Studio Ghibli is arguably the most highly-regarded and well-known Japanese animation studio in the world. Studio Ghibli’s films form almost half of the 15 highest grossing anime films; almost a quarter of their films have been nominated for Academy Awards, and of their twenty one feature works, only three have a Rotten Tomatoes rating under 80%. It’s hard to find a more accomplished animation studio than Studio Ghibli, and that’s largely thanks to the work of its three figureheads: Hayao Miyazaki, the late Isao Takahata, and Toshio Suzuki.
If you want to know how Studio Ghibli earned its unmatched reputation, then Honey’s Anime is ready to tell you all about its history. We’ll do that through talking about what led up to the formation of Studio Ghibli; the history of its two most prolific directors: Miyazaki and Takahata, regular contributors like composer Joe Hisashi, and what’s next for Studio Ghibli.
To understand the formation of Studio Ghibli is to understand what its founders were doing before the formation of the studio, and how they came together.
Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s first project together was 1968’s The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun. Takahata was the director and Miyazaki was the chief animator. Takahata and Miyazaki would continue to collaborate on other projects over the years like the television series Lupin the Third Part I and Heidi: Girl of the Alps.
Toshio Suzuki, the long-time producer for most of Studio Ghibli’s work, made his own name editing the monthly magazine Animage. Though Suzuki’s attempts to acquire articles for Animage from Takahata and Miyazaki initially failed, he eventually formed a friendship with Miyazaki that has lasted to this day. Animage would go on to publish Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind from 1982 to 1994. After Miyazaki’s pitches for an animated feature were rejected twice because it wasn’t based on an existing manga, Suzuki was able to make a Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind film happen thanks to its publication in Animage.
Through animation studio Topcraft and distributor Toei Company, Miyazaki directed his second film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, in 1984. Unfortunately, Topcraft went bankrupt a year later in 1985, but Miyazaki, Suzuki, and Takahata came together to purchase Topcraft and rename it Studio Ghibli.
Hayao Miyazaki best personifies Studio Ghibli in being the most widely known and highly regarded anime directors in the world. Having directed nine of Studio Ghibli’s twenty one films while having screenwriting credits in three other films, Miyazaki is Studio Ghibli’s most prolific worker. Although Miyazaki’s films haven’t always been commercially successful, he hasn’t had a single work with Studio Ghibli be anything other than a critical success.
After working on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Miyazaki began work on Studio Ghibli’s first official film: Castle in the Sky. That film set the trend for most of Studio Ghibli’s films, especially those helmed by Miyazaki. Thematically, it dealt with war, the environment, technology, and how they all intersect. Furthermore, it continued the positive trend set by Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind of having strong female characters in the lead.
My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service followed before the end of the ‘80s. The former film wasn’t commercially successful, but the imagery of Totoro has become iconic for anime and Studio Ghibli. It remains a great source of merchandise income to this day and has become the mascot of Studio Ghibli. On the other hand, the production of Kiki’s Delivery Service highlights Miyazaki’s work ethic. It was supposed to be the first Studio Ghibli film directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata, but Miyazaki ended up taking over and convincing the novel's dissatisfied creator to allow Ghibli to proceed with the project. It went on to be a box office hit in Japan.
Princess Mononoke, nearly a decade later, was the next milestone for Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Firstly, it was Miyazaki’s first foray into computer animation after having worked briefly with it for the music video On Your Mark. Princess Mononoke had Studio Ghibli’s biggest budget yet but also became the highest grossing film in Japan. Its success was followed by Studio Ghibli’s biggest step into the United States market.
Fittingly, Miyazaki surpassed himself again with 2001’s Spirited Away. It went on to become the highest-grossing film in Japan as well and still holds that title to this day. It's the only anime film, despite Studio Ghibli's many nominated films, to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
Miyazaki has continued to direct and write critically and commercially successful films since. Although his rate of feature works has decreased in the 2010s, largely because of age and temporary retirements, Miyazaki has proven to have a hard time stepping away from the industry, not that we’re mad about it.
Despite Isao Takahata’s critical success, he’s never really achieved the same level of fame as Miyazaki. Takahata is responsible for directing five of Studio Ghibli’s twenty one films, and although he hasn’t had the commercial success of Miyazaki, he’s always matched his artistic acumen.
