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Andrew Osmond asks what’s next for Studio Ghibli

The new Studio Ghibli movie Arrietty, as everyone should know by now, is based on the British children’s book The Borrowers. Non-anime fans can just luxuriate in the exquisite art, or argue about whether the story needs more action. Arrietty is a low-key, small-scale drama, the antithesis of the live-action 1997 film, which had action scenes in milk-bottle factories and John Goodman getting bashed about so much that he might as well have been a cartoon character.

Meanwhile, anime fans can argue if Ghibli is being superseded by other Japanese studios, especially Madhouse, which has been busily making fan-acclaimed, populist films such as Mai Mai Miracle, directed by Sunao Katabuchi, and Summer Wars, directed by Mamoru Hosoda. It’s an important debate, though it’s possible that Ghibli is so entrenched that our perceptions get skewed. Would Arrietty get more fanboy kudos if it had been released by a different studio? Ghibli, of course, couldn’t care less about fans having long since targeted the family market.

But there’s a bigger question that ought to be on everybody’s lips. What happens next?

In the week of the British cinema release of Arrietty, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, let’s flashback to 2000 in the frazzled anime studio. The 26 year-old Yonebayashi was Ghibli’s baby, the studio’s youngest key animator. He’d joined Ghibli four years earlier, for a bottom-rung initiation in the inbetween/cleanup department on Princess Mononoke, whose volcanic Japanese box-office lifted the studio from “very successful” to the purveyor of megabusters. Consequently, when Yonebayashi was put in charge of his first animation on Spirited Away, the pressure must have been enormous.

Yonebayashi’s big moment was near the start of Spirited Away, where Chihiro’s dad – who sees nothing wrong about taking stuff without asking because he’s “got credit cards and cash” – is wolfing down food in a strangely empty restaurant. That seven-second shot turned into a massive trial for Yonebayashi. Director Hayao Miyazaki complained that the dad wasn’t tearing into his lunch enough, or that the food in his hand wasn’t animated properly. Yonebayashi pressed Ghibli colleagues into munching food on camera, to better learn the dynamics of mastication.

Speaking to a documentary crew, Papa Miyazaki didn’t mince his words. “I think that this experience has revealed the weak point of [Yonebayashi’s] personality and his attitude toward his own life…  His struggle to understand and overcome the obstacle, will make him realize how he should live.”

Is Yonebayashi the future of Ghibli? It’s quite possible. His director debut, Arrietty, has been a smash in Japan, earning around $110 million. If you’re a numbers person, that’s about half Spirited Away’s all-time high record ($229 million, the top-earning Japanese release); and around twice the earnings of recent non-Miyazaki Ghibli films like The Cat Returns and Tales from Earthsea.

The big issue at Ghibli, for at least the last 15 years, is succession. Miyazaki turned 70 this January. Ghibli’s other “founder” director is Isao Takahata, now 75. Can Ghibli be  Ghibli under a director like Yonebayashi? In the September 2011 of SFX magazine, Yonebayashi is quoted, a bit worryingly, as saying he doesn’t know what his “style” is yet. He also describes Miyazaki as the “mastermind” behind Arrietty. Arrietty, in fact, feels very like a “house style” Ghibli film, in settings, characterisastions and ethos. If there’s one thing the film seems to lack, it’s the spontaneity you find in Ghibli’s best work. Ironically, one Ghibli scene that Yonebayashi worked on before Arrietty was the heroine bounding on a stormy sea in Ponyo, and you can’t get more spontaneous than that.

Disney after Walt declined for decades because the studio didn’t know how to develop without him. Disney’s mantra turned into “What would Walt have done?,” ignoring the fact that Walt was an adventurer who succeeded by taking mad leaps into new territory. If there’s a message for Yonebayashi in Ghibli’s films, then it’s in Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the artist Ursula – who’s surely a mouthpiece for Miyazaki himself – muses about when she was younger. “I painted and painted, but none of it was any good. They were copies of paintings I’d seen somewhere before… I swore I’d paint my own pictures.”

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Arrietty opens in Britain two weeks after Ghibli’s next film in Japan, From Up On Poppy Hill. By all accounts, it’s a slice-of-life drama set in ‘60s Japan, directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro. Yonebayashi, meanwhile, went from Arrietty back to work as an animator – a noble calling, but it won’t keep Ghibli alive in years and decades to come. Who is the Ursula to take the director’s chair from Miyazaki and Takahata? And will he, or she, be inflicting horribly gruelling food scenes on animators in twenty or thirty years time?

Arrietty is out now in British cinemas, and due on DVD later in the year.

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