As we suffer through another month of incredible, fantastical boredom, some good news – a new Studio Ghibli film has arrived. Surely a wondrous warm dreamscape populated by portly radish spirits will rouse us from this waking nightmare?
Sadly, probably not. In Earwig and the Witch, which should get the UK to release in the next couple of months, Studio Ghibli’s timeless moving paintings have made way for Pixar-lite animations: flat and oddly angular; almost cruel-looking. Computers have usurped pen and paper. Fans are horrified.
Though animator Hayao Miyazaki does not helm this production, those familiar with his thoughts on CGI may find this turn a surprise. In one interview, he proclaimed that games destroy children’s imaginations. In another, he preached that “computers are really just an electronic pen or pencil, and I like regular pencils better”. Finally, in an especially grueling video, two young animators show Miyazaki their latest creation – a helplessly lurching, headless zombie. Miyazaki, unfortunately, associates the movement with a disabled friend who cannot lift his hand to high five – “his arm of stiff muscle reaching out to my hand" – then labels the project “an insult to life itself” while the designers openly weep.
Ghibli’s transition to CGI has been going on for a while, says Rayna Denison, a lecturer in Asian media cultures at the University of East Anglia. For the last two decades, she says, the studio has composited most of its films on computers, the earliest example a swift pan across a row of books in Pom Poko, released in 1994. Princess Mononoke was ten percent CGI, while in 2018, Miyazaki produced Boro the Caterpillar for the Studio Ghibli museum, his first entirely CGI production. “In some ways, it’s not a new direction,” says Denison. “I think Ghibli’s reputation for traditional looking two-dimensional cel animation has lingered long after the studio has actually been doing most of its work composited and finished off on computers.”
Earwig and the Witch seem to be an experiment into whether CGI can mesh with Ghibli’s style, one that may be abandoned once the box office numbers come in. In other words, it’s a commercial enterprise. “One thing about Studio Ghibli is that people tend to think that it’s driven wholly by artistic drive,” says Shiro Yoshioka, a lecturer in Japanese Studies of Newcastle University. “But that’s not necessarily the case. Instead, what matters greatly is the commercial factor, and I think this is also the case with this particular film.”
Another factor is Earwig’s director, Goro, Miyazaki's son. Goro was responsible for one of the worst Ghibli films, a butchering of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series (after the premiere, Miyazaki senior, asked for his opinion responded “he’s not an adult yet”; Goro was in his late thirties). He has a penchant for CGI – it featured in his 2014 series Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter. “It’s not that Ghibli is moving animation production to CGI, but instead it’s more they are taking Goro Miyazaki under their umbrella,” says Yoshioka. “And he brought this whole genus of creating CGI animation.”
Still, a fully CGI movie is relatively rare in Japan. Other than outliers like Polygon Studios, the studio which made Ronja, a mix of CGI and hand-drawn animation continues to thrive. “I think it’s more of an exception,” says Yoshioka. “Quite a lot of Japanese animation retains a hand-drawn look and a hand-drawn style of movement. So I don’t think it will be lost, even if Miyazaki or Ghibli is gone. Certainly not overnight.”
The film does beg the question, though: if Miyazaki ever stops – he has now retired multiple times and is currently making a TV movie – what will this mean for Japanese animation? Successors have been mooted – Mamoru Hosada, for one, who was nominated for an Academy Award in the category Best Animated Feature Film for Mirai. Makoto Shinkai, creator of Your Name, the third-highest-grossing anime film of all time, is another.
Both these directors lack Miyazaki’s direct political engagement, says Yoshioka: in a Dazed interview, for instance, Shinkai said he tried to remove “deep messages about global warming or climate change or politics” from Weathering With You, his story about a flooded Tokyo. This version is most likely generational, says Denison. “Miyazaki was from a generation that was very heavily unionized and socially active,” she says. “Things are different with the younger generations. But then they’re also socially active and interested in different questions. So now we see, through places like Kyoto Animation, much more attention paid to questions of disability and social ostracisation.”
The preference for CGI is similar. The younger generation and this extends outside of Japan, has grown up with it, just as the generation before that grew up with the cel animation of Miyazaki and Disney. The popularity of video games has played a huge influence, too; throughout Asia, computer graphics studios have sprung up next to more traditional animation industries.
It remains to be seen who will inherit Miyazaki’s interest in grand, cinematic anime. “We could say that the end of Miyazaki’s career is the end of an era for Japanese animation in terms of what he presented from an early stage of his career,” says Yoshioka. “Things like creating feature films for children, or persistence with high-quality animation rather than hastily creating TV anime best on manga.”
Nevertheless, animation in Japan remains in rude health – Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train became the highest-grossing film in Japanese history last year. “When things like that are happening, it’s hard to say that there’ll be some kind of vacuum when Miyazaki leaves,” says Denison. “There’s a really vibrant animation market in Japan. And it’s full of creators doing all kinds of different things.”