Variety is the Spice…

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I’m taking the chance to publish the unexpurgated version of Mark Schilling’s interview with me for his piece last week in Variety. My comments were, naturally, reduced to a couple of soundbites, but I think some interesting things came up. Sometimes my brain doesn’t grind into action until it’s asked the right question, and some of my ideas here were straight off the cuff. The question was that old favourite, the “new Miyazaki” in the light of Michael Dudok de Wit’s forthcoming Red Turtle and Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name but as ever, I preferred to think of it not in terms of the creative abilities of modern animators, but of the ways in which the industry can find an equivalent revenue stream for the biggest money-spinner of the last generation.

Mark Schilling: In your view, has the torch truly been passed?

Jonathan Clements: No. There is no torch, at least not in the way that the public expects. Hayao Miyazaki wasn’t just a one-off, he was part of a trio. You can’t have the Miyazaki phenomenon without Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki as well. All three of them are retiring. Suzuki spent ten years not just looking for someone to take the torch, but examining the torch itself, trying to work out what parts of it could be replicated by other means. He concluded that there was no torch but the legacy of Ghibli itself, and that’s why the Ghibli Museum is so crucial to understanding the studio’s late period.

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Do you view Shinkai, de Wit and others as “Miyazaki heirs”?

Studio Ghibli spent a decade looking for some way of continuing Miyazaki’s momentum. Takahata couldn’t get the same numbers, although Suzuki did hope to hide that by releasing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya on the same bill as The Wind Rises. When Kaguya was delayed, its box office numbers made it very clear that Takahata didn’t have the following that Miyazaki had. None of the non-Hayao Miyazaki films from Ghibli have done Hayao Miyazaki numbers.

Toshio Suzuki tried everything in the noughties. He tried to lure big-name directors into Ghibli, but they didn’t gel with the studio. He tried to train up new apprentices, some of whom have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere. But he couldn’t find a proper replacement for Miyazaki.

So Suzuki engineered Goro Miyazaki’s controversial directorial debut, and invited audiences to come and see the car-crash. That lured Miyazaki himself back for Ponyo. That’s where they started the “We Made This” alphabetical credit listings, which conveniently obscured the fact that Miyazaki didn’t actually direct Arrietty! He engineered the father-son team-up on Poppy Hill, and got audiences to see that. Then he lured Miyazaki back for absolutely anything he wanted, no matter how controversial, so he could go out with The Wind Rises. He’s played Miyazaki (and the public) like a fiddle! He’s managed to stretch the heritage of Ghibli since 2006 with only two genuine Hayao Miyazaki movies. But after The Wind Rises, it really is over. Ghibli has to admit it’s got no more features in it that are going to trounce the next five rivals at the Japanese box office. It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

Laputa_Robot_on_Roof_of_Museum_-_CopyBut that’s not good enough for distributors, and it’s not good enough for exhibitors. Cinemas are fixed sites, they need more product. July is going to happen whether or not the film studios have something suitable for a vacation tent-pole movie.

The Ghibli Museum turns over US$7.5 million a year, just on admissions. Throw in the restaurant and the gift shop, and the museum is making its owners a modest movie’s worth of revenue every year, just by managing Ghibli’s own legacy. It doesn’t need to make any more films – in fact, doing so would risk compromising the brand. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It needs people like us talking about it like it’s still there, so people remember they want to take their kids to see the giant fluffy Catbus.

So what does it mean when they say The Red Turtle is a coproduction? Is Ghibli just putting its name on it, like it did with the Japanese releases of Aardman films? I’m guessing that Ghibli is slightly more involved in investment than that, but not in actual animation. The Red Turtle will be imitation Ghibli, ‘inspired by Ghibli’, and it’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history. It’ll be a tenth of Miyazaki numbers, but it’ll keep that conversation going for another year. There will be a Red Turtle exhibition at the Ghibli Museum. Ghibli will keep trending. This is legacy management with very modest expectations. Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if The Red Turtle is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.

This isn’t new. We’ve seen a lot of this lately, where studios will rent out their IP to someone else and take 5% off the top. A Nigerian Astro Boy? An Indian Star of the Giants? A Wachowski Speed Racer? Ghibli has shut down its feature production arm, but what the hell, if someone else wants to take the risk, Ghibli will put in 5% of the effort for 5% of the returns. This is anime Moneyball.

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Is there a “Miyazaki tradition” being passed on, even though Ghibli is not making features with its own directors?

