Book Review: Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata

Studio Ghibli

As an aspiring author I try to write as often as possible but always remember to have a book on the bedside table. I read for many reasons, mostly the sheer joy of the pastime, but I am constantly trying to improve myself as a writer, finding worthwhile lessons in my successful peers, whether they’re currently enjoying life in the bestsellers list or they have long since written their final words. As I continue my own writing journey (hopefully towards publication!) I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all my latest reads and maybe reveal who I find the most inspiring along the way.

Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc – Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (2009)

Studio GhibliI’m a massive fan of Japanese animation company, Studio Ghibli, so the prospect of learning more about their history and their work was too good an opportunity to pass. Since their founding in 1985 Studio Ghibli have produced numerous feature films, music videos, short films, adverts and documentaries. The output of their animating team is exceptional not just in its quantity but in its quality as well. After more than a decade of increasing their prestige, having the most successful film of the year in Japan in 1992 (Porco Rosso), Studio Ghibli released Princess Mononoke in 1997 which became not only Japan’s biggest box office hit at that point but saw Walt Disney agree a deal that gave them exclusive rights to distribute Studio Ghibli’s films outside Japan. After Titanic beat Princess Mononoke to become Japan’s biggest box office hit, James Cameron’s blockbuster was soon defeated in 2001 and again it was Studio Ghibli, this time with Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s masterpiece left no doubt of Studio Ghibli’s place in animation history when it bagged the Academy Award for Best Animation and remains the only film from a non-English speaking country to do so.

Colin Odell and Michelle LeBlanc’s book not only focuses on the history of Studio Ghibli, its initial focus is on the two founders – Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. The two animators collaborated on the impressive but flawed Little Norse Prince (1968) and continued to work together while pursuing individual projects. Prior to Studio Ghibli, Takahata and Miyazaki worked together on the likes of Papa Kopanda (1972) Conan, the Boy in Future (1978), while alone Takahata was responsible for Downtown Story (1981) and Goshu the Cellist (1982), and Miyazaki’s credits include The Castle of Cagliostro (1979), Sherlock Hound (1982) and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984), the latter often mistaken for a Studio Ghibli film. In 1985 the two animators were given backing to form their own studio and make the films they wanted to make.

After the introduction and background to the studio the majority of the book focuses on the films from Studio Ghibli beginning with the wonderful Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) and reaching the present with Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008). A handful of pages are devoted to each film, and offer discussion on content, themes and quality of individual pieces while offering some insight into their success. The earliest Studio Ghibli hits were unfortunately only modest successes which surprised me considering Laputa is, in my opinion, only narrowly bettered by Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. Miyazaki’s iconic My Neighbour Totoro (1988) was not favoured as a project for funding and only came about when backers were assured that Takahata would take the helm in adapting a book that became the extremely moving Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Not until Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) did Studio Ghibli have what could be deemed a box office hit but from that point they have thrived.

I haven’t seen all of Studio Ghibli’s films yet but intend to do so in the near future. It was interesting to gain insight into the films I have yet to see but also to enjoy appraisals of the ones I have had the pleasure of watching. Studio Ghibli’s films have been mostly directed by Takahata or Miyazaki, with the latter releasing the most successful and famous. This is not a bad reflection on Takahata, of course, I just think Miyazaki is in a league of his own in terms of imagination and storytelling. Other directors that have taken the reins in Studio Ghibli films include Tomomi Mochizuki with Ocean Waves (1993), Yoshifumi Kondo with Whisper of the Heart (1995), Hiroyuki Morita with The Cat Returns (2002), and Miyazaki’s son, Goro, with Tales from Earthsea (2006). Ghibli’s other directors are showing promise especially when the sadly inevitable day comes when Takahata and Miyazaki have both retired, the latter insisting he would after Princess Mononoke.

While the bulk of the book is devoted to Studio Ghibli’s feature films, there is a final section that focuses briefly on some of their other work, including short films and music videos put together for Japanese pop stars. The highlight of this closing segment though was information concerning the Studio Ghibli Museum. First opened in 2001 the museum attracts many fans of the Ghibli films who can expect to be greeted by a giant Totoro outside, while the ticket price for entry covers a free visit to the cinema where mini films are shown, exclusive to the museum and not available anywhere else. Amongst this selection of films is a sequel to My Neighbour Totoro involving Mei and that wonderful cat bus that featured in the original film, plus Totoro himself with his umbrella. Having been to Australia and New Zealand in 2008, Japan is now my most wanted destination when I go travelling in future and having read about the Studio Ghibli Museum I have already laid down the law and told Mrs B that we’re going. Thankfully, Mrs B is not only a generous and compromising wife but she’s also a fan of Studio Ghibli as well so everyone wins.

I have little to complain about with this book. It’s around 150 pages which does seem short for the price tag in the UK of £12.99. The only other issue was, although there are a series of pictures clustered together in the centre of the book, it would have been nice not only for these to be more spread out but perhaps for the reader to have had images of Miyazaki and Takahata and the rest of their animators at work in Studio Ghibli. Those minor quibbles aside I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read from start to finish. One of my regrets is that if I eventually make it as a novelist I would love Studio Ghibli to make an adaptation of one my novels but I fear if that day comes, Miyazaki and Takahata will have long since retired. It would still be an honour to work with Studio Ghibli in some capacity though and to be a part of their achievements.

Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata is an excellent insight into Japanese anime and the work of Studio Ghibli. Existing fans will find much of interest here while newcomers will be equally enthralled in finding out why millions of Ghibli fans, me included, keep going on about Totoro, Kiki, Chihiro and Haku, Ashitaka and Princess Mononoke, Patsu and Sheeta, and Howl’s Moving Castle. In conclusion, a thoroughly enjoyable read about two amazing men and their groundbreaking animation studio.

Verdict: 9/10

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Dave Brown

I was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England and have always been a bookworm and enjoyed creative writing at school. In 1999 I created the Elencheran Chronicles and have been writing ever since. My first novel, Fezariu's Epiphany, was published in May 2011. When not writing I'm a lover of films, games, books and blogging. I live in Barnsley, with my wife, Donna, and our six cats - Kain, Razz, Buggles, Charlie, Bilbo and Frodo.
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