Studio Ghibli, A New Force in Animation

Article  by  Mathieu GAULÈNE  •  Published 04.04.2011  •  Updated 12.04.2011
Studio Ghibli logo
Studio Ghibli, a world reference in Japanese animation, has known a remarkable commercial success without compromising its artistic ambitions, constantly renewed under Hayao Miyazaki’s demanding eye.

Summary

In 2002, the film Spirited Away by Miyazaki Hayao[+] NoteNames in this essay conform to the Japanese practice of placing the patronym before a person's given name.X [1] met with worldwide success to an extent unprecedented in the world of animation, earning 30 billion yen (~270 million euros) for Studio Ghibli. Released a few years after Princess Mononoke, the film that paved the way for Studio Ghibli as an internationally recognized studio, Spirited Away received great praise from most critics, winning a Golden Bear at Berlin and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. This success, achieved almost 20 years after the company's founding, was the result of a gamble that the production of quality animated films can coincide with the fulfillment of financial imperatives.

Two Uncommon Characters: Miyazaki and Takahata

Two uncommon directors, Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, are at the root of Studio Ghibli. They met in the 1960s at Tôei Dôga[+] NoteToei Animation.X [2], the biggest animation studio in Japan. Takahata Isao began working there in 1961 as an assistant director after having studied French literature at the prestigious University of Tokyo. Miyazaki Hayao, having earned degrees in political science and economics, began working as an illustrator at the studio in 1964. Miyazaki quickly forged friendships with Takahata and Ôtsuka Yasuo, with whom he militated for the Tôei workers union[+] NoteFollowing the strike in 1964, Miyazaki became secretary general of the union and Takahata became its vice-president. Cf. Raphaël Colson, Gaël Régner, Hayao Miyazaki. Cartographie d’un univers, Les moutons électriques, Lyon, 2010, p.18.X [3]. Together, they made the feature film Horus: Prince of the Sun in 1968, a work that marked a turning point in the world of animation as much for its technical mastery as for its reflection of the social dissent of the time. The team was possessed of great ambition in their decision to produce a film that would not be designed solely for children. This, though, did not sit well with the management at Tôei, who imposed several cuts and rewrites throughout the film's creation[+] NoteThe action was supposed to start with the Aïnou people of Hokkaidô, to the north of Japan, which was colonized by the Japanese in the 19th century. The subject was taboo in the Japanese archipelago, and the managers at Tôei made Miyazaki and Takahata use Scandinavia as the film's new background. Thirty years later, Miyazaki set the beginning of his film Princess Mononoke in an Emishi village, Emishi being another name for the Aïnous. For more on the Aïnous, cf. Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, André Leroi-Gourhan, Un Voyage chez les Aïnous - Hokkaïdo 1938, Albin Michel, 1989.X [4]. When the film was released, it was a commercial failure due to its inability to find an audience niche. In 1971, Tôei Animation decided to stop producing feature films in order to concentrate solely on the production of animated series for television. The company forced the production of these series to a frenzied pace, ultimately sparking the largest strike in the company's history and prompting the departure of Takahata and Miyazaki.
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A Subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten

In the 1970s, Miyazaki and Takahata collaborated on many cartoons, certain of which are known worldwide (Heidi, Girl of the Alps, 1974; A Dog of Flanders, 1975). In 1982, Miyazaki began drawing a manga, Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, which he published in Animage, an important animation magazine owned by the Tokuma Shoten publishing house. Tokuma Yasuyoshi, president of Tokuma Shoten, encouraged Miyazaki to make a feature film adaptation of the Nausicäa manga. The film was released by Topcraft film studio, a subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten, in 1984 and, to the surprise of Miyazaki, it became a great commercial success, selling over 900,000 tickets in Japan. Without a moment's pause, Miyazaki and Takahata decided to make Castle in the Sky; Topcraft studios did not have the manpower for the project, though, and so Tokuma Yasuyoshi encouraged the two to create their own studio.
 
