TOKYO -- "Earwig and the Witch," has just left theaters in Japan and is the latest work from Studio Ghibli for some time. But this film is rather different from the studio's usual productions in that it's a computer-generated animation directed by Hayao Miyazaki's eldest son Goro Miyazaki, 54, and produced in cooperation with public broadcaster NHK. Does this film give us a glimpse of what to expect from the studio in the future?
"Earwig and the Witch" marks a significant artistic departure from the textures of the hand-drawn Ghibli style. Its characters are like dolls, and they exist in images with a tangible depth. Goro first took on the challenge of 3D computer graphics (CG) animation for the 2014 to 2015 NHK anime TV series "Ronja, the Robber's Daughter," and his latest film continues this effort.
"With 3DCG, you try to handle the characters like dolls. But if you make it look too much like a doll animation, it strays from the hand-drawn anime style people are so familiar with. We were looking for the space between that," Goro told the Mainichi Shimbun.
In Hollywood, Pixar Animation Studios' film "Toy Story" helped lead a trend that has made 3D animation mainstream in the U.S. But in Japan, there are few precedents. Accumulation of the expensive production skills to make them are also lagging. Despite all this, Goro was inspired to take on the task.
"With hand-drawn animation, there's a sense that if people work hard it will happen, but with CG, it's a question of how much it costs. It helps to have huge funds behind it, certainly. This time I brought together a young team and we went through a period of trial and error, and there were times we were working independently, too. Thanks to that, high-quality work emerged."
Apparently when his father Hayao watched a test screening of the film, he offered praise and told Goro: "This country, too, has now been able to make a film to match Pixar."
But Goro's analysis of the situation is measured: "It's like saying we worked so hard to win just once against the U.S. military. I thought, we have to find a production method unique to a small organization."
The source material for this film is an unfinished work by deceased English novelist Diana Wynne Jones, author of the novel "Howl's Moving Castle," which Studio Ghibli adapted into a film of the same name. In the new film, the eponymous girl Earwig is growing up at an institution when she is taken to the home of a witch. She accepts a role as assistant, under the provision the witch will teach her magic, but ends up being used and mistreated. She enlists the help of those around her to fight back.
In stories where a child is the protagonist, a coming-of-age story is the established pattern. But Earwig is tough and strong-willed from the start. "Are these coming-of-age stories we so often see true?" Goro asked. "Physically growing up, the thought process becoming settled -- is that growing up? It's not that adults give something to children and they grow up. I wondered if we could tell a story that wasn't just a simple one involving children overcoming adults."
Earwig's design is unlike the children portrayed in other Ghibli films.
"Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki and Yoshiyuki Tomino, are, in a manner of speaking, the first generation of those who experienced the war, who saw a radical change in values. Their opposition to authority and violence began from a certain kind of resistance, and they came together to make something, to start building something new. I think it's a kind of revolutionary mindset. But it's not possible for those of us who were born amid the period of economic development to possess that. The answer I've come to now, which made me think while making movies, is found in Earwig."
The catharsis of the ending also lies separated from the sense of satisfaction seen in other anime up till now.
"There's dubious stuff going on across the world, and there's no rosy future waiting after an upheaval. And this state of affairs will probably continue," Goro says. "If people rose up democratically against violence, would stable peace eventuate? It's a very difficult situation. I get the feeling that an ending with catharsis isn't something you should portray without careful consideration. At the same time, we need some kind of fantasy to live mentally enriched. We realized the time has come to decide on where to put emphasis."
Studio Ghibli was significantly downsized after Hayao announced his retirement in 2013. But in 2017, he announced his return with the production of a new work, "How Do You Live?" It has led to a bustling studio again.
"Ghibli was built on Hayao Miyazaki's ability and Toshio Suzuki's wits. They're both getting on in years now, and the question of what happens next absolutely no one knows. It's down to what the projects are, the drive to make them, and the people making them," Goro reflects.
The environment around anime has also changed significantly, and its position in society has also been raised.
"Creative studios have appeared, and the fusing of cel animation and CG is a style unique to Japan. I think people who have been able to create while avoiding the influence of the first generation have surfaced. And such success will probably continue. Then there's Ghibli, sitting in this strange place, completely removed from such trends. It probably would be good for us to carry on with a different set of values."
Being also involved in CG anime, is Goro likely to become the central pillar at Ghibli?
"If I say I want to keep doing CG, then we'll probably continue to do it. It's not like it has to be CG, but I found some things I want to try."
The ending of "Earwig and the Witch" lays down expectations for a sequel. Goro said, "I feel inside myself that it's over," before adding, "My producer also told me because we made such good characters, there are many people who want to see a sequel, and that I should make one." It seems that another push might come down to how "Earwig and the Witch" is received.
(Japanese original by Tomomi Katsuta, Cultural News Department)