Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki on four decades of anime magic

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The producer on his close relationship with director Hayao Miyazaki — and why children shouldn’t watch too much Totoro.

Some weeks into its state of Covid-19 national emergency, Japan, along with the rest of the world, was suffering from cabin fever. Children in particular were scared and bored. 

It was at this point, says Toshio Suzuki, telling the story from the welled kotatsu bench of a sushi restaurant near his office, that the education board of his native Nagoya called Japan’s most famous animation producer and co-founder of Studio Ghibli and asked him to come up with an encouraging message. The request resonated. 

As an 11-year-old, Suzuki had lived through 1959’s devastating Isewan Typhoon and he recalls entertainers who were drafted in to divert children like him from the fearsome death toll.

“The normal thing would be to send a message saying something like ‘don’t let corona win’, but I didn’t want to do that,” he says.

‘My Neighbour Totoro’ (1988)

His alternative offer to Nagoya was a short, grandfatherly video (now well and truly viral), in which he showed children with just a few simple pen strokes the secret of how to draw Totoro — a rotund woodland spirit, a symbol of supernatural comfort and the most globally recognisable of Studio Ghibli’s pantheon of characters.

Suzuki, 72, tells the story in part to underline the importance of meeting adversity by creating, rather than consuming. But he also uses it to illustrate the way that he and Ghibli’s two other co-founders — the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, 79, and the late Isao Takahata, a pioneer of serious storytelling through a medium once considered for children — have run one of the world’s most beloved creative powerhouses for the past 35 years. Everything, he says of the distinctively Japanese studio, has always been on their terms. 

And a lot of the confidence behind that, he says, has hinged on the friendship between himself and Miyazaki: a relationship that makes the entire process of running the business feel like a single, ongoing chat between companions “who have been dating for 42 years since 1978”.

From left: Studio Ghibli co-founders Hayao Miyazaki, Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata in 2013

“He’s my best friend. You can’t only be kind to your friends, and you can’t only be strict with them. You have to be both . . . I have met and talked with him every single day,” says Suzuki. And there is, he adds sadly, a ghost in all those conversations. The loss of Takahata, who died in 2018 at the age of 82, reduced a trio of inseparable friends to a duo. Suzuki says the great storyteller still features in all his conversations with Miyazaki as a question: what would Takahata think about this? 

The outcome of those conversations has repeatedly defined the company, starting in the mid-1980s with the pivotal decision to produce Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and Takahata’s wrenching war epic Grave of the Fireflies in spite of pleading from financial backers and others to look for something more action-packed and bankable.  “Miyazaki and I were brought up comfortably and I think it shows in Ghibli films because they are not driven by the need for commercial success. The most important thing is to be free,” he says, adding later in our conversation that there was a moment when the company received an offer that would have made him and the other founders billionaires but was ultimately rejected as posing too great a threat to their independence.

The Oscar-winning ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) © Alamy Stock Photo

“I am still actually angry when we have really huge sales,” says Suzuki, who has a grandson he prefers doesn’t watch too many Ghibli films. “It is more important to make a work than to sell it. I absolutely hate it when our work is called ‘content’. Hayao Miyazaki and I are both very opposed to children watching Totoro over and over. You only have to see it once.”

To a considerable extent, he adds, his role as producer and head of the studio has been to protect Miyazaki from the necessary run of business decisions. Suzuki knows what it costs to make the films as the maestro wants them, he says, and considers the venture a success if it breaks even.

And through that approach, says Suzuki, he has been free to consider the studio’s work only in the context of how it will play to Japanese audiences, however ravenous the global appetite for Ghibli’s output. The fact that Suzuki’s Totoro-drawing video was downloaded around the world by countless fans, that Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2003, that Netflix secured the rights to show most of the Ghibli back catalogue on its platform or that the Ghibli Museum was (pre-Covid) a must-see for foreign tourists, is, to Suzuki, a distraction.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988) © Studio Ghibli/Kobal/Shutterstock

“When we make a film, we only think about the Japanese audience. We never think that what we are making here will expand around the globe and be supported by people worldwide. I never used to think about that, and I still don’t,” he says.

The question Suzuki now faces is whether the pandemic and its restrictions are going to take some measure of Ghibli’s freedom away, either by making it more difficult to create the films themselves or by forcing more nakedly commercial pressures on the studio. Japan’s voluntary — but widely observed — lockdown conditions affected all companies to varying degrees, and Japan’s animators have not escaped disruption. The Japanese economy has been hit grievously hard.

And it all came at a critical time for Ghibli. Two weeks before our meeting in June, the studio had announced that Miyazaki’s son Goro was working on a computer-animated adaptation of Diana Wynne Jones’s novel Earwig and the Witch, which is scheduled for broadcast in Japan next month. But even more fascinating for Ghibli’s global fan base is the progress of the elder Miyazaki on How Do You Live? — his first film back in the director’s chair since The Wind Rises in 2013 and the reason he decided to come out of retirement. It was a decision, says Suzuki, that did not arise from any formal meeting within the company (“we never have those!”) but from another of the daily chinwags between the two old friends.

The upcoming ‘Earwig and the Witch’, directed by Hayao Miyazaki’s son, Goro

Miyazaki, says Suzuki, has come into the office every day of the Covid crisis, even as the rest of the operation has had to be pared back and dependent on teleworking. The good news is that production has therefore continued to some extent; the bad news is that because the maestro works at his own perfectionist pace, the actual film is at least three years away. sh

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