The Ghibli You Don't Know
Plus: retro ads and the world's animation news.
Welcome! We’re back with a new issue of the Animation Obsessive newsletter. This is the plan for today:
1 — why the “Ghibli style” isn’t what it sounds like.
2 — the animation news of the week, worldwide.
3 — the retro ad of the week.
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With that said, let’s get moving!
Over the last few decades, it’s hard to think of an animation studio more influential than Studio Ghibli. You see it everywhere, in everything, from the smallest fan animations to the largest Pixar films.
A kind of shorthand has developed to describe Ghibli and its impact along the way. When we watch its films, we’ve come to expect “Ghibli vibes” — probably wholesome ones. Other companies make “Ghibli-esque” or “Ghibli-style” projects. We get the sense that Ghibli’s work has a certain look and feel.
One thing’s confusing, though. When you zoom in on Ghibli’s actual films, it’s tough to tell what the Ghibli style is.
From a visual standpoint, My Neighbor Totoro and My Neighbors the Yamadas come from different worlds. Dark and at times graphic films like Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies don’t fit comfortably beside Kiki’s Delivery Service. And that’s just the famous stuff. In Ghibli’s deeper catalog, you find a wild parade of clashing styles and tones.
This is no secret among Ghibli’s people — they’re the first to admit it. “If you look at the entirety of Ghibli,” its ex-producer Yoshiaki Nishimura once said, “there is no Ghibli-specific style.”
Last year, Gorō Miyazaki made a similar comment:
I don’t know what’s Ghibli-esque. I really don’t. For example, if you look at the movies made by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, what stands out and what’s expressed are different.
Those differences tell us a lot about Ghibli’s way of doing things. Famously, Miyazaki’s Totoro premiered as a double feature with Takahata’s Fireflies. That kind of shocking contrast never really went away.
In the early ‘90s, Takahata explained that this was far from an accident. He went out of his way to be as different from Miyazaki as possible — leaving his comfort zone in the process. As he said:
To tell you the truth, my so-called signature titles, like Only Yesterday and Fireflies — they aren’t my desired genre that I wanted to work on. When comparing myself with other creators, I had a genre that I thought I was good at. Well, I like making people laugh. But when Miyazaki comes up with fun titles, I’d want something different. I mean, I’ve got no choice. Because no one needs a copy. No point in making imitations. So it may be fair to say I had to make my works with a different approach.
Ghibli has favored the unexpected since it started in the ‘80s. Early on, Takahata spent years on a mostly live-action documentary, The Story of Yanagawa’s Canals (1987). Trying to nurture fresh voices and new ideas, Ghibli initially handed Kiki’s Delivery Service to the unproven director Sunao Katabuchi. It was planned as a double bill with a live-action film about women’s volleyball.
With Ghibli, even what looks like a straight line in hindsight was usually a series of left turns at the time. The studio has obsessively tried new things — only some of which came to be. Out of the few that happened, not all became truly famous in Japan. And only a few of the ones that did would become famous in the rest of the world.
Miyazaki ended up directing Kiki’s because of investor pressure. It was outside his wheelhouse — less idealized, more focused on real-world “frustrations.” Yet this quirky film, intended to boost a new director, turned into a defining hit for Miyazaki.
He and the studio only grew more restless. With Princess Mononoke, they gambled the entire company on a strange, violent action film that went against Ghibli’s image in Japan. Certain it would flop, Miyazaki said that they “were prepared for Ghibli to go under.”1 It was all to create something new. He told a documentarian at the time:
I begin to hear of Ghibli as “sweet” or “healing,” and I get an urge to destroy it. For, basically, my job is to continuously go against the audience’s expectations. Should I just come to follow those expected images, I’d be finished!2
Mononoke succeeded, but Ghibli’s desire for originality was very much to a fault. When Takahata made My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999), he threw out the studio’s whole pipeline and tried to capture a groundbreaking watercolor look on computers. “He denied the methodology he himself created and rebuilt it from scratch,” said producer Toshio Suzuki. Production was a disaster, and Yamadas lost money.
Meanwhile, Miyazaki abandoned the traditional plot structure kishōtenketsu by the time of Howl’s Moving Castle. It became “so uninspiring” for him, he later wrote, that he no longer bothered with it. And so the film’s story polarized Japanese viewers — Miyazaki said that many “didn’t understand it at all.” Its reception outraged him.
If there’s such a thing as a “Ghibli style” shared by Miyazaki and Takahata, it might be this refusal to stay in one place, regardless of the cost. The same goes for the other directors who’ve released work through Ghibli. Ocean Waves (1993), yet another attempt to boost fresh voices, has little in common with any of the studio’s other features.
