May 25 to 30 is Studio Ghibli Week at Polygon. To celebrate the arrival of the Japanese animation house’s library on digital and streaming services, we’re surveying the studio’s history, impact, and biggest themes. Follow along via our Ghibli Week page.
If you went entirely by North American box-office receipts, Studio Ghibli movies wouldn’t look special. Spirited Away, the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, made $10 million in the U.S. Howl’s Moving Castle made about $5 million. Twelve years later, Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name took Spirited Away’s crown as the most successful anime film of all time, but only made $5 million in the States. In January 2020, Shinkai’s follow-up, Weathering with You, made over $7 million in its single week of release.
There seems to be a box-office ceiling for anime movies, but that ceiling does not exist in American culture at large. Your Name’s success in the U.S. looks provincial compared to the artistic sea-change that came with Spirited Away, or the cultural pervasiveness of My Neighbor Totoro. When I saw Weathering with You at my local multiplex, people gasped when Taki and Mitsuha from Your Name made their cameos, but that reaction was strictly that of an anime fan.
Though Spirited Away benefited from the 2000s anime boom and bust (it won the Best Animated Film Oscar two weeks before Dragon Ball Z finished airing in the U.S.), it was immediately anointed a generation-defining classic — not only for anime, but for cinema itself. Meanwhile, Your Name remains a hidden gem in the U.S. If you bring up Hayao Miyazaki, the exalted animator and co-founder of Ghibli, in casual conversation with strangers, you get smiles of recognition and identification. Bring up anime, and you have to explain yourself before the medium’s prurient baggage takes you down with it.
Spirited Away is still a masterpiece, and Totoro is my perfect large son, but there is a gap between the widespread reception of Studio Ghibli films and that of other artful anime that isn’t just about quality. The films are treated like cinema, and they get unself-conscious praise in newspapers and film-buff circles. Even Neon Genesis Evangelion didn’t get that when it was re-released on Netflix in 2019. Nostalgia might play into Ghibli’s reception for some, but probably not for the critics of Cahiers du cinema, who have only ever placed two pieces of Japanese animation on its venerated year-end 10 Best list: Spirited Away and Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. Ghibli doesn’t just escape anime’s reputation by accident. What is special about these films is that the animal spirit driving the studio is explicitly against anime and the culture around it.
Co-founders Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and Yasuyoshi Tokuma are central to the Studio Ghibli ethos, but Miyazaki has always been the most outspoken one, and the force behind the studio’s philosophy. (Plus, Totoro from Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro is the Ghibli logo, not the children from Takahata’s best-known Ghibli film, Grave of the Fireflies.) Based on Miyazaki’s essays collection Starting Point: 1979-1996, along with years of on-the-record conversations, it’s not an exaggeration to say that he hates the past half-century or so of anime. He’s often expressed his distaste for the insular, childish culture of fandom as well as the creatively stifling conditions under which it is made. He may not have ever really said “Anime was a mistake,” but you can feel Miyazaki’s anger and near-grief over the state of anime in his writings and interviews.
Anime was largely uninteresting to Miyazaki from the very beginning. As a new animator at Toei in 1963, he harbored a dream to become a manga artist like Osamu Tezuka. What kept him going was the periodic encounter with absolute beauty in animated movies like Hakujaden — the first full-color, widescreen anime feature — and the Russian film Snow Queen. Nevertheless, by 1979, he was jaded. “Today, I rarely watch any animation that amazes me or makes my heart pound with excitement,” he said in his essay “Nostalgia for a Lost World.” This anhedonia sunk into outright disgust over the next decade.
In Miyazaki’s mind, mainstream anime’s artistic limitations are tied into its mercenary production culture. “The world of anime makes its business out of themes like departing for new horizons or love, while pretending not to be conscious of this commercial reality,” he wrote, indicting the pipeline of how manga are packaged to be made into anime, anime sell ads for toy companies, and then those toy companies make toys of the anime.
