PastPresent: the Ghibli/Disney crosscurrent

In 2007, as part of my first Barbican anime lecture series, I used two Disney movies, Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet, as a focal point for considering Studio Ghibli’s circle of influence. I came across the lecture notes while reviewing material for my forthcoming anime evening class for the Workers’ Educational Association. Two years on, with more reflection on Tales from Earthsea, and with new movie Ponyo about to appear in the USA, I found myself thinking whether, and how, that circle of influence had changed.

I started, of course, with Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece, My Neighbour Totoro. I first saw it in 1989, and ever since then it’s been my favourite film. In fact, I think it’s the perfect film, and the greatest work that Studio Ghibli has produced to date. It also seems to me to be the most personal of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. All movies give us some insight into the director’s personality and motivation, but some come straight from the heart. Porco Rosso gives us Miyazaki’s selfportrait in middle age, pig-headed, wry and endearingly human, but Totoro is his elegy for the lost world of his childhood, now drowned beneath the irresistible twin tides of time and urban Tokyo.

Studio Ghibli’s films display a host of influences, ideas and passions. Perhaps the most discussed is an overriding concern for the state of the natural world and man’s relationship with it, but there are also strong influences from the political engagement which united Miyazaki and Takahata when they first worked together in the animators’ union at Toei, and which has continued to influence their work.

Ghibnli’s circle of influence is very wide. As well as influences flowing from the outside world into Ghibli’s movies, there are current moving the other way. Some directors and animators are happy to admit to the influence that Miyazaki and Ghibli have on them, like John Lasseter, for many years not only Miyazaki’s devoted friend but his only cheerleader in the American industry. Others say little or nothing, but the evidence embedded in their work speaks volumes. Their number is growing.  In his lyrical, terrible 2006 movie Pan’s Labyrinth, I think Guillermo Del Toro stakes a powerful claim to be the dark Miyazaki, a passionate revolutionary tanist to the poet of acceptance and hope.

Whether you call it homage, borrowing, cultural influence or larceny, there are echoes of Studio Ghibli throughout the commercial animation industry, in Japan and elsewhere. Very few companies have the financial and creative resources to put their visions onscreen in the same manner, but Disney is one of the few. Let’s look at two Disney movies in particular.

Lilo and Stitch foregrounds such Ghibli-esque concerns as the interaction of character and environment, the re-creation of antique technology with unexpected twists, and the celebration of the sheer beauty of sky and water. Treasure Planet echoes the breathtaking flight sequences and strange environments of Nausicaa of the Valley of Winds, the majestic airborne cities and ships of Castle In The Sky, and the rip-roaring pace of a boy’s adventure novel by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Lilo and Stitch was written and directed by Chris Sanders and Dean deBlois. Like Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, it started life much earlier, in 1984, as an idea by Sanders for a children’s book, but it didn’t succeed in that format. A decade later, when Disney decided it was time to look for a simpler, more personal approach, to allow one of their artists to make his own movie, the pair reworked the story of alien outsider Stitch into a film that comes closer in spirit to My Neighbour Totoro than anything Disney have ever done, while blending in classic Disney elements.

The Ghibli values of observation of the natural world and interaction of characters with a natural environment are mixed into the Disney values of exaggerated drama and what one might call ‘goofification’ – rendering transient elements of plot and character silly, for the sake of raising a laugh. Lilo and Stitch, like Disney itself, is a product of the most commercialised culture on the planet, one that can package every human need in a neat, disposable format to suit the latest trends; but that doesn’t mean that it’s a disposable movie. Nor does its borrowing from Miyazaki, and indeed from a host of other influences, make it wholly derivative.

You’ll find references to science fiction both old and new, from creatures loose in the ventilation system and the Men In Black to Star Wars; references  to soap opera and family drama and even surfer movies. Heroine Lilo has an imaginative vision unique and gruesome enough to rival Stephen King. But all of this is wrapped around a story of touching simplicity and sweetness, of two sisters trying to hold onto each other in a world haunted by the terrible randomness of loss, struggling to rebuild a life and a family from whatever comes to hand.

The film is set in Hawaii, and, just as in Totoro,  the environment is more than a beautiful frame for human activity.  Miyazaki’s  lessons in animating natural beauty, making the environment a character in its own right,  have been put to excellent use. The smaller characters are also sensitively handled. Threats to Nani and Lilo come both from their own community – seemingly unsympathetic social workers and employers – and from outsiders. Sanders and deBlois use aliens instead of the different races of Princess Mononoke or the sky-pirates of Porco Rosso, but they present even their apparent villains as people with needs and motives of their own, people just trying to get by. Their core message is that if you listen to someone, and give them a chance, they’ll probably turn out OK in the end.

