Dead On Arrival - The End of Miyazaki in America?

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?


Christopher Sobieniak said...

It was kinda annoying the closest theater to me that had it at all was up in Ann Arbor, MI when previous Ghibli films had managed to find a place somewhere in Toledo (except maybe From Up On Poppy Hill since I don't recall any of GKIDS' releases finding traction here).

Walter Biggins said...

I'm a longtime lurker, first-time commenter. As a big fan of this site, I hate for my 1st comment to be one of dissent but it must be so. I don't think we should think of THE WIND RISES' box office as any sort of failure. At least from the figures of BoxOfficeMojo, only ARRIETTY has approached $20 million in U.S. sales, and only PONYO and SPIRITED AWAY crossed $10 million. Theatrical box office for anime is almost always gonna be a tough sell, especially outside of big-city markets.

I live in Athens, GA, and saw THE WIND RISES on opening weekend to a more-or-less half full theatre on a Friday night. I went again two weeks later and the theatre was still half full, and the movie's continuing on next week. It's only showing at one of Athens' five regular-run theaters so, given that, $4 million domestically puts THE WIND RISES right in the middle of Ghibli's fortunes in the U.S.

POPPY HILL barely made a million; MONONOKE did about $4 million, so THE WIND RISES is right in the middle, box-office-wise, and isn't such a big aberration. Americans are by and large conditioned to expect animation to be kid-friendly, and even mature Miyazaki films have a children-friendly sense of humor and/or riotous action. THE WIND RISES does not. It's squarely for adults--there's nothing salacious about it but everything from its plot to its characterization to its historical roots is firmly not for kids. Plus, it's resolutely set in Japan, is largely ABOUT Japan, and mixes childish whimsy with really sobering ruminations on war, love, marriage, and early death. It's a sober realist drama but it's also fantastical and dreamlike, sort of like if Fellini made a cartoon. All I'm saying is that, yes, Disney may have dropped the ball in marketing this film but maybe that's because it's a difficult movie to market, one that doesn't fit into a preconceived slot or into a clear genre.

Despite this, and your assertion that people didn't care, the movie's received some of the strongest reviews I've seen for a Miyazaki film. It has fostered debate, and has done about as well as most independent, adult-oriented pictures do. I think it did draw out the major Miyazaki fanbase--hence the $3.5 million. I also think, though, it failed to grab ANYONE ELSE, and that's partly a failure of marketing but also partly because (again!) it's a difficult movie to market.

But then we just have to see how it does on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming, and it's here that I think your argument falls apart a little. Just going from my own experience, almost all Ghibli pictures seem to find their financial footing and cultish admiration once they go to home video, and indeed that's how anime spread in this country to begin with. Seeing as Disney has repackaged their Miyazaki DVDs more than once, my guess would be that DVDs outsold tickets.

Two quick, but telling examples: According to, HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE sold 765,000 DVDs for $16 million, while only making $4 million at the box office, according to ARRIETTY made $19 million at the box office, and $16 million on DVD/Blu-Ray. Those are REALLY healthy numbers, and indicate that there is a large, devoted Ghibli audience. But it's an audience that necessarily can see such movies on the big screen or--and this is a big thing with anime fans, as you know--would strongly prefer the home version, so that they can see it in the original Japanese with subtitles rather than the Disney English dub. (I almost skipped THE WIND RISES for precisely this reason, though the English dub was unusually good and non-melodramatic by Disney's standards.)

I say all this to say that your death knell is way premature, and doesn't necessarily take into account how most anime fans find their way to Ghibli.

Unknown said...

You beg an awful lot of questions in this post. I'll knock together a response, but that might take a while.

The film has taken about $7000 per screen, just over 10% of what the Lego movie has. I think that's pretty damn good. $7000 per screen is in no way "dead on arrival"

Also, not all your readers are in the US.

Jay Boerner said...

