Crash Course: Ghibli Beyond Miyazaki – The Next Generation

Last year I did a Crash Course article that took a closer look at the famed Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli, focusing on the films made by people other than their most famous creator Hayao Miyazaki.  That Crash Course mainly focused on the movies of Isao Takahata as well as the one film that was made by Yoshifumi Kondō before his untimely death.  Now a year later I’m coming back to the subject to in some ways close the book on Ghibli by watching most of the rest of their non-Miyazaki output.  For this installment I’ll be looking at the films made in the 21st century by the younger filmmakers who were meant to be a second generation of animators who would take over from the aging and retirement prone Miyazaki and Takahata.  Two of these films were directed by the literal next generation vis a vie Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki, and two of them were directed by their longtime animator Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and the fifth (though chronologically first) was an odd little side project directed by a guy named Hiroyuki Morita, who was the closest thing to an outside mercenary working on a Ghibli film.

The Cat Returns (2002)

To the best of my knowledge there have only been two people to direct one and only one feature length theatrical film for Ghibli, and interestingly both of their movies are tangentially linked.  The first was Yoshifumi Kondō, who made the film Whisper of the Heart in 1995 but tragically died of an aneurysm a few years later.  The other is Hiroyuki Morita, director of what is something of a spinoff of Whisper of the Heart entitled The Cat ReturnsWhisper of the Heart was mostly a down to earth coming of age film but it did contain one fantasy scene which was meant to be a staging of a story the protagonist has written which features a dapper anthropomorphized cat called The Baron.  This character proved to be so popular that a Japanese amusement park commissioned Ghibli to make a twenty minute short featuring the character and other cats to be part of a ride.  Plans for the ride eventually fell through but Ghibli decided to continue with the short and expand it into a feature which would be something of a test for their young talent.  The film’s final director would end up being Morita, who unlike a lot of the other Ghibli directors is not someone who had been working non-stop for the studio for decades on end and actually has a pretty long resume doing anime work for more conventional studios and has credits as diverse as Akira, Perfect Blue, and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.

Though the cat does indeed return in The Cat Returns this is not really a sequel of any kind to Whisper of the Heart and does not exist in that movie’s reality or continuity, in essence it simply recycles a popular character from it in a completely different context.  The film runs a scant 75 minutes and plays out a bit like “Alice in Wonderland” in the way its female protagonist finds herself entering a strange fantasy world in something of a dreamlike state before eventually facing down a homicidal monarch.  Throughout she is guided by The Baron, who remains a very amusing presence, but the protagonist herself is very thinly drawn and just generally not very interesting.  The film’s fantastical finale is clearly the highlight, but compared to some of the greatest set-pieces from some of Ghibli’s other movies it doesn’t quite stack up, and that’s probably true about the film as a whole.  In some ways it almost feels more like Ghibli fanfiction than an actual Ghibli film and it never really transcends its origins as a side project.  Still there are some highly amusing moments along the way and I wouldn’t say it was strictly for diehards and completeists, but it does border on that status.

*** out of Five

Tales from Earthsea (2006)

While there are some Ghibli movies that people like better than others but they’ve only really made one movie that critics generally think is straight-up bad and that’s the 2006 film Tales from EarthseaTales From Earthsea was the directorial debut of Goro Miyazaki, who is indeed the son of studio founder Hayao Miyazaki.  Goro apparently wasn’t someone who long dreamed of getting into the family business and originally studied to be a landscaper.  Eventually that led him to take a gig landscaping for Ghibli’s museum in Mitaka, which he ended up serving as the director of, and somehow or other he ended up doing storyboards for the Tales from Earthsea project and was promoted to director by the film’s producer.  By all accounts this final promotion was not done at his father’s behalf, in fact Hayao actively fought against the move and led to a lot of friction in the family.  This might in part have been because the Earthsea books by Ursula K. Le Guin, upon which the film was based, was actually quite important to Miyazaki and he’s cited it as an influence on his own fantasy worlds and when given the chance to adapt them he didn’t want to be seen as risking it on nepotism.  This whole psychodrama had all the makings for a great story of a father coming to realize his son’s true potential but… given the final product Hayao may have had good reasons to question the hiring.

