Michiyo Yasuda Retires

This week marked a very special event, the retirement party for Michiyo Yasuda at Studio Ghibli. Her formal retirement was at the end of 2008, and her party was on Friday, January 30. Everyone was available with gifts and well wishes, as another member of the old Toei gang steps away from the spotlight.

I've often written about Michiyo Yasuda, and although you may or may not be familiar with her name, you know her work. As the head of Ghibli's Ink and Paint Dept, she was the master of color behind every one of the studio's feature films. Her color style is very much her own, and very unique in the worlds on animation and anime. It's very vivid and expressionistic, reminding me in some way of Kandinsky's brilliant color designs. I think she would have fit in perfectly with the great color artists of the turn of the last century, competing with the Impressionists, the Expressionists, the Futurists, and so on.

Yasuda-san was very often involved in the careers of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, going of course back to Toei Doga. I think in many respects she carried the flame for Toei's visual style. The strong hues and rich tones are a signature of her style and theory. It really is impossible to imagine Studio Ghibli without her color.

And so, it seems fitting that her final production is with her lifelong friend Miyazaki for Ponyo on a Cliff by the Sea. Ponyo continues to break box office records in Japan, and seems headed for that golden $200 million mark, where Miyazaki alone reigns. I wonder now where he will go for his muse. No doubt he will continue to ask her for advice on future productions. But for as long as he continues to write and direct movies, Miyazaki will be missing a crucial ally.

This is a very interesting period for the old masters. Most of their peers have retired, or died. Much of the support that they have depended on is no longer there. Instead, younger and younger faces, removed by a generation or two or three. That old world - the world of the 1960s - sails in the distant past. Perhaps this will signal a change in style, perhaps not. I personally believe that Yoshifumi Kondo's sudden death was greatly responsible for the distinctly different visual style Miyazaki brought to Spirited Away. I don't think Kondo would have indulged Miyazaki's surrealist, Fellini-esque turn as much. Who knows? Maybe things would have stayed the same, all things considering.

I think the retirement of Michiyo Yasuda will hit Miyazaki harder than Takahata (despite Takahata's semi-retirement). They were best friends, after all. There's a certain chemistry that results from being that familiar with someone. You just know the right notes to play. You don't even have to speak it. That bond will be gone now, and the gruff old master will no doubt feel the burden to take those tasks upon himself. After all, you can't expect these young kids to know what they're doing. They're all green. What do they know about color theory?

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