Studio Ghibli was officially founded in April 1985, and Hara Toru, the former director of Topcraft, took over management of the new studio. Miyazaki chose the name Ghibli in reference to the hot desert wind from the Sahara, his intention being to "provoke a tornado in the world of Japanese animation" (nihon no animêshonkai ni senpû wo makiokosô)[+] NoteStudio Ghibli's official site, "The History of Studio Ghibli" (Sutajio jiburi no rekishi).X [5].
 
The studio's existence was precarious, only by virtue of one film's commercial success could the next one be financed. Despite Castle in the Sky's success in 1986, selling over 775,000 tickets and earning 580 million yen (~5.1 million euros) in revenue, a large number of employees were still not salaried, but rather paid by the image. This employment practice was common in Japan's animation industry, but the two former unionists disapproved. Beyond it's great artistic ambitions, Studio Ghibli wanted to protect the animators' positions and to treat them as artists in their own right.
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First Successes and the Diversification of Sources of Revenue

Studio Ghibli was only able to attain solvency in 1988, with the simultaneous release of Takahata Isao's Grave of the Fireflies and Miyazaki Hayao's My Neighbor Totoro. The latter of the two films was intended for a younger audience and sold 800,000 tickets in 5 weeks[+] Noteinfo from table in footnote.X [6]. In August 1989, Studio Ghibli achieved another feat with the huge success of Kiki's Delivery Service, selling 2,640,000 tickets and earning 2.15 billion yen (~19 million euros) at the box office. Thanks to Kiki, the studio was able to create salaried positions for all of its animators and to finance its films without running great risks should a film perform poorly at the box office.
 
The creation of licensed products derived from the character of Totoro (stuffed animals, toys, watches, calendars, etc.) in 1990 allowed the company to earn substantial profits[+] NoteFrom Studio Ghibli: Official History"…[T]hanks to the sale of Totoro merchandise, it became possible for Studio Ghibli to cover deficits in the production costs of its other films. […] Although Ghibli has now set up an internal division to promote the sale of character goods, the studio’s policy that film production comes first and merchandizing of its characters comes later, has not changed. Ghibli has never made, and will never make, any decision regarding one of its films based on expected merchandizing value."X [7], and almost naturally, Totoro became the logo for Studio Ghibli. The studio's product tie-ins are sold exclusively in Donguri Kyôwakoku stores (literally, "The Republic of Acorns").

At this point in its history, Studio Ghibli put a strategy into place to diversify its sources of revenue. Ghibli did several commercials for big brand companies that would occasionally finance the studio's films or other projects in return. They also did music videos for certain musical acts and, more recently, co-produced a video game with Level-5, Ni no Kuni, whose graphics bear great resemblance to the universe of Miyazaki's films. The studio also began producing documentary films, the most recent of which was devoted to the intellectual Katô Shûichi, a specialist in Japanese and occidental literature and an ardent pacifist who passed away in 2008. The last two activities Studio Ghibli undertook in its diversifications are minor: the commercialization of its soundtracks and the publication of books about films produced by Studio Ghibli (such as storyboards), which is still overseen by Tokuma Shoten to this day (and constitutes its own sub-portal on the studio's site). Since its financial independence, Ghibli has had its own publishing house, Ghibli Shuppan.

 

A commercial for the food industry group Nisshin Seifun, directed by Miyazaki Gôro, son of Miyazaki Hayao.



Ni no Kuni Trailer.
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Studio Ghibli's Move to an International Market via Disney

In 1996, Tokuma Shoten, Studio Ghibli's mother company, signed an agreement with Disney for international distribution rights to Ghibli films. This agreement probably represented a compromise to Miyazaki Hayao, who had had a bad experience with his film Nausicäa's "adaptation" for the American market – not only was the film cut by 20 minutes, but the dialogue had been rewritten and the environmentalist message erased. On top of this, young Nausicäa became Princess Zandra in the American version, and the film's title was changed to The Warriors of the Wind.
 
