The Last Squad

Surprising literally nobody, Hayao Miyazaki has come out of retirement one last time to make another feature film. Studio Ghibli having laid off all its animation staff, he has to round up a new posse, which is great news, right? Except, in an advert that swiftly went viral, his studio was calling for new animators prepared to accept a monthly wage of £1400.

This is an animation studio. You will end up working seven days a week, regardless of the job description. That means £45 a day without overtime.

I think what has really taken fandom by surprise is that Ghibli is just as swayed by the bottom line as every other anime studio, despite its millions in profits and its blue-chip reliability. “Hayao Miyazaki’s last movie” is sure to top the box office again, but the studio is acting like it’s some start-up making a thing about ponies, or vampires, or whatever it is Japanese start-ups do. For years and years, Ghibli’s well-managed hype has presented it as some sort of socialist cooperative, where everybody gets to take part in creative decision-making, and where even the closing credits listed the staff in alphabetical order.

But, no, it’s just like all the rest.

People will still do it, I am sure. There will be canny young artists who realise that even if it ends up costing them money, they’ll be the elite, last class of animators mentored by Miyazaki himself. They will probably be rich already. Far from opening the studio to the best of the best, Ghibli’s decision frankly amounts to an intern scheme, and like intern schemes everywhere, will require its minions to be of independent means. Oh sure, you can be in the Last Squad at Ghibli, but Mummy and Daddy will end up paying for it.

There will be animators ready to take a hit in their income, because they suspect this is their last chance to get the words Studio Ghibli on their CV, and that’s going to be worth money in future. Or is it? Will they fight and duck and dive, scrimp and save, merely for the chance to fight and duck and dive all over again, at some other studio with equally low pay?

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #166, 2017.

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Trickle-Down Memories

only-yesterday-isao-takahataBased on a manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, Only Yesterday was a gentle, soft-focus account of an office lady’s return from the big city to the country hometown she has all but forgotten. Taeko Okajima may not realise it yet, but she is facing a big decision, between town and country or career and domesticity. Is her Yamagata birthplace really a horrid, isolated dump in the sticks, or is it the idyllic, rural home she has always wanted?

Isao Takahata’s movie adaptation touched a nerve in 1991 Japan. It found its audience among urban yuppies, who were also wondering if their hectic careers were costing them something more soulful. It was a film suffused with nostalgia for the toys and telly of the 1960s, the stumbling steps of growing up, and the self-doubt of a twenty-something singleton. In one iconic moment, cheeky village children wave a wooden post behind the two leads. Two names scrawled beneath a stylised umbrella is the Japanese equivalent of a heart with an arrow through it – the supporting cast turns out to be a little bit ahead of the principals in realising that they are appearing in a romantic movie. It was a delightful, small film, but one that was soon overlooked in an age of increasing demands for box office gigantism.

Takahata’s adaptation added much new material; in fact, the entire framing story of the adult Taeko was his own creation – the original manga was solely concerned with her childhood. It’s her adult appearance that can be seen in much of the film’s publicity and stills, unsurprising since that’s what seemed to lure in most of the Japanese audiences, many of them similarly only a generation separated from their rural origins. They came in their droves, earning Only Yesterday 1.87 billion yen at the box office, and trouncing Godfather III in Japanese cinemas.

only-yesterday-trailer-123015But Only Yesterday is not merely a matter of nostalgia for the 1960s. The sharp-eyed, mathematically-minded anime watcher might notice that while Taeko’s childhood occurs in 1966, her adult return to her village is set in 1982. Takahata’s film, made just as Japan’s economy began to slump into its long recession, was hence not only an evocation of the sights and sounds of the 1960s, but also of the early 1980s.

He could, like his colleague Miyazaki with My Neighbour Totoro, have simply fudged his dates a little, setting it in a vague general period. Instead, Takahata seems to have deliberately plumped for 1982, allowing for a second wave of nostalgia among teenage Japanese film-goers, allowing them to look back on their childhoods, too. This decision, of course, also neatly ensured that his heroine was on the very cusp of what was then regarded as marriageability, just past the fateful “Christmas-cake” age of 25. Some, most notably Helen McCarthy in the Anime Encyclopedia, have criticised this subtext for fixating on a ticking-clock nuptial time-bomb, but it was very much an element of its time, and seemed to chime with many of the viewers who flocked to it. Released in the UK this year in a Blu-ray dub, the film is now 25 years old – creating yet another nostalgic framing device.

