Studio Ghibli Pt 2
Make sure to read Studio Ghibli Part 1, Hayao Miyazaki from the 1950’s up to 1996.
In 1996, Studio Ghibli was a house-hold name throughout Japan, with Miyazaki as the face of the company. His first 40 years making manga and animation was varied and fantastic. Widely acclaimed as one of the best in the business, and money pouring in from Totoro plushies, Miyazaki began in earnest to spread his vision around the world.
Studio Ghibli began a partnership with Disney to release the films in the US. Disney would begin by releasing Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1997, the most recent of Miyazaki’s films at the time. They also followed up with a promised release of Miyazaki’s upcoming film Princess Mononoke, though the dub took 2 years. Disney then started releasing the back catalog of films like Castle in the Sky in 2005, nearly 20 years after the original was made, and Totoro in 2006.
Along with the new exposure to his older works, Miyazaki’s upcoming works became film festival darlings and had the director traveling the world. He now ranks among the top 5 most recognizable Japanese in the world. But lets get back to 97.
One of the best films in animation, Princess Mononoke is a must see. Miyazaki’s 7th film took a step up from great to masterpiece. It would become the banner for Miyazaki’s career, and many dirctors list it as a major inspiration.
The story follows the journey of Ashitaka, removed from his clan after being cursed by a demon and forced to wander in search of a cure. He gets caught up in a war between factions and works to bring peace to both sides. Princess Mononoke would visit similar ideas as Nausicaa, exploring the battle of industrialization versus nature, with Laputa’s traveling adventure. The story took on a wonderful pace and excitement that features Miyazaki at his very best. Fierce, powerful, and thought provoking, the film was a drastic change in maturity.
“It was a huge risk, totally different from when I was making Kiki. I’d had that experience with Porco Rosso, the war happened (in the former Yugoslavia), and I learned that mankind doesn’t learn. After that, we couldn’t go back and make some film like Kiki’s Delivery Service. It felt like children were being born to this world without being blessed. How could we pretend to them that we’re happy?”
A big proponent of hand drawn animation, Miyazaki and his team of animators made over 144,000 cels with the director handling over 80,000 personally. The film is filled with stunning animation and vibrant displays of the smooth lifelike movement the hand painted art can make. Using the latest computer effects available at the time, Miyazaki developed new and ‘invisible’ techniques of blending in CGI to these drawings as well.
Studio Ghibli would release Princess Mononoke in 1997 and grab the title of highest grossing film in Japan until the release of Titanic. It would be released through Miramax and the deal with Disney in 1999 to the US and European markets. A full 2 years after the original release, the films conversion was a long and argumentative process.
Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, sent word to Japan that he planned to make changes to the film. In response, producer Toshio Suzuki sent Weinstein a katana with a message stating “No cuts.” Rumors were that Miyazaki sent it himself but he’s stated in an interview,
“Actually, my producer did that. Although I did go to New York to meet this man, this Harvey Weinstein, and I was bombarded with this aggressive attack, all these demands for cuts…
I defeated him.”
Yoshifumi Kondou, a long time Ghibli artist and director, passed away in 1998 and Miyazaki would announce his retirement based on the events. During this semi-retirement, Miyazaki would work on 3 different stories that got rejected.
The first would be an adaptation of “A Mysterious Town Over the Mist” by Sachiko Kashiwaba, the second called Rin and the Chimney Painter, and a third with a male protagonist. All three series revolved around a bath house, something that interested Miyazaki as a child.
“For me, a bath house is a mysterious place in town. The first time I saw an oil painting was in a bath house. And there was a small door next to the bath tub. I wondered what was behind that door.”
The film follows a young girl getting caught up in the spirit world and working at a bath house to the gods. Her parents are turned into pigs and her identity is stolen. She is forced to mature, take the world head on in both the good and bad aspects, and define her new self. This journey of identity, maturity, nature, and humanity balanced with high fantasy, is really the signature of Miyazaki’s great mind. Wonderful beast and god designs, mixed with a uniquely Japanese onsen, crafted a very folk tale feel that makes this film of growing up become instantly classic. The animation, even 14 years later, is still the best you’ll find anywhere.