With this experience in mind, Studio Ghibli was careful in its agreement with Disney, requiring that their films not be altered for export. The studio had already been approached by Fox and Time Warner, but only Disney accepted this stipulation[+] NoteThis agreement did not, however, prevent certain pressures. Disney asked that certain scenes in Princess Mononoke be cut, judging them too violent for the young American public. With Studio Ghibli's refusal to change their films and its growing international success, it seems as though Disney has since abandoned its grievances.X [8]. Pursuant to their agreement, Disney gained worldwide distribution rights to Studio Ghibli films, save in Asia, where the films are distributed by Tokuma Shoten. In addition to this, Studio Ghibli conceded the worldwide rights (including Japan) to the distribution of the studio's catalogue on VHS and DVD to the American giant. In exchange, Disney promised to pay the studio royalties on film and video sales.
 
Since the 2000s, Studio Ghibli has been concentrating much more on importing foreign films to Japan. Under the name Ghibli Museum Library, the studio has been distributing many French animated films such as Le Roi et L'Oiseau (1980) by Paul Grimault, Kirikou et la sorcière (1998) de Michel Ocelot and The Triplets of Belleville (2003) by Sylvain Chomet, and Soviet animated films like Snezhnaya koroleva (The Snow Queen, 1957) and Konyok Gorbunok (The Humpbacked Horse, 1947)[+] NoteTakahata Isao himself translated the French animated films imported by Studio Ghibli.X [9]. The Ghibli Museum Library has also given Miyazaki and Takahata the chance to buy back certain of their films, such as Panda Kopanda (Panda! Go, Panda!), directed by Miyazaki, Takahata and Ôtsuka Yasuo just after they left Tôei.
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What Does the Future Hold After Miyazaki ?

Due to serious deficits, the Tokuma Shoten group absorbed Studio Ghibli in 1997. The profits earned by the animation studio allowed the Tokuma group, which had decided to focus solely on publishing, to cover their deficits. In March 2005, Tokuma regained its financial stability and Studio Ghibli, at this point much more profitable than Tokuma Shoten, obtained its independence. But this genuine success story should not mask a major difficulty for the studio: can Ghibli survive without Miyazaki? Indeed, one of the differences Studio Ghibli cultivates in order to distinguish itself from other Japanese studios is the importance it places on its auteurs. As opposed to Tôei Animation, Studio Ghibli supports the idea of assembling a team around a single director, but the two directors are getting old: Takahata has reached the honorable age of 75 and Miyazaki celebrated his 70th birthday in January. Studio Ghibli's ex-president Suzuki Toshio has long been on a quest to find capable successors to whom the torch may be passed.
 
In 1989, Suzuki decided to create an institute for animation, and after several failures, the studio's institute now trains new animators. For the moment, no heir apparent has emerged. Miyazaki and Takahata had thought Kondô Yoshifumi a suitable successor, but he died suddenly in 1998.
 
The principal obstacle to the emergence of a successor seems to be Miyazaki Hayao himself. Often described as a workaholic, he is involved in nearly all of the studio's decisions. He was only supposed to handle the production on the film Kiki's Delivery Service, for example, as he was already busy with directing My Neighbor Totoro, but he ultimately imposed himself on the project as director, judging that nobody else was capable of directing it. In 2002, Suzuki Toshio entrusted Hosoda Mamoru with directing Howl's Moving Castle, but Miyazaki ended up taking over the project, asking the team to start over again from scratch even though the film was already in the middle of production. At this point, Studio Ghibli shut down operations for six months to "let everybody get some rest"[+] NoteRaphaël Colson, Gaël Régner, Hayao Miyazaki. Cartographie d’un univers, Les moutons électriques, Lyon, 2010, p.182.X [10]. There was no doubt in Hosoda Mamoru's mind about the situation: "Studio Ghibli is a structure created essentially for Mister Miyazaki to produce his works and, unfortunately, not for the creation of other things"[+] NoteInterview with Hosoda Mamoru, Mata-Web, June 14, 2010.X [11].
 
