be back, champing on the bit in a few years after the next Takahata film.

SamuraiFrog said...

Thank you for the compliments! And thank you very much for the corrections, I appreciate any accurate news I can get. Many sites have built up this retirement thing, and I've seen it often enough where I assumed it was accurate. Thanks!

Yoshica said...

Je adore les film!

SamuraiFrog said...


ravi said...

shalominfotech IT companyit is an it trainig company now we offerd special training courses.
we design websites,logos,etc..........