The legendary Ghibli studio with an uncertain future

Posted Oct 31, 2022 7:12 AMUpdated on Oct 31, 2022 at 7:14 am

In this spring of 1997, Toshio Suzuki, the chief producer of the Ghibli studio, is preparing to fly to the United States where he is to meet the leaders of Disney and their subsidiary Miramax, founded by the Weinstein brothers. A year earlier, the American giant won the international distribution rights for the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the two creators of the small Japanese studio, and in particular for “My Neighbor Totoro”, “Kiki la petite Witch” and “Castle in the Sky”. Enormous commercial successes in Japan which have aroused the appetite of Western producers. During this trip, the producer must take stock of the development of “Princess Mononoke”.

The thick contract between disney and Tokuma Shoten, the parent company of Ghibli, specifies that the Americans will not have the right to modify the Japanese feature films, only to dub them. “In 1985, during a first international contract, Miyazaki was traumatized by seeing his film ‘Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind’ completely reassembled and amputated”, explains Shiro Yoshioka, a specialist in the history of the studio, teacher at Newcastle University. Fearing a similar experience, the director imposed a very specific charter on Disney.

A samurai sword

Before going to the airport, Toshio Suzuki nevertheless takes Steve Alpert, an American in charge of Ghibli’s international development, to a shop hidden between two greasy izakayas, under the raised rails of the Yamanote Line, near Shimbashi station in Tokyo. “It was a store of fake weapons where the studios got supplies for their samurai films,” recalled Steve Alpert recently during a Japan Foundation seminar. The two men buy a katana, a samurai sword. “And then we boarded with that in our suitcase. »

In New York, they find their Disney partners. Two months earlier, during the screening of the first excerpts from “Princess Mononoke”, Michael O. Johnson, one of Disney’s big bosses, had blanched. Decapitated bodies, characters drinking blood, a princess who doesn’t even sing. The film is far from the peaceful work for children anticipated by Disney and Miramax.

And all now fear the reaction of the angry Harvey Weinstein , nicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands” for his heavy “retouching” of the films. To avoid any debate, Toshio Suzuki advances towards him, at the beginning of the meeting, and hands him the katana before launching “Mononoke Hime. No cuts! “. The American producer does not flinch. The Studio Ghibli catalog is a nugget.

When it was released in the United States in October 1999, “Princess Mononoke” was not retouched, only dubbed by American stars. Despite a mixed reception in theaters nationwide, the film would establish itself as a worldwide success when it was released on DVD or on television, with overall earnings estimated at over $170 million. Above all, it introduces foreign audiences to the universe of Miyazaki and Takahata. Until then, broadcasts abroad were extremely rare. Official releases, on VHS or in festivals, mainly in France. Pirated CDs in Asian markets. And in England, stolen copies of subtitled films for Japanese airlines.

Fifty-year-old stars

At the time, the co-founders of the Ghibli studio, however, were already stars of animation in the archipelago, almost fifty years old. “They created Ghibli in 1985 to work on projects that were very different from what the other major studios were doing at the time,” explains Julien Bouvard, a specialist in contemporary Japanese culture, lecturer at Lyon-III University. . “They wanted to develop real complex feature films, not just TV series or adaptations of hit manga like they had done in different studios. In the 1960s and 1970s, the two men notably collaborated on the cartoon “Heidi” or the animated adaptation of the manga “Lupin III”.

By taking their independence, with the support of their accomplice producer Toshio Suzuki, the directors dream of telling, in a drawing made by hand, more complex, more poetic stories, carried by more ambiguous heroes and capable of instilling reflections about pacifism, the status of women or the environmental crisis. This idea of ​​a new form of animation inspires them the name “Ghibli” which, in Italian and in Libyan Arabic, indicates a hot wind of the desert. Like a sirocco blowing change on the Japanese cinema industry.

Almost an anti-Disney, whose productions Miyazaki has never really tasted. Too simple, too superficial, according to him. An excellent technique put at the service of the realism of the movements but not of the emotions. The Japanese director prefers “The King and the Bird” by Paul Grimault and Jacques Prévert, or “The Snow Queen”, directed in 1957 by Lev Atamanov.

