The Shinkai Effect?

November 7, 2017 · 0 comments

By Andrew Osmond.

This June an eye-catching TV advert debuted in Japan, promoting the humble cup noodle. The advert reinterpreted, of all things, Kiki’s Delivery Service. Technically, that’s not the same as a reworking of Studio Ghibli’s Kiki. Kiki was a book before it was Miyazaki’ed, and it’s had non-Ghibli incarnations as a live-action film and an acclaimed London stage play (returning to the boards this August). Nonetheless, most viewers of the ad would see it as a riff on Miyazaki’s film, especially as the commercial is animated.

One obvious thing about the ad is how un-Ghibli it is. Its ravishing visuals look nothing like the Ghibli style. It relies more on effects work (fireworks, scattered blossoms, raindrops) which don’t suggest an artist’s presence, though many gifted artists must have slaved on them. Rather than a Joe Hisaishi tune or a retro song (like Yumi Matsutoya’s née Arai’s songs in Ghibli’s Kiki), the advert uses the alt-rock of Bump of Chicken, as heard on Blood Blockade Battlefront.

And of course, the ad transforms Kiki’s genre entirely. Instead of the story of a plucky young European girl, setting out to define herself, the advert reimagines Kiki as a Japanese high-school crush story. So, very different from Ghibli but rather closer, in aesthetics and ethos, to last year’s smash Your Name. Think about it: visuals that celebrate software as much as art, the contemporary pop-soundtrack, the teen love-story where mastering one’s talent matters less than a cute boy noticing you.

I’m not saying the commercial was made with Shinkai in mind. In fact, a written phrase in the advert suggests it was conceived as a mash-up between Kiki and a popular school-romance manga called Blue Spring Ride; this was serialised from 2011 to 2014 and adapted as an anime series and a live-action film. Meanwhile, the commercial’s Animation Director was Yuichi Takahashi, who served in that capacity on both seasons of Gatchaman Crowds, another radical reimagining of an old anime (Gatchaman, aka Battle of the Planets).

Still, the timing of the Kiki ad is interesting. It’s less than a year since Your Name took the kind of money that Ghibli only made in its halcyon summer of 2001, when Spirited Away came out. Your Name didn’t quite beat Spirited Away in Japan, though its global gross was higher, thanks to its success in China. Even if Shinkai never makes another hit, Your Name is an enduring landmark in anime, perhaps a paradigm shift. It’s not Toy Story – anime fans can point to loads of Your Name precursors, starting with Shinkai’s backlist. But the box-office suggests the audience has changed.

A few weeks after the Kiki commercial, Mary and the Witch’s Flower opened in Japan, animated by the new Studio Ponoc. Regardless of its deeper merits or shortcomings, the film’s an extraordinary achievement. The above trailer doesn’t lie; this is a non-Ghibli film that looks every bit a Ghibli film. Forget past mimicries in animation. There’ve been many American attempts to copy Disney (Gulliver’s Travels, Secret of NIMH, Prince of Egypt), but Mary is far closer to its chosen model.

Mary is directed by former Ghibli staffer Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who struggled with an eating scene in Spirited Away but went on to direct Ghibli’s Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. He scripted Mary together with Riko Sakaguchi, who’d previously scripted Princess Kaguya with Takahata. Mary’s script is based, like Arrietty and Marnie, on a British children’s book – this time it’s 1971’s The Little Broomstick by the late Mary Stewart, who’s best-known for The Moon-Spinners, filmed by Disney, and her Merlin trilogy starting with The Crystal Cave.

There are many more continuities with Ghibli. Mary’s excellent incidental music is by Taketsugu Muramatsu, who performed the same duty on Marnie. The Animation Director is Takeshi Inamura, whose many Ghibli credits stretch back to in-betweening Porco Rosso a quarter-century ago. His assistants Akihiko Yamashita and Ei Inoue have Ghibli credits too; Yamashita was Animation Director on Poppy Hill (and a mainstay of the notorious Urotsukidoji franchise!).

I’ve seen Mary in Japan, though as a non-Japanese speaker, I’m not in a position to judge it as a whole. However, my impression is that, at the least, it’s solid, entertaining and beautiful-looking, and catnip to any anime fan who’s been waiting for “more Ghibli” since Marnie. Ponoc has demonstrated they can make a Ghibli film, to all intents and purposes, without Studio Ghibli. That’s incredible. And it’s the hit of the year in Japan, yes?

Actually, maybe not. Mary had an opening weekend of $3.75 million, which is good by Japanese standards, but far below Japan’s fave film that week, the new Pirates of the Caribbean. In its second weekend, Mary fell to fifth place, behind the new Pokémon, Pixar’s Cars 3 and a live-action film of the comedy manga Gintama. I vividly remember going to a Tokyo screening of Your Name at eight-thirty on a weekday morning, in the film’s first week, and finding the room mostly full. For Mary, I went to a mid-morning multiplex screening, and found few people there.

