Flying Dreams and Moats of Poison

I remember when it first hit Twitter. “They’re closing Studio Ghibli.”

The first Studio Ghibli film I saw was Princess Mononoke. It was a VHS tape that an enthusiast had burned English subtitles onto using the Japanese laserdisc as a source. It was shown in a packed lecture hall during a local annual anime convention yet to hit the respectable big time and the air was thick with gleeful, conspiratorial intrigue. The provincial film classification board—which regulates the public exhibition of all film—would have had a fit.

I liked it, but at the time that was it. Technology and distribution conspired to keep me from following up, like a small town kid in the pre-Napster days: they’d have to content themselves with the brief strain of Aphex Twin heard on the college radio station while driving through the big city. In the following years, Buena Vista started to release the back-catalogue onto home video and every once in a while a new Studio Ghibli film would be released into cinemas. It quickly became one of the few ways to see something hand-drawn on the big screen.

Hayao Miyazaki

When Miyazaki announced his ha-ha-no-this-time-it’s-for-serious-I-called-a-press-conference-and-everything retirement coinciding with the release of The Wind Rises, I was curious to see how the studio would go on without him. To most, Ghibli is synonymous with Miyazaki. Ghibli is Miyazaki. To a certain core audience, “Miyazaki movie” seemed to be on its way to becoming a legally genericised word, like Kleenex and Band-aid.

As if in response to my idle thoughts, a recent documentary on Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, ended up playing nearby so I went to go and see if I could learn a little bit more about Ghibli as an institution. Well I did…or maybe I didn’t. Produced before the studio’s closure, the documentary really could have been named The King Of Dreams And Madness; it’s the Miyazaki Show through and through—as though the documentarian Mami Sunada tossed out any intentions to explore the organization once she became entangled in the wonderful-horrible gravity of Miyazaki’s personality. Observations are made from the Fort Miyazaki radar station. Objects close to the centre of his existence are in sharp detail whereas a variety of interesting and some important objects lurk at the periphery in murky low resolution.

Now stuck following the animation world’s most famous cranky uncle as he muses his way through kids-these-daysanimation-these-daysnuclear-disasters-these-days-flavoured vinegar, the camera records the surprisingly antagonistic relationship Miyazaki seems to have with studio co-founder and other half of the creative dipole: Isao Takahata. Takahata is less-known in the west both due to the less fantasist bent to his works (and therefore less interesting to the western market for animation) and the slow pace at which they’re produced, winding down to the positively glacial 14 years between his penultimate and his last animated film. Miyazaki continually pokes fun at Takahata’s output and other perceived shortcomings in a way that may be collegial and affectionate but only in a plausibly deniable fashion. Schrödinger’s backstabber.

Isao Takahata

Takahata himself is nearly absent from the documentary. He is not interested in participating. The documentary, in turn, seems content to let him fade away as a subject and into the background aside from a couple of ‘just around the corner out of sight’ styled scenes that recall YouTube videos of encounters at US border security. Yet, allowing Takahata to slip away wasn’t the only option; entire documentaries have been built around absent subjects as their very conceit (cf. Roger & Me). It’s an interesting dropped thread—especially as the film decides to present a chance, genial meeting between the two directors on the company’s rooftop garden as the film’s thematic climax even though the prior structure of the documentary doesn’t adequately set it up as a payoff. It’s a rare in-person encounter between people who generally work in separate studio buildings.

If the Takahata–Miyazaki relationship is antagonistic and their domains segregated, then it’s unsurprising that their working styles are explicitly described as being Thesis and Antithesis.

Takahata seems to be a perfectionist rooted in a literary tradition. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya was in development since 2006—like a pebble being turned over in the hand through the eons until it turns to green glass. Miyazaki, on the other hand, builds his films by just starting on storyboards in linear sequence and sees where they take him eventually.

