The next film may be the studio’s last release but its legacy and emotional resonance will be felt for generations
Twenty films into its hand-drawn legacy, Studio Ghibli has dreamed its final dream. The Japanese animation geniuses quashed rumours of closure in 2012, when longstanding producer Toshio Suzuki dubbed it only a “brief pause”, but following the retirement of key directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the hiatus increasingly looks indefinite.
Unless a surprise announcement awaits, Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There will be the studio’s swansong, and its upcoming UK release will convert cinemas into tearful goodbye parties (or funerals, depending on your mood). Glistening with vivid colours, the exquisite ghost story follows a 12-year-old girl’s recovery from “asthma” (likely spurred by a revelation about her foster parents) and the melancholy mystery she unravels in an abandoned mansion. All in all, it’s emblematic of Ghibli’s greatness, forming a complementary double-bill with the rerelease of Takahata’s superb quarter-life crisis dramedy Only Yesterday.
Perhaps the studio really is just housecleaning – you know, the kind that takes several years, perhaps decades, before switching the power back on. Remember, the one thing Friends taught us, other than myths about affordable housing, is how the phrase “we’re on a break” holds multiple interpretations. But even if When Marnie Was There is technically Ghibli’s last film, here’s why the makers of Spirited Away and Porco Rosso will live on and on.
THERE’S MORE TO JAPANESE ANIMATION THAN STUDIO GHIBLI
In the studio’s infancy, its only filmmakers were Miyazaki and Takahata, who together established a template for new artists to follow. On Yonebayashi’s path to directing Arriety and When Marnie Was There, he was a Ghibli animator, starting from Princess Mononoke, and in doing so was trained first-hand by Miyazaki and Takahata. Yonebayashi will direct again, as will other Ghibli alumni. Think of the studio as a film school whose works are ready to multiply – and unlike your friend’s theatre studies showcase, your interest is genuine.
If anything, disbanding the Ghibli name frees up its artists to take their education into new territory. For instance, Mamoru Hosoda was the original director of Howl’s Moving Castle before exiting in pre-production due to creative differences. “Ghibli is essentially a studio made to produce Miyazaki’s works,” he later commented, “and unfortunately not something else.” Since then, he’s directed films with Ghibli’s imagination and themes – strong female protagonists, relationships to nature, etc – but with a personal edge. At least, the early masturbation joke in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time wouldn’t have crept into Ponyo.
THERE’S PLENTY TO EXPLORE IN THE VAULT
Studio Ghibli also created short films (including a 13-minute sequel to My Neighbour Totoro), music videos and weird TV spots about throwing house parties for elephants. Like an unhealthy breakup in which you trawl through cameras and emails to soak up the past, now’s the time to explore Ghibli b-sides. Check out Miyazaki’s 1995 music video for a J-rock jam called “On Your Mark”: seven minutes of Ghibli dystopia concerning an underground cult, an imprisoned angel, and other stuff too bizarre for the full-length features.
GHIBLI WILL BE PASSED DOWN THROUGH GENERATIONS
Studio Ghibli is for all ages, but the childlike wonder of something like My Neighbour Totoro (its protagonists are aged 4 and 10) is intended for younger eyes. Unless you were force-fed a Ghibli diet when growing up, chances are you discovered a few as nostalgic adults, wishing you could turn back time. To put it simply, cool parents will raise their children on Spirited Away and Castle in the Sky. If you instead dump your offspring in front of Minions, the only explanation is you don’t love your children and they will grow up to hate you.
STUDIO GHIBLI’S FIGURES TAKE ON NEW SHAPES AS AN ADULT
There’s a surprising moment in The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, a serene doc on the making of The Wind Rises, when Miyazaki pauses to reflect on why his films skewer towards adults. He concludes it’s inevitable, as if he can’t control his creativity, and that the lyrical wisdom imparted from his drawings has to come out somehow. Look beyond the Catbus of My Neighbour Totoro for an exploration of children dealing with their mother’s potentially terminal illness, all sketched from Miyazaki’s own memories. But at your own risk, delve further into prevalent fan theories about Ghibli’s twisted secrets: cuddly Totoro is actually the grim reaper (this makes more sense than the given ending), Spirited Away is set in a brothel (again, all too convincing), and Princess Mononoke is actually about the stigma of leprosy (Miyazaki confirmed this 19 years after its release). A deluxe Room 237 treatment awaits.
REISSUE, REPACKAGE, REPACKAGE
This goes beyond rereleasing the films with English-language dubs that depend entirely on whether you like the cast. (Sally from Mad Men? Interesting. Daisy Ridley from Star Wars? Please stop.) While Ghibli are protective of their material, Grave of the Fireflies and Kiki’s Delivery Service are based on books, and thus live-action versions have been created by third parties as blatant remakes. Be warned, the sight of Kiki and her talking cat in the flesh requires a strong stomach for lousy CGI. More will follow, because money talks, with or without someone famous providing the voice.
STUDIO GHIBLI SORT OF HAVE A NEW FILM AT CANNES
The Red Turtle may boast a nature-based storyline (man vs oversized testudine) and Takahata as artistic producer, but it’s only a Ghibli co-production. Directed by Michaël Dudok de Wit, the dialogue-free fantasy was mostly animated in France, a few years after Miyazaki passed on his blessings. Given the box office drops that face Ghibli’s non-Miyazaki outings, any future features are likely to be international co-productions that shepherd costs to foreign studios – but if there’s a giant red turtle and the warmth of a Ghibli original, who’s complaining?
GHIBLI IS UNRIVALLED FOR INSPIRING YOUNG DREAMERS
From the eco-terrorism of Pom Poko to the wounded forest creatures of Princess Mononoke, Ghibli valiantly fought to save our doomed planet with an ethos that sells environmentalism in the way Disney sells toys. It extends to the pacifism of Grave of the Fireflies and The Wind Rises – the latter caused controversy by slamming Japan’s attitude to war – and coming-of-age comforts of Only Yesterday and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Will any other studio be as reliable for strong female leads?
Look at Inside Out, Pixar’s overpraised comedy which simplifies emotions to blobs and test-tubes. In comparison, When Marnie Was There beats live-action alternatives in its three-dimensional depiction of a teen girl who’s dealing with grief, the fear she’s unloved by her foster parents, and a nervous breakdown chalked up as “asthma”. Care is given to the weighty subject of mental health (and its attached stigma) with no pretence of easy answers. Ghibli films are universal, timeless and won’t be forgotten anytime soon.