Ever since master animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement from feature filmmaking in September 2013, the question hanging over Japanese animation has been: Who, if anyone, will step into his very large shoes?
This search for the “new Miyazaki” began long before the Oscar-winning auteur released his 2013 swan song, the WWII-themed “The Wind Rises.” Studio Ghibli, which was Miyazaki’s creative home for nearly three decades, has raised several putative successors, including Miyazaki’s son Goro, who directed “Tales From Earthsea” and “From Up on Poppy Hill,” and “The Secret World of Arrietty” helmer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who made Ghibli’s last feature to date, this year’s Oscar-nominated “When Marnie Was There.”
But no animator working in the Japanese industry today has approached Miyazaki’s spectacular earnings for 2001 coming-of-age fantasy “Spirited Away.” Its $300 million domestic take reset the all-time record.
The shape of the post-Miyazaki animation landscape became clearer with the December announcement by leading distributor Toho that it will release two films by up-and-coming animators with Miyazaki connections.
One is “The Red Turtle,” the first feature by Academy Award-winning Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. The film is being co-produced by Studio Ghibli and a consortium of French companies, with release set for September.
The other is “Your Name?,” the first feature in three years by Makoto Shinkai, who has often been labeled a “new Miyazaki” for an imaginative scope and attention to visual detail that recall the master’s, though Shinkai’s lush style and favorite theme of young love are distinctively his own. Release is set for mid-July — a peak school holiday slot long associated with Miyazaki.
Shinkai is not the only animator to wear the “new Miyazaki” label. The most successful so far is Mamoru Hosoda, whose original fantasy “The Boy & the Beast” earned $49 million following its July release by Toho in Japan, representing the second-highest total for a domestic film last year.
Ghibli itself will not make features for now. “It really is over (for them),” says Jonathan Clements, author of “Anime: A History.” “It’s a brutal, accountants’ decision, but it’s based on firm evidence from the last decade that not even the Ghibli name on a film will guarantee that it will match the success of a Hayao Miyazaki film.”
“The Red Turtle” is not a true Ghibli film, contends Clements, despite studio production support, with Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata serving as “artistic producer.” “It’s an experiment to see if a Ghibli imprimatur is enough to get a movie a healthy box office return; and if it doesn’t work, they’ve got plausible deniability to edge it out of the studio history,” he explains. “Everybody will be pleasantly surprised if ‘The Red Turtle’ is a box office smash, but I don’t think anyone is expecting it.”
But whether or not Ghibli again makes feature animation, or subsides into a legacy business, as now seems likely, the Japanese anime industry keeps rolling along.