Based in the suburbs of Tokyo, in a quiet street in the Koganei district, the team enjoyed success at the Japanese box office from the end of the 1980s. “The Castle in the Sky”, “My Neighbor Totoro”, “The Grave of the Fireflies”, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” then again “Porco Rosso”, before the triumph of “Princess Mononoké” and international recognition in the 2000s. ” Spirited away “ fascinated 23 million spectators in Japan in 2002 and stands out (until 2020 and “Demon Slayer”) as the greatest success in the history of Japanese cinema. He won the Berlin Film Golden Bear and won the Oscar for Best Animated Film the following year. It reportedly generated more than $300 million in revenue worldwide.

“Howl’s Moving Castle”, “Ponyo on the Cliff” or even “Arrietty: The Little World of Pilferers” followed in 2010. ‘a message,’ explains Julien Bouvard.

A loyal team

So many financial successes that allow the company to break, a little, the codes of the industry and to build a loyal team of designers and animators. “For example, they had a policy of permanent contracts, which is very rare in the industry,” notes Thomas Romain, who has worked in Japan in the animation sector for nearly twenty years. “You have to understand that this medium of Japanese animation has been extremely tough since the 1960s. The wages are very low and the working hours, unsupervised, are endless,” he says. “Most artists have precarious contracts or are freelance. Almost only the production management team is on permanent contracts, but also in very difficult conditions. According to the Japanese media, these working conditions are increasingly chilling the major international producers who are worried about being associated with these excesses.

In this context, Ghibli offers salaries a little less indecent than its competitors. The group also organized, for a time, a daycare service, near the studio, to relieve its employees, young parents. But in exchange for these “benefits”, the master is very demanding. “Working with Miyazaki is a bit like working in the kitchen under the orders of a very authoritarian starred chef. It’s very intense but it’s good on your CV, ”says Julien Bouvard. “He’s a ‘helicopter’ boss. He monitors all aspects of production and puts a lot of pressure on his collaborators”, admits Shiro Yoshioka. “People who worked at Ghibli leave pretty quickly and never come back,” summed up Hirokatsu Kihara, who spent five years with the team, in a 2016 interview with “Dazed”.

In the middle, the elders describe a very angry Miyazaki. Tired animators – mostly men – working only on the vision of the two star directors. “The studio was created to realize Miyazaki’s vision. This is its very purpose,” recalls Shiro Yoshioka.

A vocation which made the phenomenal success of the small studio but now shows its limits. “They want followers, not leaders, which is why the quality of work is decreasing,” warned Hirokatsu Kihara in his interview, before pointing out the difficulty of other creative talents emerging within the structure. The oldest have retired or died. Isao Takahata, the director of “Grave of the Fireflies” and “My Neighbors the Yamada”, died at the age of 82, in 2018. Often denigrated and humiliated by his father, Goro Miyazaki, the director’s son, is still there but no was never able to establish himself as a true heir.

Many of the other veterans, once expected to take over, have left. Yoshiaki Nishimura and Hiromasa Yonebayashi thus launched their own structure, Ponoc, in 2015, when Miyazaki announced he was retiring and that Ghibli was going to go to sleep. The “master” returned to work, at the end of the 2010s, on a final feature film, “How do you live? , which could be released in 2024 – but at 81, the magic is running out of steam. Income with.

Falling revenue

The studio’s workforce has shrunk and Toshio Suzuki, now 74, is looking for a new business model for his business organized to make a living from movies on the big screen. “They have not generated great success for ten years and this is felt, especially in the sales of derivative products”, remarks Julien Bouvard. “They then find themselves forced to accept contracts that they would have formerly snubbed. They sell the family jewels,” explains the expert.

In 2020, Netflix thus took over the broadcasting of the studio’s films around the world, excluding Japan, Canada and the United States. The group which must convert to streaming has also signed an agreement with HBO for the American market. He has further multiplied partnerships with several fashion brands, including Uniqlo, to launch ranges of clothing marked with Miyazaki’s star characters. And the 1er November, the group will inaugurate its first theme park, in Aichi prefecture.

Partly funded by the local community, which seeks to attract tourists, the site, designed without rides or parades, should theoretically generate 48 billion yen (330 million euros) in revenue per year by attracting 1.8 million visitors. , or one-fifteenth of the public counted each year by the Disney parks in Tokyo. “The creators of the studio were not very involved in this project, somewhat similar to the Ghibli Museum which already exists near Tokyo”, explains Shiro Yoshioka who sees the company gradually transforming into a major financial manager of the intellectual property rights of works by Miyazaki. The Ghibli would soon be finished blowing.