Was Studio Ghibli a Mistake?

The present-day anime industry suffers from many problems: high demand, limited resources, insane hours, weekly deadlines, crap pay and a lack of healthy influx of new talent. It seems like it could implode at any point in the near-future, especially as financial resources continue to be so sparse in relation to the content. It’s even gotten to the point where anime auteurs, like Hayao Miyazaki, have openly expressed concern over the industry’s future on numerous occasions. But could Miyazaki, and by extension his legacy, be part of the problem? Could the auteurs largely be to blame for this current predicament? Or, to put it plainly, was Studio Ghibli a mistake?

I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s backtrack: Studio Ghibli was founded on June 15th, 1985 in Tokyo, Japan. Originally meant to break from the high demands of the studio system in Japan, the company placed a heavy focus on high-quality films at its own pace and schedule. It’d take a while before they’d strike it big with Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1989, but for the most part the company has proven itself time-and-time-again with high-quality output. It’s hard not to pick favourites, and even one of Infinite Rainy Day’s writers, who’s not a fan of the studio’s work, has expressed appreciation for one of the directors in the studio, Isao Takahata. Studio Ghibli’s a living testament to what anime is capable of, and their numerous awards and nominations are proof of that.

However, that doesn’t mean that the studio’s without its problems. For one, money has been tight for them in the 2010’s. This isn’t to say that they were constantly making returns prior, their first handful of films were either modest returns or box-office bombs, but it’s gotten to the point where Toho, their parent company, has stopped seeing them as reliable and the studio has been forced to temporarily cease making movies. Adding to this is the fact that many former animators have shared how stressful it’s been working there, a detail that’s fully understood when considering how many of them have quit, been fired or have dropped dead at a young age. Factor in a newer studio containing former employees, Studio Ponoc, and it’s clear that the House of Totoro isn’t all sunshine and roses.

Which leads me back to my original question: was Studio Ghibli a mistake? Did the studio do more harm than good? By attempting to break free of the demands of commercial anime, did it inevitably creating new ones, ones too difficult to uphold? Did the studio end up as another example of what’s wrong with modern anime? And while Miyazaki is openly known for being critical of the industry, does his criticism hold weight if he’s equally guilty in causing the problems he’s critical of?

Now, I’m a huge fan of Studio Ghibli’s work. Not only did their movies help me through university (more on that another time), but their body of work really feels special. There’s an undeniable magic to Studio Ghibli films that I usually find in, say, Disney or Pixar, except perhaps sometimes more so in cases like Spirited Away. The studio knows how to apply universal truths in ways that even the snobbiest of anime critics find appealing, hence adding to their worldwide acclaim. I own all of their films released in the West on DVD/Blu-Ray, and I guarantee you that Ocean Waves will land in my collection eventually. There’s no other way of putting it: I love their work.

However, I’m not a blind fan. I think Isao Takahata’s filmography is slightly overrated. I don’t think Tales from Earthsea is any good, and I’m not a big fan of My Neighbors the Yamadas. I also don’t like when Hayao Miyazaki criticizes the anime industry, largely because he comes off as incredibly mean-spirited and ignorant. And finally, I don’t like how every rising talent or studio is compared to them.

So as to properly answer if Studio Ghibli was a mistake, I first have to answer my other questions. Firstly, yes, they did create unrealistic demands. As far as I know, working under Studio Ghibli, most-notably Hayao Miyazaki, is gruelling and arduous. Hayao Miyazaki is notorious for drawing over the key animations of other animators, such that little artistic diversity exists in the animation process. Animators like Yoshinori Kanada, who are known for being bombastic, become more rigid under Miyazaki’s guiding hand, and it’s easy to see why many would find themselves constrained (speaking as someone who hates working under guidelines, I empathize greatly.)

