Parks and Recreation

ikiru2News arrives from Okinawa that a retired artist has donated 300 million yen (that’s £1.5 million) to the Zenda Forest Park in Kumejima, Okinawa, to make a Children’s Interaction Centre. He even designed it for them! What a kind old man, like that guy in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, who devotes his twilight years to getting some swings in the local playground. It helps that the philanthropist in question is Hayao Miyazaki, and it should come as no surprise that the Zenda park is getting something of a reputation as a home away from home for displaced refugees from the Fukushima disaster.

So Miyazaki gets to do some more for the kids, and to return to his trademark ecological themes in a new way. One wonders, perhaps, if the park’s layout might be expected to have a bit of input from his son, Goro, a former landscape gardener whose career in anime has hardly set the world on fire.

Miyazaki’s interest in parks and playgrounds has been a recurring feature of recent years. His recently-translated Turning Point devotes more space to discussing the Studio Ghibli crèche than to his latest movie, as Miyazaki exhorts his fellow animators to observe the film’s target audience in their natural habitat. But his studio has also got a park of its own, the famous Studio Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, which generates a movie’s worth of income every year.

How does it manage it? Firstly, it carefully kettles its customers, insisting on pre-booked entries to ensure that the staff are neither left short-handed nor idle. Then it promises exclusive experiences, including Ghibli short films that can only be seen at the museum. Then there’s the restaurant and the gift shop… but it’s a much classier affair than your average theme park. Miyazaki and his fellow designers put incredible effort into visualising the experience from a child’s eye view, with pathways that make it possible to wander but never to get lost, and little easter-eggs visible only if you are meter high.

The Ghibli Museum and the plans for Zenda demonstrate only too well that Miyazaki truly is one of a kind. You won’t get that sort of treatment from the people who brought you Transformers.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History (UK/US). This article first appeared in NEO #140, 2015.

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No, Really?

fromuponpoppyhillWord trickles along the anime industry grapevine of a rights manager at a film company in a European country that shall not be named, who decided to push for a discount on a Miyazaki film.

Lucinda (let’s call her Lucinda) dashed off an email to Studio Ghibli, noting that while their movies previously did good business on film and video, From Up On Poppy Hill was a bit different. It was more of a hard sell; it was more of a niche market, and well, truth be told, she wasn’t sure whether it was a film they could really get behind.

Ghibli’s one-word email reply made my day.

“Really?”

The minutes ticked by, then the hours, then the days. Eventually, after a tense week, a second email reached the studio from the hapless distributor, saying no more about it, and offering a tidy sum concomitant with previous guarantees for earlier films.

I have no idea if the story is true. I repeat it here because, well, my sources have no reason to make this stuff up. It’s certainly a tale that has caused some snickers among Japanese producers and European distributors alike. We can’t really blame Lucinda for trying it on – it’s her job, after all. Nor can we blame a major Japanese studio for raising a quizzical eyebrow at the chances that one of their films isn’t worthy of a place with all the others in the catalogue.

But I hear other whispers, too – that one-word, passive-aggressive responses are going to be significantly harder to get away with as time passes. Not one, but two Japanese studios you have heard of are seriously considering reorganising as “legacy” outfits peddling their past glories without taking future risks. The Astro Boy generation have now largely retired, and pension age is already approaching for the masterminds of the video-era boom. Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director of Ninja Scroll, will be 65 in 2016. Katsuhiro Otomo will be eligible for his bus pass in 2019. I predict a couple of big-name studios downsizing in the near future, to the extent they become filing cabinets of contracts.

Could Ghibli be one of them? They need to factor the long tail of Miyazaki money against the relative box-office floppiness of Takahata’s latest. Is Ghibli worth more as a legacy brand, in re-releases, merchandise and museum memories, or does it make financial sense to be running it into the ground post-Hayao Miyazaki with diminishing returns? People in meeting rooms are asking this question right now, before they are obliged to be considerably more courteous to the likes of Lucinda. No, really.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO 125, 2014.

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.