Studio Ghibli at Its Most Stylish
Plus: global animation news and a gorgeous Chinese film.
Welcome back! It’s Sunday — and that brings a new issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. Here’s our plan:
1 — inside Studio Ghibli’s Judy Jedy music videos.
2 — the animation news around the world.
3 — eye-popping animation from China.
New here? We publish every Sunday and Thursday. It’s free to sign up for our Sunday issues — get them in your inbox every weekend:
All set? Let’s go!
1. Studio Ghibli’s chic side
This is a revised reprint of an article that first ran in our newsletter on December 23, 2021. It was exclusive to paying subscribers then — now, we’re making it free to all.
Studio Ghibli is a big tent. Outside Japan, it’s sometimes pictured as a few major names working under a house style — but that hasn’t been the case in decades.
Ghibli animated on Neon Genesis Evangelion. It revolutionized digital animation with My Neighbors the Yamadas. And it’s had a sizable stable of lesser-known directors — on everything from advertisements (Delicious Tea) to short films (Ghiblies Episode 2) to feature films (Ocean Waves).
Digging through Ghibli’s deep cuts is a rewarding, eye-opening experience. The company you think you know melts away — it’s much wilder, and more vital, than the stereotypes suggest. Many of Ghibli’s best-known stylistic ideas were things it tried once or twice, decades ago, before it got restless and pivoted once again.
Take Ghibli’s music video trilogy Judy Jedy as an example. This wonderfully fun series, released in 2004 and 2005, was masterminded by Yoshiyuki Momose — a Ghibli veteran who’s worked on countless classics, even storyboarding on Grave of the Fireflies. Judy Jedy is a footnote in his career, but an intriguing one.
The series, Momose said, came about mostly because a Japanese band needed help. He’d never directed a music video before. With the way it all turned out, you couldn’t tell.
The three Judy Jedy videos (Portable Airport, Space Station No. 9 and A Flying City Plan) tell a loosely connected story. But, really, they’re about a style and a vibe. There’s something slick and chic about the way that the music gels with the flat, bright design — and how many creative, futuristic ideas pop up throughout.
It started when Capsule, a Shibuya-kei and electronica group, wanted to do a sci-fi video for its song Portable Airport (2004). But not the typical, mechanical sci-fi. They asked for a “simple and clean image,” according to the band’s leader Yasutaka Nakata.
Momose got involved because he’d collaborated with Capsule on a hit commercial series, Let’s Eat at Home, for House Foods in 2003. The ads were warm and nostalgic, reflecting mid-century Japan (see them here). Momose had taken them over from Hayao Miyazaki but been stumped on what to do with them — until producer Toshio Suzuki handed him Capsule’s music.1 This was the start of a fruitful partnership.
After Nakata explained the visual direction he wanted for Portable Airport, something clicked for Momose. It reminded him of how people had viewed the future when he was a child in the 1960s, in “Astro Boy and Thunderbirds.” This was promising. When Momose came to the project, it was just a 90-second announcement clip. He turned it into an ambitious, full-length music video.
There was an optimism to portrayals of the future in the ‘60s, Momose said, that had disappeared over time in favor of Blade Runner-style grimness. Nostalgia wasn’t his goal — for him, the vision of the ‘60s had “a kind of universality” that transcended its time. He was recreating it not to return to the past, but to capture a sensibility that’d vanished.
In the retrofuturistic world Momose crafted for Portable Airport and its sequels, mod is back, people drive flying mid-century cars and everything fits in a purse. It’s like The Jetsons but cooler.
Ghibli brought in an all-star team of animators for Portable Airport. It was made in around a month and a half, Momose said, but the artists were so talented that it didn’t drop the quality. Among them were legendary aces like Shinji Ôtsuka, Takeshi Honda and Osamu Tanabe (The Tale of Princess Kaguya).
Their 2D animation is very fun, but it’s not the only reason Portable Airport and its sequels are so exciting to look at. There’s a heavy 3D component to the art, too, that’s hardly aged in the years since these videos dropped.
