Anime magic

As the Pokémon phenomenon continues to grow worldwide, Nick Smurthwaite believes Japanese animation group Studio Ghibli is gaining recognition in the west

It’s been called Japan’s answer to Disney, but actually, Studio Ghibli has a distinct place of its own in world animation.

Over the past two decades, Ghibli has established itself as a powerhouse of production and innovation, admired by leading film animators in Europe and in America. Indeed, the Walt Disney Company struck a deal with Ghibli in 1997, giving it world distribution rights and ensuring the growth of Ghibli’s reputation.

But despite its obvious artistic and narrative merit, a big question mark hangs over the commercial viability of the Ghibli product in the west. Possessing neither the ready wit nor the cosy reassurance of Disney, Don Bluth, Nick Park’s Aardman Animations or Pixar, Ghibli features tend to be dark, dense and unsettling, the stuff of dreams, if not nightmares.

Either Japanese children are a lot more resilient than their western counterparts, or the filmmakers at Ghibli are producing animated features with adults in mind. Two of its biggest successes (in Japan, that is), Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, both directed by Hayao Miyazaki, take the form of epic journeys of survival and vengeance. You are sucked into this fanciful world of monstrous predators and mythical creatures by the skill of Miyazaki’s storytelling and the rich texture of his animation.

But as Helen McCarthy, author of a book about Ghibli, points out, these are basically serious-minded films about ecology, mythology and survival in a harsh world. There is no place for the Disney-style sentiment or cuteness we in the west accept as being part and parcel of full-length cartoons. ‘While an American audience might expect to see someone’s arm shot off in a live-action Tarantino movie, they don’t want to see something like that in a cartoon,’ says McCarthy.

A self-confessed devotee of Miyazaki, McCarthy blames Disney for misjudging the marketing of Ghibli in the US and for releasing Princess Mononoke first. ‘Miyazaki made some child-friendly films before Mononoke and Disney would have done better to focus on them, along with some merchandising, to establish Ghibli in the marketplace.

‘Mononoke is a great film that I believe will last forever, but it is not what we in the west expect a cartoon to be. It’s a dark, intense and thought provoking experience,’ she says.

It seems Disney didn’t really think it through. Traditionally, Japanese expectations of animation are very different from ours. It is a more integrated part of movie culture than it is here or in the US. One in ten Japanese of all ages saw Princess Mononoke, the kind of statistic Disney would die for.

Both in their Manga (comics) and Anime (cartoons), the Japanese have always had a taste for myth and violence.

Miyazaki’s early role model was Osamu Tezuka, nicknamed The Manga God by his fans, whose work was ‘scary enough to make even a child shudder’, according to Miyazaki.

On the narrative front, he was influenced by English writers like Phillippa Pearce and Eleanor Farjeon, and one of his earliest commissions was a series of animations based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, only with dogs instead of humans.

By the early 1980s, Miyazaki was an accomplished writer, artist and animator, ready to embark on his first independent full-length feature film.

For this he chose to adapt one of his own Manga stories, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, an epic tale of a young woman’s fight to save her people at a time of great political upheaval.

Though not one of his more accessible films, it quickly became a cult classic with Japanese fans. Ghibli was set up by Miyazaki and his producer Isao Takahata in 1985, a year after the release of Nausicaä, in a suburb of Tokyo.

Being a perfectionist and workaholic, Miyazaki quickly found himself hopelessly overworked. In an interview he described his daily schedule thus: ‘I got up in the morning, I drew storyboards, I returned to the office, where I touched up my staff’s new material. At night, I went home and did more storyboards. In Japan the only one who makes animation this way is me. No one could take it.’

In 1986, a heavily edited version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind was released in the US as Warriors of the Wind. So disgusted was Miyazaki by the cuts and changes made to his film by the distributors that Ghibli refused permission for any other western release for over a decade.

Quite apart from his creative headaches, Miyazaki was aware that his workforce was unhappy with its lot. A committed Marxist, Miyazaki wanted to create a team of permanently employed staff on a fair monthly salary, rather than the system of piece work that they’d had in force since setting up the studio.

In this way, they wouldn’t be penalised for producing the kind of painstaking craftsmanship that lifted the studio above the normal run of Japanese animation.

The disadvantage of this system, introduced in 1990, was that Ghibli would have to keep up a high level of production in order to make it workable, sometimes working on two or more feature films at once.

To produce the best work, Ghibli needed to give its employees a safe, attractive environment to work in, preferably all under one e e roof. Miyazaki and his co-founder Takahata persuaded the Tokuma Corporation of Japan to underwrite the construction of a smart new studio in a

nother Tokyo suburb.

Despite the risk involved, Miyazaki managed to create a Utopian workplace that is not only capable of undertaking all the processes of animation in-house but also somewhere that is conducive to individual creativity.

The studio quickly produced films directed by Takahata (Ponpoko) and Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart), before Miyazaki started work on what is generally regarded as his masterpiece, Princess Mononoke, in 1995. Sadly, the talented Kondo, who was seen by many as the natural heir to Miyazaki’s throne, died suddenly in 1998, making it impossible for Miyazaki to take the back seat he’d been hinting at for some time.

Ghibli is by no means the most popular form of Anime on the international market. Pokémon and more recently, Cardcaptors, far outweigh any Ghibli productions in terms of video sales and cult following. The latest Miyazaki film, Spirited Away, is determinedly child-friendly and stands a good chance of an expensively marketed international release, courtesy of Disney. Whether or not Japanese animation can ever achieve the kind of mass cinematic appeal of the likes of Toy Story or Chicken Run remains to be seen.

McCarthy is the first to admit that British Anime fans incline towards geekiness, or otaku, as the Japanese call it. ‘I have to point out to people sometimes that this isn’t brain surgery or a cure for cancer, it’s a populist art form that we happen to like.’

Making of Princess Mononoke

The story of Princess Mononoke is rooted in Japanese history and folklore, with faint echoes of Beauty and the Beast.

Ashitaka, a young nobleman, is attacked by a mighty forest boar god, leaving a wound on his arm that will eventually kill him. In search of an antidote, he embarks on an action-packed odyssey involving all manner of predators, beasts and spirits. His aim is to find the source of the evil that is corrupting the gods of the forest.

To research the locations, Miyazaki and his team of artist-animators ventured into rural Japan for inspiration. The result is scenic animation that often takes your breath away. The facial characterisations are crude compared to the latest CGI techniques in, say, Shrek or Toy Story, but the visual effects and backgrounds are extraordinarily rich and detailed.

Miyazaki, ever the perfectionist, himself retouched and corrected about 80 000 of the film’s 140 000 cels. In an interview immediately before the film’s release, he admitted he was exhausted by the effort.

‘Physically I just can’t go on like this,’ he said. Despite his growing international influence – his films are used as teaching tools on many animation courses – Miyazaki appears uninterested in how Mononoke or his other films are received overseas.

Until Titanic came along, Princess Mononoke was Japan’s highest grossing film of all time. In its first four months, it was seen by 12 million Japanese people. Sadly, it proved too dark and slow-moving for American and UK audiences, where it remains a little known foreign movie with a cult following. m

Studio Ghibli -The Art of Japanese Animation is at the Barbican Centre cinema, Silk Street, London EC2 until 11 November

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