As the greats of the genre, such as Hayao Miyazaki, approach the end of their careers, a new generation of film-makers are transforming the genre. As the UK prepares for a deluge of acclaimed anime films, we look at the names in the frame

In 2013, Hayao Miyazaki faced a packed press conference. He said: Im really serious this time My era of animation is over. Could it be true? The 76-year-old film-maker, creator of cherished classics from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away, is virtually a living god in his native Japan. Had his career come to an end? Actually, no, it hadnt. As he has done many times before, Miyazaki came back out of retirement this year and is working on a new movie. But still, the end of the Miyazaki era is surely drawing closer.

Miyazakis position in the anime world could be likened to one of the giant, ancient trees he likes to include in his movies. He is the heart of the enchanted forest, the centre of the ecosystem, and Studio Ghibli, the company he cofounded, is overwhelmingly dependent on his output. Miyazakis movies have generated household-name characters, merchandisable properties and enormous domestic box office: he has directed five of the top 10 highest-grossing Japanese films of all time.

With Miyazakis departure, though, some of the saplings on the forest floor now have a chance to grow. In fact, the whole forest is growing. Despite being expensive, labour-intensive and notoriously badly paid, the anime industry is booming. According to the Association of Japanese Animations 2016 report, it has grown consistently over the past six years, and in every way: revenues are higher than ever, more titles are being released, and overseas markets are growing. In 2015, the market as a whole brought in 1,826bn yen (12.5bn).

And it is no longer just about family animation; the teen and young adult-oriented late night sector is also on the rise. In the UK, we can look forward to releases such as futuristic fantasy Napping Princess, or the enticingly titled sci-fi Genocidal Organ. But the movie that has come to symbolise the current boom is Your Name, directed by Makoto Shinkai. Your Name is nothing like a Studio Ghibli movie; it is a poignant teen romance that smoothly incorporates elements of sci-fi, gender-swap comedy and natural-disaster movie. Visually, too, it has a modern-day sheen, all sunsets and lens flares and colour fades nothing like Ghiblis colourful, hand-drawn style.

Your
Your Name a phenomenon in Japan. Photograph: Allstar

The movie has struck a chord in Japan, perhaps in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Your Name has been a phenomenon. It was by far the highest grossing movie of 2016, taking three times more than its nearest rival. It is now second only to Miyazakis Spirited Away in Japans all-time list. Shinkai, who came into animation via computer games, was as surprised as anyone by the movies success. But the 44-year-old director has modestly played down the inevitable Miyazaki comparisons. Miyazaki is a genius, he is the legend, Shinkai said in an interview with the Guardian last year. You dont want to be imitating his style. Every anime-maker is thinking: I cant be too like Miyazaki.

Another anime tack can be seen in In This Corner of the World, which goes on release in the UK this week, and beat Your Name to win the Japanese Academys best-animation award last year. Following a teenage bride during the second world war, it is more like a thoroughly researched, scrupulously authentic historical drama that happens to be animated. Normally, we imagine things that dont exist; here I wanted to imagine what no longer exists, says director Sunao Katabuchi. I think its nonsense that just because a film is animated, it should automatically be a family or kids film. Animation as a method makes all sorts of things possible, and is a tool for film-makers to tackle any genre.

All the same, there are plenty of film-makers seeking to fill the Miyazaki-shaped gap. Like Mamoru Hosoda, whose films such as Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time have displayed a similar mix of adventurous fantasy grounded in emotional reality. Hosodas latest film, The Boy and the Beast, a lively tale with echoes of The Jungle Book and The Karate Kid, is his biggest hit to date. In a recent interview, he spoke of Miyazakis retirement as an opportunity: There were a lot of people who said, Oh, Japanese animation is finished, but if you look at it more objectively, it could be the birth of a new industry.

Ghiblis attempts to groom its own Miyazaki successor have not gone well, however. Miyazaki cofounded Ghibli in 1985 with producer Toshio Suzuki and fellow animator Isao Takahata, (whose films include Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of Princess Kaguya) in emulation of the old-school studio system they grew up in. In contrast to the freelance-based anime industry, they hired full-time employees and built their own utopian workplace. But they are not getting any younger: Takahata is 82, Suzuki nearly 70. Ghiblis long-adopted policy is that it does not take any interviews or comment about the future of the studios, but thats the main topic of discussion.