Lilo and Stitch presents love, understanding, patience, kindness and Elvis as the only ways to deal with loss and loneliness. John Musker and Ron Clements’ Treasure Planet takes a different tack altogether. It’s a rip-roaring adventure story in which a hormonally challenged teenager raging for freedom and longing for a whole family, and specifically a father figure, learns about life and loyalty on an epic voyage. It bombed at the box office, but I think its charms are seriously under-rated.

Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s great adventure story Treasure Island, it’s an honest, charming and entertaining film, beautifully executed, but bound by Disney’s established conventions. It’s at its strongest when it focuses on action and wonder, echoing Miyazaki’s abiding joy in the sheer sensual pleasure of flight. There are moments that remind me of both Castle In The Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Indeed, one might view hero James Pleiades Hawkins as a juvenile version of Marco from Porco Rosso, a rogue male learning how to function in a society that seems to have no room for him.

Young Hawkins, who gradually realises that treasure maps, quests and bad-boy antics are no substitute for living up to his potential, is a conventional Disney hero, but some of the supporting characters are more intriguing. Feisty feline Captain Amelia, played by Emma Thompson as a cross between Errol Flynn and the no-nonsense Head Girl of a British boarding school, is not so far removed from Mononoke’s Lady Eboshi, and  wily dissembler Silver, working every end against the middle, is remarkably close to amoral priest Jiko. The movie’s strongest Ghibli influences are in the inventiveness of its background scenes and creatures. Those favourite motifs – flying and sailing, sky and water – are beautifully interpreted, and the conventional Disney plot elements and characters, like cute pet-cum-McGuffin Morph and wacky robot Ben, are not without charm.

So what makes Treasure Planet a lesser movie than Lilo and Stitch, and what brings Lilo and Stitch closer to My Neighbour Totoro than anything else by Disney? What, after all, is the real difference between Disney’s tales of good triumphing over evil and family values being the best, and Miyazaki and Takahata’s movies with their similar championing of community and commitment?

I think the difference of intent and greater directorial control is more important than any difference of execution. Historically, Studio Ghibli has had no need to merchandise its properties, or to sell them internationally. It has made back the money for its films and returned its investors a profit through putting Japanese backsides on cinema seats. Ghibli directors are under no pressure to include elements that have been popular in other recent movies, or put in robots or cute pets so there’s a good merchandise tie-in, or use conventional ciphers rather than looking for something closer to the truth.

Treasure Planet falls into the old storytelling conventions of good and evil. Making the bad guy a cyborg or an insect, rather than, say, a Chinese or an Arab, is still just stereotyping. So is having the man the hero looks up to as a father come good when it matters, despite previous failures. In fairness, we should remember that making the bad guy ‘not really human’ isn’t a storytelling convention that can be blamed on Hollywood – Governments across the world are forever claiming that ‘bad’ people are nothing like us, mostly so they can get us to agree to lock them up or wipe them out. But Miyazaki has spent most of his career trying to avoid making real people wear black hats, and I think his films are stronger and more humane as a result.

Lilo and Stitch gives each character room to be just that Ghibli-esque bit more real. If the ending is a little too picture-perfect, a little too happy-ever-after, it can hardly be downgraded against Ghibli movies for that – look, after all, at the ending of Howl’s Moving Castle, let alone the conventional and stereotypical characters and outcomes of Tales from Earthsea.

I desperately wanted to love Tales from Earthsea. I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s original books, and like most Ghibli fans I was rooting for a fairytale resolution to the studio’s pressing problem of finding great young directors to carry on from the pair of ageing genii who founded it. If Miyazaki’s son Goro, a movie-making novice plucked from a completely different career path, turned out to be a great director in his own right, it would have opened the door for a happy ending and a whole series of stunning sequels.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be, at least not on the first attempt. Tales from Earthsea follows the conventional Disney route of prettifying difference and demonising ‘bad guys’. It succeeds in reducing a magnificently complex fantasy of a truly multicultural, multidimensional world to pantomime. It remains to be seen if Goro Miyazaki will develop beyond the confines of his first film into a director with real individuality and daring. But the problem goes deeper than the directorial succession.