That’s the conversation Ghibli wants us to keep having. Come and see this movie, to see if the director is The One! Will he save us? Is he the anime messiah? Or are we stuck hereafter with otaku-bait that can’t fill a single cinema for more than a couple of weeks?

That’s why Toei’s risk with Shinkai is so interesting. Shinkai has no trouble pulling in audiences on the small circuit. A Shinkai movie is usually a much more bespoke event. He makes a lot of personal appearances when his films go on tour, so it’s not just a trip to the cinema, it’s a trip to the cinema to see the director and get him to sign the DVD.

“Events” are a small but growing part of the Japanese cinema model, because if you have a small otaku audience, then you want to make sure they spend triple the usual money on a trip to the cinema. It’s not just about popcorn, it’s about T-shirts and phone cases, and often the limited edition Blu-ray. You limit and target the availability of the merchandise, and you make sure that you provide an experience which can’t be pirated. People are ripping off the software all the time, but Shinkai’s not going to sign a pirate copy, not of his movie nor the novel spin-off. He’s not going to shake your hand while you’re downloading the torrent.

“Events” at the moment are worth less than 5% of Toei’s revenue, but that’s a huge increase on just five years ago. It’s taking Japanese cinema back a hundred years to the days of the benshi and a cinema experience as a form of live vaudeville. But Kimi no Na Wa is different because it’s being touted, as you say, as a summer tent-pole movie. Shinkai can’t go to every screening; they can’t spread him that thinly. They’ll do some glad-handing for the hard-core fans at the premiere events, and hope that there’s enough momentum to keep it going with the general public. Watch the marketing on Kimi no Na wa, because I bet Toei goes all-out on interactivity. I bet they steal an idea from Mai Mai Miracle and try to engage the consumers with lobby exhibits. I bet they come up with a hashtag on social media and try and drag everybody into it. They are going to have to do this, because most of the users are going to have to bring their own event.

Look at the title, for God’s sake! They’ve called it Kimi no Na wa because I bet you half the general public will think it’s a remake. There was a radio series of the same name in the 1950s, adapted for TV in the 1960s, and again in the 1990s. Half the eyeballs for this movie’s advertising will only look because they think it’s something else. Much of the social media trending for this film will be people telling their confused friends that it’s not what they think it is. That’s some smart mockbuster marketing to get their attention. Then the pressure’s on Shinkai to keep it.

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Or is the Miyazaki legacy (including his box office supremacy) in danger from not only Hollywood hits like Frozen, but also domestic trends?

I think everyone would love it if there were a domestic trend that could compete with Miyazaki’s numbers. I don’t think there is. Everyone has to dial down their expectations to a level where domestic anime earn the kind of money they did in the 1980s, not the 2000s (or rather, the kind of money that people have earned all the way through if they are not Hayao Miyazaki). That’s the problem with movie punditry. Everybody wants to talk about the outliers. The successes are outliers! Miyazaki was an outlier. The general trend is much more modest in terms of returns, and Miyazaki’s success has hidden that for a generation.

Frozen is a red herring – Disney cartoons have always outperformed domestic product at the Japanese box office, with the exception of Miyazaki movies. A much more long-term issue is CG, because the stats for CG make it abundantly obvious that Japanese movies are getting their ass kicked by computer animation. Japanese movies are still struggling to compete with CG, because even when they get a hit like Stand By Me Doraemon, it’s not exportable like a Miyazaki movie. Nobody wants it abroad because nobody knows what Doraemon is; part of the film’s domestic success was because of the blue-chip marketability of the Doraemon brand, which still doesn’t travel far outside Japan.

Of course, it does export to China, but what happened there? Stand By Me Doraemon wasn’t in the 34 movie quota for foreign movies in Chinese cinemas. The Japanese had to sell it for a lump-sum and take no further profits. That’s not growing a business, that’s treading water and hoping that something will happen.

China’s the elephant in the room in all of this, because it’s the largest possible new market for Japanese animation, but Japanese animation is made to feel very unwelcome in formal distribution channels. It’s censored, it’s banned, it’s shut out of theatre exhibition. There are only two brands that get any love in China: Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.

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Anime Futures

With Mark Schilling’s permission, I’m putting up the unexpurgated text of the interview he conducted with me six weeks ago for his article on Japanese animation futures in the South China Morning Post, in part to show how much work goes on behind the scenes to get a sound bite and an article.

the-wind-rises-creating-planes-clipMark Schilling: You mentioned recently that several well-known anime studios might soon go kaput, but without naming names. Is it mainly a problem of rising costs? Declining revenues? Stiffer competition from Hollywood and elsewhere? All of the above?

