What happens if you throw a Miyazaki party and nobody comes? That's the question we find ourselves asking now. The director's latest (and final) feature film, The Wind Rises, was given a limited theatrical release in the United States on February 21 and 28. The film, as one would expect, was hailed by critics nationwide. Ghibli and anime fans. And then, silence. Barely anybody actually bothered to go see it. The box office returns are not merely disappointing, but tragic, apocalyptic.
According to Box Office Mojo, The Wind Rises has earned $3,430,607 as of March 10. At its current rate, the movie will barely crawl to $4 million - that is, if Disney allows one more weekend before pulling the picture from theaters. The per-screen average was decent on its opening "wide release" weekend (and here we dryly note that "wide" means fewer than 500 screens, a tenth of a major studio release), but after those first days, the numbers just collapse.
The sorry truth is that nobody - fans of Hayao Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, anime, or animation in general - shows any great interest in this movie; nobody wants anything do with this picture. Online buzz, either on Ghibli Blog or movie sites or social media, has been minimal at best. There has only been an obligitory mention, a casual aside, out of respect for Miyazaki. And the pervading question is: Why? Why weren't you interested? Why didn't you see this movie in theaters? Where are the Miyazaki fans? Where are the anime fans? Where the heck is everybody?
I think there are a number of causes at play here. First, there are many Ghibli fans who simply never had a chance; no theater in their area would show the movie. That is Disney's responsibility. For a company that tried - or at least, offered the bare pretense of trying - to establish Hayao Miyazaki as a household name in America, Disney's performance has been terrible, an embarassment. Only 496 screens for the man hailed as the "Walt Disney of Japan," no promotion, and no advertising? The only commercial I ever saw was on YouTube, and it seemed more focused on selling another lousy auto-tuned pop song. Who makes these decisions?
John Lasseter once championed Studio Ghibli's movies as though they were his own. Where is he now? What happened? Why such a tiny release given to the man every Pixar animator hails as the Second Coming? Where are Pixar's star directors to lend support? Second Coming, my eye. I've seen better support from Pontius Pilate.
To Disney's credit, they have done an admirable job with the localization and dubbing of The Wind Rises' US soundtrack. It's a miracle that such a movie, an animation melodrama in the vein of late-era Fellini and Kurosawa, was ever put on American movie screens at all. Here is a unique species, a style of moviemaking that simply does not exist in the West. For that, Disney should have our respect.
No, I believe multiple parties are to blame here. Where are the anime fans, the original Miyazaki champions who were passing along videotapes a generation ago? Is it just me, or does it seem like they walked out on Miyazaki just as Studio Ghibli was breaking into the mainstream consciousness? It's the curse of any sub-cultural group; you champion the weird and obscure because it's weird and obscure. Anything the "popular" crowd likes is immediately deemed suspect, and any member of your tribe that becomes "popular" is denounced as a heretic - a "sellout."
This isn't a hard-and-fast rule; anime fans may not have "denounced" Miyazaki as a "sellout." But they certainly drifted away once Disney started publishing his movies in theaters and DVD. Perhaps they felt their work was finished? Just say "Mission Accomplished" and then move along to the next underground anime gig. Either way, the end result is the same: no bodies in the theater seats.
Finally, what happened to the Ghibli Freaks, the non-anime Miyazaki fans? What happened to the kids who were turned on to Spirited Away, Ponyo, Arrietty? Where are all the visitors who clicked onto Ghibli Blog to read the 1980 Mononoke comic, or look at Totoro furniture, or enjoy fan-created artwork? You're willing to share your love of all things Ghibli on social media. And Heaven knows how badly you freaked out when you read our April Fools' joke, announcing that Disney had bought out Studio Ghibli? You were so concerned and engaged then...what happened now? What's the deal?
I cannot claim to have any answers; I only have questions and pet theories. I suspect that Ghibli fandom, like anime fandom in general, has declined and shrunk for several years. There is simply less interest in these films than in previous years. The fandom appears to remain largely casual. There are no Ghibli or Miyazaki "fans," only Totoro fans and Spirited Away fans. Folks are only interested in a few specific movies, a few specific characters, but no more; there is no interest in knowing Miyazaki, the artist and his work, in any greater degree.
Has the American Ghibli bubble burst? Has it become a dead fad? Hayao Miyazaki has been a fixture on the scene since Mononoke and Spirited Away arrived on our shores in 1999 and 2002. Perhaps interest in this unique art form has worn itself out, like hula hoops and disco and grunge rock? Japan still embraces Ghibli, but they share a long history of Japanese animation going back to the Toei Doga films of 60 years ago. In the United States, these movies are wholly unique. American animation is tied to the Disney paradigm more tightly than ever. And there is no sign of a paradigm shift anytime soon, if ever. People simply aren't interested in animation unless it fits into safe, predictable molds - the princess fairy tale, the superhero comic, the toy commercial. Whatever lies outside that boundary, no matter how acclaimed the filmmaker or artist, remains buried in the graveyard. Dead On Arrival.
So whaddya think, sirs?