Studio Ghibli: its final films, the future of 2D animation

When Marnie Was There will be Studio Ghibli's last feature. We look at Ghibli's final films and what they mean for the future of animation.

If there’s one abiding message behind Studio Ghibli’s animated output, it’s that nothing is permanent. Happiness is delicate; summers pass; memories fade. But the brilliance of the Japanese animation house’s movies is that they find joy in the fleeting, not just melancholy. The encounter between two children and adorably rotund woodland spirits in My Neighbor Totoro is all the more special because it’s presented very definitely as a one-off: a chance meeting that can never happen again.

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1984 following the success of Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind, Hayao Miyazaki’s masterful, dazzlingly detailed sci-fi fantasy. From that point on, Miyazaki was established as the sharpest prong on Ghibli’s creative trident, the others being producer Toshio Suzuki and director Isao Takahata. The latter, Miyazaki’s old creative partner from his days at Toei Animation at the end of the 1960s would, of course, soon go on to make the shattering war drama, Grave Of The Fireflies.

Together, Miyazaki, Takahata and Suzuki forged a studio that has long since become an envoy for Japanese animation. Laputa: Castle In The Sky was a hit, but it was My Neighbor Totoro, released in 1988, which brought Ghibli to wider attention. Grave Of The Fireflies, also released in 1988 on the same bill as Totoro, was described by Roger Ebert as one of the best war films ever made.

Porco Rosso, Kiki’s Delivery Service – with each subsequent release, Ghibli’s stature grew both in Japan and overseas. The sprawling, unexpectedly dark ecological fable Princess Mononoke (1997) earned the studio Oscar attention; 2001’s Spirited Away (2001) finally got them the statue. As the affection for those films spread, so too did Studio Ghibli’s fame.

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The Wind Rises: a farewell from Hayao Miyazaki

Since his rise to prominence, Miyazaki’s exacting approach to making his deeply personal films has become well known. So too has Takahata’s contrasting reluctance to get started on his movies – not to mention his tendency to deliver them late. In the fly-on-the-wall documentary The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness, we get a rare glimpse of Miyazaki at work on his final feature film, The Wind Rises. We see his humor, his generosity, but also his sometimes harsh and demanding temperament.

The quieter, more diffident Takahata, meanwhile, is notable for his absence; he’s off somewhere else, toiling over his own final film, The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya. Producer Yoshiaki Nishimura even jokes – perhaps with a certain amount of ruefulness – that Takahata doesn’t really want to finish his swansong.

There’s an unmistakeable air of finality to both The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya, finally released in July and November 2013 respectively. Certainly, Miyazaki had threatened to retire in the past – previously following the punishing production of Princess Mononoke – but The Wind Rises really does feel like a heartfelt goodbye.

An animated drama loosely based on the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane, it ends with its hero standing on a hill, reflecting on his life and career with sadness and more than a hint of pride. It’s a final statement from the 72-year-old Miyazaki; one last expression of his love of aviation – a topic he’s returned to again and again in his films – his passion as an animator, and the romantic humanism that sits beneath his brusque exterior.

The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya: “Lifetimes come and go in time”

Takahata’s The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya is no less personal, and hardly less powerful as a work of drama. Based on a traditional Japanese folk story about a magical child raised by a bamboo cutter and his wife, it’s a profoundly moving tour de force of human observation. Takahata waltzes us through Kaguya’s childhood in the countryside, its abrupt end when her adopted father decides she should be raised as a princess in the city, and the absurd, often very funny attempts to find her a suitable husband. It’s about the freedom of youth and how it can become stifled by society. It’s also a final burst of unbridled creativity, the world of Princess Kaguya brought to life with vibrant pencil lines and bold splashes of watercolour.

The film’s most powerful scenes are the ones Takahata himself is most proud of. “I would say the scenes that stand out in particular,” Takahata told us via email, “ are when the Princess Kaguya begins to crawl, stand, and grows rapidly, and when, in despair, she dashes out from her naming celebration like a gust of wind to run through the wilds and return to the mountainside where she had lived so happily.”

