The New Studio Ghibli Film - Gedo Senki

(Note: I wrote this on on December 13, 2005)

Today, Studio Ghibli's next feature-length film has been announced, and it's not without a degree of surprise and controversy. The title of the film is "Gedo Senki," or "Gedo War History." It is an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea, and is set for release next June. The director for this project is Goro Miyazaki - the son of the master filmmaker.

This is where much of the controversy stems from. Hayao Miyazaki's son, to the best of my knowledge, has no experience in animation, either as an animator, a writer or a director. He has been in charge of the Ghibli Museum since its 2001 opening, and is listed as a Planner for this year's Hayao Miyazaki and the Ghibli Museum documentary.

Now, one does not have to be a craftsman to become a great filmmaker in animation; Isao Takahata is the greatest example of that. However, I have to admit to feeling, well, a little skittish. The elder Miyazaki has been very vocal in his opposition; he is fiercly against the idea of having his son dropped in charge of a major Ghibli production.

There's something of a feeling of privilege in this that I just cannot shake. Miyazaki dragged himself through the ranks the old-fashioned way, with endless hard work and a relentless drive that is legendary. The democratic environment in place at Toei Doga in the 1960s enabled this, and young Hayao ran at the opportunity.

There's a famous story of the 1965 animation film Gulliver's Space Travels, where a young in-betweener (essentially a starting position in animation) boldly suggested a completely different ending to the story, one which completely changed the context and tone of the movie. The story originally involved Gulliver rescuing a robot princess, but Miyazaki suggested that the princess, and all her people, should be humans trapped inside the machines. That the new kid could essentially walk up to a director, make such a suggestion and then animate the scenes, is extrordinary, and speaks volumes about Miyazaki's spirit that carries through to the present day.

For Miyazaki, who started with nothing and became the highest-grossing filmmaker in Japan's history, the idea that his son could be hand-picked for the role of film director cannot be deeply offensive. It's goes against everything: his work ethic, his politics. At least, that's my theory.

I have no doubt that Goro Miyazaki can possess a degree of talent; he has to have inherited something from his parents (his mother, Akemi, worked as a key animator on Horus, Prince of the Sun, Puss in Boots, Animal Treasure Island, and Panda Go Panda. But, I ask myself, why not simply work up the ranks first? Shouldn't he have to pay his dues?

My own suspicion is that this relates to the looming crisis for Studio Ghibli. Namely, what will happen to the studio when the old masters, Takahata and Miyazaki, finally retire? Both have projects in the pipeline, but they are getting older; Takahata, who's last Ghibli film was 1999's My Neighbors the Yamadas is 70, and Miyazaki is 65.

There are many brilliantly talented senior animators at Ghibli, and several who have directed short films, incliding Yohiyuki Momose (Ghiblies, Episode 2), Hiroyuki Morita (The Cat Returns) Katsuya Kondo. and Kitaro Kosaka (who directoral debut was the 2003 film Nasu: Summer in Andalusia). These are all clear candidates for successors at Ghibli. The clear successor was once Yoshifumi Kondo (Whisper of the Heart) but he died suddenly in 1998. This has been a growing problem ever since.

So now, we suddenly have the son of Miyazaki in charge of a major film, and that may be enough to keep the public interested. It makes great press, and everyone will want to see if Goro can follow in his foosteps. No doubt Gedo Senki will be a good film, but this feels so much like a gamble.

It would be foolish to expect the younger Miyazaki to create the same kind of emotionally complex, personal films as his father. So much of Japan's greatest animation comes from that post-war generation, whose explosion of freedom and creativity revolutionized the medium. Can a new generation create classics in the vein of Horus, Heidi, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Nausicaa, Porco Rosso? Or will they be safer, more formulaic, more committed to the cliches and conventions?

The thing that strikes me about the new movie poster is how much it looks like the last one. It looks just like Howl's Moving Castle, and is likewise adapted from a series of Western children's fantasy novels. But what made Howl so great, what I really loved about it, was how Miyazaki threw away the book after introducing the major players, and told his own personal story about war, his marriage, and growing old instead. It's the sort of bold thing you expect from a great filmmaker. Imagine someone taking similar liberties with C.S. Lewis or Harry Potter.

What kind of risks would Goro Miyazaki take? Where would he take animated film? Does he possess that love and respect for Italian Neo-realism, that awareness of Japan's rich history and culture? How much of his personal life, his inner turmoil, will appear on the screen? Or will we simply see a calcluated, audience-friendly cartoon fantasy, set within the confines of the quote-unquote "Ghibli movie?" The Cat Returns had these same problems, and to a degree it is to be expected; these are movies made by young people who are inexperienced, learning their style, learning to hear their own voices.

That sort of thing takes time. I'm not sure that this is the wisest path to take; sometimes being the child of a famous artist, and being asked to continue their legacy, can prove a heavy burden. Think of Julian Lennon. Perhaps, again, this is why Miyazaki pere is against the idea. I don't know. I'm only an American artist and writer who's still digging through all that history and trying to make sense of it all. Next June should prove very interesting.

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