In my opinion, the studio has moved closer to Disney in more ways than can be shown on the balance sheet. Its increasing international visibility has been accompanied by a slight but perceptible drop in the originality, and therefore the quality, of its output. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are  films with much to offer; but there has always been a perceptible difference between the best of Studio Ghibli’s output  and other animation, and I think that difference is now being eroded.

This is partly a natural evolution – the young workers coming in to Ghibli have been formed and educated by a subtly different culture than that which made Miyazaki and Takahata. They are influenced by America in different, and more pervasive, ways than the generation that grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb. It’s partly entropy – as an older generation steps into the shadows there is often a period of upheaval and experiment until the successors find their own voice, their own style. And it’s partly response to the market, which finds fantasies of self-aggrandisement more compelling than live and let live, and pastiche less challenging than art.

In the world in which Studio Ghibli now moves, it’s even harder to make films they way you want to than it was twenty years ago, when Toshio Suzuki had to raise finance for My Neighbour Totoro on the back of Grave of the Fireflies, a classic novel tie-in with a  guaranteed school audience. The problem then was that the money men didn’t think the movie would sell. They were wrong, but in a different age, in a different culture, it would have been so easy to say let’s put in a stupid robot so the kid isn’t the dumbest character, let’s put in some real threat, like a bad guy, let’s make it so it’ll play better in the multiplexes.

Spirited Away is stuffed with Miyazaki’s glorious visual and intellectual inventiveness, with fabulous creatures, magical landscapes and a real human story at the heart of it all. But the childhood rescue and love story that’s produced like a rabbit out of a hat at the end could have been written – indeed, has been written in various forms – by CLAMP, Rumiko Takahashi and a whole host of other anime and manga creators. It adds nothing at all to the film and I think it diminishes the relationship between Chihiro and Haku.

Howl’s Moving Castle is full of shiny toys and pretty moments, but in the end is far more conventional and less truly romantic than Princess Mononoke. Apart from the wonderful characterisation of Sophie, I find  Howl almost on a level with Treasure Planet, and I would rank Tales from Earthsea considerably below it. The movies prior to Spirited Away are in a different category altogether.

It will be interesting to see the currents of influence at work in Ponyo.

11 thoughts on “PastPresent: the Ghibli/Disney crosscurrent

  1. I was a little underwhelmed by Earthsea too – the inexperience of the director is obvious but I hope it doesn’t put him off trying again and making a better job of it. That’s assuming you don’t need to work in the same fiels before taking on the director’s job…

    I’m not saying Ghibli’s days are over but the ‘erosion’ or quality is more and more obvious: it’s becoming more of a springboard for other film makers than the top studio in its own right. Mamoru Hosoda’s work on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was superb; even more enjoyable than Howl’s, which he was originally intended to direct.

    What still sets the best in Ghibli apart for me is the way it doesn’t make the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in characters as clear-cut; the reasons for the studio’s success extends far beyond this one aspect, but it’s certainly saddening to think that its best days have already passed.

    • Change is inevitable, but decline isn’t. Sadly, Studio Ghibli was created by a pair of great talents, of equal status but different gifts, who gathered a superb team around them but made no bones about whose vision was paramount. It’s difficult for a fortysomething with no technical background or industry cred to really lead a team used to being directed by someone who has done almost every job in the industry and knows exactly how to achieve what he wants.

  2. In a group interview at the Venice Film Festival (which I wrote up in the first of SFX’s anime specials), Goro Miyazaki said: “I didn’t know anything… I didn’t know about camerawork or any of the technical words in film making. But I am very good at learning through seeing and hearing. So being completely inexperienced, I had the privilege of being able to ask any question and I used that to the maximum. Before Earthsea, I hadn’t lived in the anime industry. I had a different career and profile, so if I failed, I could go back to that. I used that in a good way, to remove my pressure and worries.”

    Make of that what you will, though I was impressed by (what I thought was) Goro’s frankness on the subject.

    • It also fits very well with the image that was being put over in Japanese press releases and interviews, of a ‘young’ director who was more in tune with the teenage audience that, say, a sixty-something industry god might be…

    • Andrew, as you were at the original lecture that sparked this post, it would be interesting to hear if you think Ghibli’s changes are the result of the Disney deal, natural evolution, both, or something else entirely?

  3. I don’t know the main reason for the changes at Gibli, but maybe some of these factors are relevant:

    The huge rise in budget – IITC, Mononoke in 1997 had more than double the budget of any previous Ghibli film. (I think Schilling says that in the Art of Mononoke book.)