Disney chose to avoid the difficult times of Mononoke’s conversion, so they brought in the massive Ghibli fan John Lasseter. He had previously produced the US version of Porco Russo, and credits Miyazaki’s Lupin film as a major inspiration. Lasseter went all out and made one of the few dubs that really work.
Since Studio Ghibli retains all marketing rights to the films, Disney tends to give little to no budget in advertising and originally released it in only 151 theaters across the US. Spirited Away marked the moment that the world truly got on board the Miyazaki hype train though. After winning the Oscar for best animated film, along with a Golden Bear and a Japan Academy award, it would be released to over 700 theaters. It would also exist in a long gone time of Video Rentals, and had great success there as well.
After Spirited Away, Miyazaki would ‘retire’ for a second time and worked on short films to show at the newly established Ghibli Museum. These films have had virtually no release outside of the in-house theater at the museum, so info is sparce. The films include:
Meanwhile, first spotlight director Mamoru Hosoda was working at Studio Ghibli on making an adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Howl’s Moving Castle. Many of his ideas were rejected and eventually he left the studio to make The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Miyazaki would step up to finish the project.
The film appears to be similar to Kiki’s Delivery, a light slice of life about growing up, but it takes a sharp turn mid way through as the film began to discuss war. This stark contrast led to some mixed reviews, especially from long time fans, but it still comes as a wonderful tale that is beautifully animated.
Miyazaki was vocally against the Iraq War, even refusing to go to the Oscars, to receive his Spirited Away award, in protest. It heavily influenced him while making Howl’s, and that can be seen in the later part of the film. Miyazaki became frustrated with the film and its reviews later on, which led to a big shift in his works.
“We don’t know why, but it had very extreme reactions: people who really loved it, and people who didn’t understand it. It was a horrible experience. I’ve been so tired out since Princess Mononoke. And to continue in this complicated direction, I thought, ‘We can’t do this anymore!’ Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl… We decided to change direction. And that’s why we did Ponyo the way we did.”
Miyazaki returned to his true film love; imagination, childish wonder, and hand drawn animation. Ponyo is based on the Hans Christian Andersen story, Little Mermaid, and returns to that child like wonder from Totoro. The two children meet and explore this vast world of adventure while battling an evil sorcerer, Ursela eat your heart out. The story is wonderfully innocent, as if the children were telling it themselves.
With 170,000 cels it surpassed even Princess Mononoke as the largest undertaking for Miyazaki. He talked often about the joy he got from animating the waves and water effects in the film, and boy can you feel it.
“The part I love most about Ponyo is the end credits. There’s no job titles: I just put everybody who was involved in Japanese alphabetical order. So the big investors and the small little studios, they’re all treated equally in the end credits. And we don’t know where the producer is, where the director is. We even have the three stray cats that live round the studio — we even have their names on it, too!”
Since the release of Ponyo in 2008, Miyazaki had been working on a manga as a hobby. The Wind Rises manga was a dedication to the inventor of the Zero planes, Jiro Hirokoshi. Miyazaki’s family business had built parts for those planes during WW2, and his love of flight never left him. A fitting ‘final film’ if it stays true.
Originally, Miyazaki wanted to do a sequel to Ponyo framed around the earthquakes that hit Japan at the time. His producer suggested instead to turn this hobby manga into a feature film. The idea was refused initially until a staff member told Miyazaki, “children should be allowed to be exposed to subjects they are not familiar with”. Along with a Hirokoshi quote, “All I wanted to do was to make something beautiful”, eventually led to the films production.
An lovely romance holds the film’s center, and Miyazaki revels in reforming the ideals of a great man of flight. Some backlash came out due to Miyazaki’s pacifist nature and ignoring the war, but Wind Rises is solely focused on the beauty of life. Much like Porco Rosso, the film is a gorgeous love note to flight.
After his 6th retirement announcement, Miyazaki has focused on a Samurai historical manga and his short films. Takahata has assured fans that eventually the energetic director will return. Even if he doesn’t, his filmography is the most pure and hopeful gathering of stories you’ll find. Hayao Miyazaki is one of the greatest the medium, and film in general, has ever seen. A master through and through.