I definitely went to the theater to see this! Really enjoyed your article on The Wind Rises. My two friends who came with out of budding interest were audience to my comments during the film. Definitely saw the references to Miyazaki and Takahata's work relationship. Can't wait for this to come out on blu-ray. Really excited for the North American debut of Kaguya as well. I always end up encouraging my friends to see these films. I agree though.. I believe the buzz over The Wind Rises was definitely rather low. It was certainly an unusual film in the Miyazaki canon. I think the critics that went to see it were unsure on how to interpret it, this may have reflected on those that would have paid to see it in theaters.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Great points from everyone, thanks for sharing. No doubt Miyazaki fans are feeling slightly bummed out at The Wind Rises' US box office, or frustrated that their local theaters aren't getting the picture.

My wife Marcee thought that this is a movie that grows on you over time; it may require a few years to grow its audience. We are reminded of many "classic" movies that were not successful in their theatrical runs: Citizen Kane, Shawshank Redemption, The Iron Giant, yadda yadda. I really do hope that Disney releases The Wind Rises on Blu-Ray and DVD; I'd like to see how well it would sell here in the States.

I Make Comments said...

Hey, I saw the movie in theatres twice. I loved it. Anyway, I'm not nearly as upset about The Wind Rises preforming poorly at the box office as you are. I kind of expected it, to be honest. As long as it has a strong enough cult following to justify a Blu-ray release, I'll be happy.

I'll never expect Ghibli to be a part of North America's mainstream culture.

Dan Del Rio said...

I will eventually watch this movie, but I think the subject matter is something that doesn't really appeal to Americans. From what I have seen this is the story of the man who designed the Zero fighter plane used by the Japanese against the Americans in WWII. First my interest in the person, is nil, and second, why should Americans care about this story? Ghibli is known for its fantastic worlds, characters and stories, why would this film even need to be animated? No wonder Disney has stayed away from this one.

JC said...

I can only surmise that if I were still in the US, I would have been very conflicted about going to watch it in theaters as it would be most likely be dubbed. I would have hated my first encounter with the film to be the dubbed version, but I would also want to have shown support for the theatrical release. It would have been a tough call...

Personally I think the real problem with general acceptance of Miyazaki's works is the dubbing/subtitling issue. Everyone knows people won't watch something subtitled, but even the best dubbed versions don't come across as "natural" in my opinion, because there is an inherent dissonance to the thought flow when translated to English. Reading subtitles allows me to understand the gist of the meaning and then allow the original language acting to inform the emotional flavors. But when I watch dubbed Japanese films I can't help but be jarred but the incongruity of thoughts being expressed in English that just don't fit the culture of the language itself. It's hard to explain...but anyway, I believe that most people subconsciously experience this dissonance when watching dubbed movies, and while they may think they enjoy them more because of some inherent dislike for reading subtitles, ultimately they are not tuned into a communication channel that provides the richest available experience. Of course, the best possible option would be if we all understood Japanese, but that's obviously not going to happen. So at the end of the day we have an impossible situation, which is why I'm not surprised by the lack of growth in popularity of Miyazaki's works past Spirited Away and Arriety, which at least kids find relatable.

Jonathan Walmsley said...

I would have watched it at least 5 times by now if it was out in the UK, believe me, as I'm not just a big Spirited Away fan or Totoro fan, I'm a massive fan of Miyazaki the artist and visionary first and foremost and then a fan of the studio he and Suzuki and Takahata built around that incredible artistry they all share. As this is likely Miyazaki’s final cinematic outing, I WANT TO SEE THIS MOVIE RIGHT NOW! But I have to wait another 2 months...*sigh*.

It’ll be worth the wait though I’m sure; Miyazaki has never once disappointed me before and from all accounts The Wind Rises is another cinematic triumph. I’ll definitely make up for having to wait almost an entire year more than Japanese audiences for my favourite director’s, no scratch that, favourite artist’s latest film.

Noah Oskow said...