Miyazaki said this in 1982, during a time of differential abundance in Japan. It was the peak of the country’s “economic miracle,” when domestic demand was climbing before the inflated Japanese asset market burst. “We are able to listen to large amounts of music and watch large numbers of videos. But only a small fraction of these move us.” In Miyazaki’s mind, it was a period of empty decadence amid real economic troubles, of which anime was the key symbol: “No matter how good the animation is, when we have too much, it is no longer of good quality.” Production was its own end, rather than the means to reach other people with art.
Miyazaki made these statements before shows like 1983’s Creamy Mami made anime transmedia empires the rule rather than the exception, and perhaps more importantly, created the model of otaku consumption and obsession. After Castle of Cagliostro had a mixed reception in 1979, Miyazaki focused on his Nausicaä manga until he could adapt it, on the condition that he could direct it.
By the beginning of 1988, Miyazaki had established himself as a creator, and he and Takahata were about to release My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies, respectively, to represent the breadth of artistry that Studio Ghibli planned to create. Miyazaki was also freer to describe the artistic aspects of commercial anime — aspects that still exist today — that upset him so. In essence, Miyazaki’s problem with anime is the pervasive, workaday nihilism that affects everything from the production to the treatment of workers to the thematic content.
“I simply can’t discuss the business we are in without a bit of bitterness. Compared to some of the works from the 1950s that I will always hold as a gold standard, the animation that we are making in the 1980s resembles the food served on jumbo jet airliners … The emotions and thoughts that should be so moving have given way to showiness, nervousness, and titillation. Frankly I despise the truncated word ‘anime’ because to me it only symbolizes the current desolation of our industry.”
TV animation schedules were brutal, and still are, with sacrosanct deadlines. Cel animation, though convenient for such schedules, led to a look that Miyazaki found skin-deep. He felt that animators had to consciously work against it. Animation made with cels are striking, he thought, but not emotive. Of course, Miyazaki felt that he and his colleagues were the only ones taking this into account in their work. After all, they were animating every frame.
For others, tight deadlines also led to less actual animation. In some cases, this refined certain classic anime techniques, like cutting to reflective still images while characters were talking elsewhere. These techniques were originally developed in manga, which also faces tight turnarounds and the need for artistic shortcuts. The same cost-cutting impulse likely inspired the voyeuristic pans up and down women’s bodies commonly found in anime.
For Miyazaki, the most salient artistic consequence of this process was that character designs were packed with components and charm points to make viewers recognize the crude attributes they were meant to represent — sexiness, cuteness, coolness, and the like. Single images could tell you everything you would want to know about a character, while offering some novel eye candy. Miyazaki called this “overexpression.” Animation stopped being evocative of life, and instead transmitted packaged, easily consumed constructs that had to keep changing in appearance, so viewers wouldn’t realize the lack of creativity. This novelty-chasing led to an arms race, as new techniques lost their impact. Suddenly, every character had blue or pink hair, was covered in trinkets but little clothing, and was piloting a robot that joined up with 17 other robots to make a giant robot at the end of every episode. At least, this is how Miyazaki saw it.
Similarly overmanaged was the spirit of anime. Characters did not have inner lives, they had jobs. Just as they served a single purpose as a product, they served single purposes as characters. Do-gooders did good just because that is what they did, and evil was just as humdrum. These were all placeholders for real conflict, substitutes that form the pap of anime storytelling, but anime was not alone in this for Miyazaki: “the more popular and common films still must be filled with a purity of emotion … and in that context, I must say that I hate Disney’s works. The barrier to both entry and exit of Disney films is too low and too wide. To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.” Perhaps it is this last point that Miyazaki finds most similar to anime.
Though all Miyazaki’s criticisms of anime then and now are valid to some extent, Studio Ghibli still played the game despite his vehemence. The studio was and remains a merchandising empire. Totoro alone has sold over a billion dollars in plushes and other branded objects. Ghibli hasn’t fallen off the “Spaceballs: The Flamethrower” cliff like many other anime properties have, but the studio at least recognizes that merchandising is key to its survival as an independent entity. Miyazaki would probably say that other properties are made to sell toys, while his work sells toys to make the movies, but it’s unclear how clean that distinction actually is in practice. The best evidence in Ghibli’s favor on this point may be the build quality of their plush toys.
