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How Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli became an animation powerhouse

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Saturday evening, not Saturday morning, but we're going to end the show by talking about cartoons. And maybe it's best this isn't Saturday morning because cartoons aren't just for kids. That's certainly how the creators of the hit show "Bluey" see things. And we'll get to that family of Australian Heelers in a few minutes. And it is absolutely not how Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli View Animation. The 82-year-old Japanese animation artist and the studio he co-founded have towered over the art form in recent decades, and his latest film, "How Do You Live?" - which came out this week in Japan - is his last.

Yeah, yeah, he's said that before, but this time, Miyazaki says he means it. And if you're thinking that Miyazaki and Ghibli studios are the equivalent of a Japanese Disney, think again. Miyazaki films don't shy away from prickly or even disturbing topics like war, political strife and complex social issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS MONONOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) This war is terrible. They've bombed from the southern coast to the northern border. It's all in flames now.

DETROW: You won't see much that's in line with a classic Disney princess.

SUSAN NAPIER: He won't give you the totally evil villain or the totally good princess figure. He's saying, no, you know, we all have a little bit of darkness and light inside us, and that's really crucial to his message.

DETROW: I spoke about Miyazaki and his legacy with Susan Napier. She's a professor of international, literary and cultural studies at Tufts University in the Japanese program. And she's the author of "Miyazaki World: A Life In Art." I asked her, what was the studio's first breakout hit?

NAPIER: The studio's really big turning point came in 1997 with a movie called "Princess Mononoke."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS MONONOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The wolves are coming. It's the wolf princess.

NAPIER: I think about what an extraordinary moment that was, not just for Studio Ghibli, but for animation, the reputation of animation just in general.

DETROW: Why is that?

NAPIER: First of all, it's very long, which is not your typical animation feature. It's epic. It sort of takes off of of the kind of epic movies like Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai." It's violent, speaking of "Samurai," and it's set in the 15th century. So that's a long time ago. It's historic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS MONONOKE")

KEITH DAVID: (As narrator) In ancient times, the land lay covered in forests, where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods.

NAPIER: But it's also fantastic. It's sort of playing with history and fantasy and giving a whole new view of history, which includes marginalized people, oppressed people and women in very strong and important roles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS MONONOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) M'lady took this mountain away from the gods, the boars and the beasts.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) And now that it's worth something, you want it? Well, you won't get it.

DETROW: That's a good movie to kind of get to this next point on, because I think when so many people think about animation, their brain immediately shorthands it to children's movies, right?

NAPIER: Sure.

DETROW: And I think, even though in the U.S., Disney makes nuanced, sometimes complicated emotional films, especially the Pixar films, they are often made starting with an audience for children. And is that how Miyazaki thinks of these movies, or is he making movies for audiences and they happen to be animated?

NAPIER: That's a really important question. I think, early on, he was basically aiming for children, but again, with "Princess Mononoke," he really decided that he wanted to create a film that would go across all generations, that this was a film that was really, in many ways, a very adult film because it deals with very adult themes about environmental devastation, about technology and the terrible allure and the terrible, awful things that technology can do and all these contradictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRINCESS MONONOKE")

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Jigo) When I came here last a few years back, this was a lovely little village. But then there must have been a flood or a landslide or a fire. The only sure thing is that everybody's dead. These days, there are angry ghosts all around us, dead from wars, sickness, starvation, and nobody cares. So you say you're under a curse. Well, so what? So's the whole damn world.

NAPIER: And so he's not necessarily thinking that the average child is going to grasp that immediately. And initially, he said, well, maybe even children shouldn't see it. But then, being Miyazaki - and he can be very contradictory - he said, well, no, actually they should see it because I'm trying to get children around the world to kind of start thinking about these complex questions.

DETROW: Yeah. And "Spirited Away," which was, fair to say, the international breakthrough - it won an Academy Award. It's made a tremendous amount of money and been seen by millions and millions of people - and I think really with a lot of U.S. animators as well - that also gets into some of these complicated plot lines and kind of sometimes scary dynamics for kids to deal with.

NAPIER: Oh, yeah. I teach a course on on Studio Ghibli in comparison to Disney. And it's very interesting that students come in often because they really love Miyazaki, but they will admit that "Spirited Away" scared the heck out of them when they were little kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIRITED AWAY")

DAVEIGH CHASE: (As Chihiro Ogino, screaming).

(SOUNDBITE OF PIG SQUEALING)

CHASE: (As Chihiro Ogino) Mom, Dad, where are you?

NAPIER: But they also realized they were seeing something really different.

DETROW: Yeah.

NAPIER: And "Spirited Away" is a lot about consumption and our materialist society where we just - as early on, the father in the film says to his daughter, who's worried that her parents are eating freely at a restaurant without having anyone else there and no idea whether - how they're going to pay, and he says, oh, it's OK. I've got cash and credit cards. And the whole credit card world in which, you know, it's OK, I can make an absolute pig of myself and it doesn't matter because I've got money.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPIRITED AWAY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Look. It's real gold. There's a new guest here who's loaded. He's giving gold away by the handful.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Just keep the food coming. I want to eat everything.

NAPIER: You know, he's not trying to say that, you know, not talking about good versus evil. That's a really important key to understanding Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. It's a world in which you have light and darkness sometimes embodied in the same character.

DETROW: But if we're having this conversation about this animator's legacy, what should anybody listening - what do they need to know about Miyazaki and why he matters in the field of animation and the field of filmmaking as a whole?

NAPIER: So he's showing us that animation can create a very complex world that, I think, because it's animated and is therefore arm's length, and because it's often fantastical, you know, it sort of has, you know, unreal countries or supernatural figures, I think we can - it helps us deal with our problems in a way that is actually very helpful. It helps us process the things we fear, the anxieties that kind of hide beneath the surface in a way that a realistic movie couldn't do.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE")

JANEANE GAROFALO: (As Ursula) I just felt like I'd lost my ability.

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Kiki) That sounds like me.

GAROFALO: (As Ursula) It's exactly the same. But then I found the answer. You see, I hadn't figured out what or why I wanted to paint. I had to discover my own style. When you fly, you rely on what's inside of you, don't you?

DUNST: (As Kiki) Uh-huh. We fly with our spirit.

GAROFALO: (As Ursula) Trusting your spirit? Yes. Yes, That's exactly what I'm talking about. That same spirit is what makes me paint and makes your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it's not easy.

NAPIER: And Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki just don't give us the happily ever after very often. They want to show that the world is, you know, doesn't necessarily go in one obvious direction, that there are many possibilities out there.

DETROW: That was Susan Napier, a professor at Tufts University and the author of "Miyazaki World: A Life In Art." Thanks so much.

NAPIER: Thank you. It was a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gurjit Kaur
Gurjit Kaur is a producer for NPR's All Things Considered. A pop culture nerd, her work primarily focuses on television, film and music.
Scott Detrow
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Jeanette Woods