Beyond Miyazaki: The Other Faces of Studio Ghibli


To most, Studio Ghibli is synonymous with its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. It’s more than likely that his films are the only Ghibli films you’ve seen. It’s not uncommon, nor is it wrong. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a wealth of other quality animated productions. Some don’t hold up under the shadow of Miyazaki’s best, but most of them don’t try to.

From Isao Takahata’s introspective studies on humanity and Japanese culture to Yoshifumi Kondo’s gentle touch, Studio Ghibli’s other directors have much to offer cinema lovers.

Read on to discover what faces lay beyond Miyazaki and where you should start.

Takahata is the Lennon to Miyazaki’s McCartney. He deals with experimental and solemn material, while maintaining the signature Ghibli charm and look — well, most of the time, in any case. Takahata has a much different background than other Ghibli veterans. Born in 1935, Takahata spent his early career studying French at University of Tokyo. During these years, he fell in love with French animation which eventually led him to direct his 1968 animated debut Hols: Prince of the Sun, a commercial failure.

Despite this setback, a life-long friendship with Miyazaki was formed through the project. When Miyazaki created Studio Ghibli in 1985, he invited Takahata on-board. Never having been trained as an animator or artist, Takahata was drawn to different subjects and visual means of storytelling that contrasted with Miyazaki’s efforts.

His Ghibli debut Grave of the Fireflies was another commercial bomb — one that would have sunk Ghibli if not for the success of My Neighbor Totoro — but it was one that made Takahata and Miyazaki proud. His following three films with the studio continued to explore similar themes unique to Japan: the industrialization of the country side, lower class struggles, Japanese family values, and the life of the poor farmer.

His films were never positioned to be international hits, but they capture the identity of Japan in the same way Yasujiro Ozu once did.

Every time I watch Grave of the Fireflies, I ask myself why did it have to be animated. Or, rather, what does it gain through animation. The answer is a lot. This terribly tragic tale of two kids trying to survive the WWII firebombings in a small farm town is the most polarizing in Studio Ghibli’s catalog. At no point does the film censor the brutality or drama; it’s a realistic depiction, given depth through subtle uses of dream imagery. As these two kids strive to find anything resembling magic in their lives (fireflies), we believe in it too. Yet, we already know where it all ends which is what makes the illusion so impressive.

Three years later, Takahata returned with this long, heartfelt memoir of one girl fighting against 1960’s Japanese middle-class life, only to embrace it in her later years. With a 15-minute section dedicated to girls dealing with their periods to a final act about picking vegetables, Only Yesterday wasn’t exactly the stuff of box office millions. While the film never finds its proper footing and pace, it is peppered with moments as memorable as any Miyazaki masterpiece. The film mostly suffers from its rather drab visuals and static backgrounds. While Only Yesterday certainly has the heart and soul of Miyazaki’s best, it lacks the magic and finesse.

From Grave of the Fireflies to My Neighbors the Yamadas, it’s as if Hatanaka went deeper and deeper into the collective Japanese unconscious with each project, alienating international audiences in the process. This is certainly true of Pom Poko with its nearly impenetrable subject matter; that is, unless you are well-read on Japanese folk lore and Shintoism. If not, Pom Poko is a decent children’s film about racoons with huge nut sacks which they use to defend their homeland from human contractors tearing down their habitat for profit. I mean, HUGE nut sacks! Sitting must be a challenge for those little guys.

If Pom Poko was an insular look at Japanese folk lore, then My Neighbors the Yamadas is a very insular look at Japanese family life. Based on comic strip Nano-chan, which was basically Japan’s version of Family Circus, Yamadas is a collection of short stories about this cute, oddball family. They embrace traditional Japanese family values and humor, which is charming until it’s boring. Some appreciated Hatanaka’s uncanny look into Japanese family life, but Yamadas is mostly remembered for its unconventional art style and bringing Ghibli into the digital age.

Hatanaka is currently directing The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, which is slated to come out next year in Japan. It will be interesting to see what type of film he makes, after over a decade away from the director’s chair.

After one Takahata and four Miyazaki films of varying success, Studio Ghibli decided it was time to reach out to new, young talent that could broaden the studio’s portfolio. The main focus of the effort was to make a project with a smaller budget that would capture the interest of teenagers. So, Ghibli reached out to Mochizuki, who was only 34 at the time. At the time, Mochizuki was known for his successful commercial TV work directing Ranma 1/2 and Kimagure Orange Road. His single project with Studio Ghibli was a failure or success, depending on how you choose to look at it.

Based on the Japanese novel I Can Hear the Sea, Ocean Waves is the stuff Korean TV dramas are made of. Taku is a young, naive adolescent, working a menial job to fund a class trip to Hawaii. Once he gets there, he develops a fling with attractive high school yuppie Rikako. Everyone, including his best friend Yutaka, has a thing for her, so conflict ensues. Ocean Waves remains endearing because of its strong sense of time and place. Watching it for the first time this year, I felt immediately transported to early ’90s Japan. While Mochizuki may have failed Ghibli in going over budget and missing the planned release date, he did make one hell of a coming-of-age story. Unfortunately, it’s the only Ghibli film, along with Only Yesterday, not released in the U.S. 

