Courtesy of Monica Almeida/NYT

March 18, 2022

Miyazaki’s Final Film, and Ghibli’s Undying Influence

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With Hayao Miyazaki returning to Studio Ghibli to direct what he calls his “final film,” How Do You Live?, we are left to question if the famous director is actually telling the truth about stepping away this time, as he has spoken about retirement in the past. But more important than whether or not this is a repeated lie, meant to crush our expectations only to have them revived by a new Miyazaki film, we are left to wonder what keeps bringing the 81-year-old animator back into the studio. This time, Miyazaki claims that his final film is a parting gift for his grandson, something that he can leave behind as a symbol of his love for him. 

In order to put the proper amount of care into this incredibly personal project, which is inspired by Miyazaki’s favorite childhood book, the director is making the film with the purist’s approach — completely hand-drawn. Although Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, recently departed from his father’s animation style, directing the 3D animated film Earwig and the Witch (2020), Ghibli’s co-founder and veteran director shows no sign of such change. In fact, the new film features an increased number of drawn frames, taking around one month of animation for just one minute of screen time, according to Toshio Suzuki, producer at Studio Ghibli and its former president. 

Director Miyazaki’s attention to detail is nothing new to Ghibli fans and critics alike, but the new film’s slow creation process puts its release date somewhere between 2023 and 2024. But I speak on behalf of all Ghibli enthusiasts when I say we’re willing to wait. The reason why is simple: there is no other studio like Studio Ghibli. 

To depart from a more auteurist view (which I’m afraid I’m toeing close to), let’s look at the studio itself, and what its accomplishments — crafted by a large group of creatives — have meant to the world. Many of their most well-known films feature young heroines as their protagonists: Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), Castle in the Sky (1986), Whisper of the Heart (1995), Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), to name a few. 

While Disney was putting out The Incredibles in 2004 (not to trash the movie, but you get the point), Ghibli was showing us that the hero’s journey doesn’t need to stick to rigid gender roles for the hero to save the day, something that Disney only first realized eight years later with Brave (2012). Some people actually attribute Disney’s change of pace with Brave and Frozen (2013) to the influence of Miyazaki’s relationship with John Lasseter, former chief creative officer of Disney Pixar, and his subsequent distribution deal with Lasseter for Spirited Away

In reality, Ghibli movies show us that stories don’t even need the traditional hero’s journey plot map. If you try to plot out the structure of Princess Mononoke (1997), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) or even Ponyo (2008), you’ll see that these kinds of stories diverge from our narrative, and perhaps cultural, expectations. It’s true — these stories are undeniably East Asian. They tend to follow a plot structure called kishōtenketsu, which dates back to ancient Japan and can similarly be found in Chinese and Korean writing. 

Kishōtenketsu has four main parts: ki, shō, ten and ketsu. You can understand these as the introduction, the development, the turn or twist and the conclusion. In terms of “conflict-crisis-resolution,” these kinds of stories don’t always center on conflict as the driving force and can often venture far from the type of storytelling that we might be used to in America. 

To me, it’s a refreshing change of pace, though many tend to dismiss it as foreign and unfamiliar. But remember that even the hero’s journey that we all know and love is just a concoction of “foreign” narratives boiled down to a few key points, repeated endlessly for as long as Hollywood has been Hollywood. You can thank Mr. Campbell, the pioneer of our hero’s journey narrative. From Star Wars to Aladdin, he gave us a “one size fits all” plot model for stories.

On a similar note, one of Ghibli’s greatest accomplishments has been to open the floodgates of acceptance for more foreign entertainment — sort of. Ghibli had a rocky start at Disney to get their films marketed and distributed, but Spirited Away, above all others, was able to reach a much larger international audience, becoming the highest grossing film in Japan for 19 years. But even more than this, the Japanese film received incredible international acclaim, becoming the first non-English movie to win an Academy Award, the first animated film to win a Golden Bear and the second animated film to win an Oscar (the first was Shrek). 

I like to think that it is the undying love for storytelling that keeps drawing Miyazaki back into the studio (pun intended). But even after he retires, his influence will live on through Ghibli and its films, and even through us as viewers. He has inspired the latest wave of American animation, reaching shows like Adventure Time, Gravity Falls and even The Simpsons. And it’s not going to end there. As long as we have these films, we will be forced to search further inward and outward for new ways to tell our stories. And as long as we have Ghibli, we will continue to be reminded of how stories are, and are not, cultural constructs. 

Ultimately, the Ghibli movies are incredible. And they represent something eternal. With coming-of-age themes, as well as a strong emphasis on pacifism and environmentalism, they continue to remind us of the world we live in and the stories that surround us. While mostly constructing fictional worlds, Ghibli continues to impress a humanist portrait onto each of its characters. And we can expect more of the same with Miyazaki’s final film, How Do You Live?. 

Matthew Kassorla is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].