‘I’m really serious this time!’: have Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli made their final masterpiece?

<span>Composite: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images; Studio Ghibli; Alamy</span>
Composite: The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images; Studio Ghibli; Alamy

When Hayao Miyazaki, the world’s greatest living animator, approached his longtime producer Toshio Suzuki in July 2016 and told him that he wanted to make another film, Suzuki was not enthusiastic. “I said: ‘Absolutely not. This is a bad idea,’” Suzuki recalls. He had his reasons. “I’ve seen many, many great directors, who feel that they can make one more great film and most of the time they fail. I didn’t want to see him go down that road.”

Besides, Miyazaki had supposedly already made his final film. Three years previously, following the release of his highly acclaimed The Wind Rises, Miyazaki told a packed press conference in Tokyo that he was retiring from feature film-making. At 72, he was slowing down, he said, and didn’t feel able to complete the exhausting work of making another feature. “I’m really serious this time,” Miyazaki insisted. “My era of animation is over.”

Except, of course, it wasn’t. This year, Miyazaki releases his 12th animated feature, The Boy and the Heron. The Miyazaki era is not yet over, then, but he is now 82 years old, and questions are being asked about what comes next, not least at Studio Ghibli, the company he and Suzuki founded in 1985, along with fellow animator Isao Takahata. “After we are gone, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Suzuki, who is 75, seven years younger than Miyazaki. “That will be something for the rest of the people to figure out.”

Miyazaki is often compared to Walt Disney, which is both helpful and unhelpful. Like Disney, he has produced a string of much-loved, and much-merchandised, animated classics, bursting with colour and artistry. His movies are some of the highest-grossing ever made in Japan, and his characters are household names – especially Totoro, the cuddly monster at the heart of his 1988 favourite My Neighbour Totoro. In Japan, Miyazaki is practically considered a living god, and with his snow-white hair and beard and twinkling grin, he even looks the part – although, like Walt Disney, he is an incorrigible chain-smoker.

In terms of content, though, Miyazaki’s films could hardly be more different to Disney’s. They are rarely straightforward tales of good v evil – their end goal is usually restoring harmony or achieving a deeper understanding, rather than slaying the monster or rescuing the princess. In his 1997 epic Princess Mononoke, for example, the princess of the title is a feral warrior, first seen sucking the wound of her pet wolf and spitting out the blood. Like most of his films it is a rich, complex story, grappling with themes of ecological destruction, technological progress, women’s rights, capital and labour – all within an action-packed fantasy adventure.

Miyazaki’s work has found favour not just with families and animation fans but also cinephiles around the world. Spirited Away, in particular, cemented his status as one of cinema’s great auteurs, winning the top prize at the Berlin film festival, the Golden Bear, and the 2003 best animation Oscar. Western admirers range from Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro to James Cameron (who acknowledged that his Avatar series was influenced by Princess Mononoke), not to mention a generation of Disney and Pixar animators.

Suzuki first met Miyazaki in the late 1970s. “We actually fought,” Suzuki laughs. He was then an anime reporter, trying to interview Miyazaki while he was working on his first feature, a franchise movie called Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. “Miyazaki said something very mean to me,” Suzuki recalls. “He said: ‘I don’t have time for you.’” So he just sat down on the desk next to Miyazaki and waited in silence. It was the afternoon. “When he stood up the next time, it was 4am.” Suzuki came back the next day and Miyazaki still ignored him. “It was on the third day that he talked to me. We’ve been talking ever since.”

If someone like Miyazaki tells you he doesn’t have much time and he knows this will be his last film, you can’t say no

Toshio Suzuki

We are speaking in the dining room of the hallowed Studio Ghibli itself: an ivy-covered, three-storey complex with a roof garden, tucked away in a quiet Tokyo suburb. A giant wooden Totoro greets us in the lobby, alongside an old-fashioned telephone booth. On the staircase are framed, hand-drawn tributes from the staff of Pixar and Aardman (creators of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run) animation studios. The place is antiseptically clean but also strangely quiet. Since they finished work on The Boy and the Heron, a staff member tells me, all the animators are either on extended leave or have taken other jobs. Takahata, who also directed a string of Ghibli movies, including the anti-war classic Grave of the Fireflies, died in 2018. Miyazaki is apparently in his private studio nearby, but is nowhere to be seen. There are no other Ghibli projects in the pipeline. Everyone seems to be acutely aware, but hesitant to acknowledge, that unless, and until, Miyazaki decides to make another film, the studio has nothing to work on.