It’s not a surprise, really. As I wrote in my Marnie article, Yonebayashi’s last film also failed to ignite Japanese filmgoers. Marnie earned much less than rival anime: The Wolf Children, Stand By Me Doraemon, Yokai Watch The Movie. Times were a-changing. Ghibli’s last big hits, over $100 million, were Yonebayashi’s Arrietty in 2010 and Miyazaki’s alleged swansong The Wind Rises in 2013. Since then, Ghibli’s box-office dwindled quickly, and perhaps irrevocably – unless, of course, Miyazaki can finish his proposed feature now in development.

Provocatively, the Kiki commercial that we looked at earlier seems to provide a diagnosis – slyly implicit, or plain inadvertent – as to why Ghibli is “outmoded” at Japan’s box-office. When I saw Mary, some things were immediately obvious. The first is clear from the trailer – this is a film made in Ghibli’s “house style”, gloriously drawn and painted in the manner perfected by Totoro thirty years ago. What it doesn’t have is any of the effects razzle-dazzle of Shinkai’s anime, the photo-realism pervaded by celestial light and colour. That style originated in Shinkai’s early circumstances as a solo artist, reliant on off-the-shelf software. but it’s now a million-dollar brand. Oddly, Shinkai’s foregrounding of effects animation is closer to classic Disney than Ghibli, especially in how Shinkai exaggerates natural beauty to extremes that still feel grounded in organic reality. Compare the rain in Bambi, made in 1942, to that in Your Name or Garden of Words.

Second, of course, there are the very different worlds these styles convey. As noted above, Mary’s based on a book written in 1971, and it also seems to be set then. It opens in England, specifically Shropshire, but a Shropshire sans computers or smartphones, where the only screen is an old-fashioned TV turned off. In other words, it’s like every Ghibli film, where there’s pretty much a ban on kids looking at screens! Meanwhile Your Name is full of screens, mostly smartphones, only a step away from Miyazaki’s bête noir, the iPad. (And did you see the mobile in the Kiki ad, its screensaver directly pastiching Miyazaki’s film?)

The “nostalgic” Ghibli approach is still thriving, especially in Sunao Katabuchi films like Mai Mai Miracle and In This Corner of the World. But we should admit the obvious –younger Japanese audiences may not find it relatable any more. Mamoru Hosoda, infamously ejected from Ghibli, might agree. True, Hosoda made a Totoro-ish drama in Wolf Children, but his other films are down with the kids, and down with contemporary technology. That might explain why Yonebayashi’s Marnie, set in Hokkaido’s misty marshes, earned less than Hosoda’s Boy and the Beast, which told a Spirited Away-style story that still opens in Shibuya’s brash, bright Scramble Junction.

So, Ghibli may be dated by its visual style, and the world that its style conveys. Thirdly – and this is something the Kiki ad seems to mock very cruelly – Ghibli is slow. Mary is also slow, especially in its opening, Shropshire-based act, where small things happen at great leisure. The one concession Yonebayashi makes to modern audiences is to open with a spectacular, exciting action prologue, to reassure us there will be excitement later – and Mary’s later scenes do have more fantasy action than any Ghibli film since Howl.

Ghibli’s slowness is a style rooted in the 1970s, in World Masterpiece Theatre series like Heidi and Anne of Green Gables, which involved Ghibli’s founders. Ghibli’s slow narratives – and even an adventure like Laputa has long pauses between action – have been lauded by pundits, this writer included; but times change. Your Name, of course, is punctuated by second-long sliding doors; breathless click-through slideshows of images; and of course those Radwimps-scored montages (“Zen zen zense!”).

Miyazaki’s quite capable of snappy edits – watch some of the battles in Nausicaa or Mononoke – but Your Name turns them into an all-encompassing ethos. Watching Your Name besides Mary is like watching a Doctor Who episode from 2017 beside a Who episode circa 1974, the year Jon Pertwee fought dinosaurs while Heidi was broadcast in Japan. Perhaps it’s time to accept the style has had its day.

… For a while. If there’s one thing animation reminds us, it’s that these things have cycles. Twenty years ago, pundits were arguing that Disney’s Princess musicals were outmoded by girl power and Toy Story. Fast-wind to the the 2010s, and Frozen, Moana and a live-action Beauty and the Beast are global megahits. Perhaps the real test of Your Name’s importance – weighed against three decades of Studio Ghibli – will be if anyone remembers it in the 2030s. How long before Your Name’s editing and visuals seem as nostalgically quaint as Kiki does now? – just the thing to rip off for a cup noodles advert.

Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films.

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