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Lost in Translation
In case you were wondering about this column's hiatus last week, not to worry – Brain Diving has now moved to a biweekly schedule. I call it my “absence makes the heart grow fonder” plan so I don't overwhelm y'all with the pure radiance of my words. (Or the enormity of my ego.) This will also give me the chance to develop some column ideas I wouldn't have been able to tackle on a weekly schedule, so I'm looking forward to it.
This last week I was home sick for a day, so I finally got the chance to check out the DVD of Tales from Earthsea. Although this Studio Ghibli film originally came out in 2006, it was just released in North America last month. (It's been out in Japan, the UK, and elsewhere for a few years now, though.) I was a bit hesitant about popping this one in the player, since I'd heard some bad things about it (particularly from the Japanese press). Would watching Earthsea in fact make my illness worse? Thankfully, I quite enjoyed the film and thought that first-time director Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao) did a stellar job. Most anime directors bring with them at least some sort of film or animation experience, but this was the first time Miyazaki had even stepped foot behind a camera. And not only did he direct, but he also drew the storyboards and wrote the lyrics to the film's songs. Add all this together, and you've got one very impressive debut.
Of course, as might be expected from a first effort, Earthsea contains a number of missteps and loses its way toward the end. Although enjoyable, it is certainly a flawed film. It's certainly not as well composed as his father's debut film as a director, but you have to keep in mind that the elder Miyazaki had been in the animation industry for over fifteen years before Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro came out. And I'd argue that Earthsea is every bit as good as Hayao Miyazaki's more recent films (particularly a work like Howl's Moving Castle). The younger Miyazaki's second feature film, Kokuriko-Zaka Kara (we've got to get a catchy English title on this one, stat), is scheduled to open this summer, and I'm definitely looking forward to it.
One of the reasons Goro Miyazaki's work at Ghibli is important is because he is one of a decreasing number of up-and-coming anime creators. Along with Hiromasa Yonebayashi, director of Arrietty the Borrower (2010), it seems like Ghibli is actively trying to cultivate some younger talent, which is of critical importance as studio founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata get on in years. This isn't just a problem within Ghibli, though; it's something that pervades the whole industry. There have been efforts made to try and combat this, though. For example, this year sees the debut of four short anime films from the "2010 Young Animator Training Project." This initiative, coordinated by JAniCA (Japan Animation Creators Association) and financed by money from the Japanese government, aims to give promising young creators the opportunity to exercise their skills, presumably with the goal of improving the quality (and profitability) of anime down the road.
I think the lack of younger talent is critical for Studio Ghibli, since to a large extent the studio has often been viewed as the creative outlet for Hayao Miyazaki, and to a lesser extent Isao Takahata. This isn't to say Takahata's films are inferior to Miyazaki's – I generally prefer Takahata's more “realistic” animation to Miyazaki's sprawling fantasy worlds. However, I think it's pretty undeniable that Miyazaki is the one of the pair with the real fame even though both have been essential components to Ghibli's success as a studio, particularly in the early days. For example, Takahata produced Miyazaki's Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky, while Miyazaki produced Takahata's Only Yesterday and Pom Poko (Takahata also produced Ocean Waves at Studio Ghibli for the young Tomomi Mochizuki in 1993). Because their careers are so intertwined, I was happy to see a book like Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc that examined their works together.
There have already been a few books on Miyazaki to be released in English. The most essential one has to be Helen McCarthy's landmark Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation. It was the first book in English to tackle Miyazaki's filmography – its only downside now is that it was published in 1999 and only covers up through Princess Mononoke (dear Stone Bridge Press, I think a revised version of this one is definitely called for.) Additionally, Andrew Osmond wrote a book for the British Film Institute on Spirited Away in 2008 and Viz published Miyazaki's own Starting Point in 2009, just to name a couple more (there is also The Anime Art of Hayao Miyazaki by Dani Cavallaro. I feel that I should mention the book since it exists, but having tried to sift through her tortured prose I can't really recommend a lot of her work). However, there had yet to be one specifically covering Studio Ghibli as a whole or Isao Takahata's films by themselves. Interestingly, there have been books focusing solely on Takahata as an anime director that have come out in French, Italian, and German. I think this is probably due to the fact that some of the TV anime like 3,000 Leagues in Search of Mother (1976) and Anne of Green Gables (1979) that Takahata directed were broadcast across Europe, although they never received an English-language release.
Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata by Colin Odell and Michelle Le Blanc
For a long time now, animated films have been the disrespected younger sibling to the more “grown up” live-action cinema. This general attitude toward animation has been changing, but it's still fairly prevalent. We must keep in mind, though, that film itself used to be looked down upon as simply disposable popular entertainment. One of the things that really brought about a change in attitudes was the idea of the auteur. This word has become imbued with all sorts of meanings in film circles, but it really just means “author” in French. The idea in auteur theory is that just like a novel has an author who crafts its tone, themes, and meanings, so too does a film. Even though a film is a collaborative effort involving many different, highly skilled people, it is the director who controls everything that goes into the film. This change in how people think and talk about films helped to give cinema a kind of legitimacy as an artform that is more than just a sideshow attraction. Of course, saying the director is the main “author” of a film is more of a useful fiction than anything else; it doesn't totally hold together when you think about all the varied elements that come together to make a movie, like the script, the cinematography, and the editing. (And of course the money as well – if you're making a film, you're really only as free as the people who are giving you money let you be.)
One of the things I like about discussing anime in terms of its directors is that by thinking in terms of the auteur, we can attempt to give anime a kind of legitimacy in the same way the original auteurist turn did. I think Odell and Le Blanc's book on Studio Ghibli helps with this cause by examining Miyazaki and Takahata's films and discussing the themes throughout. I think this idea is bolstered by the fact that Studio Ghibli is published by the film-specific publisher Kamera Books. This means it fits alongside their other titles on David Lynch, Andrei Tarkovsky, and silent film, just to name a few.
Odell and Le Blanc have divided their book into four main sections – introduction, Miyazaki and Takahata's films before Ghibli, their films with Ghibli, and other works. In the first part, the authors give a thumbnail sketch of the history of Studio Ghibli, and then go on to lay out what they see as the common themes and motifs that run throughout the films, such as children, flying, social community, and Japanese culture. Some of these themes seem a bit too general to me. (I mean, couldn't you say that any film made in Japan or by a Japanese director is about “Japanese culture” in some fashion?) However, since this book was written for a mass audience, they need to make sure that the readers understand the cultural context of some of the films.
The chapter on Miyazaki and Takahata's pre-Ghibli work experience discusses their time at both Toei Douga and Nippon Animation. However, this history lesson only takes seven pages to breeze through. The majority of the chapter focuses specifically on the films themselves, discussing Hols, Prince of the Sun, Panda Kopanda, Cagliostro, Chie the Brat, Goushu the Cellist, and finally Nausicaä. As someone who really enjoys Takahata's films, I was glad to see that his films got plenty of coverage in this section. One small complaint, though, is that during this time both directors were doing quite a bit of work for television as well as films. Although the introductory summary mentions this, it would have been helpful to have seen some extended emphasis on some of the series rather than just the feature-length works. (Although, to be fair, the subtitle of Odell and Le Blanc's book specifically says they will discuss Miyazaki and Takahata's films.)
The chapter on Ghibli films jumps straight into an analysis of Laputa: Castle in the Sky. From there, the authors discuss the films that we're all probably familiar with – Grave of the Fireflies, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Porco Rosso, Pom Poko, Whisper of the Heart, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbors the Yamadas, Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle, Earthsea, and Ponyo. I was pleasantly surprised to see the authors discuss Takahata's live-action documentary The Story of Yanagawa's Canals in this section as well. The Cat Returns is discussed in this section as well, even though neither Miyazaki nor Takahata were directly credited with its creation. The final chapter covers a few of the smaller side projects the two anime directors and the studio worked on along the way, such as the Ghiblies shorts, animated advertising work, DVDs of foreign films and animation, as well as the Studio Ghibli Museum.
For someone just getting into anime or curious about Studio Ghibli, this would be a great book to pick up. It presents all of the relevant films in an entertaining and straightforward manner, and makes many of the concepts pretty easy to understand. With that said, though, I'm not really sure if any dedicated Miyazaki or Takahata fan really needs to pick this book up. The whole book is a mere 150 pages, meaning that each film only gets a handful of pages to itself. Unfortunately, this means that the authors don't really have the space to launch into any in-depth discussions. Studio Ghibli works very nicely on the surface level, but as a reader already familiar with much of what they were discussing I wanted more.
The book is also very film-centric, focusing on what happens within the various films and offering interpretations of what these things might mean. Oddly enough, for a book focusing on Miyazaki and Takahata's films, very little is said about their backgrounds and personal lives other than at the beginning of the book. I think it would have been useful to have gotten a better understanding of who these two famous animation directors really are outside of the works they create and how they go through their creative processes. We also get next to nothing about the inner workings of Studio Ghibli or the Japanese animation industry in general. To be fair, this is criticizing the book for something it does not claim to be.
I hope books like this are just a stepping stone to larger, more expansive works on Japanese animation in the future. There is so much about anime that deserves to be written about – I'd certainly like to see greater depth as well as a greater selection of creators covered. Unfortunately, we don't even have a comprehensive history of the development of anime in English, so there's plenty more out there for budding scholars to tackle. I just hope that with the graying of the anime industry, there will continue to be new blood and new creators to dazzle us with their films in the future.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.