Jonathan Clements: Some of it is economics — we’ve lost several minor studios recently, and their rise and fall, or restructuring and rebirth as “New” incarnations of themselves has been a common factor of the industry for decades. Ghibli itself was at least partly formed from the ashes of Topcraft, for example. Japanese studios in the twentieth century were able to function as subcontractors for American animation. That’s sometimes still true, but so many elements of anime production is now off-shored to China or South Korea that anime studios are smaller, and leaner, and more flexible in their behaviours. As Gonzo showed in the late noughties, it’s possible for a company to go almost completely dark, to give up its studio space, to lay off its animators and just coast for a couple of years as little more than a filing cabinet in an accountant’s office, waiting for the foreign residuals to roll in. That’s good for robust business, but bad for an animator’s job security!

There’s a generational issue that many people have spotted in the case of the high-profile retirements at Ghibli, but which is also common to the anime industry. The vision of a single creator, or team of creators, can steer a company and give it a distinctive style or brand, but nobody is immortal. People retire. The anime industry went through something very similar in the 1990s, where a bunch of the first-wave producers cashed in their shares, took their pensions, and handed over their companies to others — it’s what led to some of the big corporate buy-outs like Bandai taking ownership of Sunrise. That was seen at the time almost as a hostile take-over, but for many of the staff it was a welcome hand-over, with one of Sunrise’s biggest and most trustworthy clients taking a direct interest in its output, and thereby preserving the jobs of the employees.

What we have now, and have had for the last few years, is the aging of the Astro Boy generation, not of fans, but of animators. In 1963, Tezuka quadrupled the size of the animation industry, both directly through hirings at Mushi and indirectly through the creation of competition in the market. Those fresh-faced graduates are now in their seventies. Many of them are the leading lights of specific studios and, you know, some of them want to go off and play golf.

frozenIs the enormous success of Frozen in Japan a one-shot — or a game changer? Will more Japanese studios switch to Hollywood-style 3D CG animation, following the lead of the new Doraemon film? Will Hollywood exploit the fading of Studio Ghibli and become the dominant player at the Japanese box office, especially the animated segment of it?

Hollywood has always been the dominant player at the Japanese box office. There have been occasional spikes in local interest for particular directors or franchises, but Japanese cinema is eternally fighting a rear-guard action to push local product ahead of flashy foreign imports. Until Miyazaki’s late twentieth century successes, Japanese animation flourished like a weed, only in the spaces that The Lion King and Aladdin didn’t grow. Even in the 1990s, only a tiny handful of players like Gainax and Ghibli gave Disney anything close to a run for its money on home video. I think it’s worth considering Disney’s acquisition of Ghibli titles in that light — when Disney (or their subsidiaries) put money directly into Spirited Away, they weren’t just investing in a Japanese talent, they were ensuring that they got a piece of the pie from their main competitor in the Japanese market.

Japan has been slow to take up 3D CG, because it involves massive reskilling and investment in software and hardware. It’s a return to the state of the industry in the 1950s, when Disney product, made at a substantially greater cost to Japanese competition, was swamping the market with a relentless onslaught of material.

I don’t see Hollywood filling any new niche in Japan. Hollywood, in the form of Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks, will keep releasing its big family films and rolling on as before. The likely competition to do what anime does, to compete at a more domestic, perhaps even consciously “Asian” level, is going to come from China. Miyazaki’s retirement merited a sixty-page feature on Japanese animation in one of China’s biggest news-stand magazines, Lifeweek, last October. The implication was clear that this was a business feature, identifying a new market opening, and asking if China had what it took to move in on it.

