The Studio Ghibli Conundrum

It's no secret that I’m a huge Studio Ghibli fan: I own every movie they’ve made except The Ocean Waves. My room has a giant Totoro plush on one of my shelves. I own a detailed book of the studio’s work up to Ponyo. My screensaver is comprised of stills from each of their films, as is my background on my computer. I’ve even written about the studio an unhealthy amount on this site!

However, I sometimes wonder if that’s detrimental to my ability to enjoy other anime. If you’ll recall in my Beginner’s Guide on Studio Ghibli, I mentioned that one of the key reasons for their success in the West is that their films don’t feel like conventional anime. As a collective, Western society has an anxiety about Eastern cultures and their inherent value. In some cases, like with Kubo and the Two Strings, Kung Fu Panda and Avatar: The Last Airbender, we take cues from them and adapt our own spin. But for the most part, the East, more specifically Japan, remains a bizarre part of the world that we don’t want to understand, even to the point of, as I mentioned in another piece, unfounded ridicule.

I recently had a conversation on Twitter with two other Infinite Rainy Day writers over whether or not Studio Ghibli’s influence is helpful or harmful. Being the wide-eyed innocent that I am, I argued that this was an issue of education triumphing over ignorance. However, I soon began to wonder if that was true, especially with how frequently the studio is mentioned relative to other anime. In other words, is Studio Ghibli the only anime worth discussing, or is there other anime that's worth checking out too?

(By the way, I already know the answer, and so do you, but please humour me anyway.)

Despite anime’s origins going back to the 1960’s, it only started gaining traction in the West in the mid-80’s. This was when Disney was starting to get its act together before The Little Mermaid, and there wasn’t much in the way of great animated films to sink your teeth into. Sure, there was Don Bluth…but he was a rarity, and even then one could argue that he peaked early with The Secret of NIMH. For the most part, if you wanted great animated films, you had to look for them.

I say this because the mid-80’s also sparked the birth of Studio Ghibli. We take it for granted nowadays, but back in the 80’s Japanese animation was filling a rare niche that people didn’t know they wanted. Especially in the West, where anime was coming over from Japan via VHS and Laserdisc collections. It didn’t matter that the translations were often poor and rushed, the demand was still there. And, of course, amongst these were early Studio Ghibli films.

Of course, the real boom came when Disney approached their parent company to distribute Studio Ghibli’s films in the West. What set Disney apart was their commitment to quality. There was a real desire to translate the films for a Western audience respectfully, so Tokuma Shoten caved and allowed their library to be brought over under the Disney label. Initially, the distribution only saw Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, yet by the time Spirited Away made its way to the West in 2002, even nabbing it an Oscar, it’d become pretty clear that Studio Ghibli had made its mark.

It’s really easy to see why the studio’s work is well-known and coveted, especially given the pact made with Disney, but has that come with a downside? Anime die-hards, for example, point to the late-Satoshi Kon as being on-par with Studio Ghibli, particularly Hayao Miyazaki, yet never making the mark he should’ve. It’s easy to see why: Studio Ghibli has become so centric for casual fans that anything that isn’t Studio Ghibli’s work is either seen as lesser, or an extension of them. I remember introducing the works of Hayao Miyazaki to a friend and fellow-g1 in the days of V4 of ScrewAttack, and his reaction when he checked out films that weren’t Miyazaki was enough to show this ignorance. There’s simply been an unfair shadow cast in the wake of Studio Ghibli’s success.

This hits a deeper, and perhaps more toxic, root than initially expected. For one, Studio Ghibli is the poster child for “good anime”, when it shouldn’t stop there. There are plenty of great anime shows and films not produced by them that deserve recognition too. Ignoring big-names like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, there’s Fullmetal Alchemist for action fans, Cowboy Bebop for the more sophisticated crowd and films like those from Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Hosoda, the latter of whom I even dedicated a Beginner’s Guide and a full retrospective series to his filmography. That’s barely even scratching the surface!

Two, the lack of understanding of what anime is is a big problem, one so heavily ingrained in our culture that I’m unsure if it can be easily reversed. I’m not talking about The Academy’s damming outlook on foreign animation, though that’s a problem too, I’m talking microcosmic. The subtle, unconscious bias against foreign animation is so prevalent that it’s even influenced close friends and family. I’ve heard those whom I respect greatly jokingly mispronounce directors’ names under the guise that “it’s all the same to me”. I’ve heard shows be brushed off jokingly as “anime #_”. I’ve even heard people tell me that the conversations I’ve had about anime “aren’t interesting to most people”. This shunning of a culture with real range and ideas is upsetting, and is, in many ways, racist.

And three, there’s a bigger problem that’s, arguably, comparable to how the West views its own entertainment. Dating back as far as Jaws's success and the mainstream elevation of the action blockbuster in 1975, Hollywood is viewed of two minds: the action showcase, and the thoughtful, artful drama. The former dominates in the Spring and Summer, the latter in the Fall and Winter, with the two rarely meeting. To an outsider, that’s what Hollywood is, completely ignoring the range and variety that’s mainly shoved to the sidelines. Small features like Drive or Ex Machina, both subtle, thought-provoking art films, would never make it big in theatres, and on the off-chance that people have heard of them, they’re labelled “pretentious”. This isn’t to say that it’s solely the fault of Jaws, and later the Star Wars franchise, that the current system is the way it is, there are other factors involved, but their influence can neither be denied nor ignored when discussing “what went wrong”.

And that mentality can extend to Studio Ghibli and its influence. Is there other anime worth checking out? Absolutely. Is it fair that Studio Ghibli overshadows it all? Not at all. But does that mean that Studio Ghibli is somehow “lesser” or the “prime culprit”? Again, not at all. Because as Hayao Miyazaki himself has made known, people are really only comfortable with what they know, not feeling a need to challenge themselves. If people ignoring the spines of Studio Ghibli cases when talking directors, even though many are printed on them in bolded letters, isn’t enough indication of inherent ignorance and bias, then I don’t know what is.


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