I think the best way to demonstrate this is by listening to what Mamoru Oshii had to say about the studio after finishing up Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence:
“[Takahata] doesn't say what he wants to say up front like Miya-san does. He looks like a warm guy, but once something happens, he totally changes. It's like he gets a totally different personality. When he denies someone, he denies everything about that person, including their personality. I think of him as a Stalinist. -laughs- Miya-san is a bit like a Trotskyist, but for me, they are both men (ojisan) of 1960s Anpo, having very intimidating tendencies. Especially, it's really something when they intimidate the young staff members. It's totally different from their everyday smiling nature. They get totally different personalities once they are in a project.

In short, in the 1960s way of saying things, if the end is just, the means don't matter. I think that for them, making a movie is still a kind of extension of the union movement. Making strategy, organizing people, and purging traitors-- it's the same. There are agitation and intimidation characteristics to any popular movement. Basically, it's a thorough organizing to carry out the top's will.

I think Studio Ghibli is (like) the Kremlin…”
Major props to Oshii and the animators of Japan for stomaching this, but it really makes me wonder if working at Studio Ghibli is more about honour and respect than enjoying the experience…

On the issue of harm, I think it depends on your definition. Studio Ghibli might be a tough place, but strictness isn’t always an indication that something’s harmful. Kevin Feige’s notorious for being strict with his directors over what to include in the MCU, even creating behind-the-scenes disputes with people like Joss Whedon, but part of that’s because Feige has an underlying vision he wants to maintain. He’s not averse to input, but for the most part his tight reign has kept a relatively-consistent control of franchise quality. It’s often a painful experience, but it’s as equally a necessary one.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not Studio Ghibli’s responsible for the anime industry’s current state. The answer is “no, but they’re certainly not helping.” The anime industry has had a troubling model of production since its inception, but that Studio Ghibli’s founder has been so outspoken has put unnecessary strain on younger animators to do better than humanly possible. Perhaps the best example is when Miyazaki was shown a clip of a CGI zombie, yet shot it down because “it’s an insult to life itself”. His reasoning made sense, and he was quite respectful, but it doesn’t help when an auteur is critical of new advancements in technology.

Which in turn answers the question of whether or not Miyazaki’s critiques are constructive with a “yes” and a “no”. Yes, because some of what he’s said, namely how the industry is filled with people who don’t observe the outside world, is true when you factor in a lot of the garbage in anime. No, because he doesn’t provide helpful suggestions for fixing the problems. It’d be fine if he at least did that, but he doesn’t. And, lest we forget, sometimes what he says is offensive.

I remember mentioning that last point in a discussion with my fellow Infinite Rainy Day writers, and one of them mentioned that the wrong auteur had died too soon. This was an obvious reference to the late-Satoshi Kon, and while the inevitable explanation was reasonable-that Miyazaki seems to do nothing but complain-I can’t help but find it offensive. No one asks to die from cancer, and the remark feels like a back-handed insult to Kon and Miyazaki. It’s nothing to say of their respective skills as animators, but that discussion is best left for another day.

So it’s time to return to my original question: was Studio Ghibli a mistake? The answer, I think, is no. They’re tough, riddled with their own problems and have a founder who’s unfairly critical, but that sort of critique can also be applied to the early days of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Walt Disney was notorious for being a taskmaster, yet his studio thrived under him. It thrived so much that it even suffered from a 22-year slump following his death. I doubt Studio Ghibli's half as bad as Walt Disney, but sometimes, in a twisted way, strict management is better than no management.

Besides, it’s not like Studio Ghibli is somehow lesser now, because they’re not. Their work has almost consistently delivered, they’ve helped gain anime respect in the West, and they’ve helped kickstart the careers of individuals like Hideaki Anno and Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Is it a shame that they’ve been so demanding? Yes. Do I think the studio’s biggest flaw was not nurturing new talent? Again, yes. But they’ve definitely earned their 30+ years of fame and success. I only wish that Hayao Miyazaki knew when to quit, as I think that his newest film pitch will over-exhaust him.


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