I’m not saying that China is the new Ghibli. Far from it, the Chinese animation business has a lot to learn, and much of its output is highly derivative. But it is generating an animation labour base bigger than Japan’s every year. Kung Fu Panda 3 is going to be a “Chinese” film for contractual purposes, so even DreamWorks is relying increasingly on Chinese labour. The Chinese already represent two-thirds of the labour pool for what we call “Japanese” animation. Granted, that’s all concentrated in the lower, less-”skilled” echelons, but that doesn’t bode well for the future when the upper ranks of Japanese animation companies are increasingly drawn from the ranks of marketers and managers. It means that there is a very palpable risk that Japanese animation won’t have any actual animators steering it.

wind-rises-main_0You’ve no doubt read the anonymously sourced story about Studio Ghibli stopping production and becoming a rights management company. Do this strike you as credible? Some of the claims in that piece, such as The Wind Rises still being in the red, seem rather far-fetched to me…

You can see the signs very easily. When Toshio Suzuki was sitting on data that told him that “Studio Ghibli” had a 43% trust rating with the Japanese public, but that the name “Miyazaki” had a 64.2% trust rating, what did he do? He got Miyazaki’s son to direct Tales from Earthsea! I think you can see Suzuki’s very canny, very sharp management insight steering much of the last decade. Even as he retires, he puts a former Disney Japan executive in charge of Ghibli. He builds the Ghibli Museum, which is a classy theme park that generates a movie’s worth of revenue every year. He tries the Goro Miyazaki bait-and-switch manoeuvre, and essentially dares the Japanese public to come and watch the car-crash for themselves. He hypes up this father-son tension in the media, but then gets the Miyazakis working together on Poppy Hill. In the case of The Wind Rises, I see it as another calculated move by the studio, to wring one last box office winner out of Hayao Miyazaki. I like to think of them going to his house and begging him to make one last film to keep the momentum going at the museum and on video, and telling him he can make ANYTHING he likes. Because the subject of that film is so personal, and indulgent, and risky, that I can’t imagine anyone else being allowed to get away with it.
My prediction: in a couple of years’ time Ghibli will go into production on a script “written by” Hayao Miyazaki, just to ring that bell again. He’s effectively given them a 50-title wish-list of children’s literature worth adapting. There is undoubtedly a faction at Ghibli who wants to pivot it towards doing World Masterpiece Theatre, and carrying Miyazaki’s legacy in a different direction, by copying his early TV successes adapting children’s books. That’s why they’re moving into TV with Ronia the Robber’s Daughter, but you can see the Ghibli is only co-producing it. The animation is actually being done by Polygon Pictures.

That The Wind Rises is still in the red sounds ludicrous to me. If it is, it’s only in the movie-accounting sense that Forrest Gump is still technically “in the red.” The Wind Rises did fine.

garden of wordsPeople have been talking about various “new Miyazakis” for years, but that we are truly in the post-Miyazaki era, who do you see as leading the industry, if not necessarily inheriting Miyazaki’s crown? If none of your names are from Studio Ghibli, why not?

It’s a cliche to talk about the “new Miyazaki.” Japanese animators hate the whole argument, because it usually implies nothing new at all, just a magical cloning of his unique skillset, and his unique, timely rise in the movie market, and with supporters like Takahata and Suzuki. Ghibli was a three-man success story, very much of its time, and you can’t have a new Miyazaki without having a new Takahata and a new Suzuki. It also requires some awareness of what we mean when we ask for a “new Miyazaki”. Because Makoto Shinkai has a lot of Miyazaki’s heart, but none of his “family” appeal. Shinkai has cornered a market in films for people who grew up watching Miyazaki movies, but he doesn’t make movies for tomorrow’s families. I guess that’s the problem, there. It’s not about who the new Miyazaki is, it’s about who the new audience is. It’s now easier in Japan to buy diapers for old people than for kids. The kids’ market is shrinking, and that further reduces your chances of making blockbuster money on a family film.

Studio Ghibli actually tried to grow the new Miyazaki themselves, in several abortive attempts to co-opt big-name talents like Mamoru Hosoda. The fact that Hosoda didn’t fit in at an increasingly management-oriented Ghibli is actually a sign of his true potential, far more than staying there would have been!

They also brought in a dozen promising animation assistants and put them to work directly with Miyazaki and Takahata to foster a new generation of talents. That was called the Higashi-Koganei Sonjoku scheme, and its graduates stand a good chance of making waves over the next ten years. People like Masayuki Miyaji, for example, Masashi Okumura and Kenji Itoso.

But ironically, Miyazaki’s own shadow looms so large that it’s difficult for someone to turn up at Ghibli with a distinctive voice and not have it shouted down by risk-averse managers. Goro Miyazaki’s films often look like a committee trying to recreate his father’s successes, and that should come as a surprise to nobody. Ghibli was lightning in a bottle, and rumours about its move into legacy management are only logical — I think what people forget was just how darn lucky Disney was that Pixar could show up at the right moment and completely revitalise its output with fresh ideas and fresh technology, and real talents. Ghibli doesn’t have that. Ghibli doesn’t have a powerful competitor that it can embrace and merge with.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History and Modern Japan: All That Matters.