It’s common to hear that Miyazaki and Ghibli itself are strident proponents of 2D animation, but it’s never really been true. Miyazaki leaned on CGI in On Your Mark (1995), his first and only music video, and it plays an instrumental role in both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Many people hate the look of Ghibli’s Earwig and the Witch — but not Miyazaki, who enjoyed the film and praised its 3D animation.
Which is all to say that the CGI in the Judy Jedy series isn’t an anomaly for Ghibli. But it still stands out as an especially effective use of 3D.
Through clever lighting, color, shading and design, the 2D and 3D aspects in Judy Jedy mesh together almost without a single seam. It’s not that the 3D parts look 2D — it’s that each is designed to fit into the other, creating a whole piece that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Portable Airport premiered in theaters during 2004, in front of Hideaki Anno’s live-action version of Cutie Honey. The video was originally planned as a one-off, but Momose and Nakata started to get ideas — they even considered a feature film. In the end, they made two more music videos in the same style.
The sequel, Space Station No. 9, centers on a fashion show. Momose was inspired by Ghibli’s in-studio show for its “Tailor Studio Ghibli” clothing line — where staffers had served as models. This time, Nakata composed a new song with a story progression in mind. The car chase was his idea, as was the design of the space station.
Released in 2005, Space Station No. 9 contains some of the most eye-grabbing moments in the entire Judy Jedy series. (Just try to forget the way the protagonist folds her car into a little rectangle after you’ve seen it once.) And Momose and Nakata were already planning another sequel — adding details to Space Station that foreshadow A Flying City Plan, the end of the Judy Jedy trilogy.
For the finale, Nakata once again thought up the setting — a floating construction site. The transparent robots (called “gawarobo”) were Momose’s idea.
A Flying City Plan debuted in theaters during September 2005, in front of another live-action film. It ends with the protagonist flying off in one of those mid-century cars, throwing a bouquet of flowers out the window. And the bouquet stays there, mid-air — a simple and clean design, floating in low gravity.
The Judy Jedy trilogy originally came out under Ghibli’s “Studio Kajino” brand, a little-used subsidiary aimed at the live-action film market. Given that the videos now appear in the Ghibli ga Ippai Special Short Short collection, it’s safe to ignore the Kajino label. At heart, these were always Ghibli projects.
Judy Jedy might not fit the standard picture of the studio, but that picture has never been complete. Innovation and new ideas have defined Ghibli since the ‘80s, and these three videos proved it again. This work is undeniable — and still as fresh as ever.
2. Global animation news
Leonid Shvartsman, 1920–2022
The news broke on July 2. One of the greatest artists ever to work in animation, Leonid Shvartsman, died in Moscow. He was 101 years old.
It’s hard to convey the size of this loss. Not many people in animation, anywhere in the world, have had careers and reputations like Shvartsman’s. His passing is the end of an era, comparable to the death of Hungary’s Marcell Jankovics last year, but at an even greater scale.
Born in Minsk in 1920, Shvartsman was the son of an accountant. He fell in love with art at a young age, and, by 1938, was attending the Academy of Arts in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Around that time, though, everything changed. As one Russian author explained:
In May 1941 he was summoned to the military registration and enlistment office. Just routine spring conscription. At the appointed day and time he came to the office, having bade farewell to relatives and friends, with a small suitcase in his hands. And, imagine, his personal file proved to be lost! “The officers were obviously embarrassed. I was told to go home and be ready to come when they summoned me again. They never did.” That was in May, and a month later, on June 22, the Great War started. Not one of his peers summoned that spring ever returned from the battlefield.2
As a civilian, Shvartsman was caught in the hell of World War II. He dug trenches and worked at the Kirov Plant before being evacuated from Leningrad, where his mother and nephew ultimately died during the siege.
In 1945, the war ended — and Shvartsman encountered a piece of art that would redirect the course of his life. He saw Bambi in Moscow. It was “an astonishing experience, a real shock for me,” he said. A number of people watching with him believed that the characters were live animals. It was magic.
By 1948, Shvartsman was working as an artist at Soyuzmultfilm.