Though I appreciate your sentiment, I think you're being a bit alarmist here. $4 million isn't much to scoff at when it makes this film the 10th most successful anime in American theatrical history, especially when it is far and away the least marketable film among that ranking. I saw the movie twice in theaters here, bringing along a grand total of about 20 friends who all loved it and had much to discuss afterwards. The fact is that it was only in 500 theaters, many of them poorly listed and far away from people, and that Disney did a mediocre job of pushing the film. All these things combine to make this a fairly obvious turn-out in terms of box office. Ghibli is really more of a at-home experience for the majority of Americans either way; I'm sure once the movie is out on blu-ray it'll continue to see more success. Meanwhile it was the biggest film of the year in Japan. I understand wanting it to have made a bigger splash, because it is an incredible movie. But it's had a pretty big effect among my friends and even on my facebook feed. With Kaguya-Hime having just been announced as coming to America later this year (way faster than I anticipated), I really think there's no need for any gloom-and-doom.

Anonymous said...

This isn't Hayao's final film as he is not retiring. The problem with The Wind Rises is that any chain of movie theatres that could have had the movie refused to put it in all the locations they owned. Cinemark who owns a bajillion in NE Ohio put it in 3 locations around Cleveland and completely snubbed Akron and Canton-area Cinemark locations. It was certainly advertised - I saw commercials on CNN and BBC America, but it wasn't to be anywhere near me.

Christopher Sobieniak said...

Cinemark who owns a bajillion in NE Ohio put it in 3 locations around Cleveland and completely snubbed Akron and Canton-area Cinemark locations. It was certainly advertised - I saw commercials on CNN and BBC America, but it wasn't to be anywhere near me.

Now you know how I feel since my town is monopolized by Cinemark by default (Toledo). In the past they would've placed the more "artsy fartsy" material in one theater down in Perrysburg (Levis Commons) but I see they haven't done that for quite some time now so I guess we're stuck without an indie route for now.

Ryan "Ducky" Georgieff said...

May Be if Disney got off it's collective ass and promoted the F**king movies it licensed this wouldn't be a problem! but some asshat with a mickey up his ass doesn't want to spend any money on work that isn't Disney!
At most they get art house style treatment only 500 screens and it's to bring in $3,430,607 as of March 10! that's good!
Hell when they release something from the vault they spend more money to advertise it!
the Blame has always been on Disney for it's lack of caring for example Oceanwaves & Only Yesterday will never get an English dub because it has issues they didn't want younger viewers seeing. I'm surprised this got released by Disney! An historical film as it is no cute characters!
most fans will wait til it comes out on dvd because they can get that without an hour drive to someplace!

Lunarie Pentum said...

@Videofunguy Miyazaki IS retiring. From directing and film-making, but he still works on other things such as Ghibli museum shorts and his manga.


It's difficult to say the situation with the whole release and promotion for TWR. I know there are Ghibli fans out there who hadn't even known that TWR had come out nearby because of the Frozen outburst. Anime is already difficult to push out in America, and this film was pushed out just a month after Frozen (which is still playing in theaters).

For the anime fans in general, I really don't have a big idea. I stopped watching anime decades ago, and have only been an avid player with Ghibli films. But part of the situation could be that a portion of anime fans don't favor Miyazaki films--the "niches". Just recently, a friend of mine blasted me for liking Ghibli, and that it had no "real core" of japanese anime. I mean, he was really offended that I favored Ghibli over his anime/visual novel studio to the point where he unfriended me on Facebook and pretty much said I was a "YOLO" type of person who will never improve in life. Obviously, he doesn't talk to me anymore, and not anime fans are like this. But there is a group out there who prefers sub-categories of anime and despises the rest.

Another thing I noticed from devoted anime fans is that they prefer "subs", and because of this some stray away from watching anything without the original Japanese language.

Ah, well. I've watched TWR three times already; one during the one-week run in LA, and two times since it's national release. I really hope the movie gets the attention it deserves. If one doesn't like the storyline as much, the animation will still be enough to impress. It's simply beautiful.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

These are some outstanding comments! Thanks to everyone for sharing their opinions, whether on this blog, on Reddit, or on Facebook.