Watching Tales from Earthsea I couldn’t help but think of another movie that’s considered something of a lowpoint for a major animation studio: Disney’s The Black Cauldron.   Like that misbegotten 1985 film this is based on an entire series of fantasy novels but the film does a very bad job of bringing attention to whatever it is that’s supposed to make this fantasy world special and instead just feels like a bit of a mess with a super bland protagonist.  But unlike The Black Cauldron, Tales from Earthsea isn’t really doing anything terribly groundbreaking with its animation.  There are some cool images in the movie but nothing that really one-ups what’s been done in other Ghibli movies and the ending feels like a pretty standard fantasy battle of good versus evil.  In many ways it just feels like a lesser anime studio trying to imitate Ghibli rather than the real thing and even worse than that the movie is downright boring.  The movie did make decent money in Japan but critics rightly called it out.  It even went so far as to win Japan’s equivalent of the Razzie award, which is a bit much, but its reputation as an ambitious debacle is mostly earned and I have very few nice things to say about it.

*1/2 out of Five

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The 2010s have been a kind of strange decade for Studio Ghibli.  The new generation seem to have learned from the failure of Tales from Earthsea that they were probably never going to be able to match Hayao Miyazaki when it came to making epic fantasy films and also weren’t really interested in engaging in wild experimentation of the Isao Takahata.  Instead it seems that the new generation of Ghibli found themselves doing what Yoshifumi Kondō did fifteen years earlier: using the Ghibli style to make more intimate character driven films.  The first of the new generation to try this was a guy named Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who along with Goro Miyazaki was slated to be the studio’s standard bearer for the future.  Yonebayashi, unlike Hiroyuki Morita, was a homegrown talent at Ghibli who had been working in some capacity or other on their films going all the way back to Princess Mononoke and would have been about 37 when he was entrusted to finally direct a full movie for the studio.

Yonebayashi’s first film is The Secret World of Arrietty (which was released as just Arrietty outside of North America) is an adaptation of an old British kids book called “The Borrowers,” which is one of those classic YA books like The Little Prince or The Secret Garden that they keep trying make younger generations read even though they kind of put modern kids to sleep.  It gets adapted a lot, as a child I think I saw a version of it that came out in 1997.  For this version the action has been moved over to rural Japan, which is a pretty reasonable fit as the story’s low key quiet nature kind of fits that setting well.  The titular character, Arrietty is one of these borrowers which are three inch tall little fairy people who live hidden in houses and “borrow” (but really steal) small household items that won’t be missed from the people who live there.  She’s fourteen years old and the plot kicks into motion when she is discovered and forms a friendship with a young teenager living in the house they currently reside in.  Actually “plot kicks in” is maybe a bit misleading because this story proves to be really, really, really low stakes. It’s almost more of a tone piece than anything, and I’m not sure that tone pieces are what people go to Ghibli for but it’s pretty effective at being what it wants to be.

*** out of Five

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

After the artistic failure of Tales From Earthsea it wouldn’t have surprised me if Goro Miyazaki gave up directing and went back to landscaping, but instead Ghibli decided he deserved a chance at redemption and I don’t think they were wrong for doing so.  Tales From Earthsea was bad but it wasn’t incompetent; it’s failure likely less to do with a lack of directorial skill on his part and more from the fact that he was trying to run before he learned to walk.  For his next attempt he would take a page from Hiromasa Yonebayashi and try to use Ghibli animation to make a smaller scale and more personal film about young people.  That film was From Up on Poppy Hill, a Hayao Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa scripted film about a teenage girl living in Yokohama in 1964 who is working to save her school’s beloved clubhouse from demolition and who meets a boy along the way who she comes to learn she may be connected to through some murky past connection.

