Last week, it was announced that Miyazaki would be coming out of retirement for one last feature-length animated production. This is a highly significant development for both Japanese society in general and for the animation industry.
In my previous article, I analyzed the importance of this announcement by first exploring who Miyazaki is, what he did, and how he, with the support of Toshio Suzuki, succeeded—rising to almost deified status along the way. Today I want to switch perspectives a little and look at things from the point of view of the industry and audience he influenced. In a world where Ghibli’s influence can be seen in many recent mainstream theatrical animated works in Japan, it may be time to take a step back and think about what Miyazaki’s (and Ghibli’s) return means in that context.
In very recent years, we have seen a major shift in trends in Japanese society with regards to anime movies. Up to now, audiences would invariably propel the latest Miyazaki work to the top of the box office, while other theatrical anime languished in relative obscurity within their natural subculture habitat. But something new started happening lately, predominantly beginning with Mamoru Hosoda’s works, like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children and, most recently, The Boy and the Beast.
Slowly but surely, mainstream audiences began to expand their horizons beyond Ghibli and Miyazaki, eventually going wild last year over Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name. and Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World. Add to that Miyazaki’s longtime collaborator and friend Hideaki Anno’s social phenomenon Shin Godzilla and you have a trifecta of successful bids for “Miyazaki successors.”
Some within the industry fear that Miyazaki coming out of retirement is an attempt to re-establish his relevance—much like Astroboy creator, “God of Manga,” and TV anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka attempted to do in 1980 with Phoenix 2772: Love’s Cosmozone. Perhaps this is the reason that the announcement on Ghibli’s site is rather oddly emphatic about how his current idea is absolutely worth making into a movie and that, and that alone, is “the sole reason” for the cancellation of Miyazaki’s retirement.
But Miyazaki returning will not magically “get the band back together” overnight: the entire animation department of Ghibli has completely disbanded, leaving only the management divisions of the company. Many have joined other studios. Some, like Hitomi Tateno, have left the animation industry altogether, opting instead to run a café and educate budding animators. It will not be so easy to regroup the “old team”: Instead, Ghibli is actually putting out calls for recruitment of in-betweeners and background artists. However Ghibli holds itself to higher standards than other studios in those departments, so nobody is sure how it will turn out.
While there is no reason to suspect that there will not be some former old hands returning to the studio in some capacity, the description on the call itself looks to be specifically after those who have not worked in the industry before—possibly filtering out older veterans. Many questions remain: Can Miyazaki at this stage of his life handle and train a group of young inexperienced recruits? Is this new project a hunt for successors—a way to re-establish Ghibli as a global powerhouse of artistry with (and for) a new generation?
Alternatively, we may ask: So what of the legacy of Ghibli?
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, ex-Ghibli staffer Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) next directorial feature and the debut work from Studio Ponoc, has all the hallmarks of a typical Ghibli film. And rightly so: Ponoc is in large part made up of former Ghibli staffers. As such, it is expected to be many people’s one-to-watch.
Another anime phenomenon that has gained traction for being “Ghibli-like” is a series of of local television commercials for Francois, a bakery chain based in Kyushu, produced by former Ghibli staff members. The heartwarming series, known as Kashisu to Aruru no Monogatari / The Story of Cassis and Arle, has been continuing for 10 years and a compilation video of the story so far was recently posted officially on Youtube, to much acclaim and plenty of pleas for a DVD release.
Though Suzuki and Miyazaki will no doubt work their magic together one more time to create something truly worthy of all the acclaim the Ghibli name warrants, it remains to be seen how much of an impact it will have in this new diversified environment, where the influence of Miyazaki and Ghibli has already been diffused all across the board.
Ghibli is no longer a singular, stand-alone brand—its philosophy and style has spread and been absorbed into many popular anime. It might prove difficult to meet expectations. If the upcoming film is too similar to traditional Ghibli works and its new non-Ghibli rivals, we will bemoan its lack of originality; if it is too different or “out there,” we will complain about how Miyazaki has “lost it” and “should have stayed in retirement.” (I don’t know for sure, but it’s just my prediction. There is always someone!)
Certainly, it will be a testing time—especially when you consider the fact that the new recruits will have their work cut out for them and face immense pressure: from the studio, from Miyazaki himself, and from an audience now much more highly-developed in media literacy than at the time of Ghibli’s disbandment. We shall wait and see what they have to offer.
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.