A few days ago, Studio Ghibli put out a brief update on its website officially confirming the cancellation of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, adding that the 76-year-old will in fact be directing one more feature-length animation. In the same entry, it was also announced his new Ghibli Museum exclusive CG short Boro the Caterpillar has been completed.
This single announcement has been making the rounds in the media and causing a lot of discussion in Japan both online and off, and thus it presents an opportunity to take a step back and look at its significance in both the mainstream public consciousness and that of the anime aficionado.
But why is Miyazaki coming out of retirement such a big deal? To answer that, we must look at two things: first, who Miyazaki is, and how he came to be such a success, and second, how far his influence has spread. In this article, we will explore the first topic, and we will move on to the second tomorrow.
While this announcement was the first official confirmation of Miyazaki’s return, it was not completely unexpected. In November last year, an NHK special broadcast hinted at the possibility, which led to a lot of murmurings online. I even wrote an article at the time on his struggle and the significance regarding any plans to return.
Then, just last month at the Nico Nico Choukaigi 2017 event, producer Toshio Suzuki wowed the crowds with his incredible performance of drawing a giant “makkuro-kurosuke” from My Neighbor Totoro on an enormous canvas. (Incidentally, this is a traditional performance art of sorts, most famously performed by Edo period ukiyo-e woodblock-print master Katsushika Hokusai.) After this show, he answered a few questions and actually dropped the bombshell that Miyazaki was in fact drawing storyboards for a new full-length movie right now and had actually been doing so since July last year—and that about twenty minutes’ worth (of the storyboard) have already been completed.
Add to that the fact that this is not the first time that Miyazaki has made and broken his promise to retire. (He has often claimed the latest movie he completes to be “the last,” much to the bemusement of Japanese netizens.) Online discussions have even pointed to Miyazaki’s repeated cycle of retirement and subsequent cancellation of said retirement to be a “traditional performance” at this point, or, in more cynical views, “a PR stunt.”
As it turns out, then, this is therefore a good opportunity to explore the roles that director Miyazaki and producer Suzuki play in the Japanese public consciousness. It can be said that much of the phenomenal success Miyazaki has had was galvanized by Suzuki, and were it not for Suzuki, despite his undeniable artistic skill, perhaps things would be very different for Miyazaki.
Since his days at Toei Doga (now Toei Animation), Miyazaki was certainly always a gifted, genius animator, as well as an intelligent young man pondering various aspects of human society and the world we live in. His formative years coincided with the student uprisings of the late 1960s, in which the baby boomer generation, then of university age, took to the streets in often-violent demonstrations against the establishment.
Miyazaki was sympathetic to this new wave and the influence of the changing of the times was seen in his work, such as The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun (Taiyou no Ouji Horusu no Daibouken/The Little Norse Prince), which he worked on together with Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Princess Kaguya) and Yasuo Otsuka (The Tale of the White Serpent, Lupin III), resulting in a major turning point for theatrical anime.
The deep themes and ambiguity between good and evil, and the ethereal female character of Hilda, as well as incredibly complex direction and pioneering animation techniques all make the movie seem almost like a proto-Ghibli work. However, the film fell significantly behind schedule. After being in production for three years, Toei virtually disowned it, pulling it from theaters shortly after release. (They have, of course, since changed their tune, now praising it as an important historical work.)After leaving Toei and joining Tokyo Movie Shinsha (now TMS Entertainment) and Telecom Animation, Miyazaki mostly worked on TV anime such as Lupin III, Future Boy Conan (at Nippon Animation), and Sherlock Hound, among many others. There he made an impact among the rising anime fans as the “anime boom” began to brew, in the latter half of the 1970s and the early 1980s.
His most famous directorial output begins here, with Castle of Cagliostro, the movie with which he bid farewell to the Lupin character. (The seminal film even had a revival screening in the MX4D format at the start of this year.)
It is from this point onwards that Toshio Suzuki, then-newly-appointed as the chief editor of an experimental publication run by Tokuma Shoten known as “Animage,” began to see Miyazaki as an interesting individual to focus on for his magazine. Despite the anime boom being in full swing, Suzuki himself actually was not so knowledgeable about anime, and instead relied on the young fandom to provide him with clues as to whom to watch.
After putting together a special feature on Miyazaki, the two gradually began to work together and devise plans to put their own projects in motion. Suzuki had the idea that rather than having a magazine to talk about a work—be it a movie or a TV series—the magazine itself could be the platform from which to launch and promote a new work. Long story short, the result was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Though Nausicaä was technically a manga before it became a movie, it was not a coincidence that the magazine it was serialized in was not Shonen Jump, Shonen Sunday, nor any typical manga anthology magazines. Instead it was in Animage, an informational magazine full of articles and columns on the latest anime news.
It was all part of Suzuki’s master plan. In an interview from 2009, he reminisces on his entry into the movie production business. His philosophy is that a magazine always has to play catch-up, keeping up with trends. But if you make a movie, you’re a pioneer; in other words, you set the trends.
Eventually, Suzuki, Miyazaki, and Takahata partnered up to create Studio Ghibli, a studio dedicated to high-quality original theatrical anime features—as well as a subsidiary of the Tokuma Group, guaranteeing that Animage and other Tokuma publications provide supplementary material for the works. The empire had consolidated and the brand spread.
But Miyazaki is still very much a product of that baby boomer, student protest generation, and old habits die hard. Even today, Miyazaki is highly politically-minded, as are many of his generational peers. As recently as 2015, he publicly made his anti-establishment stance known when he opposed the government’s movement to expand the role of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces abroad in a controversial “collective self-defense” bill.
Let us not forget, either, that he was absent from his own Oscar win for Spirited Away at the 2003 Academy Awards, as a thinly-disguised sign of protest against the invasion of Iraq that same year. According to one report, he claimed it was his producer—most likely Suzuki—that urged him not to outright specify that as the reason, hence the excuse at the time that he was instead spending time with children.
Suzuki has been known to claim that after Ponyo, Miyazaki wanted to make another similar work along the same vein, but he petitioned him to make The Wind Rises instead—convincing him that he was the only one who could make such a movie. Not only does Suzuki know how and when to provoke Miyazaki’s genius, he always is in the background, overseeing things and making sure they are proceeding along to his calculations. It is a key element of the success of Ghibli, in particular Miyazaki’s sure-fire hits.
So we can clearly see how Suzuki complements Miyazaki and serves as both the PR and business end of the seemingly-unstoppable creative machine.
Like many other sectors of the entertainment industry, the management is half of the cake. A good manager is able to use the creativity of a creator, package it, and deliver it so it reaches us, the consumers. Imagine how many talented artists languish in obscurity, with their creations never seeing the light of day. The success of Miyazaki and his “brand” is down to not only his own idiosyncrasies, but also to “the man behind the man,” Toshio Suzuki, having the skill to manage and channel them, with each work building the foundation for the next one. That is what genius managers do.
Tomorrow we will look at how recent shifts in trends have started to displace the significance of the Ghibli/Miyazaki brand, and so we can ponder what kind of impact may be expected from Miyazaki’s return in this new post-Your Name. environment.
The new Miyazaki/Ghibli movie has not had an official release date announced, but the production period has been revealed as being three years starting from October 1st, 2017.