Goodbye to All That

wind rises crashIt must have been a very earnest meeting. I like to think of them sitting round a table in a smoky, high-end restaurant, plenty of beers in, so that the producers and money-men think they have an edge on their quarry.

“Please,” one of them might have said. “Just make one more film for Studio Ghibli. Just one. You can do anything you like.”

And Hayao Miyazaki, for it is he, raises a querulous, bushy eyebrow and says with a puckish smile: “Anything…?”

Fast forward a couple of years, and the world-class director’s latest and last film hits cinemas, a fictionalised bio-pic of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane. From retirement, producer Toshio Suzuki must have laughed his adenoids off, because for once, it wasn’t going to be his problem.

The Wind Rises has achieved a remarkable feat, managing to annoy both the left and right wing in its native Japan. Denounced by Korean critics for its “moral repugnance,” it is already making waves in America, where the Miyazaki love-in has been disrupted by a movie about, in a sense, one of the architects of Pearl Harbor. But Horikoshi is presented as a simple inventor and dreamer, horrified at the uses to which his work is put.

Whereas Tales from Earthsea infamously played out tensions between Miyazaki and his son, The Wind Rises alludes to memories of his own father, Katsuji, director of the Miyazaki Airplanes factory. It celebrated a man who loved flight and flying, who made simple widgets that happened to get used in military machines. But perhaps it also celebrates Miyazaki himself, as the artisan who just wanted to make nice things, only to discover he was the poster-boy for an industry that also made Pokémon and porn.

He’s been grappling with this subtext for several movies now – the distracted, conscripted wizard of Howl’s Moving Castle; the muttering boiler man of Spirited Away, toiling behind the scenes but forbidden from escaping. He is saying goodbye to all that, at long last, and getting his life back.

I’d wish Miyazaki a long and peaceful retirement, but honestly, I still don’t think we’ve seen the last of him.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO magazine #120, 2014. The Wind Rises will be part of the Studio Ghibli season at London’s BFI Southbank this spring.

Gongqi Jun

1380521017497Out today and purchased this very morning by your correspondent from a petrified newsagent on Chang’an Avenue in Xi’an, the 7th October coverdated issue of China’s Lifeweek magazine, which features an incredible sixty-page article on Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli and the greats of anime and manga. Yes, that’s Miyazaki on the cover, gritting his teeth through the pain of wearing a ridiculous hat that bears the Studio Ghibli fashion logo, referred throughout the massive article as shenjiang (“divine/inspired craftsman”).

It doesn’t surprise me that the Chinese would run features on the man whose name they pronounce as Gongqi Jun. After all, his films have entered the country legitimately through their Disney associations, and are as beloved among Chinese viewers as they are anywhere else in the world. Nor, I suppose, does it much surprise me that Miyazaki’s much-publicised retirement should be an excuse for a retrospective that encompasses his collaborators Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata. What boggles me is quite so much space not only on them, but on their controversial latest film, the philosophy of their company, the rapid globalisation of their brand (with special reference to the influence of Pixar) and the other titles that form part of Japanese animation and manga exports – particularly Akira, Ghost in the Shell and Dragon Ball

Lifeweek is a large-circulation periodical in the People’s Republic, available on every street corner, and in times when the media seem obsessed with sabre-rattling over the Senkaku Islands, devotes a quarter of this latest issue to the celebration of Japanese soft power. It outs Doraemon, known to many Chinese as “Ding Dang the time-travelling cat”, as a Japanese product, and runs potted pieces on other anime creators of note – Osamu Tezuka, Leiji Matsumoto, Katsuhiro Otomo, Mamoru Oshii and Makoto Shinkai. And then there’s the traditional stuff about anime taking the world by storm, illustrated as usual by pictures of teenage girls dressed as elves, standing in a car park.

It’s a fantastic splash for anime in the Chinese media, and presumably meets with the full approval of the government censor. Now is a perfectly reasonable time to celebrate anime, but one can’t help but wonder if the enthusiasm masks something else – a sense that Miyazaki’s retirement leaves a vacuum that a canny Chinese entrepreneur might hope to fill. Lifeweek offers a 60-page blueprint for taking one nation’s cartoons to the world, but you can’t plan for genius and you can never guarantee success.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, available to pre-order now from the British Film Institute.