As an avid Studio Ghibli admirer, I eagerly await new releases, longing to be thrown into beautifully strange worlds with enchanting storylines. But as cherished director Hayao Miyazaki seems to be stepping back from the production line, I question the future of Studio Ghibli productions. Can new releases live up to the highly respected reputation established by Hayao Miyazaki and his team?
These questions were put to Gorō Miyazaki (yes, Hayao’s son) in 2006 as he stepped forward with his directing debut of Tales From Earthsea, which despite having Hayao Miyazaki working on the production team (albeit from a distance), failed to impress audiences as much as earlier Ghibli releases.
It was an ok film, especially as it was his first, but in many respects lacked the quirkiness, charm and creative depth that is so very present in the films of Hayao Miyazaki and some of the early Ghibli directors. I think our expectations have been set so high by the success of previous releases that we don’t take to new releases with different production teams lightly. I know that when I hear about a new Ghibli film the first thing I look for is: did Hayao Miyazaki direct it? Is Joe Hisaishi the composer of the music? If the answer is no to both, then I’m already judging the film slightly.
My focus has recently been turned therefore to the recent release (well I say recent, recent for the UK at least) of Arrietty. It is based on The Borrowers, a book by Mary Norton, and is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who has not ever directed before but he has been working on the Ghilbi animation team since 1996, so at least he has a vast history behind him. As Studio Ghibli’s now youngest director, he has taken on a mammoth task of creating a production that is unique, but still carries all the same characteristics of the franchise.
On the face of it the film has:
A young determined female lead
A sense of adventure
An innocent romance, or well a hint of it anyway
Stunningly beautiful artwork and animation
Typical Ghibli blobby/gloopy water
(strange characteristic to pick out I know, but I LOVE the gloopy water in Ghibli films)
I think one aspect of the film that really stood out for me was the music. Written by French composer Cécile Corbel, it was a huge step away from the orchestral sounds of Joe Hisaishi. Corbel is a Celtic harpist, and this can clearly be seen from her work, which was a combination of Celtic and folk styles. The instrumentation consisted mainly of harp, accordion, guitar and flute, providing a soundtrack that sounded very western. It was a shame because I enjoy the Eastern elements Hisaishi brings to a soundtrack that he then combines with memorable melodic phrases. I found many sections of this film lacked incidental music, detaching the audience slightly from the narrative, but it could be argued that the silence was an intentional representation of loneliness.
Despite comparisons to the successful Ghibli films, I thought Arrietty was better than Tales From Earthsea because it had more of the emotional engagement and Japanese charm that you would expect. There are a few moments that didnt really work, but then there are others that really did, for example when she discovers the human’s kitchen for the first time and can visualize where all the mysterious sounds come from. I think if you expect this film to be as jaw-droppingly inspiring as Mononoke or Spirited Away then you will be disappointed, as the storyline simply does not go further than a family’s fight for survival and a young girl’s self-discovery. But if you are looking for a light-hearted Ghibli film with charm and a deeper meaning then you will not be disappointed with Arrietty. I was pleased to see the inclusion of some strange animals like a grumpy overweight cat, cheeky crickets, loveable woodlice and a mental crow!
So the next installment coming our way will be From up on Poppy Hill or Kokuriko-zaka Kara. It was directed by Gorō Miyazaki, and I can imagine the pressure was on him after the cold reception his last production received. Hayao Miyazaki took more of a supportive role in this film however, helping to write the script and overlook the production process, so as with Arrietty I expect some of his trademark charm and creativity will shine through.
It has already been released in Japan and reached 3rd place in the box office behind Harry Potter DH 2 and Pokemon: Best Wishes. It probably wont reach western audiences until next summer at the earliest so we will have to wait to judge the film for ourselves. I hope that through his last production Gorō has adapted his style to better fit with the desires of Ghibli audiences, in order for the studio to grow as the master Hayao Miyazaki gradually steps back from the director’s chair.