The first time Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki went head to head, Miyazaki was the underdog. Miyazaki was the guy who had accepted a challenge to make a children’s movie entirely free of conflict. His producer and friend, Toshio Suzuki, was so convinced that the resulting movie would be a flop that he insisted on putting it on a Studio Ghibli double bill with Takahata’s heart-rending war drama, The Grave of the Fireflies. That way, he reasoned, Takahata’s movie would pack in the compulsory block-bookings from school outings, and the kids could take or leave Miyazaki’s mad My Neighbour Totoro.

only-6The rest, as they say, is history. Totoro became one of the best-loved movies in animation history, so in demand all around Japan that there weren’t enough prints of Grave of the Fireflies to accompany it. Grave remains a classic of Japanese cinema, but it’s not what you would ever call a “feel-good movie.” Takahata followed up with the touching eco-comedy Pom Poko, about racoons with magic testicles, and that, too, was number one at the Japanese box office. But being number one was no longer enough!

Set the box office figures for Ghibli films on a graph, and Miyazaki and Takahata were practically neck and neck until 1997. Only Yesterday’s takings stopped just short of two billion yen; Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso just over it. But in 1997, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke rocketed ahead, kicking off his run as a world-beating box-office winner. Takahata’s 1999 movie My Neighbours the Yamadas did reasonable numbers by the standards of the previous decade, but were considered a flop in the era of Ghibli blockbusters.

It is deeply, deeply unfair to consider Takahata as an also-ran of the anime business. The senior of the pair, he was instrumental in Miyazaki’s training and career, and a vital contributor to the success of all of “Miyazaki’s” movies. Each would work as a foil to the other on their various projects, right up to their final films. In any film industry that had not seen the exponential takings of Miyazaki’s later movies, Takahata would have been a national treasure. But Miyazaki’s early 21st century success has swamped his colleague’s profile abroad. I still run into movie buffs who do not even know Studio Ghibli has more than one director. Meanwhile, mainstream publications that only cover one anime a year plump for the one their readers will have heard of, rather than his long-term collaborator.

In 2013, things came full circle. Toshio Suzuki hatched a plot to release Takahata’s last film on the same bill as Miyazaki’s, thereby allowing the under-earning mentor to piggy-back on the sure-fire box office of his student. But Takahata didn’t finish his heavily stylised Princess Kaguya in time, and it was left to fend for itself, earning relatively meagre ticket sales. Now approaching his 71st birthday, Takahata is unlikely to complete another feature film as director, although he hopefully has many years ahead of him to write some quirky, romantic memoirs of his own.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article originally appeared as two separate pieces in Geeky Monkey #13 and NEO #155, 2016.

Variety is the Spice…

1024358-look-new-images-micha-l-dudok-de-wits-red-turtle

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.

tale-of-princess-kaguya

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.

kimi

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.

doraemon

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.

What Next?

marnie_hires_6There were two notable absences from the screenings at this year’s Scotland Love Anime – or rather, two notable presences at the London Film Festival. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie was There, the last feature film from Studio Ghibli, and The Boy and the Beast, the latest feature from Mamoru Hosoda, both made it onto the LFF roster instead. You might call this a victory all round – Hosoda’s films are often snatched by the LFF ahead of SLA, thereby leaving a slot in Scotland for less mainstream fare, as well as guaranteeing that Hosoda doesn’t sweep the Scottish Judges Award every year. But London’s programmers, as they are wont to do, are also snatching the most commercial and audience-friendly Japanese animated features. What are they going to programme next year?

Almost everybody in the anime business is tired of the “next Miyazaki” argument, in part because there can be no such thing. Hayao Miyazaki was a one-off, as was the synergy formed by his partnership with Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki. Moreover, the conditions that made their Studio Ghibli such a world-beater were also, in themselves, unique. The putative successors to Miyazaki are competing in an environment that is worlds away from the situation that saw Princess Mononoke rise to fame.

But concerns about who might be anime’s new poster-child aren’t just about the search for a new creative force. They are also all about money. For a Japanese movie to break even at the domestic box office, it has to be in the top twenty films released that year – a benchmark that only Studio Ghibli and a couple of long-running franchises (your Pokémon, your One Piece) could ever manage. A Studio Ghibli film (let’s be honest, a Miyazaki film), was a blue-chip investment, guaranteed to put bums on seats in Japan, and to monetise in foreign sales. Nobody else in Japan currently comes close, and that doesn’t just affect the likely enjoyment of family audiences. It affects festival programmers looking for something Japanese for their slates; it affects retailers planning how many feet of shelves to give to anime; and it affects distributors allotting budgets to those weird Japanese cartoons we keep hearing about. With Ghibli removed from the equation, the investment value of the entire anime medium drops by a significant factor, forcing everybody – distributors, retailers, and cinema owners, to work a lot harder to keep it in the public eye. So do your bit: go and see a Japanese animated film in a cinema this year… It’ll show up on someone’s balance sheet, and might make all the difference.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #143, 2015.

