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The Impact of Studio Ghibli Films on the Culture οf Japan

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The thrilling animated fantasies οf Japan’s Studio Ghibli have won fans all over the world and have a significant impact on the culture οf Japan. An eye-catching story of a young girl separated from her parents after falling into a realm of Japanese spirits, for many Australian audiences the Oscar-winner for the best-animated feature was the gateway to a brave new world of animation. It was one full of all sorts of crazy ghosts, witches and monsters, where the norm was mind-boggling and unusual occurrences.

Grotesque spirits come together for herb-scented soaks, and soothing back rubs in a bathhouse; little girls are abducted and brought to a cat kingdom where they are rewarded in marriage with the Cat Prince’s paw; pirates are operating steam-powered flying machines are searching for a treasure-filled island in the sky.

If any of this sounds familiar at all, the chances are you’ve already stumbled across some of Japan’s celebrated Studio Ghibli output. This is the cartoon company behind Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and the new Howl’s Moving Castle, which was compared to the Disney studio.

Pixar, the American company that gave us Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, has more in stock. The success of Studio Ghibli is due in large part to one man. His co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki, is considered one of the world’s greatest animation directors. His fans include the Aardman director Nick Park and the Pixar supremo John Lassiter, who says οf Miyazaki’s work: “His words are the most magical, special, unusual places you have ever seen.”

The Impact of Studio Ghibli Films on the Culture οf Japan

Founded in 1985 , the company takes its name from the word given to the hot Saharan wind by Italian pilots in Libya at the beginning of World War II. Miyazaki has been cited as saying he wanted to “blow a hot wind through the world οf Japanese animation”.

Everyone in the films has a moral responsibility and social responsibility, never just a cute character. And then there is the generosity οf the imagination. “You see other films, and you have your main character and strong story arc, and that’s it, whereas, in a Ghibli film, you have three or four stories.”

Previously, Japanese animation was the domain of pre-teen Pokemon fans, and antisocial teenage boys who exposed themselves in the more negative fringes of anime – Urotsukidoji films are a particularly unpleasant example with their pornographic demon rape sequences. But Ghibli soon grew to be the dominant force in Japanese animation; the company is so well-loved in Japan that there is a waiting list for six months to obtain entry tickets to Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum. But while Studio Ghibli has long been a cultural sensation in Japan, it is mostly due to the popularity of two films: Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away that its high profile overseas is.

The first, made in 1997, is an environmental parable that pits the animal spirits οf a beleaguered forest against the human inhabitants οf the mining town that threatens it. Princess Mononoke became the most successful Japanese film to be released in Japan and was released with an English voice track in America and the UK. (Goodfellow 2005, A21-A23)

It was the critical and commercial success οf Spirited Away that alerted Western audiences to the treasures hidden in the Ghibli back catalogue. Polding, who works for the City Screen cinema chain as well as the Cambridge Film Festival, recalls the first season οf Ghibli films her cinemas ran five years ago. “It was then that we realised people were desperate to see these films,” she says. “Everything was selling out, no matter what we put on and no matter what time.”

Which explains why, in addition to screening at Cambridge, this latest retrospective will then tour around the country. The Ghibli retrospective includes the UK premiere οf Miyazaki’s latest film,

Howl’s Moving Castle, an enchanting movie that combines many οf his pet themes: a young girl protagonist who gains confidence with self-knowledge, sorcery, housework and an anti-war message.

Along with Miyazaki’s two significant successes, two οf his earlier movies will also be screened, Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service, a charming little film which, to the dismay οf Miyazaki fans, Disney are planning to remake as a live-action picture.

The fact that the Ghibli season is almost exclusively made up οf films by Miyazaki rather than his colleagues at the company is no coincidence. (Fukunaga 2006, 206-222)

Isao Takahata, although popular in Japan, has not enjoyed the overseas profile οf Miyazaki, perhaps because in films such as his most recent, My Neighbours the Yamadas, the artwork is sparse and the humour relies on dialogue in unconventional, ordinary Japanese which is somewhat lost in translation.

In Australia, veteran director Hayao Miyazaki’s film was lavishly praised by critics and crossed over from cult to mainstream family audience, earning more than $1 million at the box office. On DVD and video, it’s Australia’s most successful anime (Japanese animation) to date, with sales οf nearly $1.5 million.