Takahata’s first movie for Studio Ghibli was Grave of the Fireflies. It was released as a double feature alongside My Neighbor Totoro in 1988, but while both films were aimed at children, Grave of the Fireflies' somber story did not match My Neighbor Totoro’s fantastic appeal. Miyazaki is very much responsible for getting Studio Ghibli access into the North American market, but Grave of the Fireflies was the first film that convinced critics in the US to take a look at Studio Ghibli's offerings. To this day, you'll be hard-pressed to find a list of the greatest animated films that does not contain Grave of the Fireflies.
Three years later, Takahata would direct Only Yesterday, one of the few films with the honor of having a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating. Only Yesterday, like Grave of the Fireflies, carried a different tone than what you might be expected to find in an anime. It was a realistic drama that depicted the life of a young woman and the difficult choices she’s had to make. Unlike Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday was a box office success in Japan.
Takahata released two more films in the 90s: Pom Poko in 1994 and My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. Both animated comedies dealt with less dramatic themes than Takahata’s first two features. My Neighbors the Yamadas was still distinctly Takahata in its shattering of expectations. It has a comic strip aesthetic that immediately set it apart from any other anime, whether by Studio Ghibli or otherwise. Unfortunately, My Neighbors the Yamadas couldn’t find much commercial success either.
It would take over 14 years before Takahata’s next and final feature film. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is Takahata's second film to have a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating and his first to be nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards. The film is a fitting follow-up to My Neighbors the Yamadas in that it doesn’t look like any anime you’ve ever seen before. It’s minimalistic, dream-like, and looks like a watercolor painting. It was a commercial success, and arguably the finest of Takahata’s incredible list of works.
Takahata passed away on April 5th, 2018.
Other significant contributors
Although Miyazaki and Takahata are the principal minds behind Studio Ghibli’s films, they certainly haven’t elevated Studio Ghibli to its status on their own. It’s impossible to fit in everyone that has contributed to Studio Ghibli’s success, but we’ll do our best to highlight the most significant contributors.
Toshio Suzuki, one of the co-founders of Studio Ghibli, is the studio’s backbone, and the glue between Miyazaki and Takahata. Suzuki has been managing director, general manager, and president of Studio Ghibli’s various corporative incarnations. Since 1986, he has been either on the production committee or the lead producer of all of Studio Ghibli’s films. Aside from taking a backseat role with The Tale of the Princess Kaguya to focus on Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, Suzuki had been the lead or co-lead producer of all of Studio Ghibli’s films since 1991. Suzuki announced his retirement from producing films in 2014 but remains the general manager.
Miyazaki’s films aren’t just notable for their incredible visual aesthetics, but also for their distinct scores, and that’s largely thanks to the efforts of composer Joe Hisaishi. Hisaishi has been with Studio Ghibli since the film that led to their founding, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and has been the composer for all the films Miyazaki has directed for Studio Ghibli. Hisaishi, like Suzuki, is integral to Studio Ghibli’s success as much as Miyazaki and Takahata are.
In the 2000s, Studio Ghibli has shown itself increasingly willing to allow other directors to helm films. Before that, Tomomi Mochizuki and Yoshifumi Kondo were the only directors to have directed a Studio Ghibli film outside Miyazaki and Takahata. Mochizuki directed Ocean Waves; the film was meant to be done cheaply and quickly by Studio Ghibli’s younger animators, but it accomplished neither goal. It also went straight to television, so it isn’t Studio Ghibli’s official departure from Miyazaki and Takahata with regards to feature works. Next, Yoshifumi Kondo directed the Miyazaki-written and Yuji Nomi-scored Whisper of the Heart. The film was a critical and box office success. Its achievements made Kondo a possible successor for Miyazaki and Takahata, but Kondo died three years later at the age of 47. His death may have been a wake-up call for Miyazaki to create a healthier work environment.
