CULTURE VULTURE

Soar and get Spirited Away by Ghibli

The Japanese studio has earned a global following for its sublime animation, and fantastical and realistic stories

Cries of dismay and disappointment echoed on the Internet early last week.

You might have thought that the cries were in response to a ban on videos of kittens and puppies, but they were in response to reports that beloved Japanese animation outfit Studio Ghibli was closing down.

The studio is the home of films such as Spirited Away (2001), Princess Mononoke (1997) and My Neighbour Totoro (1988) in which beautifully rendered drawings tell stories which beguile, excite and move, but never pander by either reaching for easy sentiment or over-simplifying things for the audience.

So when producer Toshio Suzuki was reported by the Western media as saying in an interview on Japanese network TBS on Aug 3 that the studio was closing, fans wailed. It turned out to be a translation error. What Suzuki said was that the studio would "pause" production to think about how to rebuild itself.

Variety, the entertainment trade magazine, reported on Aug 7 that Suzuki had clarified his remarks that morning on the NHK programme Asa Ichi. While the studio had achieved its dream of making the kind of animation it wanted, to some degree, he said it was "now we're at a point where we've got to think about what we'll do next".

There was more for fans to cheer about when he said that the legendary director Hayao Miyazaki "may make something again", possibly a short film for the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, Tokyo.

Miyazaki, 73, is inextricably linked with Studio Ghibli. He wrote and directed My Neighbour Totoro, about two young sisters and their adventures with some friendly woodland spirits; Princess Mononoke, on the struggle between forest gods and resource-consuming humans; and Spirited Away, in which a girl is forced to survive in a fantastical spirit world after her parents are turned into pigs.

He also created Castle In The Sky (1986), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) and Ponyo (2008), his unfettered imagination inventing incredible adventures for plucky girls and boys.

There has been speculation about the fate of the company after Miyazaki declared that The Wind Rises (2013) was his final feature-length film. By one count, this is his sixth retirement announcement. He had previously gone into semi-retirement after Princess Mononoke, but went on to make Spirited Away four years later.

Hand-drawn animation is hard work, particularly as Miyazaki is so heavily involved in the making of each film. And it is only a matter of time before he has to step away from the demanding creative work at the studio.

But an important fact that is often overlooked is that Studio Ghibli is not just Miyazaki.

The studio was founded by him, Suzuki and film-maker Isao Takahata in June 1985 after the success of Miyazaki's Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind (1984), adapted from his manga.

While Miyazaki gets much of the attention and deservedly so, Takahata is no minor sidekick. His devastating war film Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) is liable to make any viewer dissolve into a pool of tears, while My Neighbors The Yamadas (1999) was a likeable light-hearted family comedy. His most recent film is The Tale Of Princess Kaguya (2013), which is based on a folk story, The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter.

Other directors who have made films under the Studio Ghibli banner include Hiroyuki Morita (The Cat Returns, 2002), Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty, 2010, and When Marnie Was There, 2014) and Miyazaki's son Goro (Tales From Earthsea, 2006, and From Up On Poppy Hill, 2011).

Studio Ghibli's strong body of work over 29 years has earned it a loyal global following. While the studio has fans all over the world from Asia to North America to Europe, notably including Pixar Animation Studio's John Lasseter, it is in Japan that its impact is greatest.

Mr Geoffrey Wexler, Studio Ghibli's international division chief, told Life! in an interview earlier this year that the films are very much made for the Japanese market and not with an international audience in mind.

Reportedly, eight of the studio's films are in the list of the top 15 grossing anime films domestically.

Spirited Away tops the list and is, in fact, the all-time box-office champion in Japan with 30.4 billion yen (S$374 million), ahead of the blockbuster Titanic (1997). Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away won the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of the Year.

While animation is still largely viewed as family- friendly fare in, say, the United States, its appeal tends to be wider elsewhere.

In Japan, anime and manga broach every conceivable topic from gentle tales about cats to violent fables of a post-apocalyptic world. There is no age-specific box constraining the medium.

While many of Ghibli's works feature young protagonists, the films do not sugar-coat hard truths or dole out "life lessons" in a heavy-handed manner.

Grave Of The Fireflies, for example, is about the bleak horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy and the younger sister he tries to protect. While fantasy adventure Princess Mononoke has been read as a fable about the destruction of the environment, it offers shades of greys and nuanced characters instead of reductive black-and-white slogans.

Studio Ghibli is not afraid of complexity and that has enabled it to create richly rewarding works which invite interpretation, even generating controversy from time to time as in the case of The Wind Rises, about a designer of Japan's World War II fighter planes.

The studio's works also point to a larger truth about films. In order to create something universal, something which resonates with a wide spectrum of people, you start with something very specific and focused. True, some cultural nuances and details may get lost in translation but the resulting sense of authenticity is compelling, even for those who are not its intended audience.

Conversely, if the starting point is to please as many people as possible, a film could easily end up bereft of character and a point of view.

The other hallmark of the company's films is its sublime animation, be it of imaginary worlds and creatures such as Laputa and Totoro, or realistic characters striving against adversity, displaying courage or simply laughing delightedly.

Every little detail is painstakingly drawn and coloured, mostly by hand. Some computer graphics were used in Princess Mononoke but by the time of Ponyo, the computer animation department had been shut down. Even for Mononoke, Miyazaki reportedly personally redrew 80,000 of the film's frames.

In works such as Spirited Away, Studio Ghibli illustrates that the medium of animation is one which knows no boundaries and we are only limited by how high our imagination can soar. For the legion of fans, the good news is the studio is not done flying just yet.

bchan@sph.com.sg