Disney and Studio Ghibli: Talent Recognizing Talent

May 23rd marks the 19th anniversary of Studio Ghibli's dubs under Disney. Beginning with Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1998, the partnership would include every Hayao Miyazaki movie prior, two of Isao Tahakata’s films (aka Pom Poko and My Neighbors the Yamadas,) Whisper of the Heart, The Cat Returns and theatrical releases of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Tales from Earthsea, Ponyo, The Secret World of Arrietty and The Wind Rises. This also helped secure Studio Ghibli’s place in film fandom, including an inevitable Oscar win in 2003 for Spirited Away. However, considering how big a gamble this was, it begs the question of “why”. Why did Disney, a multi-billion dollar corporation, pick this small studio to be their ambassador of anime to the outside world? And why did Studio Ghibli, a fiercely-independent company, agree to this collaboration in the first place?

Firstly, it’s important to view both companies’ respective histories. Disney was founded in 1923 as a small studio in Los Angeles for animated shorts. Initially a joint-venture between Walt Disney and his brother Roy, it didn’t take long before Walt longed for theatrical animation, and in 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first animated film to achieve mainstream success. Since then, Disney has gone on to become a mega-enterprise, trucking on over 50 years after Walt’s death by purchasing intellectual properties and companies like The Jim Henson Corporation, Pixar, ABC, Marvel Entertainment and, most-recently, Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Sufficed to say it’s showing no signs of stopping either.

Studio Ghibli was founded in 1985 in Tokyo, by Toshio Suzuki, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, following the success of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind the previous year. A studio determined to produce films separate from the limitations of televised anime, they’d spend over a decade gaining a foothold in their native Japan before being picked up by Disney in the late-90’s. In over 30 years, the studio has amassed many accolades and awards, including the aforementioned Oscar in 2003. Despite ceasing film production in 2014 following the retirement of their founders, the studio’s legacy trucks on.

Despite Disney being synonymous with Studio Ghibli now, this wasn’t always the case. Studio Ghibli, particularly Hayao Miyazaki, has had their movies pre-1994 released in dub form to varying degrees of success. Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind had a hack-job dub in 1989 called Warriors of the Wind that cut out roughly 30 minutes of the film, changed the characters’ names, rearranged the main storyline and neutered the movie’s message about the environment. That dub is so heavily-chastised that even Miyazaki himself is stated to have hated it, but attempts at early localizations didn’t stop there. Castle in the Sky also had an early dub in 1989 that’s aged poorly, while Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro both had halfway-decent dubs in the early-90’s. Even The Castle of Cagliostro, a pre-Studio Ghibli Miyazaki movie, had a dub long-before Manga Entertainment got ahold of it, so it’s clear that there was always a demand before Disney stepped in.

But Akira also had an early dub, so why is Studio Ghibli special? What makes that one company so important that Disney, a big money-maker with infinite resources being spent elsewhere, felt a need to partner? Remember, The House of Mouse’s biggest concern is making money. Considering that anime’s never been a big cash-cow here, despite there clearly being a market for it, you’d think it’d be above them to distribute movies that, at best, haven’t even cracked $20 million at the North American box-office. I think the answer goes deeper than monetary concerns, as it stems from something that’s more personal.

See, while Disney the corporation might be focused on marketability as a means for profit, Disney the living entity is all about the craft. I know this can be said of many artists, but Disney’s currently home to some of Hollywood’s best: the team behind the Muppet movies care deeply about turning puppets into believable creatures, while the teams at Marvel and LucasFilm care deeply about taking fantasy characters and making them relatable. Conversely, Disney’s animation divisions, namely Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar, care deeply about about making the inanimate, or animation, feel animate and real. Couple that with Disney’s execs, who care deeply about money, and there’s been a real push recently to make engaging properties in hopes of netting the big bucks.

Studio Ghibli, while not as big and money-centric as Disney, still cares about making relatable films. In their current library, only one film is considered a dud, that being Tales from Earthsea. The rest of the library ranges from okay to excellent, with a few of their films ranking as some of the best on TIME and Empire’s greatest films lists. That might sound suspicious to an outsider, but given that IMDb, which is entirely run by non-paid filmgoers, frequently ranks the studio’s work in their all-time bests, right up there with Pixar, it’s clear there’s something special amidst the accolades. Their attention to detail is astounding, and it should come as no surprise that many Western film enthusiasts, including a few from Disney, have much fondness for their work. And it’s this fondness that allowed Disney to gain approval from Studio Ghibli’s parent company, aka Tokuma, to bring the studio’s library to the West, provided that nothing from the original material was altered or changed without their consent.

There’s a whole spectrum of debate over which dubs are good, if at all: are the Jack Fletcher trio of dubs, i.e. Kiki’s Delivery Service, Castle in the Sky and Princess Mononoke, good because they add extra dialogue and jokes, or is that what holds them back? Did the golden age of Disney-Studio Ghibli dubs begin with John Lasseter and Spirited Away, winning them theatrical accolades, or are they equally as bad? Are any of the dubs even good at all? And if so, which is the best?

But I think the superficial level of dub quality misses out on the fact that this deal, which ended in 2013 with The Wind Rises, ran deeper than money; after all, despite the brilliant marketing campaign and excellent release window of the President’s Day/Family Day weekend in 2012, The Secret World of Arrietty made less than $20 million at the box office. Sure, it went up against releases like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and This Means War, making it the surefire victor of quality, but it wasn’t the heavy-hitter fans would’ve liked. The deal with Disney clearly boiled down to a desire to have these films seen by more audiences, otherwise it wouldn’t have been made at all. And given how so many people at Disney are Studio Ghibli enthusiasts, it’s easy to see why.

Even still, I think that Studio Ghibli and Disney share much in-common. Their films may be different narratively and thematically, but their messages of eco-consciousness, family, love and hope are quite similar. I even regard Studio Ghibli as what Disney could be if they weren’t boxed in by Western, familial expectations and were more ambitious and daring. Both have also made an impact in their respective hemispheres and filled needed voids. And while you could argue that they’ve “outlived their usefulness”, I don’t see how quality filmmaking will ever be outdated.

That’s really it: one brilliant company recognizing another brilliant company and feeling a need to promote it. Is that a circle-jerk of artistic vanity? Maybe. But it’s also a sign of talent respecting and revering other talent, something important in an industry where too many lesser-known artists are drowned out.

That was the secret of the Disney-Studio Ghibli deal. So the next time you wonder if Disney’s only a shallow company out to make money, remember that they took a gamble, and incurred losses, to make sure that something they cared about could be shared with others. Not many companies, especially multi-billion dollar conglomerates, would do that these days.


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