In 2006, Suzuki Toshio gave the project of adapting the Ursula K. Le Guin book, Tales from Earthsea, to Miyazaki Gôro against his father's opinion that the son was not up to the task. The film was successful at the box office, but was also harshly criticized. The weekly periodical Shûkan Bunshun, for example, gave the film the prize for "worst film of the year" and the prize for "worst director" to Miyazaki Gôro.

Nevertheless, Studio Ghibli, perhaps betting on a brand name effect, recently announced that it's next film, Kokuriko zaka kara (From Kokuriko Hill), will be directed by Miyazaki Gôro with assistance from Miyazaki Hayao, acting as project manager[+] NoteSee the film's official site, online since December 15, 2010.X [12]. After all, who better than a Miyazaki to succeed Miyazaki…
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Key Figures

- Company name: Studio Ghibli Inc.
- Created: June 1985
- Start of operations: April 2005
- Address: 1-4-25, Kajino-chô, Koganei-shi, Tôkyô 184-0002, Japan
- President: Hoshino Kôji (since 2008)
- Number of employees: 300 people
- Capital: 10 million yen (90,000 euros)
- Net revenues: 903 million yen (8,089,000 euros)
- Net assets: 6.572 billion yen (58.873 million euros)
- Total assets: 13.496 billion yen (121 million euros)
- Main banks: Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ, Mitaka agency
; Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation; Mitaka agency ; CITIBANK, Ôtemachi agency.

Main activities:
- Production of animated films, commercials for television, television series and documentaries.
- Merchandising from characters in movies.
- Production of video recordings of animated films, television series and documentaries.
- Foreign sales, importation-exportation and trading rights of animated films.
- Preparation and production of various publications.
- Registration, promotion and management of copyright music for films.

Key people:

HISAISHI Joe (
久石譲, 1950- ) Composer of music for all films by Miyazaki Hayao, since Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. He also worked with director Kitano Takeshi.

HOSHINO Kôji (星野康二, 1956- ): President of Studio Ghibli. He succeeded Suzuki Toshio in 2008 but has worked with Studio Ghibli before. Chairman of Walt Disney Japan, he negotiated the release of Ghibli’s films and encouraged after Walt Disney Company to distribute an english version of Princess Monoke in U.S. theaters. He is also the executive producer of the film Spirited Away by Miyazaki.

KONDÔYoshifumi (近藤喜文, 1950-1998): Chief animator at Studio Ghibli, he worked on several films before being entrusted with the completion in 1995 of his first feature, Whisper of the Heart. He was tipped as a possible successor to Miyazaki and Takahata but he died suddenly in 1998 of aneurysm.

MIYAZAKI Gôro (
宫崎吾朗, 1967- ): Director of animation, it is also the son of Miyazaki Hayao. With support from producer Suzuki Toshio, he directed in 2006 his first animated film Tales from Earthsea and should carry with his father the next film from Studio Ghibli, Kokuriko zaka kara (From Kokuriko Hill)

MIYAZAKI Hayao (宫崎骏, 1941- ): Director of animated films. Born January 5, 1941 in Tôkyô, he graduated in political science and economics from the University Gakushûin. He was soon fascinated by drawing, including aircraft and imaginary flying machines. His father worked elsewhere in the company of his brother, Miyazaki Airplane. He joined Toei Animation in 1963 and quickly became a brilliant animator, while having an intense unionist activity. Several conflicts with the direction, then the abandonment of feature films from 1971 in favor of a production of animated television series takes him to leave the studio, and later to create his own independent studio, Studio Ghibli.

MORITA Hiroyuki (森田宏幸, 1964- ): Key-animator of Studio Ghibli, he worked on the film Kiki's Delivery Service by Miyazaki Hayao, and My Neighbors the Yamadas by Takahata Isao. He directed in 2002for Studio Ghibli his first animated feature, The Cat Returns.

ÔTSUKA Yasuo (大冢康生, 1931- ): Mentor of Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, he worked with them on many films such as The Little Norse Prince (1968), Panda! Go, Panda! (1972-1973), Future Boy Conan (1978).

