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Current Ghibli President Kiyofumi Nakajima Shares Recollections of Princess Mononoke's Production

posted on by Kim Morrissy
Film was a risky investment and could have put Ghibli in debt.

The Edo Culture Complex's (Edocco) exhibit highlighting the work of Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki ran from April 20 to May 12. During the exhibit's run, pamphlets featuring current Ghibli presidents Kiyofumi Nakajima's reflections were distributed to visitors. Nakajima wrote about his memories of Suzuki and described extensively what kind of person he is like.

Nakajima recalls that he first met Suzuki when he was still working at the Sumitomo Bank during the 90s. During this period, he was put in charge of managing Ghibli's financial affairs when it was still a subsidiary of the publishing company Tokuma Shoten. At that time, Tokuma Shoten was in heavy debt and was relying on Ghibli to produce a big hit. Princess Mononoke was in the middle of production, but its budget was twice the size of previous Ghibli films, and the people involved were worried that it would be a financial loss.

"The production costs of Pom Poko and Whisper of the Heart were around one billion yen [US$9.1 million], and if they were a big hit, the production side would make back around two billion yen [US$18.2 million]. So there'd be a billion yen in profits. And yet from the beginning, Princess Mononoke had a budget of over two billion yen. Going by previous results, even if it were a big hit it would just break even, and if worst came to worst, it would have put Ghibli in the red."

"To make matters worse, the film had a complex subject matter, and you wouldn't think it was suitable for a summer family film. It's hard to imagine that a film about the struggle of coexistence between man and nature would be a hit."

When Nakajima approached Suzuki with concerns about the budget, he was surprised by Suzuki's answer.

"Nakajima-kun," Suzuki said. "Films are a gamble. There's no predicting the future. You won't know until you try."

Nakajima found this to be a puzzling answer, but had no choice but to see the results for himself. Sure enough, however, Princess Mononoke became a huge hit, grossing over 19 billion yen (US$172.8 million). After Spirited Away also became a worldwide hit, Nakajima recalls asking Suzuki how it happened.

Suzuki responded: "Every film director is concerned with making something good. There's no director who doesn't think that way. However, balancing that desire with market concerns makes things difficult. At Ghibli, we focus on making something good first, and then making people who understand the content of the work best handle the marketing."

In other words, Ghibli handles the production, marketing, and the sales in-house. Nakajima wrote that he was so moved by Suzuki's words that he quit his job at the Sumitomo Bank and started working at the Ghibli Museum instead.

Ironically, Nakajima wrote later in his recollections that he found out that Suzuki was actually a pragmatist who paid careful attention to marketing trends and poured 10 billion yen (US$90.9 million) into marketing Spirited Away. "What he told me about how there's no predicting the future and you won't know until you try was a bare-faced lie," an amused Nakajima wrote.

However, he understands that Suzuki is the kind of person who worked pragmatically to secure enough money for the creators at Ghibli to achieve true creative freedom. This is the reason why Suzuki chose to create Ghibli as a subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten before eventually becoming an independent company in 2005. Nakajima wrote: "When it comes to money, Suzuki has the heart of a Nagoya resident, through and through."

In an interview with Yahoo! News last month, Suzuki himself spoke about his approach to financing films and why the studio ultimately did not choose to seek perpetual growth.

Kiyofumi Nakajima was appointed president of Studio Ghibli in 2017. Former President Koji Hoshino became chairperson for the company. Toshio Suzuki is continuing as producer, and all three men are representative directors for the studio.

Source: Toshio Suzuki and Ghibli exhibit pamphlet

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