This, however, is nothing compared with its success in Japan, where it became a national phenomenon, with box-office earnings οf $US234 million, surpassing Titanic.

But then, as the product οf Japan’s most successful animation house, Studio Ghibli, the film had hardly appeared from nowhere. After its founding by Miyazaki and fellow director Isao Takahata in 1985, Ghibli has turned out to be spectacular stories — stories that will win small commercial seasons in five Australian capital cities between July and September, along with a series of festival screenings.

The two directors, frustrated by their experiences in TV animation, founded the studio in the wake οf the commercial success οf Miyazaki’s post-apocalyptic feature Nausicaa: In the Valley οf the wind (1984), based on a comic-book series created by Miyazaki.

Among the wondrous creations in Nausicaa’s wake were 1992’s Porco Rosso and Takahata’s Pom Poko (1994). The former starred an aviator who happened to be half-pig, half-human — Miyazaki is an aircraft enthusiast, and Ghibli was purportedly the name that World WarII Italian pilots gave to a Saharan wind. Pom Poko was an extraordinarily imaginative eco-fable in which racoons with transformational powers battled human developers who threatened their forest environment.

In 1997, the Melbourne film festival held a retrospective οf Studio Ghibli work. A festival οf Japanese animation during the 2000 Olympics gave Sydney audiences a taste and, a year later, Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke became the first Ghibli film to gain commercial release in Australia.

Unlike Hollywood studios, where the concept is king and directors are expected to bend to executive demands, Ghibli’s success is based on the creative integrity οf its two-star directors (who are both in their 60s), says Spirited Away producer Toshio Suzuki.`We have these two excellent directors who are both very demanding perfectionists,” says Suzuki from Tokyo.`They want all details perfect and in place. These two have long been allies and friends, but they’re also rivals. That’s the biggest reason that Studio Ghibli has been able to do such quality films for such a long time.”

In the universe, according to Ghibli, stories that initially appear to be aimed at children balloon quickly into quasi-surrealistic visions underscored by severe adult themes, particularly environmentalism. (Lamarre 2002, 329-367)

Suzuki points to Marc Chagall and Hieronymous Bosch as the Western painters to have most impressed Miyazaki, with whom the producer once travelled to Lisbon to see Bosch’s Temptation οf Saint Anthony.

A more pertinent influence is the Japanese ghost story tradition, which has long been felt in Japanese cinema via such classic films as Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964).

As you know, Japan has a unique philosophy οf animism,” Suzuki says. “Japanese thinking is extremely influenced by the four philosophies that came to Japan, namely Buddhism, Christianity, in the Edo era Confucianism, and Marxism. But animism has been with us for a very long time, [as have] the 8million gods οf Japan, the multitude οf deities … depicted in Spirited Away. Recently these gods and deities were not very popular in Japan, so the movie helped to revive awareness οf those traditions. We don’t know if our movie had anything to do with this, but in Japan, we are in an economic depression, and it seems the trend is that intuition seems to be οf more importance than reasoning right now.”  Explaining the attraction οf green themes to Ghibli, the producer harks back to the post-World War II era when much οf Japan was gripped by poverty.

As we were trying to revive the economy, people worked hard to improve their living standards — but that caused much damage to our environment,” Suzuki says. “Traditionally in Japan, we were making stories about how the evil men who stole or killed would be punished by the good. We were in a social situation where the bad was destroying the environment, so it was natural for us to depict that in our films.”  A propensity for female heroes is another notable feature οf Ghibli’s films — including Spirited Away, Nausicaa, My Neighbour Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) – which Suzuki puts down to Ghibli’s early years coinciding with a period “when women started to go out to the workplace. So there was a lot οf energy in females in society, while at the same time Japanese men weren’t doing very well. It was natural to choose women as heroes because they were the ones who were being energetic and doing things.”  Film-maker Philip Brophy, who curated the Melbourne film festival’s retrospective, says another factor behind Ghibli’s strong females is the highly developed Japanese comic-book market a strong influence on animated films. Although Westerners commonly think οf Japanese comics as being mainly about sadism and violence, the market is highly segmented and contains a vast genre οf stories about girls aimed at a young female readership.

Comic-book reading is widespread across different Japanese age groups, and its cinematic offspring can attract audiences quite different from its mainly growing Western fan base. Porco Rosso, which many Australian viewers would assume is aimed at children, was made with an audience οf Japanese salarymen in their 50s in mind, says Brophy. Conversely, Princess Mononoke attracted a family audience, despite being the most violent Ghibli title.