SUZUKI Toshio (铃木利 男, 1948- ): President of Studio Ghibli from 2005 to 2008. He is for 20 years the main producer of Miyazaki and Takahata with whom, he founded Studio Ghibli. He encouraged Miyazaki Gôro to make the film, Tales from Earthsea, against the advice of Miyazaki Hayao who thought his son had not the experience required.

TAKAHATA Isao (高畑勲, 1935- ): Director of animated films. Born October 29th, 1935 in Ise, he graduated in French literature in the University of Tôkyô. His desire to work in animation was born after seeing The King and the Mockingbird of Paul Grimault. He directed in 1968 The Little Norse Prince in collaboration with Miyazaki Hayao and Ôtsuka Yasuo. He is internationally known for his masterpiece, Grave of the Fireflies, released in 1988. He also worked on other projects including a documentary, The Story of Yanagawa's Canals (1987), produced by Miyazaki Hayao and showing the struggle of a community of people of Yanagawa for the maintenance and restoration of their canals.

TOKUMA Yasuyoshi (徳间康快, 1921-2000): President of Tokuma Shoten and founder of Studio Ghibli. He produced all the films of Studio Ghibli, with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies. He is also at the origin of the Disney-Tokuma agreement in 1996.
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REFERENCES

Raphaël COLSON, Gaël REGNER, Hayao MIZYAKI. Cartographie d’un univers, Les moutons électriques, Lyon, 2010.
 
Helen MCCARTHY, Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, 1999.
 
Colin ODELL, Michelle LEBLANC, Studio Ghibli: The films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Kamera Books, Harpenden, 2009.
 
Hayao MIYAZAKI, Starting Point: 1979-1996, VIZ Media, San Francisco, 2009.
 
Photo credit : Wikipedia.

Translated from the French by Jacob Bromberg.
 
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  • 1. Names in this essay conform to the Japanese practice of placing the patronym before a person's given name.
  • 2. Toei Animation.
  • 3. Following the strike in 1964, Miyazaki became secretary general of the union and Takahata became its vice-president. Cf. Raphaël Colson, Gaël Régner, Hayao Miyazaki. Cartographie d’un univers, Les moutons électriques, Lyon, 2010, p.18.
  • 4. The action was supposed to start with the Aïnou people of Hokkaidô, to the north of Japan, which was colonized by the Japanese in the 19th century. The subject was taboo in the Japanese archipelago, and the managers at Tôei made Miyazaki and Takahata use Scandinavia as the film's new background. Thirty years later, Miyazaki set the beginning of his film Princess Mononoke in an Emishi village, Emishi being another name for the Aïnous. For more on the Aïnous, cf. Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, André Leroi-Gourhan, Un Voyage chez les Aïnous - Hokkaïdo 1938, Albin Michel, 1989.
  • 5. Studio Ghibli's official site, "The History of Studio Ghibli" (Sutajio jiburi no rekishi).
  • 6. info from table in footnote.
  • 7. From Studio Ghibli: Official History"…[T]hanks to the sale of Totoro merchandise, it became possible for Studio Ghibli to cover deficits in the production costs of its other films. […] Although Ghibli has now set up an internal division to promote the sale of character goods, the studio’s policy that film production comes first and merchandizing of its characters comes later, has not changed. Ghibli has never made, and will never make, any decision regarding one of its films based on expected merchandizing value."
  • 8. This agreement did not, however, prevent certain pressures. Disney asked that certain scenes in Princess Mononoke be cut, judging them too violent for the young American public. With Studio Ghibli's refusal to change their films and its growing international success, it seems as though Disney has since abandoned its grievances.
  • 9. Takahata Isao himself translated the French animated films imported by Studio Ghibli.
  • 10. Raphaël Colson, Gaël Régner, Hayao Miyazaki. Cartographie d’un univers, Les moutons électriques, Lyon, 2010, p.182.
  • 11. Interview with Hosoda Mamoru, Mata-Web, June 14, 2010.
  • 12. See the film's official site, online since December 15, 2010.
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