A movie requires annotations for the press. The ones accompanying Arrietty, the latest film of Japan’s notorious studio Ghibli, are rather bizarre. It’s not often a producer and director admit to having lukewarm feelings about their own movie. It was mostly created out of respect for two of Japan’s legends in animation: Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.
For a quarter century, studio Ghibli has been renowned amongst insiders as perhaps the best animation studio in the world and certainly the best of Japan. Mostly thanks to the “god of anime”, 70-year old Hayao Miyazaki. He provided Ghibli movies with the familiar elements: a child or young adult as the lead, environmental concerns, nature spirits from the Shinto religion, escape from everyday life, secret identities, magical worlds and metamorphoses: animated objects, man becomes animal, animal man.
The name Ghibli refers to the Arabic name for the sirocco, the Sahara wind that sandblasts the Italian coast like a hair dryer. The studio wanted to enter the industry like a fresh wind in the 80s. But how fresh is the wind of a 70 and 76 year old? Because that’s how old the founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are right now. The latter directed four films for Ghibli, but it was the lighter touch of Hayao Miyazaki that gave the studio its breakthrough. Miyazaki’s genius achieved its culmination with the complex ecofable Princess Mononoke (1997) and Spirited Away (2001), that won the Golden Bear in 2002 and Oscar for animation in 2003. Films that enchant and give you goosebumps, like dreams that could turn into nightmares at any moment.
But nothing lasts forever. Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement three times since 1998 – his comebacks delivered masterpieces such as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. But this has led to conflicts within Ghibli. Producer Toshio Suzuki writes remarkably open-hearted about his role in Arietty, an adaptation of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers – or is it mocking it? He did not see the need in the movie, but Miyazaki and Takahata insisted. Why now, Suzuki asked? Because, according to Miyazaki, the age of mass consumption is over and that of durability and recycling has started. Just like how the miniature people in Arietty live on crumbs, sugar cubes and strands they “borrow” from the big people. Suzuki gave in “out of respect for seniority” and asked animator Hiromasa Yonebashi as director. He gave in, albeit “reluctantly”. Afterwards, Suzuki continues, it was important to keep Miyazaki at a distance: the director made it known he did not appreciate suggestions. “That’s my boy! Be brave!” is how Miyazaki purportedly answered. Suzuki: “But we kept on fearing Miyazaki-san would enter the studio with unwanted advice or ideas.”
Suzuki, as head of the studio, already clashed with Miyazaki before. In 2006 he appointed his son Goro, trained as a landscape architect, to direct Tales from Earthsea. Father Hayao protested, camp-Goro gave him Oedipal rancor: dad was be afraid his son would overtake him. Goro himself wrote: “As father a zero, as director a ten.” With Goro Miyazaki, a generation swap took off at Ghibli’s. He completed his movie twice as fast as his father and scored a hit in Japan, although critics compared Tales From Earthsea unfavourably with his father’s works. Stylistically and thematically Miyazaki, but without that magic touch.
Arietty too feels like a well-crafted replica. Miniature girl Arietty lives with her family underneath a floor, forages and confronts the dangers like a cat, cockroach and pesticide. If you see a human, you have to move, sounds the code of “the Borrowers” where she belongs to. But Arietty befriends a sick boy while a curious maid goes out hunting. Plenty of Ghibli’s ingredients but no depth. Truly a children’s movie. Ghibli lowers the bar, it seems: the days of glory are long gone.
★★★☆☆Disclaimer: the content of the article does not reflect my opinion in any way whatsoever. Spirited Away as the culmination of Miyazaki’s genius? Ghibli the best animation studio of the world/Japan? Howl’s Moving Castle a masterpiece? That’s, like, just your opinion man. Also, NRC loves its gaudy language. Oedipal rancor? Sure, I grew up in that environment so I’m all too familiar with it. But it doesn’t help the translation. 😦