Unlike most animation directors – including both Takahata and Walt Disney – Miyazaki does much of the actual animation himself. His technique is resolutely old school. As well as sketching out the guiding concepts and characters, he personally draws or checks the other animators’ “key frames” – the primary images. If he doesn’t like what he sees, he’ll often rub them out and redraw them himself. It is a laborious, time-consuming task. A two-hour movie entails more than 170,000 images. This is why Suzuki initially objected to Miyazaki making another film: “I was sceptical about him being able to draw like he did when he was younger.” His solution was to bring in a younger lead animator, Takeshi Honda.

Honda was about to start work on another job when Miyazaki called, he says. But “if you have someone like Miyazaki tell you that he doesn’t have much time and he knows this is going to be his last film, you can’t really say no.”

It was also a chance for Honda to observe a master at work: “He’s a creature of routine. He gets up around six o’clock in the morning, he’ll pick up the trash around his neighbourhood, he’ll chop firewood. And then he comes to the studio at 10. He mumbles and he talks a lot while he’s working, which really surprised me. And he would talk to me often. He always looks like he’s having a lot of fun.”

Like many of Miyazaki’s stories, The Boy and the Heron involves a troubled child, Mahito, who is sucked into a fantasy realm following the death of his mother (Miyazaki’s own mother caught tuberculosis when he was six years old, and spent several years in hospital). There are bizarre creatures and vistas galore, from cuddly little critters to violent, human-sized parakeets. Most striking of all is a tired-looking, white-haired wizard who plays a pivotal role in the existence of this fantasy world. “I have grown old, I seek a successor,” he tells Mahito. “Will you continue my work? My successor must come from my bloodline.”

Successors to the Ghibli kingdom have come and gone over the years, but none have stuck. There was Yoshifumi Kondō, the gifted director of Ghibli’s 1995 hit Whisper of the Heart. He was predicted a bright future, but died of an aneurysm in 1998, aged 47. There was Mamoru Hosoda, who was set to direct Howl’s Moving Castle but departed citing creative differences. Hosoda went on to make his own string of successful movies, such as the Oscar-nominated Mirai, and last year’s metaverse fantasy Belle. There was also Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There for Ghibli. After Miyazaki’s 2013 “retirement”, with no more projects in the pipeline, Yonebayashi and a clutch of animators left to set up their own Studio Ponoc – whose 2017 fairytale Mary and the Witch’s Flower was very much in the Ghibli mould. Honda rules himself out as a candidate: “I don’t think that I could fill his shoes. I think it needs to be someone as powerful and energetic and passionate as Miyazaki.”

And finally there is Miyazaki’s 56-year-old son, Goro, who initially chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps and trained as a landscape architect, but in the late 90s the studio asked him to help design a new Ghibli museum in Tokyo. Then, in the early 2000s, Suzuki persuaded Goro to direct his own animated feature: Tales from Earthsea, adapted from a fantasy novel by Ursula K Le Guin. Miyazaki senior was none too pleased; he felt his son was not ready. Relations between father and son have always been strained, it seems. In a 2006 blog post, Goro claimed his father was “never at home” when he was growing up, and gave him “zero marks as a father, full marks as a director”. When Miyazaki senior attended a preview screening of Tales from Earthsea, he walked out after an hour to have a cigarette. “I felt like I’d been in there three hours,” he said.

