What happens when the creative heart and soul of a studio retires? If it’s Hayao Miyazaki, the studio shutters with him.
Not long after the legendary anime director, now 78, announced in 2013 that he was calling it quits (not his first time), his movie home, Studio Ghibli, halted production, ending its three-decade run with two Oscar-nominated films, “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” and “When Marnie Was There.” The news left animation fans across the globe wondering if the makers of such beloved films as “Princess Mononoke” and “Spirited Away” would ever release another feature.
The decision also raised other questions. Could Miyazaki — one of the world’s most ambitious and tireless directors — actually stay retired? And what would all those other creative minds at the studio do?
For the Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (“Princess Kaguya”) the answer was simple, at least in theory. He would create his own studio, pulling some of the top talent from Ghibli’s deep stable of feature film animators.
The result is Studio Ponoc, which began life in 2015 in Kichijoji, a neighborhood in western Tokyo that’s home to the Ghibli Museum and a major center for Japanese animation. Despite a tough start — low budgets and a reported staff of “two to three” — Ponoc quickly expanded its work force to more than 400.
The studio’s first feature, “Mary and the Witch’s Flower,” was a hit, becoming one of Japan’s biggest box-office draws in 2017. Its second, “Modest Heroes,” was released in the United States on Thursday, Jan. 10.
The transition looked pretty seamless until Miyazaki announced in 2017 that — surprise! — he was coming out of retirement to direct one more feature. Theories abounded: he wanted to create one more film for his grandson (the Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki’s explanation). The master was lured back by the sweet promises of computer animation (as revealed in the 2016 documentary “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki”). He got tired of hearing up-and-coming animators dubbed the “new Miyazaki.”
“Honestly, I think Miyazaki isn’t Miyazaki unless he’s creating something,” Susan Napier, author of “Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke” and “Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art,” said. She added: “That’s where he is alive. He loves to create and imagine.”
What looked like an ending became something else — the continuing tale of two studios, one rising and going unexpected places, one resurrected and returning to its focus on a revered filmmaker, all set against the backdrop of a Japanese animation industry thriving as never before. (The 2016 box-office smash “Your Name” brought in $350 million to become the highest-grossing anime feature of all time.)