Napping
Napping Princess futuristic fantasy.

Ghibli has always been a fairly arcane secret society in some ways, says anime expert Helen McCarthy. Its very rare that they speak about why or how things are done there, particularly when it comes to personnel changes. McCarthy describes Miyazaki as at heart an old-fashioned patriarchal socialist. He and Jeremy Corbyn would get on well. He believes in being decent to people. He believes that the community comes before the individual. He believes that people should get a decent days pay and a bit of security. So this time, when you think about it, must be intensely painful for him.

Ghiblis original protege was Yoshifumi Kond, director of 1995 schoolgirl tale Whisper of the Heart, but he died of an aneurysm in 1998, aged 47. Overwork was cited as a cause, which doubtless gave Miyazaki pause for thought. Hosoda was once a candidate. He was brought in to direct Howls Moving Castle in 2004 but left the project citing creative differences; and Miyazaki stepped in to direct it himself. Katabuchi also worked with Miyazaki at one stage, as assistant director on Kikis Delivery Service.

Another contender was Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who rose through the Ghibli ranks to direct 2010s acclaimed The Secret World of Arrietty and 2014s Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There. But with Miyazaki retiring, and no more projects on the drawing board, Yonebayashi and a team of Ghibli animators jumped ship and set up their own animation house, Studio Ponoc. Their first feature, Mary and the Witchs Flower, is due for release this summer. It looks like a Ghibli movie in all but name: a magical fantasy with a female heroine, adapted from a European childrens book (Mary Stewarts The Little Broomstick), and rendered in vibrant, detailed, hand-drawn animation. The trailer even suggests the magic returns.

Classic
Classic old-school, Spirited Away. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/Disney

A more recent, if less promising, heir was Miyazakis son, Gor. He initially trained as a landscape architect, avoiding his fathers shadow, but he was persuaded to direct 2006s Tales from Earthsea and its follow-up, From Up on Poppy Hill (with the Ghibli elders looking over his shoulder). Despite having recently overseen a Ghibli TV series, Ronja the Robbers Daughter, Gor is, by his own admission, a reluctant caretaker. I cant copy my dads process of having his own studio, coming up with his own stories, then planning them from scratch and making a finished film, he said in 2014.

Studio Ghibli did put out a new animated feature of its own last year: The Red Turtle, a beautifully minimal, dialogue-free parable with echoes of Robinson Crusoe. It was something of an anomaly, however: it was directed by Michal Dudok de Wit, an Anglo-Dutch animator, and it was essentially a European production. It was also nine years in the making. Studio Ghibli approached Dudok de Wit out of the blue, he says, having sensed a compatibility from his short films, such as the Oscar-winning Father and Daughter. He is full of admiration for Ghibli. They were embarrassingly respectful of the directors role. They are giants, and I was making my first film, but they had so much trust in me and so wanted me to find my voice. Whenever they had suggestions, they always finished by saying: But you are the director. You decide.

Dudok de Wit worked most closely with Takahata, but he did meet Miyazaki a few times, which he describes as the peak experience of my life. He is really, really special. The imagination he has and the emotions he conveys it is not a coincidence that he is so successful here and over there.

For now, in reputation at least, Miyazaki still towers over his rivals. His next movie, due in 2020, is based on a 12-minute short he made last year called Boro the Caterpillar. In a radical departure, it sees him working in computer animation, but it still looks like a Miyazaki movie, says Dudok de Wit, who has seen some footage. It very much has his charm.

So Studio Ghibli is hiring staff again and its future is safe for a little longer, although Miyazakis return could be less to do with commercial concerns than his simple inability to stop working. Even during his supposed retirement Miyazaki apparently came to the studio every day. I think it has a little bit to do with our profession, observes Dudok de Wit. Its killing us. Its ridiculously hard work, not for a week, not for a month but for years. And at the end the person feels like, Well, Im glad I did it, but enough is enough; I cant face another film. And then the person gets rested, and gets restless because theres a new story simmering in their mind, and then they go back to the old addiction.

In This Corner of the World is out now, The Boy and the Beast on 7 July, Genocidal Organ on 12 July, Napping Princess on 16 August, and Your Name is reissued on 23 August.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jun/30/japanese-anime-new-golden-age

From Genocidal Organ to Your Name: Japanese animes new golden age
Tagged on: