Sunday, 7 September 2014



by gregglesonfilm reviews writer - Tom Baynton

On Sunday 3rd August Toshio Suzuki, Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli’s general manager, went live on Japanese television to announce that the 29- year old studio would be indefinitely halting production of feature films. Instead they would now be concentrating on managing copyrights and a merchandise empire based on their 20 previously produced works. The subsequent outpouring of grief across the internet does justice to what a significant loss to animation this is, to the Eastern world this is the equivalent of Disney stopping film production to concentrate on running their theme parks.
So why now? The main problems facing the studio are twofold. First and foremost is that Hayao Miyazaki, the company’s very own Walt Disney, has retired at the age of 73. The shadow Miyazaki casts over Ghibli is immeasurable – think of the studio’s best known works, (Totoro, Spirited Away), and he was the genius behind all of them. Ghibli’s co-founder, Isao Takahata, has produced some of its less typical, more interesting works such as the dramatic Grave of the Fireflies and the beautiful nostalgic piece Only Yesterday but at the age of 78 he can hardly be viewed as the future of the studio. It was Yoshifumi Kondo who was initially given that role but after making just the one film – the brilliant Whisper of the Heart – he tragically died of an aneurysm. Miyazaki’s son Goro then started working but his fist film, Tales of Earthsea, is generally regarded by fans as the studio’s worst and whilst his second, From Up On Poppy Hill, was much better its box office was poor. The second problem is that in a world dominated by CGI animation Ghibli still uses the hand drawn process, which is proving ever more costly. Sadly the box office of recent outputs has been in decline, with only this year’s The Wind Rises getting much attention and then that mainly because it’s Miyazaki’s final film.
Studio Ghibli was founded by Miyazaki and Takahata in 1985, naming it after an Italian aeroplane (Miyazaki is a flight nut, The Wind Rises being a biography of a Japanese aviation designer). Their debut was 1986’s Castle in the Sky but it was with the following year’s My Neighbour Totoro that the studio had its first major hit (also giving it it’s mascot in the titular giant woodland spirit.). Ghibli remained largely unknown outside of Japan however until 1996 when Disney bought Princess Mononoke for distribution in the USA, although the release was endlessly delayed amid conspiracy theories that Disney were deliberately suppressing it, terrified that it would overshadow their own recent output. It was eventually released in 2000 to great acclaim, and the studio followed it up with Spirited Away – still viewed by many as their masterpiece.
My own relationship to Studio Ghibli began at the Prince Charles Cinema in 2003, when I went to a screening of Spirited Away when it was still largely known as “that Japanese cartoon that beat Lilo and Stitch to the Best Animated Film Oscar”. Two and a bit hours later I was addicted to the blend of simple mythology, gorgeous animation, spiritual attitude and quirky comedy which Ghibli does so well, and I’ve been a fan ever since.  
If there was one scene from any of their films that sums up everything I love about them, it would be the train journey sequence from Spirited Away. Finally leaving the bathhouse in which the majority of the film has been set, out heroine Chihiro and the ragtag crew of spirits and animals which have become her companions travel through a spirit world. Dialogue free and beautifully scored by regular composer Joe Hisashi, it’s a trip along a flooded train track which only hints at the other worlds lying beyond the various stations.

If these reports of ceasing production do turn out to be true – and since this article was begun there have been several counter reports claiming that Suzuki was mis-translated and that the pause is only temporary, even hinting that Miyazaki himself may come out of retirement – then it really is a great loss not just to animation but to cinema itself.


5. Only Yesterday (1991 dir. Takahata)

Very different from what you’d usually expect from Ghibli, the film is the tale of a woman looking back on her childhood and wondering if she’s lived up to the expectations of her childhood self. Simple yet wonderfully done.

4. Princess Mononoke (1996, dir. Miyazaki)

A sweeping fantasy epic of gods and nature with action to rival any blockbuster. Visually inventive and complex (along with the arm-lopping scene this is not one for younger children), this is thrilling stuff.

3. Whisper of the Heart (1995 dir. Kondo)

The only film by the sadly missed Yoshifumi Kondo, on paper Whisper of the Heart could be any high-school comedy – girl discovers boy has always taken a book out of the library before her and tries to find out more about him – but Kondo’s sure touch elevates it into something tender and moving. Kind of like an animated Amelie.

2. My Neighbour Totoro (1988 dir. Miyazaki)

Two girls move to the country with their father in order to be closer to their sick mum, discover a whole variety of magical creatures and run around a lot. That’s pretty much all there is plot wise, but the film endures as a beautiful ode to playing outdoors, and to childhood itself (the kids are essentially dealing with their mothers illness although this is crucially never overstated.). Initially double-billed with the much darker Grave of the Fireflies in Japan, Totoro endured to become one of the most loved children’s films of all time.

1. Spirited Away (2001 dir. Miyazaki)

A family get lost whilst journeying through the woods and stumble upon another world, where ultimately it’s up to the daughter to rescue them all from a witch’s curse. That barely scratches the surface of what’s going on here, as Miyazaki hits his creative peak with an endless parade of memorable characters and worlds, all beautifully animated. Funny, moving and dark in places (the witch is genuinely a bit scary) this remains arguably the studios masterpiece. Not least for having a magical comedy team of a large hamster and a tiny bird that has to carry it everywhere.