I loved Studio Ghibli before I even knew what Japan was. Japan had nothing to do with it. Studio Ghibli even had nothing to do with it, but the stories they created spoke to people independent of their source.
You can divide the people of the world based on their favorite Studio Ghibli movie. There are the edgy adults who love the raging artistry of Princess Mononoke. Film critics and imaginative dreamers love Spirited Away. On occasion, you'll run into someone who crosses their arms and flatly declares their love for Totoro. They never elaborate unless prompted—unlike the Mononoke person who will want to talk about it—and they have a sort of quiet loyalty. Those who love Mononoke almost never love Ponyo, and the lovers of Ponyo are rare and special. I have yet to meet someone who dislikes Howl's Moving Castle, yet, I have only met one person who said it was their favorite.
My favorite Studio Ghibli film is Kiki's Delivery Service, and I loved it as a child with that almost religious energy. We didn't own a VHS tape of Kiki, but it aired on the Disney Channel every year around Halloween. Story: a young witch named Kiki leaves home with her black cat and radio to live in a new city. She sets up a delivery business and lives above a local bakery, but she's the only witch in the city and she has a hard time fitting in. Through a series of adventures, she makes friends and creates a new home.
She also delivers the most delicious-looking fish pie, flies around on a broom, and she has a black cat, and I had a black cat, and Kiki's Delivery Service even after all these years still makes me so happy.
I was not truly aware of Studio Ghibli until Spirited Away made such a splash at the 2001 Academy Awards when it won Best Animated Feature. I saw Howl's Moving Castle in theaters—also nominated for an Oscar—and then Ponyo, Arietty, and The Wind Rises. Last year, Miyazaki Hayao's swan song The Wind Rises went up against Disney's Frozen juggernaut. Last year, after a string of losses, Studio Ghibli announced that it would not make any more animated feature films.
So, this year, the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Takahata Isao is going to the Oscars for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. This is his first nomination and effectively Studio Ghibli's last film. He is probably going to lose. This essay isn't about that.
It's about saying goodbye.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya is an adaptation of the The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, a Japanese fairy tale. A little old man finds a beautiful, tiny girl in a bamboo stalk. She grows up quickly, and becomes friends with the local peasant children, playing in the woods and fields around her home. Gold spills out of the bamboo stalks as well, and when Kaguya comes of age, her father decides to take her to the capital, where the hope is she will eventually find a husband. Kaguya is trained in all the courtly ways, including manners, plucking her eyebrows, blackening her teeth... She longs for the more wild home she left behind. After sending three suitors on dangerous missions to win her affection, she tells everyone that she will have to return to the moon...
My boss wants to me to interview one of the few theaters in North America showing The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and I'm on the phone with the program director of an independent theater in Buffalo. At first, he's guarded. I have yet to do a phone interview where I don't encounter some tension in the voice and a slight pause before the answer the opening questions—which are always easy and straightforward because we know we're going to encounter. It's probably like training a wild animal. Gentle and encounter head-on.
But the theater director loosens up when we start to talk about Kaguya.
"The Ghibli films, we have shown almost all of them that are family friendly since we re-opened the theater. We’ve had tremendous success with Howl’s Moving Castle, and My Neighbor Totoro, and so forth." He stops to think. "The thing about the audiences for these films is that they are the most eclectic of any audiences of any film that we show. We get Canadians and Americans, we get young and old. Every age group. Every social class. Every racial group. It’s amazing that these films speak to so many different people from so many walks of life."
I explain my background, studying Japan, and he tells me about how he won a sketch from some Ghibli staff visiting an anime convention. When he became the director at the theater, he was determined to show Studio Ghibli's movies. But the North Park Theater would do nothing in half measure.
"We have, for example, ramune drinks, which we sell," he says, excited. "We bring in Japanese candies, which we import from Japan and some from the Japanese grocery store. We get plushies, which we sell and some we give away... People come to us and say, ‘We love it! We come to these screenings and things are different from what you normally do.’"
He sends me pictures of when the theater did a Ghibli-themed sidewalk for the city's chalk art festival.
"It’s interesting how anime can bring together gardening fanatics, Japanese literature fans, film fans… It’s just been wonderful." The Ghibli films, he explains, has allowed the theater to show more Japanese movies done by other studios, acting as a embassy for Japanese culture.
