Exploring Studio Ghibli – Conference Report from UEA and Cardiff University Conference, 18th April 2015

On 18th April 2015, an international group of scholars (some of them with their families in tow!) gathered in Cardiff to discuss Japan’s most successful animation studio: Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. For the first ever international conference on Studio Ghibli we wanted to ask how this studio has become one of the world’s best-known animation brands, and what is it about the way Studio Ghibli makes films that has made them beloved family films the world over?

The world’s pre-eminent anime scholar, Professor Susan Napier of Tufts University in the USA, opened the conference by analysing Ghibli’s “magic”. More specifically, Napier’s paper examined the nuances and details of animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata’s presentation of Japanese myths and legends in concert with experimentation with animation’s capacity for transformation and representations of the impossible and fantastical. Reading the Studio’s output elegiacally, Napier immediately highlighted the tensions at work in Ghibli’s filmmaking: an abidingly local cultural perspective married to a now internationally-recognisable aesthetic that readily speaks to audiences regardless of their cultural background. This was a theme revisited in many of the panels later in the day, but perhaps particularly in the discussions of how to theorise Ghibli’s filmmaking, where Anna Blagrove (University of East Anglia) gave an intriguing paper about the connections that can be drawn between local folklore cultures from Japan and Ghibli’s environmental themes.

Following on from Napier’s intriguing opening gambit, a speed-geeking event got everyone talking about some of the other big issues around Studio Ghibli’s success story – from an Israeli scholar’s questioning of Miyazaki’s representations of war to a London-based scholar interrogating Miyazaki’s inclusion of national imagery. As these discussions showed, Miyazaki’s authorial presence has long defined the work of the studio he helped to found, making Napier’s attention to his co-founder, Isao Takahata, all the more helpful to producing a fulsome understanding of their Studio’s products and cultural presence.

Speed Geeking at Ghibli Conference

Speed Geeking at Ghibli Conference

In the panels that followed, Studio Ghibli was thoroughly interrogated, in terms of its major themes (such as its representations of war), through to its representations of gender, and the activities of its fans. The Conference’s co-organiser James Rendell (Cardiff University) gave an excellent paper on the creative, often craft-oriented, cultural activities of Ghibli’s international fans, thinking about how the absence of official Studio Ghibli merchandise in the international market has produced a growing market for fan-produced goods, from Totoro-character cakes to jewellery and hand-painted acorns in the shape of Ghibli’s iconic Totoro character.

James Rendell panel image

Panellists at the Ghibli Conference in front of Totoro Acorns

In other stand-out papers, Catherine Munroe Hotes and Laura Montero Plata analysed some of Ghibli’s most significant relationships with Japanese culture and society. Monroe Hotes investigated Ghibli’s insistent strand of environmentalism in relation to a current sustainability project taking place in Japan; whereas, Montero Plata looked at the way Miyazaki seems to have created an intertextual link between his famous film Spirited Away and traditional Japanese Noh theatre traditions. In these papers, and others like Yasuo Kawabata’s study of an important exhibition at the Studio Ghibli Art Museum, the left-leaning politics of the Studio were foregrounded, as were their attempts to create links between their films and neglected areas of Japanese (and international) culture.

Likewise, the papers at the Studio Ghibli conference revealed some of the lesser-known aspects of Studio Ghibli’s film production. Shiro Yoshioka (Newcastle University), for example, performed an excellent reading of the relationship between gender and one of the Studio’s lesser-known films, The Cat Returns. Likewise, Eija Niskanen (University of Helsinki), Lawrence Carter (School of Oriental and African Studies, London) and Daniela Pizzuto (University of Bologna) all examined different aspects of the production and re-production of Studio Ghibli’s films for the global marketplace, demonstrating the problems inherent in trying to negotiate the “Japaneseness” of these films for local and international markets. This was the major theme that I tried to tackle in the final plenary talk of the day: how we might reframe and reconsider Studio Ghibli if we focus on the studio co-founder that usually gets ignore: Toshio Suzuki. I argued that Suzuki’s work behind-the-scenes as a producer and brand-creator at Studio Ghibli has been just as significant to its success story as Miyazaki and Takahata’s artistry and animation. In this way, I rounded off the day by trying to return to our opening idea for it: that Studio Ghibli’s 30-year success story is the product of a now-retiring generation of animators whose work will in all likelihood soon be regarded as a “Golden Age” of Japanese animation. With the announcement last year that Studio Ghibli is to cease feature film production, this conference is a timely reminder that the success of Japanese anime in the global marketplace may have a precarious future. By celebrating, interrogating and deliberating Studio Ghibli’s 30-year success story, we hope to have begun a conversation about Japanese anime’s global status that will continue for decades to come.

By Dr Rayna Denison

Lecturer in Film, Television and Media Studies

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