The internet rumour mill wasn’t just firing on all
cylinders this week, it was in full-on ‘Fast and the Furious’ mode. The news
that kickstarted it was the broadcast of a Japanese show that purported to show Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki indicating that
the fabled studio was stopping animation production and transforming into a
copyright management entity instead. This apparent bombshell proved surprising
to some, but in fact, is exactly what’s to be expected and in fact, should be
The internet took the initial news (unverified
translation and all) and ran as far as it possibly could with it. Soon the
studio was actually being sold, then it was being reorganised and lastly, was
actually going to produce a short film instead. In other words, nobody knew exactly
what was going on or indeed, why?
While it was widely known for some time that director
Hayao Miyazaki was stepping down from making features (for the fifth and final
time, etc.) there seemed to be plenty of other talent within the company to
fill the void, not least of which was Hayao’s son Goro who directed the warmly
received From Up on Poppy Hill in 2011. That said, it was not foreseen that a
complete cessation of production was a possibility, even a remote one.
Therefore, more than a few people were surprised and
saddened when they contemplated the very real idea that new artistic creations
from the venerated studio would not be forthcoming. The obvious praise for
their library of work and the lament that there would be no more was obviously
expected, but it was mixed with a tinge of sadness and misunderstanding that
such a great studio could simply down pencils and stop producing.
Personally, I believe that Studio Ghibli are
completely and totally correct to cease production and essentially close up
shop. That’s a bit of an unpopular opinion, but there are a few quite rational
reasons for doing so.
For starters, the very trait that has made the studio
famous is inherently temporary, namely the reliance on humans for so much.
Hayao Miyazaki is 73, his partner Isao Takahata is 79; both ages when almost
everyone else has already started taking life a bit easier. While they could
naturally hand over the reigns to a younger crowd, they have become closely
aligned with the studio in the minds of the public and indeed, provide the
basis for the studio’s excellent quality and the expectation thereof in the
minds of consumers.
Without both men at the helm, the studio would face a
period of uncertainty as the next generation forged their own reputation.
That’s exactly the kind of thing that can break a studio entirely; Disney came
close in the 1980s as the last of the nine old men finally retired and company
head Michael Eisner admitted to Lillian Disney that the only reason that
animated features continued to be made was to honour Walt’s legacy. With that
in mind, isn’t it natural to avoid such a risk in the first place?
Secondly, Studio Ghibli is not a massive organisation.
It doesn’t employ hundreds of artists and operate a vast multi-national
presence that could operate for years on inertia alone. Thus, there is no
incentive (moral or economic) to keep the studio in full operation. Unlike
Disney when Walt died, the organisation he helped grow supported thousands of
employees directly and many more indirectly; it wasn’t a matter of whether to
keep the place going, it was a necessity. In contrast, Ghibli can cease
production and the economic effect is very small (but still real.)
Artistically of course, there is a massive void.
However, even here, the studio is doing the right thing. Hayao Miyazaki and
Ghibli in general have excelled and been rightfully praised for the highly
independent path they have carved for themselves. They made the films they
wanted to and did them in a way that best suited them; they were usually right
Given this track record, is it really any surprise
that they would do something that goes against the grain? Plenty of other
studios would try to keep the wheels turning as long as they could, either
through forging a new creative identity of seeking financial stability through
a merger or buyout. Miyazaki and co. are (perhaps wisely) avoiding such a fate
for the fruit of their labours. Studio Ghibli’s works will remain popular for
decades to come much the same as Disney’s have.
Hayao is also possibly making another statement with
all of this: his retirement and the studio’s closure create a void, but who
will fill it? It’s easy to proclaim that there now exists an opportunity for
someone else to fill his shoes, but if you look deeper, you might realise that
the loss of regular Studio Ghibli productions leaves another hole: their
devotion to traditional animation.
Even though CGI elements have been incorporated in
Studio Ghibli’s productions for years, they were never the focus or did they
distract from the hand-drawn look of the films. Other studios at home and
abroad were much more willing to exploit the many advantages of CGI to full
effect and realised cost savings as a result.
To that end, the cost to produce a Studio Ghibli film
have risen, but it has become harder for them to turn a profit. Although this
is hardly the primary reason for the cessation of production, it is surely a
factor that has weighed on many minds. Nonetheless, the gauntlet has been
thrown down to the animation industry; the bar for quality in traditional,
hand-drawn animation has been set, and now it is up to somebody else to raise
it. That’s a formidable challenge, but one that becomes more tempting when the
current holder is no longer in contention.
With the ‘closure’ of Studio Ghibli, animation does
indeed suffer a tremendous loss, but it also forces the industry to now look at
itself and question just what caliber of content is being created. John
Lasseter is always eager to profess his admiration for Hayao Miyazaki yet his
own studio has shown a penchant for sequels as of late. For all the talk of
Disney’s latest renaissance, the last film (Frozen) was shockingly formulaic.
There are plenty of smaller players that embody the Ghibli ethos such as
Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon, but they currently lack the financial base that
enabled Ghibli to operate on a self-sustaining basis.
Time will tell what eventually becomes of Japan’s most
famous studio, but until then, perhaps consider that it is not the end of the
animation world, and there are in fact, plenty of doors that are opened as a