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Getting inside the strange, secret world of Studio Ghibli

We caught up with producer Hirokatsu Kihara to talk about Downton Abbey, where he draws inspiration and what the legendary studio is really like on the inside

Earlier this year, I visited the Studio Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. It’s a rickety old mansion in the European style with no set path to travel. It’s a fairly overpowering experience, filled with tiny doors, scraps of drawings pinned to every wall and stop-motion figures dancing in chiaroscuro light. You’re not allowed to photograph anything or write all that much about it. At the time, I thought this was simply a move to preserve the magic – but the studio have a recent history of faux-pas. There was that comment about female directors, their dedication to selling as much merchandise as possible (for inflated prices), and the fact that nobody really knows much about them. It felt like the themes of Ghibli mirrored their output – they flitter like a firefly in the intoxicating hinterland between dark and light.

Studio Ghibli is a very secretive company, one that maintains its mystique and domination with a very tightly controlled media relationship. The museum was wonderfully rich – but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling it was a little too whimsical, a bit too staged. I jumped, then, at the chance to speak with Hirokatsu Kihara at the Hyper Japan festival in London last weekend.

Hirokatsu joined Ghibli’s production team early on in 1985, and helped make Castle in the Sky, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, which are, for my money, the best Ghibli films out there. Since then, Kihara has gone on to influence Japan’s burgeoning horror industry, helping to create shit-your-pants movies like The Grudge. I sat him down at midday for a chat about Ghibli old and new, and the spiritual influences of his and their work.

Did you expect Studio Ghibli’s cultural influence on the world? 

Hirokatsu Kihara: No. When we were making films, Miyazaki would constantly say to us, ‘We cannot fail. We cannot fail on this film. If the film doesn’t work out as a success or people don’t accept it, then I wouldn’t be able to make another one. Simple as that.’ He kept saying, ‘Just focus on this one – The Castle in the Sky – and don’t think about the future.’ Look, just like any new company, originally there was nothing there – just an empty floor. We created a special desk with a glass that was made specifically for film. All those desks were specially handcrafted for us. It was just us and these desks.

Have they made many failures?

Hirokatsu Kihara: I personally think after Castle in the Sky and My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, they’re all boring. Of course, I love work that I have done.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is one of my favourites. I think Ghibli movies are at their best when they mix all sorts of concepts of spirituality into one crazy west-meets-east world. Like, the concept of ghosts and spirits – which are everywhere in their films.

Hirokatsu Kihara: Yes. I can’t deny that there are some things that are human-shaped, like a ghost, but precisely – that you can’t quite see or explain, but are there. These things exist. Maybe they’re not ghosts. But they’re there.

Do you take inspiration from that other world?

Hirokatsu Kihara: I think there are so many unexplainable things in life. It’s not just dividing the afterlife and life. Living and alive. Spirits and humans. There are so many strange things happening in life. That could be caused by, for example, somebody’s strong feelings – but the solution isn’t always singular. It could be caused by multiple things.

For example, The Grudge? This ‘strong feeling’ affecting a place?

Hirokatsu Kihara: I was involved in the creation of that movie. So, yes, it’s a horror film based on the Japanese ideas of feeling. The way I see genre in the films I’ve worked on is like this: you have this supernatural being – if it shakes your hand, then that becomes fantasy. Ghibli is fantasy. If they attack you with a sword or an axe, then you have horror. But there’s another genre called kaidan, where the ghost just suddenly appears, scares you, and then disappears again. I think The Grudge, in particular, combined kaidan and horror – which I think is the reason why it appeals to western audiences. In a way, Ghibli does this with fantasy, too. 

“I think there are so many unexplainable things in life. It’s not just dividing the after-life and life. Living and alive. Spirits and humans” – Hirokatsu Kihara

Do you think there’s a distinct difference between Japanese and western tastes – how can you explain Ghibli’s worldwide success?

Hirokatsu Kihara: I think western culture is based on hunting, eating meat. Japanese culture mainly stems from ogu, which is the act of growing crops. From that, Japanese naturally hate blood – of course, we have wars and we fight – but in general, we avoid blood.

In the west, because hunting is fundamental to your lives and killing isn’t so taboo. I think for westerners the horror of life stems from physical death, the fear of death. Whereas, for Japanese, fear is rooted in more psychological torment. I see it as ‘the being’ exists within a physical body and also without a physical body. The being can separate and carry on, with their wills. It may not last long – we see these beings in my work.

Personally, I think that after Kiki’s Delivery Service all the later works have only been the works of Miyazaki and (Isao) Takahata – so they’ve lacked ideas. Each film becomes less and less surprising.

So, do you mean, it’s not a collaborative place to work?

Hirokatsu Kihara: Each film is Miyazaki, then Takahata, then Miyazaki, then Takahata. Instead of, for example, Disney and Pixar style, where they get everyone to throw in ideas, now they dump all responsibility on the director’s shoulders. They’re overworked – they don’t have enough time to come up with new ideas or mature the ones they have.

I wouldn’t have guessed that. So, it’s a stressful, restrictive place to work?

Hirokatsu Kihara: During the three films that I worked on, I was Miyazaki’s confidant in terms of ideas and concepts. From that experience, I noticed the problem was that Miyazaki likes to put everything of himself and everything that he had into one film. But, when you’ve done that work, what’s left?

“People aren’t necessarily looked after or cherished. There’s a sense that everyone is replaceable – even Miyazaki... the people that have worked at Ghibli leave quite fast – and never come back” – Hirokatsu Kihara

How do you see the studio progressing from this point, then?

Hirokatsu Kihara: I have two versions. One is deep and one is easily digested.

I will go for the deep one.

Hirokatsu Kihara: I imagine you’ve heard about the female discrimination that goes on? People aren’t necessarily looked after or cherished. There’s a sense that everyone is replaceable – even Miyazaki. Rather than hire creatives with great ideas, they hire people who will please the producers. They want followers, not leaders – that’s why the work is reducing in quality. The people that have worked at Ghibli leave quite fast – and never come back.

Why does this culture exist?

Hirokatsu Kihara: There’s one person there who I won’t name. I find it very scary. He speaks like a Yakuza (Japanese mafioso) and rules it like a politician. However, it should be recognised that he is the one who made the company rich and survive this long. Do you not find it strange that there are no interviews with Ghibli or hardly any articles written on it?

I never really thought about it.

Hirokatsu Kihara: It’s true. 

Well, I will certainly find out more when I can. Last one – when you’re not working, what do you like to watch?

Hirokatsu Kihara: Japanese kaiju. Godzilla. Japan’s great monster. Downton Abbey, too – I’ve just finished watching season five. Do you watch Downton Abbey?

Sadly not.

Hirokatsu Kihara: No? It’s a great drama. Britain has a great skill in creating period dramas. I’m a sucker for anything visually stunning. You really should check it out.