"Whatever became of Hiroyuki Morita?" I asked myself this question while skimming through the Ghibli Blog's archives in preparation for an upcoming book about Studio Ghibli. He had built a solid career as an animator on many of Japan's biggest anime classics of the 1980s and 1990s - Akira, Roujin Z, Junkers Come Here, Memories, Spriggan, Perfect Blue, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. He also worked as an animator on the Studio Ghibli features Kiki's Delivery Service, My Neighbors the Yamadas, and Koro's Day Out. He was then given a chance to direct the 2002 feature film, The Cat Returns the Favor (Neko no Ongaeshi), was given a lukewarm welcome, and then all but disappeared, leaving Ghibli after working as an animator on Tales From Earthsea.
I checked the Wikipedia page to see what Morita has been doing this past decade. It's pretty slim. He was once considered a candidate for a post-Miyazaki Studio Ghibli. But it's like a promising draft pick, hot on the heels of a successful college career, who then becomes overwhelmed in the professional leagues.
I am reminded just how difficult this business of making movies and animation can be. One must marshall many talents and skills, determination and hard work is crucial, but oftentimes so is luck and good fortune. A skilled animator does not guarantee success as a director. There's no question that Morita has been extremely successful as an animator. But for whatever reasons, that career could not raise The Cat Returns above mediocrity. The movie has its charms, and it has moments that could have built to greatness. But it mostly languishes in cartoon cliches and dull plotting. I always find myself preferring Yoshiyuki's Momose's Ghiblies Episode 2, and for Studio Ghibli, Morita's production is a disappointment on the heels of the mega-blockbuster, Spirited Away.
I am also reminded just how difficult this transition was for Hayao Miyazaki in the late 1970s, as he struggled to establish himself as a "solo artist" after years as part of the vaunted Takahata/Miyazaki duo. He had the skill set, definitely. He had the talent, absolutely. It's astonishing that animated works like Future Boy Conan and The Castle of Cagliostro failed to find an audience in their day. And, yet, that's exactly what happened. I often feel that those struggles, and that difficult period, helped shape Miyazaki's 1984 animated film, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, into the career paradigm shift it was. He changed as an artist, and it gave his career its second wind.
There's a reason why Ghibli has struggled for twenty years to groom its next generation of directors and storytellers. Such talent is rare. And finding talent able to withstand the damands of a Hayao Miyazaki (an emperor who has chased out many suitors) is a tremendous challenge. I can't imagine how difficult it has been for those trying to earn a turn in the director's chair. But it has always been thus. Filmmaking is a very difficult business.
As for Hiroyuki Morita, his latest work as director is the 2007 anime TV series Bokurano: Ours, based on the manga comic. Discotek Media announced last fall that they have picked up the series, and a DVD release is scheduled for 2015. It will be interesting to see how Morita has grown, and just what has become of him.