The Japanese animation house is known for its vibrant, hand-drawn cuddly forest spirits, brooding dragons, and castles in the sky – here’s why it should stay that way
Earlier this year, a Netflix announcement proved to be the biggest streaming-related headline of the year so far. The archival acquisition of 24 Studio Ghibli films would be dropped in three batches of seven across the world, marking the prolific animation house’s first foray into the streaming world, something they’d resisted for several years. Suddenly, it’s never been easier to immerse yourself in its fantastical worlds, populated by castles in the sky, witches-in-training, and cuddly forest spirits. Or the sumptuous spreads of food, colourful, vibrant scenes of mouth-watering ramens and sizzling fry-ups cooked on the embers of friendly fire demons.
Keen Ghiblites will be aware of studio co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s distaste of the modern living (he once described it in a 2005 New Yorker interview as “so thin and shallow and fake – I look forward to when developers go bankrupt, Japan gets poorer and wild grasses take over”), so it’s a big deal that Netflix has broken the streaming barrier. April 1 marks the final set of releases, including Miyazaki’s spellbinding epic Howl’s Moving Castle, the poetic yet sombre The Wind Rises, and Pom Poko, an ecological battle between a pack of racoon-dogs and the humans that threaten to take over their leafy habitat. With it comes a niggling worry – namely, that Netflix, which has fast risen to become one of the world’s most powerful production houses, will cash in on the current craze of making good anime into live-action adaptations. Our beloved Ghibli must protected at all costs.
You don’t need to be a film buff to physically recoil at the mention of a “live-action remake”. The genre, if you can even call it that, has garnered a bad rep over the years, becoming synonymous with dumbed-down dialogue, outright creepy CGI (think Tom Hooper’s epic fail Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog), and poorly edited scenes. We all saw what happened when the studio commissioned Adam Wingard’s awful (and whitewashed) remake of horror series Death Note, which not even Willem Dafoe as the demonic Ryuk could rescue from the depths of disparity. Elsewhere, there are fears that the upcoming renditions of Cowboy Bebop and One Piece will face a similar fate.
As much as I would love to see Yubaba’s lavish baby room in Spirited Away recreated to scale IRL, a big part of why people are drawn to anime is because it conveys what reality fails to – that is, its fantasy world building, its unique sense of style, and its often complex storylines, most of which are difficult to translate into a live action feature convincingly. Watching a Studio Ghibli film transports us to a world removed from the harsh realities of dreary London flatshares and global pandemics – and it’s precisely because it’s animated that we are able to create a distinction between the two. With animation, we can imagine ourselves aboard Howl’s moving castle with Calcifer and Turnip Head, or in Muromachi Japan, deep in the ancient forest amid the kodama and animal gods of Princess Mononoke.
From a practical viewpoint, animation gives us access to situations that simply wouldn’t make sense in the real world. In this alternative dreamscape, animals can express real human emotions and walk on their hind legs while still appearing entirely believable. Giant naked babies the size of adult humans can stomp around ancient bathhouses, inhabited by anthropomorphic frogs and duck-shaped spirits (Spirited Away); Pigs can be pilots who wear aviators and fight sky pirates and still ‘get the girl’ (Porco Rosso); Giant racoon dogs can transform into humans and back again while waving their phalluses in the air and not appearing creepy AF (Pom Poko).
“My Neighbour Totoro, arguably the most pure-souled and joyful of all Ghibli films, would be much less heartwarming if the two young girls made friends with a hairy seven foot Totoro with humanoid features and soulless eyes who stalks them at night in empty bus stops”
But the moment these absurd elements are transposed into a photorealistic setting, the cracks where fantasy and reality don’t mesh begin to show. Think of it this way: My Neighbour Totoro, arguably the most pure-souled and joyful of all Ghibli films, would be much less heartwarming if the two young girls made friends with a hairy seven foot Totoro with humanoid features and soulless eyes who stalks them at night in empty bus stops. Or if the Catbus, a literal giant cat shaped like a bus, was rendered to look like a Lovecraftian monster from uncanny valley whose internal organs have been fashioned into seating. You saw what CGI witchcraft the visual effects bros did to Judi Dench in Cats, and if that’s haunting, which it definitely was, I don’t trust them with material as beloved as Totoro.
A Ghibli movie is made so irrevocably Ghibli, ultimately by the animation process itself. The studio is synonymous with its notoriously analogue creative process, whereby every single frame (24 per second) is hand drawn, replicated, and painted over with watercolours. While computer animation software is used to enhance certain aspects within the films, Miyazaki insists that it should only ever be used when completely necessary. In fact, the only Ghibli film to be made entirely using computer animation is Isao Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas, one of the lesser-known contributions to the studio’s canon.
It’s precisely this labour-intensive process, and Miyazaki’s relentless commitment to it, that makes Studio Ghibli’s films so timeless to watch. The hours put into each scene are palpable: the minute details in the facial expressions of Mei as she boards the Catbus, or Califer as he greedily swallows his kindling, the painterly landscapes, the delicate depictions of light and shadows, the changing seasons that fluidly move one scene in Kiki’s Delivery Service to the next. It’s a labour of love, and therein lies its beauty: the viewer can feel the effort gone into each frame. Live-animation, regardless of how detailed or true-to-script, could never recreate the same complexity, and besides, it’d insult the very foundations of traditional animation on which the studio was built, and the reasons why it remains so beloved today.
Saying this, it’s undeniable that many of Ghibli’s plots would make for killer horror films if put in the right hands. Imagine the possibilities if Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle were reimagined by the likes of David Lynch or Guillermo del Toro (circa Pan’s Labyrinth), or if Denis Villeneuve was to put his cyberpunk spin on eco-apocalyptic anti-war thriller Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Sure, the plots would need to be handled in ways that both respect the source material and maintain a careful balance of CGI that doesn’t make said characters look like they’ve walked the wrong way out of FurrieFest, but it’s definitely doable.
Perhaps if live-action remakes were less Hollywood money drivers, made with the sole intention of cashing into people’s nostalgia, and more intentional works of art, this would be a different conversation. Maybe, if crafted by carefully chosen directors who use the source material as springboards for their own unique creations, I’d be more open to a Kathy Bates as Yubaba or Timothee Chalamet as Howl. Grave of the Fireflies, though on the more sombre and solemn, less fantastical end of the Ghibli oeuvre, received stunning live-action Japanese adaptations in 2005 and 2008. Then again, we can rest assured that as long as Miyazaki’s manning the ship, we’re in safe – and stubborn – hands.