It’s impossible to list all of the projects to which Shvartsman contributed during his half-century career at the studio. In the ‘50s, he was an art director and key creative force on The Red Flower and The Snow Queen — Hayao Miyazaki’s favorite film. In the ‘60s, Shvartsman worked on Soviet classics like The Mitten and Gena the Crocodile. For the latter, he created the iconic design of the character Cheburashka.
Along the way, Shvartsman was teaching. Yuri Norstein, one of his students, recalled watching Shvartsman “approach the easel in his serene unhurried manner” — “always most tactful and patient.” It was a testament to Shvartsman’s humility. At the time, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he was considered quite possibly the best artist in Russian animation.
And so his career continued throughout the 20th century. He stayed one of the most influential artists, directors and educators in world animation. A Kitten Named Woof, The Little Monkeys, 38 Parrots — many of Russia’s most defining cartoons wouldn’t exist without him.
In the 21st century, Shvartsman remained in the public eye as the elder statesman of Russian animation. Back in February, his signature was at the top of the letter that Russia’s animators published in opposition to the war in Ukraine.
Yet none of these details capture the person Shvartsman truly was. For that, we’ll end with the words of Hiroko Kojima, one of Japan’s leading experts on Russian animation. She wrote this a little over a decade ago, when Shvartsman was around 90 years old:
I first heard of Shvartsman from Yuri Norstein. He called him “my teacher!” And for me Yuri himself was not only an outstanding teacher but a really great master of cinematography, so I was a bit shocked by those words. And that is why, when I came to meet Shvartsman personally, my heart was beating frantically as if I was facing a “living god.” And, indeed, there is an amazingly holy ambience surrounding this man. Shvartsman has never since disappointed me. The more I come to know him the stronger is my feeling of his rare inner holiness.
Shvartsman says not a single minute of his long life has been in vain: he makes you feel the events of some remote times as close and real. I shuddered at the thought of his toils during the Second World War, of the effect those hardships might have produced upon this gentle, vulnerable soul... Maybe here is the clue for the special warmth in his images longing so desperately for serenity and beauty. All his colors, shapes and shades are filled with that warmth of the compassionate heart. He is more than simply an inventive director-artist or brilliant producer of animation.
Best of the rest
In America, the week’s big story was the ratification of The Animation Guild’s new agreement. Roughly 87% of voters supported it. “The final contract does not go nearly as far as some members had hoped, but it does make incremental gains, and organizers hope it sets the table for future talks,” reports Variety.
The American feature The Sea Beast, a much-hyped Netflix original, is out and getting positive reviews (94% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Another American release to check out: Atilla the Grilla, a City of Ghosts-style project by the creator and studio behind City of Ghosts. It’s now available on YouTube — and very charming.
Japanese director Masashi Ando opened up to Animation Scoop about the personal side of his film The Deer King, and his worries about fatherhood.
If you’ve been enjoying the Chinese graduation films, don’t miss Wuhu Animator Space’s two-parter on the Central Academy of Fine Arts School of Urban Design.
There’s chaos in Korean animation. Despite the Annecy success of films like Persona, the city of Seoul has inexplicably stopped funding animated shorts, and cut animation support across the board.
To boost Russia’s struggling industry, the government is preparing a bill to heavily reduce the insurance premiums paid by animation studios.
In Canada, the Ottawa Animation Festival revealed the seven films in its feature competition. Among them are Dozens of Norths (Koji Yamamura), Barber Westchester (Jonni Phillips) and The Island (Anca Damian).
Vulture reports that American streamers use data to guide productions, but also hide that data from the teams actually making the shows. (As director Jorge Gutierrez might put it: “Hollywood.”)
Finally, we followed up last week’s issue by asking what the influence of anime really means.
Thanks for reading so far! Hope you’re enjoying today’s issue.
The final section below is for paying subscribers (members). We’re looking at a piece of independent Chinese anime from 2017 — a visually stunning short film with an interesting story behind it. We hope you’ll check it out.
Members, read on. Everyone else — we’ll see you next time!
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Animation Obsessive to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.