And features are only part of the equation. Since the early ‘90s, Ghibli has released a steady drip of ads, promos, shorts and music videos. Few to none of them offer stereotypical “Ghibli vibes,” but projects like Yoshiyuki Momose’s Judy Jedy series and Ghiblies Episode 2 are definitely a vibe. So is the studio’s quasi-live-action kaiju film by the co-director of Shin Godzilla.
Ghibli’s short-form work is a testing ground. Miyazaki once escaped a creative slump by making a dark and beautiful music video. Later, he got back into directing by doing the partly-3D short Boro the Caterpillar (2018). Ghibli Museum shorts, rarely seen by the public, have given the likes of Hideaki Anno, Akihiko Yamashita (Invisible) and Miyazaki himself the chance to experiment even more.
It’s all part of the Ghibli ecosystem. Finding new methods has always, in a real sense, been the goal.
This is probably one reason the bizarre and widely-panned Earwig and the Witch got an unexpectedly warm reception from Miyazaki. Love it or hate it, Earwig shattered the Ghibli mold yet again. “I think the result was quite interesting,” Miyazaki said. He praised the 3D graphics and wonky story alike.
His words are shocking to some, but, on another level, they make perfect sense. Since the passing of Takahata in 2018, there may not be an artist alive with less respect for Ghibli traditionalism than Hayao Miyazaki himself.
2. Global animation news
The Netflix crisis (and the light at the end of the tunnel)
After the news of chaos and cuts at Netflix Animation last week, we wrote that it was still up in the air whether the company would “chase numbers into oblivion.” This week, Netflix took several steps closer to the void.
The studio suddenly canned at least two animated series, both of which were pretty far along. These were Boons and Curses from Jaydeep Hasrajani and Dino Daycare — the latter executive-produced by Chris Nee (Doc McStuffins). Just today, we learned that Meghan Markle’s series was axed as well. There are rumblings of more on the horizon.
“Our whole crew just got laid off from Boons and Curses over at Netflix,” director Ian Laser tweeted Friday. “The work we did was amazing. So sad no one will get to see the beautiful things we were working on. Loved this crew.”
As Netflix and its animation branch continue to flail, it seems likely that things will get worse before they get better. And yet the whole situation also inspired what may be the week’s most important piece of animation writing.
It happened on Twitter. Responding to the crisis at Netflix, director Shannon Tindle told a story publicly that’s long been famous behind the scenes — how Kubo and the Two Strings was taken from him at Laika. He was its primary director, but he wasn’t even credited in the role when his film debuted. “I lost confidence in who I was and what I could do,” he explained.
But he bounced back, and he reveals this information now to inspire those who’ve just lost their jobs. Tindle concluded:
Don’t let other people, corporations or setbacks get in the way of your stories. People want to hear them. They want to see them. We’re the ones with the dreams that people want to experience. That is POWERFUL. Know that. Embrace it.
Best of the rest
On that note, Travis Knight at American studio Laika is directing a new stop-motion film.
You already know about the successful Spirited Away stage show. Now, Japan’s Joe Hisaishi is working on a stage adaptation of Totoro in Britain.
American studio Chromosphere and creator Elizabeth Ito, the pairing behind City of Ghosts, are teasing a new short called Atilla the Grilla.
The upcoming Ukrainian feature Mavka: The Forest Song landed one of the few slots at Animation Day in Cannes, where projects hunt for “sales agents, distributors or festival exposure.” And over two dozen refugee students got scholarships to the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts.
In Russia, some theaters are now playing Western films illegally — including Turning Red. Also, Russian studios attended an animation summit in Argentina, where they saw positive signs for co-production and international sales.
The Bad Guys continues its box-office success in America, ranking first for two weekends in a row. As of today, it’s made just under $120 million worldwide.
Australian indie darling Felix Colgrave (Double King, Throat Notes) dropped a teaser for his cool-looking new project Donks.
Also, the weird and visually lush Indian short Wade is finally public.
America’s scariest animation headline this week: “AI Has Finally Arrived in Animation Studios.” Its function? Studio management.
Lastly, we rounded up six amazing online resources for artists — including the world’s best pencil test directory, guides buried on the old blogs of Disney veterans and more. It’s all free.
Thanks for reading today’s issue so far! We hope you’re enjoying it.
The final part of this newsletter is for members (paying subscribers). Below, we dive into a classic commercial from the 1960s, designed by illustrator William Steig, that helped to revitalize animated ads as a medium. We imported a rare book all the way from Ireland to write about this one — it’s a fascinating story.
Members, read on. We’ll see everyone else in the next issue!