I wonder...should we collect all these comments and essays and publish them as a free e-book? I think this topic has really touched a nerve among Miyazaki fans.

Auturgist said...

"People simply aren't interested in animation unless it fits into safe, predictable molds"

A friend linked a video -- maybe an anime music video -- a long time ago that compiled scenes from Miyazaki films that showed just how similar they all were in tone and narrative arc, and I remember thinking after seeing it that it made great sense of why I have always kinda felt, deep down, that if you've seen one Miyazaki film, you've seen them all... not that that precludes you from liking them all, obviously. I think the "Walt Disney of Japan" epithet is very apt for that reason, too. Disney films are also pretty formulaic, and I rarely feel compelled to see them in theaters. You can be great at doing mostly the same thing over and over again, but the whole world didn't have to sit up and pay attention every time Michael Jordan dunked a basketball.

Anonymous said...

Auturgist I completely disagree. Would you say Laputa Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke are all one in the same? I certainly don't think so. Miyazaki reuses themes that's true but there still plenty of variety in content to set them apart.

Brian Ackley said...

The subject matter of "the wind rises" is quite mature and doesn't really make it a film withmuch to appeal to children. These types of biographical movies are popular in the US but the fact that this an animated movie the theater goers who would see this type of story probably dismissed it as a children's film.

The political themes in this film make this kind a risky film so I applaud disney for releasing it in the theaters and given it a fairly wide release. I understand wide release is a bit of stretch given the spotty showings however it was much bigger that "poppy" and honestly Disney could have just passed on the whole project.

Alfred von Cervera said...

My dear friend, what I think is what you feel is not only why the movie did not have a better performance, but may be (and that's my personal feeling), The Wind Rises is a masterpiece and it seems that people are not realising what kind of event was in front of their noses. It's not a blockbuster, but brings the kind of experience I had the first time I saw Citizen Kane. It's an amimation milestone, but the world around the film feels the same. I kind of undesrtand your frustration. What I know is that this movie will find a greater audience on the future. Thanks for writing on Ghibli and Mr. Miyazaki. By the way, the event in Mexico City was huge, I had to watch the whole movie stood up.

Emma Heuchert said...

I couldn't personally go see the film, unfortunately, as I'm studying abroad this semester.
But I think a huge part of why this film didn't gather the excitement that, say, Arrietty did, is just the topic. The Wind Rises is not really geared towards children. Yes, there may be some kids that like it, but for the most it would just be too dark. I had wanted to recommend it to the kids I watch, but after seeing reviews and trailers, I saw that they wouldn't have enjoyed it. Anime movies such as these will generally have a larger appeal to kids, especially in the US where that is typically the target audience. Arriety, Ponyo, Spirited Away are all films that kids can watch, and that will bring in a lot of the money for such a film. But when the film is one like The Wind Rises or even From Up on Poppy Hill, there are a lot fewer people that will go see it. (Though I travelled over three hours to see From Up on Poppy Hill and Arrietty...)

Duncan Walden said...

Hey there. I just started reading your blog and I'm quite enjoying myself. I myself am a long time Ghibli fan and I'm an artist and I have been heavily influenced by Mr. Miyazaki's work. I've been noticing for a while that anime in the United States is on a downward spiral. It peaked right around the late 90's with Toonami in it's heyday and continued strong for a few years with Shonen Jump like Naruto and Bleach, but it declined after that and has since become a niche more or less. It's sad, especially for such well done films like those produced by studio Ghibli, but that's just the state of things right now.

nemesis443 said...

I think the main reason this movie did so poorly in the U.S. is the subject matter. This is the story of the creator of the Mitsubishi A6M, aka the Zero fighter. After staying away from the United States for years because of his opposition to the Iraq war it struck many as being pretty hypocritical to make a movie glorifying such a dark period in Japan's history. There are a lot of people, especially in Asia, who take a dim view of the Japanese Empire. Japan at the time killed millions of Asians, especially Chinese. The Bataan Death March did the same for Japan in the U.S.

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