It would take another 6 years for Studio Ghibli to give other directors a chance. The first of the three directors to be given a chance was Hiroyuki Morita. Morita had been working with Studio Ghibli since Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1989 where he was an in-between animator. The film was meant to be a showcase for future Studio Ghibli directors. Though it was originally meant to be 45 minutes, Morita's storyboards impressed Miyazaki enough to make it a feature-length film. It was an indirect sequel to Kondo's Whisper of the Heart, written by prolific screenwriter Reiko Yoshida, and composed by the returning Yuji Nomi.
In 2006, Miyazaki’s son Goro Miyazaki directed his first film, Tales from Earthsea. The production of the film was tumultuous, to say the least. Based on Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novel, the film was originally meant to be directed by Hayao, but he was occupied with another film at the time, so Suzuki chose Goro to direct. The decision did not go over well with either Hayao or Ursula and caused a schism between father and son. The film was commercially successful, but is Studio Ghibli's least well-received film and wasn’t favored by Le Guin. Nevertheless, Hayao and Goro were able to look past their issues and rekindle their relationship once the film was released. Goro went on to direct From Up on Poppy Hill in 2011 with writing credits going to his father and Keiko Niwa. It helped redeem Goro by achieving both critical and box office success and leaving Tales from Earthsea behind as a blimp on Studio Ghibli’s record.
Goro also has the honor of directing Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, Studio Ghibli’s only anime television series. The series was co-produced by Studio Ghibli and animated by Polygon Pictures.
Lastly, we have Hiromasa Yonebayashi, he worked his way up the Studio Ghibli ladder, like Morita, to become a feature film director. He first worked as an in-between animator for Princess Mononoke in 1997, and eventually earned his way up to directing 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty. The film was successful enough that Yonebayashi quickly got to direct another film in 2014: When Marnie Was There.
The last name that must be mentioned here is Yoshiaki Nishimura. Nishimura was set to be Suzuki's successor as the lead producer at Studio Ghibli and this is best highlighted when he produced Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kaguya while Suzuki worked on Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises. However, Miyazaki’s retirement led to speculations about Studio Ghibli’s future, and Nishimura left Studio Ghibli to found Studio Ponoc in 2015. Several Studio Ghibli employees joined him, including Yonebayashi, and they’ve already made their first film for the studio in 2017 called Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
These aren’t the only people who have helped Studio Ghibli become what it is today, but without intending to offend the other contributors, these may be the most distinctive.
Future of Ghibli
Studio Ghibli has had an incredible run of success for over three decades but it’s hard to tell if that success is nearing its end. Miyazaki announced another retirement in 2013, and that seemed to be all but the end for Studio Ghibli. It led to the formation of Studio Ponoc and the departure of many of its upcoming talent, particularly Yonebayashi and Nishimura who looked like they could carry the mantle going forward. Furthermore, the passing of Takahata was another big loss for Studio Ghibli. Although he was likely done with directing films after The Tale of Princess Kaguya, he did help Studio Ghibli co-produce the film Red Turtle with Wild Bunch. Red Turtle, directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, went on to be a critical success and earn an Academy Award nomination.
In 2017, Hayao Miyazaki announced he would be coming out of retirement to direct another film called How Do You Live?. Not much is known about the film, but it is said to be aimed at his grandson. You can never say never with Miyazaki, but the odds are high that this will be Miyazaki’s final film. If it is, Studio Ghibli’s future remains quite foggy. While it’s unfortunate there hasn’t been anyone ready to take Miyazaki and Takahata’s mantel directly as part of Studio Ghibli, the world of anime has an endless number of directors who grew up on Studio Ghibli’s films, and who will be carrying that with them in their own works. Even if Miyazaki’s next film is both his and Studio Ghibli’s last, we will undoubtedly see its footprints in the works of many other studios going forward.
Studio Ghibli has released a wide array of incredible anime films since 1985, and those films have often transgressed international boundaries to make their way to television sets around the world. Miyazaki and Takahata, along with the many other names of Studio Ghibli, are responsible for setting the imagination of countless children alight with the wondrous worlds they’ve brought to life. It’s unfortunate that Studio Ghibli’s time in the spotlight may be coming to an end, but they’ve left a lasting legacy that won’t ever be forgotten. We’ve all come across Studio Ghibli in different ways over the years, how did you discover Studio Ghibli and what’s your favorite memory of their storied history?