By: Jordan Ferguson
What a difference a syllable makes.
It’s been a strenuous week for nerds as a flurry of conflicting reports has been hitting the Internet concerning the future of beloved Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. Between co-founder Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement announcement following the completion of The Wind Rises, his comments in a recent documentary that Ghibli’s demise was “inevitable,” and an interview last weekend with producer Toshio Suzuki suggesting that the studio would shut down its anime production and dedicate itself solely to managing its own copyrights, there’s been much rending of garments online (and in my text messages).
But no! All is not lost! As reported by Kotaku, the word Suzuki used in his comments was shoukyuushi, meaning “pause,” as opposed to kyuushi, suggesting a more definite “stop,” or “suspend.” Later reports suggesting the studio would be purchased by Japanese entertainment company Dwango were refuted almost as soon as they hit the web.
So as the week closes, we know as much as we did when it started. What’s clear is that with Miyazaki’s retirement from filmmaking, Ghibli can’t continue to barrel ahead. These are men and women who have always made pensive and contemplative films, it’s foolish to think they would consider their own futures in any other fashion.
However that future may look, it seems certain that Ghibli has turned some form of corner, and in a year’s time the studio will look nothing like it did in years past, which is as good a reason as any to look back in celebration.
Now, let me tell you how it used to be, you kids with your Netflixes and your Crunchyrolls and your Sailor Moon Crystals hitting Hulu a week after they air in Japan: in my day, we didn’t have any of that. In my day, we had maybe a handful of horribly dubbed tapes at the local MusicWorld, or we typed “anime” into Lycos on a 33.3K Internet connection and waited 15 minutes for The Right Stuf International to load. Today, TRSI is an all-anime Amazon, a behemoth of niche cyber commerce. In 1997 it was a warehouse in Iowa. You sent them your information and they sent you a print catalog! Which had a listing of all their available titles, which you could order by mailing them a form with a money order! And four weeks later you would get a package of VHS tapes! With only one language option!
I spent a shamefully irresponsible amount of money on that company, and everything I ever learned about anime, I learned from The Right Stuf catalog. I bought blind from their recommendations featured at the front of the book all the time and was never disappointed. It was in those recommendations that I first heard the name Hayao Miyazaki. And they weren’t even recommending his work; they were demanding you see it, even if they couldn’t sell it to you.
Because let me tell you kids something else. In 1997, you couldn’t even get Miyazaki movies! After an American licensor butchered 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, cutting over 20 minutes of footage, renaming the title character Princess Zendra and repackaging it as an action cartoon for young boys, Miyazaki dropped the mic on working with the US for years. You could find legit copies of My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service, which were already kids movies to begin with, but nothing else. No Nausicaa. No Laputa. No Porco Rosso. It wasn’t until Disney brokered a deal stipulating no single frame of animation would ever be altered from the original work that Ghibli finally relented.
But in 1997 we were on our own, so we took to the shady world of fansubs. See, back then there were loads of shows and films that showed no sign of ever making it to Western shores, so communities of bilingual fans (usually on the West Coast) with video editing equipment took raw Japanese tapes, translated the dialogue and added in subtitles. For a nominal fee, they’d make and send you a copy, all in the name of promoting the art. This is how I saw my first Miyazaki films, Castle of Cogliostro and Nausicaa: on blurry, faded nth generation monaural videotapes sent from parts unknown. And they changed my life.
Following the Disney deal Miyazaki’s work was finally given the respect it deserved in North America, with pristine video transfers and celebrity-packed English voice casts. It was a banner day for guys like me who could now go to things like “a store,” and buy things like “DVDs” so we could watch these films we’d heard about for years.
And what films they are. You can read entire books celebrating their genius, there’s not a whole lot I can add. The only studio that comes close to Ghibli’s streak of quality in my mind is Pixar, and even that comparison becomes less apt with every sequel and spinoff they crank out. Ghibli movies effortlessly blend the wonders of being a child while never denying the brutal realities of adulthood: think of the underlying fear of the daughters in My Neighbor Totoro for their sick mother; Marco willfully choosing to become a pig in Porco Rosso, the entire run time of Grave of the Fireflies (not a Miyazaki movie, but no less powerful). They are truly all-ages movies in that not only can they be viewed by any age; they respect every viewer no matter how old.
Yet despite its triumphs, the studio’s accomplishments have all been inextricably linked to three men: Miyazaki, Isao Takahata (director of Grave of the Fireflies, Ponpoko and the upcoming The Tale of Princess Kaguya) and Toshio Suzuki. One of them is retiring, the other two are well into their senior years. Despite maintaining a large staff of animators (a rarity in Japanese animation), a clear successor has yet to emerge. Perhaps Ghibli’s unparalleled success is a result of the alchemy of that specific partnership, which begs the question we as fans might be trying to ignore: is a Studio Ghibli without them worth having at all, if it looks and feels nothing like the thing we’re clinging to so tightly?
Consider this. A few years ago I split up from a woman I’d been in love with for six years. I was lying in my new apartment in one of Toronto’s more… ”authentic” neighbourhoods with no Internet connection and a desperate need to get out of my thoughts. So I popped in my copy of Spirited Away. Because I wanted comfort, and beauty, and something that would respect the pain of the unknown and celebrate the possibility of enduring it. I hadn’t re-watched any of Miyazaki’s work in years, but that movie gave me everything I needed, and when it was over I slept soundly for the first time in months. Thanks to a “cartoon” that came out ten years previous.
If Ghibli doesn’t make another film, it will be sad, yes. But it will in no way diminish the power of the ones they already brought into the world.
 Which, despite being maybe his seventeenth retirement announcement, he seems determined to stick to.
 Where my Streamline Video people! A whole generation who came up thinking the hero in Akira was named ‘Kuh-NAY-da’ instead of ‘KAH-ne-DA.’
 Honestly, it’s like we didn’t even have running water.
 In one legendary exchange, while working out a distribution deal for Princess Mononoke, Miramax Chairman Harvey Weinstein tried to demand to edit the film; Toshio Suzuki responded by sending Weinstein an authentic katana with a simple message: “No cuts.”
 And if you’re sleeping on this one because it’s a Lupin III movie and not a proper Ghibli release, remedy that.
 I’m even including the more “adult” fare as all ages; Grave of the Fireflies premièred in Japan on a double-bill with Totoro.