The theater also does their own custom-made movie posters for the films, serves award-winning popcorn, and for Kaguya, they showed the movie dubbed in English and screened it in Japanese with subtitles. The two screenings of Kaguya sold out. I know that a smaller distributer, GKIDS, is getting Kaguya into as many theaters as they can. In the past, Disney has bought the rights to Ghibli films and distributed Miyazaki's most recent movies, but they did not buy Kaguya.
The theater director is happy for the unique opportunity. "It’s interesting because I think corporate America can be a bit tone deaf about serving niche populations. If they can make money off of opera or ballet on simulcasts, they will do so, but they tend to do it with a hesitancy. But as an independent theater, we approach this with gusto."
We finish our conversation, and later that evening I get a text. Some more pictures and information about the screenings, then: "We had customers who cried during Kaguya who said that they couldn't remember the last time a movie genuinely made them cry..."
He said he thought that Takahata had another movie in him; Studio Ghibli isn't really gone. But I spend the rest of the evening thinking about budgets and deadlines and money. How Ghibli's last two movies—Kaguya and When Marnie was There—just didn't make enough.
I'm at the Academy's Animated Feature Film Symposium. The Academy invites all the nominees for Best Animated Feature to talk about making their films, and I've managed to get a seat in the back-middle. Even Takahata Isao, the director of Kaguya, has come all the way from Japan with a Ghibli producer and special translator. The cheerful co-directors of Frozen, Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee host the event.
The directors and producer of How to Train Your Dragon 2, speak first. Dragon is a serious contender for the award, and all predictions pit them against Disney's Big Hero 6. They happily answer questions about getting into the business. For me, the elephant in the room is how much this win would mean for Dreamworks, which after a string of flops—Turbo, Peabody and Sherman, and Rise of the Guardians—has laid off 500 employees and closed a studio. The award would be a huge moral booster for a team that took a risk in telling a fantasy epic story in animation with an older character cast. Dragon swept the Annie's—the animation industry's awards—and it has as good a chance as any at winning the Oscar. Obviously, this is an upbeat event, and no one is about to mention Dreamworks' troubles.
Big Hero 6 is up next. Understandably, the Frozen directors are comfortable chatting with their fellow Disney directors and producers. I love hearing about the development process. Big Hero 6 was a great movie, and it's interesting to learn how it emerged from an unknown Marvel comic.
Next up is Boxtrolls, a brilliant little stop motion feature done by the Oregon-based studio Laika. Something becomes obvious with the Frozen hosts; they're not talking to big budget CGI animation directors anymore, and they're paying close attention to their note cards for their questions. But the Laika guys are personable and fun. They talk about the ambulance cart they have to rush damaged puppets to be repaired, and how there are only 26 stop motion artists in the world. Fortunately, they point out, Laika managed to get all 26 for Boxtrolls. Usually it's a big scheduling hassle when a European stop motion feature needs them. Some of the artists don't speak English. But they make it work. They love their movie to pieces and it's adorable.
Next up is ong of the Sea, a 2D film by Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. The director, Tom Moore, has flown in from Ireland. He's so happy to be there. He originally made the movie for his son, but it took so long to get made. He chuckles about it. Our Frozen hostess asks about the timeline on the films—something addressed with the other movies—and the CG features take four or five years. Moore rambles a bit, then explains that he had to raise the money for Song of the Sea, which took four years. Cartoon Saloon took advantage of new drawing technology and programming, and he points out that the work was distributed amongst several European animation houses... Animation took two years, he says. They hurried with the voice actors because of the expense. Song of the Sea cost 5.5 million Euros, a fraction of Big Hero 6 or Dragon.
Last is Takahata, his producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, and their translator. Our hostess awkwardly not-quite gets the name of the film. From the questions, its unclear whether they have actually seen the movie or not. Fortunately, since everyone has to be translated, only two questions get asked ('production process' and 'you're good at animating babies.') Takahata says that the director has full control of the film's vision at Ghibli, and they were fortunate to have two lead animators with babies at home to study.
Everyone is brought onstage for the discussion and questions. Takahata is mostly listening through his translator, although him and Nishimura answer a question when asked directly. In a touching moment, Don Hall says that Grave of the Fireflies is one of his favorite movies. Takahata acknowledges that him and Miyazaki released My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies the same day as a double feature. "That might not have been such a good idea," he finishes jokingly, "because people left Totoro happy, and well..."