From Up on Poppy Hill is not a movie that “needed” to be animated necessarily.  There’s no supernatural aspect to speak of and even the period detail in the film isn’t overly elaborate, but it feels like it would be less noteworthy as a live action film just the same.  The film is in many ways a nostalgic look back on a time period, but for a time period that would have been far more familiar to the film’s co-writer Hayao Miyazaki than to his son.  That doesn’t really keep Goro Miyazaki from capturing what seems like an authentic if perhaps idealized version of its time and place.  Where the film starts to lose me a bit is with the characters, which are rather un-nuanced.  If there’s one thing about Ghibli that watching a lot of their movies has kind of exposed is that they tend to create really straightforwardly moral and uncomplicated protagonists for their movies, which isn’t such a problem when you’re making movies with more of a fantasy/adventure dimension but which becomes more of a problem when you make movies like this which are meant to be more straightforward character dramas.  It’s not a fatal flaw but it does keep From Up on Poppy Hill from really standing out as something more than a thoroughly “nice” story about a moment in the life of some young people.

***1/2 out of Five

When Marnie Was There (2014)

In 2013 Studio Ghibli released The Wind Rises, a film that was announced as the Hayao Miyazaki and then later that year (in Japan anyway) they released The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which was announced as Isao Takahata’s final film.  That one two punch meant that Ghibli would no longer be the home of the two filmmakers who had more or less founded the studio and acted as the twin pillars holding it up for over twenty five years.  So the question then was what would happen to the studio without them and the answer to that was and is rather unclear.  There was however one more film in the pipeline from Hiromasa Yonebayashi, another low key drama called When Marnie Was There.  The film concerns a girl who goes to live with her aunt and uncle in a small seaside town (small seaside towns are something of a theme with Ghibli during this era) and finds herself interacting with the ghost of a girl who once lived in a mansion nearby.  The film is based on an English children’s novel from the 60s by Joan G. Robinson and like Yonebayashi’s other Ghibli movie it has the feel of a certain old fashioned brand of “respectable” family film that I don’t quite have the name for.

When Marnie Was There isn’t bad at all, but it also doesn’t strike me as anything particularly brilliant.  Like a lot of these second generation Ghibli movies it feels like a movie that’s trying to coast on a sort of bland respectability rather than really using anime to do something special.  In many ways it feels like the hit 2016 anime film Your Name, or I guess you could say that Your Name took what Ghibli had been doing that decade and managed to take it that extra step into really feeling alive.  The film does manage to give its protagonist just a little bit more edge than some of their other main characters by making her a foster child with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, but she’s still ultimately a protagonist with a fairly minor arc and the supporting characters are also largely just “nice.”  The film somewhat interestingly makes its title character, the rather spectral Marnie, a white foreigner living in Japan.  I was wondering if that would ultimately play more of a role in the film but it mostly doesn’t, it would have mostly played out the same if she had just been another Japanese character.  It also has an ending which feels more enevitable than surprising, which I suppose was the point but just the same it didn’t do a whole lot for me.

*** out of Five

And so far that is the last film that Studio Ghibli ever put out.  Technically the studio was put “on hiatus” but I must say things aren’t looking too promising.  Isao Takahata passed away last year and even if he hadn’t he had already announced his retirement.  Hayao Miyazaki is now 78 and he’s been in and out of retirement.  He does appear to be making another last film, this one called “How Do You Live,” and if and when that comes out it will have been the studio’s first film in at least five years.  Either way he’s clearly not going to be able to keep the studio afloat single-handedly and it would appear that the people in charge have decided that the younger generation they trained don’t have what it takes.  Hiromasa Yonebayashi apparently got fed up and left Ghibli to co-found a competing studio called Studio Ponoc, where he directed a movie called Mary and the Witch’s Flower which I’ve heard some good things about.  I’m not really sure what Goro Miyazaki has been up to lately.  He apparently directed a TV series for another company in 2014 but the trail sort of ends there.

All told I do think that the way the studio was shut down through lack of faith in Goro and Yonebayashi was a bit harsh given that the movies they made were hardly terrible, but at the same time I can kind of sympathize.  I remember when those movies were playing in theaters and I opted not to go because I felt like I didn’t really have the background to contextualize the Ghibli films that weren’t Hayao Miyazaki joints and part of running these two series was to get to that place.  Having seen the movies I kind of feel like I was overthinking things before, but I also sort of feel like I wasn’t really missing all that much.  These late Ghibli films just kind of feel like well executed if highly run of the mill anime and they just don’t have that spark which made Ghibli an internationally beloved brand.

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