Ghibli and Miyazaki have a covert relationship with the bawdy otaku aspects of anime that have concerned American parents for over two decades, but the relationship is nevertheless there, especially in Miyazaki’s creative origin as an animator. A central part of Miyazaki’s origin story is that, when he watched Hakujaden as a teenager, he fell in love with the heroine. “I can still remember the pangs of emotion I felt at the sight of the incredibly beautiful, young female character, Bai-Niang, and how I went to see the film over and over as a result. It was like being in love, and Bai-Niang became a surrogate girlfriend for me at a time when I had none.”
This is the stereotypical, quasi-romantic relationship of the straight male otaku fan with his narrow interests in general, and with fictional women in particular. Though Miyazaki doesn’t make that connection, he’s nevertheless incredibly embarrassed by this story. He admits this many, many times in lectures and articles, and speaks about the experience in a more sublimated way, saying adolescents “often find themselves wishing they could live in a world of their own — a world they can say is truly theirs.” Anime excites the adolescent viewer to start to play in this personal sandbox, according to Miyazaki. For once, the creator isn’t judging anime in this statement, but suggesting that its ability to inspire just needs to be used consciously, even if the desired result is salaciousness.
American audiences have grown to treat Miyazaki’s depiction of young women as a model for the rest of the film and TV industry, but Miyazaki himself is again a little more complicated. For starters, he says that he gave his manga version of Nausicaä large breasts because “her bosom has to allow people to feel secure; she embraces them as they are dying.” Honestly, I don’t know what to do with this statement without going into some psychoanalytic speculation, and now you don’t either.
In an interview about Kiki’s Delivery Service, he emphasizes that Kiki has to be an appealing girl for the film to work, but doesn’t quite explain why she is appealing. It is as if what is appealing about Kiki is too obvious to be said. These “appealing girls” appear throughout Miyazaki’s filmography. Even though these depictions aren’t really sexualized, they do present a narrow selection of virtues and characteristics that Miyazaki finds admirable in a person, specifically a young woman.
It’s hard not to think of Miyazaki using Bai-Niang as a prototype that has been iterated upon for decades. A pet snake that transforms into a beautiful woman, she gives up her magic powers to live with her love, the pet snake’s original owner. An echo of Miyazaki’s adolescent feelings are present in his work from Nausicaä to Princess Mononoke to Ponyo, even if it has long since been grounded in honest emotion and experience. Bai-Niang isn’t the peppy adventurer that many Miyazaki heroines are, but she is, like them, a pointed foil for the vapid, juvenile consumer culture that he saw around him. It seems that parents don’t mind the emotional content of these movies, because they are implicit rather than explicit. They allow viewers to have their own experience with the film, rather than a quick, mass-produced meal.
Miyazaki, more than others in the anime industry, struggles with his internal and external influences, and these struggles help him deviate from the anime industry’s cultural quagmire. He knows he has had these otaku experiences — his youthful obsession with Hakujaden and machines, for instance — but he tries to make new truths with them rather than use the worn-out old ones. His agonistic relationship with his past is central to The Wind Rises: A childhood passion for the new world of flight is brought down by the forces of the world when the protagonist Horikoshi designs the Zero fighter, which, though a beautiful technological marvel, is destined to be used for the mass murder of war. In the end, Horikoshi is ambivalent about his love for planes. I don’t think Miyazaki is as ambivalent about his own work — his work hasn’t been used to kill people, as far as I know — but he recognizes the exploitative forces at play that coerce the past into an eternal present of consumption and substitution.
These forces did their work in the United States. The imprimatur of Disney and the Academy Awards effectively separated Ghibli from the rest of anime. One can only hope that the flattening effect of streaming services will make these films appear next to series like Demon Slayer, The Ancient Magus’ Bride, and A Place Further than the Universe when Crunchyroll titles are brought onto HBO Max. It’s a little perverse to hope that something good in terms of art will come from the organization of a giant streaming service, but it’s a bargain that Miyazaki must have had to make as well. In his own words, he’s “had to rationalize the art of navigating this world.” It’s the only way to make art that rises above the ever-expanding sea of things that will occupy and satisfy us, but not transform us.