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.

Podcast: A Dingo Stole My Anime

close_ghibliJeremy Graves is joined by Jerome Mazandarani, Andrew Hewson and Jonathan Clements in the 26th Manga UK podcast to discuss last week’s Studio Ghibli news, the San Diego Comic Con, upcoming releases, and your questions from Twitter and Facebook. Includes an inadvisable impersonation of Meryl Streep, commentary track shenanigans, and Jerome’s skateboarding stunts. You can download the podcast here.

01:00. Jerome encounters the Suicide Girls. Notes on the inadvisability of branding the name of your favourite anime show into your flesh.

03:00. The introduction of the swear jar, and its purposes.

04:00. The controversy over this week’s Studio Ghibli news. Is the studio shutting down? The background to Toshio Suzuki’s various plans to keep the flame alive at Studio Ghibli – Plan A, Plan B… Plan F, Plan G.

07:00. Some unconfirmed and entirely speculative things that you might find in Mamoru Hosoda’s One Piece movie. Other people who have worked with Studio Ghibli and never quite replaced Hayao Miyazaki.

10:00. Suspending production; the former Toei staffing policy and how Ghibli copied it. The prospect that what we are seeing now is the return of “Silver Ghibli”. Goro Miyazaki and the power of nepotism.

lotteria-114:30. The prospects of a Ghibli-Disney tie-up, which are remote indeed. The unlikely story of a Berserk happy meal. Ghibli and children’s literature, and what made Ghibli such a good studio.

22:00. Manchester MCM Comic Con. Manga Entertainment’s “Road Dogs”, or should we call them Manga Dingos? Forthcoming changes to admissions policy at the October Comic Con in London.

27:30. Announcements from the Manchester MCM Comic Con. Ghost in the Shell Arise, and the typographic misery of Production I.G’s name.

31:30. Bayonetta: Bloody Fate out on the 24th November.

34:00. Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods coming to DVD on 10th November. Some theatrical screenings coming up, including the chance to demand your own at Ourscreen.com. How does “crowd-sourcing for cinemas” work?

42:00. Harlock: Space Pirate, coming on DVD and Blu-ray in February 2015, but available now on Netflix. The 3D version will be included on the Blu-ray. More on Jerome’s obsession with steelbooks.

45:00. Jerome’s adventures at San Diego Comic Con. The Mondo poster company and their fantastic Ghost in the Shell poster, and the behind-the-scenes concern that make premiering it at San Diego such a cunning marketing decision.

51:00. Jerome’s Hulk sandwich and his karmic skateboarding injury.

54:00. How did you licence Jormungand when you’ve said before that it’s difficult to get Geneon shows?

55:30. Promising recent releases, not necessarily coming from Manga Entertainment.

63:30. Legal streaming sites such as Crunchyroll, Animax, and Wakanim.

69:30. Expanding into streaming services.

71:00. The cost and economics of releasing on Blu-ray. Do some people really not yet know that Blu-ray players will also play DVDs? Why hasn’t Blu-ray been as fast as the DVD to be taken up by consumers?

76:20. How much easier is it to licence anime in the days of email? Face-to-face meetings still required in the modern age.

81:00. The departure of Jerome to another meeting, leaving the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

82:00. Why aren’t there any more UK-based commentaries these days? All kinds of behind-the-scenes shenanigans making commentary tracks difficult and/or expensive.

91:30. No news on Black Butler or K-On Blu-rays. Well, no good news, anyway.

93:00. Changes in the prices of older products. The politics of bundling, and how that leads to crappy releases when the accountants demand you actually release the thing that you never actually wanted to buy in the first place.

98:00. With the world going eco, do you think that the time is right for a release of Marine Boy?

100:00. Some of the past Manga Entertainment releases that we have almost completely forgotten about, including the marvellously titled Red Hawk: Weapon of Death and the problematic Dark Myth.

105:00. And we’re out! Thank you for listening.

And we’re out. The Podcast is available to download now HERE, or find it and an archive of previous shows at our iTunes page. For a detailed contents listing of previous podcasts, check out our Podcasts page.

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.