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But the final sequence is perhaps the most affecting of all: an army of mystical beings sweeps down from the Moon to whisk Princess Kaguya back to her rightful home. It’s an obvious metaphor for death, but once again, it’s shot through with a sense of celebration and hope.

The Wind Rises and Princess Kaguya expose not only the two directors’ divergent approach to filmmaking, but also how they’ve influenced one another over the decades. Takahata studied French before he became a director; Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises takes its name from a French poem. The Wind Rises also has some of Grave Of The Fireflies dramatic realism, which Takahata says is influenced by his interest in French filmmaking; Princess Kaguya expresses much of Miyazaki’s love of the Japanese countryside and his affinity for telling stories through a female protagonist.

As Takahata himself says, “I think initially I influenced [Miyazaki] in terms of his learning the ways of working and directing. But since then, we influenced each other on all aspects of creating animation films in exploring what we should be doing and what is possible. And, while I have always respected his genius, early on I recognized the difference in our temperament and direction. This is why we stopped making films together, and I took different path from his.”

Studio Ghibli: the search for a successor

Inevitably, Miyazaki and Takahata’s collective brilliance has cast a long shadow over Studio Ghibli. Disney, the company Ghibli is often favourably compared to, has reinvented itself several times in the decades since its founder, Walt Disney, died in 1966. Yet Studio Ghibli, despite a handful of new directors climbing the ranks, has never managed to find a creative force that could match its founder members, now well into their 60s and 70s.

Yoshifumi Kondo, who directed the 1991 romance Whisper Of The Heart, might have served as a successor to Miyazaki, and it seems that he was being prepared for such a role. But Kondo tragically died of an aneurysm in 1998 – an unfortunate victim, it seemed, of his own extraordinary work ethic. (During his eulogy, Miyazaki described his memories of Kondo working on a scene for the TV series, Future Boy Conan: “Being very tired from the long work hours, he drew it, half-unconscious, crouching over his desk with his long legs folded…”)

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Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki has so far made two attempts to follow in his father’s footsteps. The first was the stilted yet fitfully beautiful Tales From Earthsea; the second was the keenly-observed, petal-delicate post-war drama, From Up On Poppy Hill. But Hayao Miyazaki’s desire for perfection made him a harsh taskmaster; on Poppy Hills DVD extras, we see the movie’s first screening for its makers end with Miyazaki sternly criticising the animators for the characters’ stiff movements when they walk.

Goro Miyazaki is still working in animation, but away from Studio Ghibli; he’s currently the director on a TV series for NHK called Sanzoku no Musume Ronya. When asked about the possibility of replacing his father as the creative head of Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki Jr said last year, “I can’t be a post Hayao Miyazaki. I can do work if I’m given a theme and if I have the right circumstances. I can’t be like him and have my own studio and make things from original works, from my own ideas.”

When Marnie Was There: Studio Ghibli’s swansong

This leads us to Hiromasa Yonebayashi, an animator who climbed the ranks of Studio Ghibli, first as an artist on such films as Princess Mononoke and Ponyo, before finally attaining the role of director in 2010. Talking to us in a recent interview, Yonebayashi again depicts Miyazaki as a volatile boss (the animator recalls a moment early in his early career where Miyazaki went red-faced with rage because the young animator dared to open a window) but also one keen to nurture new talent. Miyazaki praised Yonebayashi’s work on Ponyo, and paid him the ultimate compliment by letting him direct his first feature, The Secret World Of Arietty.

That film’s warm reception, and Yonebayashi’s affinity for rendering the intricacies of the natural world with extraordinary detail, might have implied that Studio Ghibli could continue under the stewardship of a new generation of animators led by this upcoming director. Certainly, Yonebayashi’s latest film, When Marnie Was There, continues in the Ghibli spirit; it’s a supernatural drama about the friendship between two girls, one an alienated foster child, Anna, and the ethereal Marnie, who lives in a rambling old house on the coast of Hokkaido. Like Howl’s Moving Castle and Arietty, it’s inspired by a European novel (this one by Joan G Robinson).