The studio developed a strong relationship with US Pixar studio in recent years. Toy Story producer John Lasseter helped finesse a US distribution contract for Ghibli at the Mickey Mouse company before the latter’s recent corporate split from Disney. Yet despite the rising popularity of Ghibli in the West, Suzuki maintains the studio is still producing films only for Japanese audiences. While success in outside markets is undoubtedly welcome, it is not essential to the company’s core philosophy, which is to protect its films’ creative integrity.

We just have to believe that what we’re doing with our films is right, and it’s up to the audience to judge what they think when they see our films on screen,” Suzuki says. In a world where corporate marketing considerations so often hold sway over the creative impulse, these are heartening words.

As stated in “The Anime Encyclopedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917,” the first Japanese animation was made in January 1917, and was a short animation of 5 minutes. Although, as a devoted fan, I know that just last year, it was discovered that the earliest Japanese animation was produced in 1907. This untitled short consisted of οf 50 frames and depicted a young boy writing the Chinese characters for “moving picture” then turning towards the viewer, removing his hat, and offering a salute. In 1917 there was a total οf three short films produced and the creator οf one οf them was Jun-ichi Kouchi who would later become the teacher οf Noboru Ofuji; Japan’s first globally recognized film festival animator after the war (it should be remembered that Pablo Picasso received a rave review of his 1952 short film Kujira).

Chikara to Onna No Yononaka appearing in 1932, was the first short animated film with dialogues in Japanese. On April 12, 1945, the 74-minute animation Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors appeared. The movie is known as Japan’s first feature-length animation. At that time comparisons with the revolutionary animated products οf the West seemed to be a no-contest.

During the year 1956 a significant animation studio was formed; Toei animation which produced in 1958 the first colour anime feature film “Hakujaden”. Everybody agrees that the start οf modern anime was marked with this feature. Toei’s first few features were very closely to the Disney template. They were based upon popular folk tales — Asian rather than European — the heroes had many cute, funny-animal companions and the movies were filled with musical numbers. In the 1st January οf, 1963 Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy in English) was broadcasted in Japanese TV. A black-and-white half-hour anime. Atom was not the first anime series broadcast in Japan, contrary to popular belief; the distinction falls to Manga Calendar, which started broadcasting in 1962. Atom, however, was the first show to feature recurring characters in a continuing story.

Astro Boy was the first creation οf Mushi Pro’s animation studio and the founder οf this studio was Osamu Tezuka. In the meantime, Toei released in 1968 Hols: Prince οf the Sun. Hols is often seen as the first significant break from the typical anime style and the beginning οf a later movement οf “experimental” or “progressive anime. Progressive anime refers to anime that truly breaks boundaries and goes against the stereotypes in the medium and is the sub-genre I follow and value the most. Also, the first adult-oriented TV anime was broadcast in the year 1971 and was named Lupin III. During the ’80s and after the popular and critical success οf Hayao Miyazaki’s film Nausicaa, theatrical releases became more ambitious each film trying to outclass or outspend the other film. This period οf lavish budgeting and experimentation would reach its zenith with two οf the most expensive anime film productions ever: Royal Space Force: The Wings οf Honneamise (1987) and Akira (1988).

  • Lamarre, Thomas., From animation to anime: drawing movements and moving drawings. Japan Forum, Sep2002, Vol. 14 Issue 2, p329-367
  • Fukunaga, Natsuki., “Those anime students”: Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture. Journal οf Adolescent & Adult Literacy, Nov2006, Vol. 50 Issue 3, p206-222
  • Goodfellow, Melanie., Ghibli fights to draw big auds in U.S., Europe. Variety, 8/29/2005, Vol. 400 Issue 2, pA21-A23″Anime” Merriam-Webster Online. 05 April 2006. <http://www.m-w.com/dictionary/Anime>
  • “Anime” Britannica Encyclopaedia. 05 April 2006. <http://www.britannica.com/search?query=Anime&ct=&searchSubmit.x=0&searchSubmit.y=0>
  • Clements, Jonathan and Helen McCarthy. The Anime Encyclopaedia: A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917 Stone Bridge Press, 2001.
  • Patten, Fred. Anime History. Newtype, Issue Jan.2004 A.D.Vision Publications.

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