Kondo is the most tragic story of Studio Ghibli’s history. After nearly a decade with the studio, Kondo released his directorial debut Whisper of the Heart only to die from an aneurysm three years later. Before joining the studio on Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Kondo had worked on pioneering series, like Lupin III and Star of the Giants in the early ’70s. In 1984, he directed the impressive Little Nemo test pilot that never got picked-up. For most, however, he will be remembered for one special film about a little girl trying to find her place in contemporary Japan.

After viewing Whisper of the Heart for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was made by Isao Takahata or Hayao Miyazaki. The film has many of the themes touched upon by Takahata (especially Only Yesterday), but has the pacing and fantasy elements that occupy Miyazaki’s work. More importantly, it’s a joyful, inspiring film that holds a place in many Ghibli fans’ hearts as one of the studio’s finest efforts. It’s bittersweet then that we didn’t get to see Kondo evolve as an artist with a proper follow-up, though the film received a spin-off with Hiroyuki Morita’s The Cat Returns.

Morita is perhaps the most obscure of the Ghibli directors. While he has a prolific career as a key animator, there isn’t much to be said about his connection with Ghibli. Even his Ghibli debut seems devoid of any signature style or personal themes. With a resume including roles on Akira, Lupin III, and Tenchi Muyo films, he was in good company at Ghibli. Getting his start as key animator on My Neighbor the Yamadas, Morita came into Miyazaki’s good graces when he created an impressive 525-panel storyboard sequence for the film that would become …

In 1999, Miyazaki was contracted by a Japanese theme park to make a series of shorts about cats. So, he reached back to Whisper of the Heart‘s fantasy segments and found inspiration for the project. When the theme park changed its mind, Miyazaki called in Morita to bring the remains to life in a full-length feature. While The Cat Returns isn’t a failure, its origins as a collection of shorts and incomplete ideas is apparent throughout its sloppy storytelling. Nevertheless, the film is wonderfully animated and has some adorable creatures that would feel at home in a Miyazaki film. Yet, after the impossible high of Spirited Away, The Cat Returns can only be considered a commercial and critical dud.

Until his 2006 debut, Goro’s (Hayao’s son) only involvement with Studio Ghibli was designing the landscape of the Ghibli Museum. Brought in as a consultant on Tales from Earthsea, Goro eventually found himself in the role of director after producer Toshio Suzuki convinced him he was ready. His father, however, thought he wasn’t. Much tabloid fodder was written on Hayao disowning his son. In a country where hard work is viewed as essential, Goro going from a landscape artist to animated film director didn’t reflect well on Hayao as a father or business man. Once the film premiered, Hayao was happy with the result and supported his son’s effort. The public, however, continued to view Goro as an amateur.

So many negative things are said of Tales from Earthsea that it’s hard not to go in with low expectations. It had all the elements of a classic Miyazaki film, but it falls short of being Goro’s Nausicaa. Tales from Earthsea is beautiful in parts, but lacks the fluidity, emotion, and pacing of a Ghibli film. Goro’s lack of experience shines through every detail. From the static backgrounds to the uneventful third act, the film just sags. It’s not terrible but it’s a hard film to sit through due to its pace and length. Once you look past its flaws, there are some great characters, locations, and the film has a great old-school fantasy style. It could have been Goro’s Nausicaa, but it’s not.

Perhaps out of a reaction to negative critical buzz, Goro seems to be going as far away from fantasy as possible with his humble follow-up. The story, based on a novel, seems closer to Takahata and Kondo than Miyazaki. Set in 1960s Japan, From up on Poppy Hill is a drama about two young students fighting to protect an old building, as the city plans to tear it down for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Despite being rushed to completion after the 2011 tsunami, the film premiered to Western audiences at Toronto International Film Festival to positive reviews. Twitch compared it to Whisper of the Heart, but says it falls short of matching its quality. Regardless, From up on Poppy Hill appears to be a bold step forward for Goro.

Yonebayashi is the studio’s youngest director since Mochizuki. He’s young enough to have grown up on Ghibli films, as well old enough to make them. With early animation credits on Jin-Roh, Serial Experiments Lain, and Princess Mononoke, Yonebayashi soon cut his teeth as key animator on major Ghibli productions.

After the disappointing Tales from Earthsea, it’s hard to put a lot of faith into another new Ghibli director. However, Yonebayashi understands animation a lot better than Goro. While Arrietty isn’t an instant classic, it establishes Yonebayashi as the company’s most talented new director since Kondo. He directs with the languid pacing of Takahata, while drumming up tension and making fantasy feel tangible. The attention to detail is what makes Arrietty such a captivating adventure. It’s easy to look at a kitchen and view it as a human, but through fantastic animation, direction, and audio design, you see it through the eyes of the one-inch tall protagonist.