But despite the possibilities it presents, When Marnie Was There isn’t new beginning for Studio Ghibli. Instead, it’s the company’s feature filmmaking swansong.

The possibility that Studio Ghibli might be winding down filtered out five years ago, not long before Miyazaki and Takahata announced their retirement.

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“Suzuki-san is making a dissolution program for Ghibli,” Miyazaki told Cut Magazine in 2010. “No joke, we talked about it the other day. For example, Ghibli should be able to continue with about five staff members as a copyright management company even if we smash the studio. So, Ghibli can say ‘We stop film production. Goodbye’. I do not have to be there.”

It was a disappointing statement, to say the least, and one that seemed to contain more than grain of truth. An anonymous source talked of the studio’s dissolution in 2014, which coincided with the retirement of Ghibli’s three founder members. Yet Miyazaki seemed less certain; “We have no future plans,” the anime maestro told The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “We just want to take some time off.”

Yet in late September this year, producer Yoshiaki Nakamura confirmed to us that When Marnie Was There – due out in the UK next year – is Studio Ghibli’s final feature film.

In the medium term, the studio will concentrate on creating three short films for the Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, which will be directed by Miyazaki himself.

“Apart from that,” Niishimura told us, “there are talks of 15 to 30 second TV commercials, or TV series, but nothing is concrete.”

What’s next for hand-drawn animation?

Just like that, we’re on the cusp of losing one of the last – and arguably greatest – practitioners of hand-drawn filmmaking. With 2011’s Winnie The Pooh being Disney’s final foray into 2D features (at least for now), techniques that have been around since the early part of the 20th century might be in danger of being forgotten. When Marnie Was There will, it’s now clear, mark the end of an era.

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Nevertheless, it’s not all doom and gloom for hand-drawn animation. Filmmaker Makoto Shinkai is keeping those techniques alive in Japan with films like 5 Centimetres Per Second and The Garden Of Words. Then there’s Mamoru Hosoda, the director of such delightful animated films as Summer Wars, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Wolf Children. (Hosoda-san might have been a new face at Studio Ghibli, but was removed from the director’s role on Howl’s Moving Castle when his concepts didn’t pass muster with the studio’s heads.)

In Ireland, animation studio Cartoon Saloon is making such captivating films as The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea – Oscar winning films that take a hybrid approach to animation which seamlessly combines CGI and hand-drawn artwork. Indeed, director Tomm Moore argues that 2D animation can still evolve and survive, just as stop-motion has thanks to such studios as Laika and Aardman.

“I definitely think that 2D animation is in the space that stop-motion animation is in,” Moore told us earlier this year. “It’s a specialist technique, and it’s used for certain stories. The mainstream has definitely gone CGI. It’s not going to change back, and wishing it won’t make it so. And I don’t wish it anymore. I’ve realised that it’s been a liberation for traditional animation, to be marginalised, as it were. Because it frees us up to experiment and do stuff that you wouldn’t be able to do in the mainstream. […] People don’t have Disney to look to now to copy, so now they have to reinvent themselves.”

When Marnie Was Theres producer Yoshiaki Nishimura also tells us that, although Studio Ghibli’s feature filmmaking days are over, he’s determined to keep its style of animation alive.

“2D and 3D are different things,” Nishimura told us.”2D animation is an extension of painting, but 3D is an extension of 3D [sculpture] so they’re completely different. What they can express are different. Of course, 2D has an advantage over 3D as well, as Miyazaki and Takahata and Yonebayashi, those directors, have proved.

“I’m determined not to stop that tradition.”

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Thanks to the dedication of such artists as Tomm Moore, Mamoru Hosoda and Hiromasa Yonabayashi, hand-drawn animation has the chance to survive for many more years to come. But whatever happens to the medium in the future, it’s fair to say that animation won’t be the same without Studio Ghibli. Over its 30 year history, it has delighted the world with its heartfelt, guileless films.