Well, this is awkward.
I am a qualified animator, not to mention an avid lover of cartoons, and I tend to be the one who covers animated films here on the site. It’s only natural, then, that I should be the one to write about yesterday’s news. Except that, ironically, I’m probably the least qualified to do so.
Studio Ghibli is one of Japan’s leading animation studios, and by far the most well known Japanese studio in the world. Many of their films are bonefide classics, and their following is enormous. Yesterday morning, the world awoke to the news that the studio was shutting down production and might be closing for good. Words like “heartbreaking” were used in many of the reports, and there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth.
…and I just didn’t care.
I don’t like anime. At one point I hated anime, but I’ve mellowed a little since then. I’ve even seen one or two that I liked! But, as a general rule, I tend to avoid it. As a result, I’ve only seen five Ghibli films. Of those five, I enjoyed one (Howl’s Moving Castle), thought two were okay (Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbour Totoro), and I really disliked the other two. Since those last two are the ones everyone raves about – Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away – I think I’m probably just not cut out for this stuff.
So when I heard this news, I sort of shrugged and carried on. But, as the day went on, it slowly dawned on me what this actually meant, and how much impact it would actually have. This, I realised, was much bigger than just one studio and a handful of films. This would change the whole of the animation landscape, and not for the better.
So, even though I hadn’t cared about the initial reports, I was extremely relieved to hear, later in the day, that they weren’t necessarily true. What does seem to be true is that Ghibli (it’s pronounced “Jibbly”, by the way) are reassessing and restructuring themselves in the wake of Hiyao Miyazaki, one of the founders, retiring. It’s still unclear exactly what the plan is, but it does seem clear the studio will survive in some capacity – likely with fewer permanent staff and more reliance on freelancers.
But what if the reports had been true? What if Studio Ghibli had truly closed its doors for good? And what had made me care, when I hadn’t cared in the morning? The answer, weirdly, is that I’d been thinking about the first time I saw Spirited Away, at university.
As a student I was (and still am) a 3D guy so, of course, my dream was to work at Pixar. But I had friends on the 2D side who desperately wanted to work for Disney, and others who wanted to work at Ghibli. We knew we may never reach them, but it was these impossible goals that pushed us forwards and kept us going. Without those lofty aspirations, we may never have been there in the first place.
Then, around that same time, Disney imploded. Animation stalled, production halted, and it looked like they may never recover. It looked like one of our dreams was dead. It was many long and painful years before they clawed their way back into the public eye and, even now, with Frozen placing them firmly back on top, Disney as we knew it is dead. The world’s leading animation house haven’t made a traditional hand-drawn movie since The Princess and the Frog. And neither has anyone else.
…And Then There Was One…
With Disney out of the race, Ghibli are basically the only 2D animation studio with the clout and the name-recognition to still get major cinema releases – and even those are becoming confined to smaller, artier cinemas. There are still a huge number of studios producing stuff for smaller releases, television, and the big screen abroad but, at least in the West, we never hear the names of those studios. There’s no big productions that we follow; no upcoming releases we look forward to. In these times of CGI ubiquity, Studio Ghibli is the last recognisable name in 2D animation.
That matters. Whatever I may think of anime in general, or Ghibli in particular, it really, truly matters. Because, if we lose our last well-known traditional studio, then we also lose our last great inspirational goal. Future hand-drawn animators will no longer be able to say “My dream is to work at…” because there won’t be anywhere left to dream of.
And that really would be heartbreaking.