That gets a laugh from people who have seen Grave of the Fireflies. It's one of the most depressing movies I've ever seen, ending with the main characters starving to death in a subway station.
There's a weird moment when I realize Takahata might have been doing animation longer than some of these guys have been alive.
The hosts allow Takahata the last word. They've asked the group about the future of animation. Everyone is optimistic, which is nice to see. But there's something a little awkward about the conversation because no one is going to talk about Cartoon Saloon's troubles getting their film made, or Dreamworks downsizing, or Ghibli effectively closing down.
Takahata is seventy-nine years old. He's also Japanese. He indirectly addresses the question by saying that he is optimistic about the future of animation, and he was happy to see the influence of Studio Ghibli in the nominated features. They will be carrying on Ghibli's legacy through their new works.
Then, it's all over.
Tonight is the Academy Awards.
I'm watching the ceremony on a television at the press conference room for Isao Takahata in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel. The room is full of Japanese journalists, and we're snacking on the buffet as we watch the ceremony. We're waiting to see who wins Best Animated Feature, specifically if Kaguya will win.
The odds are against Studio Ghibli's last nomination. Literally. Odds makers are giving the Oscar to Big Hero 6 or How to Train Your Dragon 2. It's a great year for animation and either could win. Big Hero 6 is slightly more likely. Kaguya is the ultimate underdog, gambling wise.
The Oscars always seem slow, but they're especially slow this year. We crawl through the early categories, and song numbers included to attract viewers who really haven't seen the movies. Finally, Best Animated Feature.
Big Hero 6 wins.
Every person in the room sighs. The film has been beloved in Japan, but they view this as an Olympic sport where the national athlete just lost a chance at the gold. Two of the reporters sitting beside me don't even listen to the acceptance speech, but walk back to the buffet and load up their plates. I feel strangely disappointed, but I don't see animation like an international sport. Big Hero 6 was touching and fun, and the director looks so happy to have won.
Birdman is the big winner of the night. When the ceremony ends, we drift to our press conference seats. Takahata will be arriving in an hour or so.
The old filmmaker has said he has another movie in him, but given his age, I expect this to be his last. This will probably be the only chance I have to see him in person. I wonder what he is going to say. I wonder how I feel. I wonder how he feels.
Then, he arrives.
The rooms rustles, then quiets. (Reporters are a typically a constantly shifting bunch, but when Takahata and his producer enters the room, everyone silences. It's an almost reverent moment.
I click my recorder, and sit back to listen.
Takahata voices his disappointment, but acknowledges that the films were good. "Of course, you want your own work to win," he says. Big Hero 6 has been a big hit in Japan, and it was entertaining.
He pauses. "I should have won."
It's an alarmingly un-gracious, un-Japanese, un-sportsmanlike moment. But he's seventy-nine, so he can say whatever he—oh, whatever, he's right. He's seventy-nine and he co-founded one of the greatest animation studios in the world. He made a deep, thoughtful feature film illustrated to look like a thousand year old ink painting. The last film of his career just lost to a Marvel movie.
He stares off to some corner as he talks, about animation changing. He considers it a privilege to have been a part of the end of the drawn animated movie era. Computer animation, he says, is becoming more and more real. One day, characters will be done by motion capture, similar to what was attempted in The Polar Express. He muses on How to Train Your Dragon 2. "I saw How to Train Your Dragon and then the sequel. The sequel was much more realistic." He seems unnerved by the evolution of animation and this concern with realism.
Realism, Takahata muses, was not the goal. At least, for him. When you draw a picture, the space and form do not have strive for realism, but the artistic goal of the work itself.
To draw a picture goes beyond what we see to the mind of the artist.
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a meditation on enlightenment, that to feel joy and suffering is greater than a transcendent joyless state.
I'm drawn from my own thoughts as a reporter from Nippon Television asks him 'if he'll tell his fans around the world what he would like to make next?'
Unclear if he will be able to make another now that Ghibli has quieted.
He gives a small smile. It's a little sad. "I will address another problem."
A few more questions, no more than thirty minutes in total. Takahata thanks everyone for coming and departs, probably for his hotel room upstairs.
I take a cab home, still wishing. Still wondering.
It's going to be a long goodbye.