    Mononoke was Ghibli’s first ‘megahit’ at the Japanese box-office. So suddenly investors have much greater expections of the returns that Ghibli can bring them…

    In the Spirited Away Roman Album, Toshio Suzuki talks about the changing attitudes of older Japanese cinemagoers. I can’t remember the exact quote, but I think he says they were becoming less optimistic, less ready to believe in idealism… (Suzuki came to this view after seeing the very successful cinema version of Bayside Shakedown.) So – according to Suzuki – he indirectly influenced Miyazaki to abandon the project he was working on after Mononoke, called Rin (or Lin) the Chimney Painter, and to make a children’s film instead, which became Spirited Away… Maybe indicative of shifts in the studio’s thinking?

    And, as you say, Ghibli has the unenviable task of trying to find a successor to Miyazaki and Takahata. Maybe they should offer an oliver branch to Mamrou Hosoda and poach him from Madhouse (probably wishful thinking, I know, given the history)… I agree with Martin that Girl who Leapt through Time was superb. I only hope that Hosoda’s new film, Summer Wars, is as good. You can see a long trailer here:

    although there’s another new Madhouse film which actually looks more Ghibli-esque, called Mai Mai Miracle:

    • The real problem with using any new director is that the Ghibli house style was forged in, and for, a totally different world. So the new boy (I don’t for a moment imagine it will be a girl, though I’d love to be wrong – but a girl at the helm of Ghibli would be like a female Doctor in Doctor Who… ) will either be a puppet, aping a style that doesn’t come from his own background and training, or a maverick, breaking down the old traditions and making something new from the fabric of the most beautiful architecture in all of anime. I’d prefer a maverick, and I suspect Miyazaki senior and Takahata might agree; but it could take a while for a new broom to get everything working, and Ghibli has people relying on their salaries for rent and food and school fees. Creative freedom costs.

      • There WILL be a female Doctor in Doctor Who! 🙂

        Thinking over your point, I wonder if there are parallels in American animation… Pixar’s John Lasseter brought in the director Brad Bird to ‘break the studio mould’ and stop the brand going stale, which Bird did magnificently with The Incredibles. But Bird had been a classmate of John Lasseter at CalArts decades earlier; they had the same teachers and both worshipped the classic Disney style (though they updated it)… The only anime contemporary of Miyazaki I can think of who’s still active in the industry is Rintaro, now immersed in his CGI Yona Yona Penguin. Hmmm…

        Going back a bit… The Disney studio dwindled away after Walt’s death in 1966. It was led by a lot of conservative, ‘what would Walt do?’ figures, until a coup in the early ‘80s brought in a new management regime led by Michael Eisner (he came over from a rival studio, Paramount). The Disney studio came back as an animated powerhouse, and successfully updated the brand (Beauty asnd the Beast, The Lion King). Pity it took twenty years…

        Incidentally, after Walt died, one of the most disruptive figures at the studio was his nephew, Roy E. Disney, who went to war TWICE with the Disney management. I wonder if Goro might do the same at Ghibli? 🙂

      • I have to say that, on the evidence of Tales from Earthsea, Goro doesn’t strike me as a boat-rocker, an iconoclast or a director burning to impose his personal vision. Maybe his next movie will prove me wrong, and goodness knows I’d be glad if it did…

      • I agree, though I give Goro points for making Earthsea’s protagonist a murderer, and a few other touches within the endless borrowings from Dad’s work.

        Arguably, the last _really_ iconoclastic Ghibli film was Takahata’s My Neighbours the Yamadas, a decade ago. Unfortunately, I seem to remember it underperformed in Japan – perhaps the look was just too far from Ghibli’s normal style for audiences to accept.

        By the way, Miyazaki’s just been to Comic Con – as of writing, you can see him being interviewed by John Lasseter here:

      • Great clip, though very short. If that was the whole talk – ten minutes, including the translations – it’s no wonder it was short on major revelations!

        We’re never going to agree on Earthsea. I struggle to see any redeeming features in its pursuit of the lowest common denominator of storytelling. I would have preferred Goro to stick more closely to the principles Ursula K. LeGuin expressed in her book, rather than turning Earthsea into a prettified monoculture where villainy is signalled by mugging and gurning, and I really can’t see his adding an extraneous murder to the mix as taking Ghibli in any positive direction. He’s got every right to be iconoclastic, but I did expect a bit more than the filmic equivalent of a teenager smashing up a bus shelter.

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