Working is his joy; you can’t really stop him. He’s always facing forward. And he is very eager to make another film

Takeshi Honda

Goro has no desire to be his father’s successor, he says when we meet at Studio Ghibli, and it might well be too late to find one. This September, it was announced that broadcaster Nippon TV had acquired a controlling stake in Studio Ghibli. Goro blames his father’s meddling: “Whenever someone else tries to direct a film at Studio Ghibli, he always comes in and says something like: ‘No, this won’t do; you should do this instead.’ And once you start listening to him, then you lose your vision. So, for all the directors who come to Studio Ghibli, the biggest challenge is to try not to listen to Hayao Miyazaki.”

Goro doesn’t see The Boy and the Heron as being about him and his father. He suggests the old wizard seeking a successor represents the late Takahata – who died in 2018. “Him passing away affected Hayao Miyazaki enormously,” says Goro. The boy, Mahito, is Miyazaki himself. “Once he stops making films, that will essentially mean the end of the studio.”

In the meantime, Goro has found a way to remain in the Ghibli fold while returning to his first love. He is the mastermind behind Ghibli Park, just outside Nagoya, about three hours west of Tokyo. Set in a leafy, expansive public park (the former site of the 2005 World Expo), Ghibli Park is not exactly Disneyland – there are no rides, and far fewer visitors – but it is charming and delightful. There is a large indoor Ghibli experience, in what used to be an indoor swimming pool, housing exhibitions, models, play areas, a cinema, shops and sets where visitors can insert themselves into scenes from Ghibli movies – take a selfie sitting next to No-Face on the train from Spirited Away, for example.

There are also a handful of Ghibli-themed areas within the park. One is a fully functional replica of the house from My Neighbour Totoro, complete with traditional bath room and little girls’ clothes in the wardrobes. There is also a mock-up of the house from Whisper of the Heart, and a new Princess Mononoke-themed village opened this November, with a grass-roofed village hall where visitors can make their own gohei-mochi rice cakes, a local speciality.“We wanted to preserve the legacy of the studio in some format so that’s why we came up with the idea of operating this park,” says Goro. “Probably if we didn’t have the museum or the park, it would have been much easier for the studio to just disband.”

Maybe this is all the future holds for Studio Ghibli: a nostalgia trip into a bygone golden age. Such was the anticipation for The Boy and the Heron in Japan, Studio Ghibli did no promotion apart from a single poster; no advertising, no trailer, no interviews. The film was Ghibli’s biggest opening ever, but the market is now crowded with more teen-oriented competitors: anime directors such as Hosoda and Makoto Shinkai, or manga-derived franchise series such as One Piece, Slam Dunk and Detective Conan. The highest-grossing movie in Japan this year is the US-made Super Mario Brothers. Perhaps Miyazaki’s era of animation is already over.

Related: No fun rides but plenty of spirit: Studio Ghibli offers anime fans a new walk in the park

In 2013, when he last retired, Miyazaki sounded somewhat fatalistic about Studio Ghibli’s prospects. “The future is clear, it’s going to fall apart. I can already see it,” he said in one interview. “What’s the use worrying? It’s inevitable.” At the time he sounded despondent about his entire career. “How do we know movies are even worthwhile?” He asked. “If you really think about it, is this not just some grand hobby? Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered. But now? Most of our world is rubbish.”

Since making The Boy and the Heron, though, Miyazaki has not yet made his customary retirement announcement. Perhaps he knows no one would believe him. Or perhaps he’s happy to simply enjoy his “grand hobby” a little longer. Even if he no longer believes making movies can change the world, they can at least offer a retreat from it.

“Working is his joy; you can’t really stop him,” says Suzuki. So the offices of Studio Ghibli may yet buzz with activity again. “I had a chat with him this morning before I came here, and he said to me: ‘Hey, what do you think The Boy and the Heron is about? I totally forgot what I was doing in this film.’ And then he switched to talking about a new idea. He’s always facing forward. And he is very eager to make another film.” Although, Suzuki notes, “him continuing to work means that I do not have any retirement, either”.

Will Suzuki allow it? He smiles. “I won’t stop him this time.”

The Boy and the Heron is released on Boxing Day.