Last week saw the UK release of Arrietty, a Japanese animation (or anime) from the creators of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. Receiving glowing reviews all round, the adaptation of the classic children’s tale written by Mary Norton is just another international success to come out of Studio Ghibli. It is with the release of Arrietty that I decided to take a look back at some of the studio’s best work in an effort to determine what makes Studio Ghibli such an anomalous global success, given its status as a Japanese animation studio.
Whilst today Studio Ghibli is a recognisable name in the western world of cinema, it was once a company discussed only in niche circles of film buffs and animation geeks. Churning out films far, far away in Japan, English-speaking audiences were rarely gifted the opportunity of seeing the magic the studio could produce. After all, the films had two high hurdles to overcome to be appreciated by the everyday markets of cinema goers; not only were they subtitled, but they were animated too. These two facts alone are enough to put off your average entertainment junkie in as much as they are seemingly contradictory of each other’s nature. With the subheading of ‘world cinema’ comes an air of density and pretension that the mass market rarely embraces; for some reason beyond me, if a film is in another language it somehow suffers from a superiority complex by virtue of it otherness. Or rather audiences suffer an inferiority complex about confronting the unknown of distant cultures. On the other hand, Ghibli specialises in animation – ‘cartoons’ to the disparaging viewer. How can you marry the supposed auspicious self-importance of foreign language cinema, with the cutesy wide eyed appeal of moving drawings? It was a puzzling concept for many, and still is today. The amount of times I’ve heard someone whinge “oh I don’t want to watch a kiddie film” when given the option of an animated feature, a Ghibli one in particular, only to retort “oh but I don’t want to watch a subtitled film either” once informed of Princess Mononoke’s many far-from-child-friendly limb amputation scenes that fill the screen with vibrant splatters of red and guts, for example. Another potent example would be Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, which holds no punches when its tells the story of two children left orphaned and homeless by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, leading esteemed film critic Roger Ebert to call it “an emotional experience so powerful that it forces a rethinking of animation”. So how do you get people on a grand scale to rethink their preconceptions about not only animation, but also world cinema?
The solution, with retrospect, seems obvious. Disney stepped in, namely Pixar’s head honcho John Lasseter, and obtained international rights to Ghibli’s back catalogue and future releases. They lovingly dubbed over the Japanese soundtracks and replaced the flat tone of the film’s English subtitles with the recognisable voices of famous stars such as Christian Bale, Kirsten Dunst, Clare Danes and Anne Hathaway. Suddenly Ghibli’s films seemed a whole lot more accessible. They were given wide releases across English speaking countries like the USA, UK and Australia, often with the choice of watching the original Japanese with subtitles or the American dub. Now with the weight of the world’s most successful animation studio behind it, Studio Ghibli had found a way to reach the international markets in ways previously unknown to an anime production company. Aforementioned is Princess Mononoke, perhaps Ghibli’s biggest international splash pre the Oscar winning Spirited Away. Originally released in Japan in 1997, the film had an American release in 1999. Headed and internationally distributed by Disney’s sub-studio Miramax, the film was uncut and the many Japanese-culture references were either left untouched or cleverly translated. The film was viewed by American audiences as an eco-friendly tale with modern political significance that just happened to be set in the ancient Japanese Edo period. Whilst the movie’s U.S release was underwhelming thanks to poor advertising, a subsequent DVD release performed considerably better. So Ghibli achieved critical and commercial success in the west thanks to smart dubbing? Well it’s certainly one of many factors.
Prior to Disney’s involvement, Studio Ghibli’s output was given an English audio by various other film companies, most infamously the studio’s unofficial debut Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind. Severe editing lost much of the original’s charms and even narrative sense in some cases, whilst the American voiceovers’ were grating, cut-rate examples. But of course to blame the lack of international success solely on poor dubs is not only unfair but partly untrue. Studio Ghibli, nearly from its inception, was always a respected and unique company of film-makers. Subtitles, whilst less marketable to the masses, did not take away from Ghibli’s cross-culture appeal to it devoted fans around the world.
Formed in 1985 as the brainchild of anime film-makers Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli’s films were always a mesh of Asian and European mythology; inspiration has frequently been drawn from English authors such as Diana Wynne Jones, Roald Dahl, Ursula K Le Guin and Lewis Carroll. When their films didn’t focus on fantastical tales of magic in distinctly European-like settings, they centred on coming-of age stories in authentically Japanese locations and cultures. Easily the best example of this blend of time and place is Studio Ghibli’s most successful film to date, Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. Set in contemporary Japan, the film plays like an Asian inspired ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as the central character of Chihiro is transported to the spirit world, a place of fantasy that draws from Japanese mythology as much as it does contemporary Western attitudes. The film was a global sensation, becoming the first and only anime movie to win an Oscar. It can be said that with the wide-spread success of Spirited Away came a new appreciation of the studio’s output; always blockbuster production company in its native Japan, Studio Ghibli had now pushed past its limited fringe appeal in international markets to become a recognisable and respected producer of animation. With a deft blend of global cultures, whilst still retaining an indistinguishably Japanese aura, Studio Ghibli has managed to become a unique and exciting force in the international film industry that continues to innovate and defy the expectations and the percieved limitations of national cinema and animation.