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness

The key with Miyazaki is that, by necessity, his scenes have to start being turned into fully-animated, final shots fairly early into his storyboarding process. Which means—unnervingly—to glance in the rearview mirror is to see all the story decisions you made ex tempore compounding at a worrisome rate. Once they pass under the animator’s pencil it’s too late to change your mind—Medusa has already seen it. This is a method incompatible with iteration and refinement—especially contrasted to the Disney/Pixar style of animated filmmaking where the entire story goes up on boards, then on leica reels and is subject to merciless editorial review by the entire brain trust. No theme or sequence is sacred. It turns out the off-the-cuff flavour of Miyazaki’s storytelling comes just as much from his method of production rather than just his style; a repudiation of all cinéastes who confuse the death of the author with the death of the apparatus of production.

The documentary continues to unspool. We rarely spend any time with the draughtsmen in the trenches. Ghibli is very top-down; Sky Crawlers and Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii once stated that it operated like the Kremlin and described its senior staff as occupying various autocratic roles within an expanded metaphor of Soviet regime. Although Kingdom does its best to present a kindly face, I can easily see this being true.

And, in both directors’ cases, with merciless autocracy comes a distinct lack of group collaboration in shaping the final film. This leads to a serious issue nurturing talent: if every artist lives within their own compartmental role, there’s no healthy churn. No easy opportunities for animators or art designers to distinguish themselves or develop beyond the roles for which they were originally hired. In this sense, the studio building itself adopts to the role of a humanist wood and aluminum cocoon. Stasis.

This metaphor is upheld by historical precedent. Ghibli has struggled with producing films by new directors and the results have been mixed. Yoshifumi Kondo died of overwork with only one film (Whisper of the Heart) as director; Mamoru Hosoda was fired when Miyazaki annexed his production of Howl’s Moving Castle; and, after The Cat Returns, Hiroyuki Morita moved on…

Goro Miyazaki

Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Goro Miyazaki produced a couple films at Studio Ghibli apiece—one of which may actually be the very last feature film created in the building—but as evidently seen, the results are not evidently enough to keep the lights on.

Goro Miyazaki—the possibly estranged son of Miyazaki senior and former professional gardener—is the focus of the one scene where The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness feels like it’s coming to life: Goro Miyazaki sits cooped up in one of the larger private offices in the building with producers and managers to discuss the potential of starting his third feature at the studio (the specific details of which the documentary elides). The reception of his prior two films, Tales from Earthsea and From Up on Poppy Hill have been mixed but critical reception has been on an upward trajectory. In this overcrowded room, Goro expresses his existential crisis as a director totally out of step with the Ghibli Way.

First, he has no ability to ‘fail fast’. When Miyazaki Senior starts production there is no room for error, no possibility of figuring out empirically that a story direction was a mistake. It must be a horrific, twisting gut feeling (that I’m sure more than a handful of big-budget Hollywood film directors are familiar with) when you know you’ve gone off the rails but the engine can’t be stopped. Won’t be stopped.

Second, Goro Miyazaki’s basic motivational passion to direct animated films comes from his deep respect for Ghibli both as a historic institution and as a container for the extremely skilled artists that it employs. Thus the scraping paradox of his desire to collaborate inside an institution fundamentally unsuited to it.

Goro Miyazaki ends the scene sitting in the middle distance of the documentary shot. He is unable to reconcile how to be an artist that makes mistakes or collaborate with a wide pool of talent—a trait apiece that Miyazaki and Takahata have never required in the past. Hayao Miyazaki explicitly and repeatedly in the documentary expresses the view that Ghibli-the-institution is a convenient shell that exists only to produce his films—a cavalier attitude that can’t help but trickle down to influence every employee in the building. As Goro’s boardroom conversation comes from a close, his concerns about meaning and purpose hang still in the air unaddressed—as does the fate of the kingdom itself.

So now, looking at the uncertain, suspended future of Studio Ghibli so soon after the retirement of its two founders, I wish I could say it was a disaster. However, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness inadvertently depicts it as tragedy in every inexorable sense of the word.

CC photo credit: Studio Ghibli and Mami Sunada

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s