DM Haight

There have been rumblings, and perhaps even more than just rumblings, of the world renowned animation studio, Studio Ghibli, is shutting its doors after it releases Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There. A recent Kotaku article suggests that the studio is having a difficult time managing to turn a profit off the incredibly expensive films. This, in itself, is understandable, and reasonable. If a studio cannot make a profit, then it cannot be expected to run in show business. But unlike giants RKO and others, releasing some of the most important films of all time and still crashing, Studio Ghibli’s possible descent is far more concerning and dire for the world of cinema.

Feature length animation has been a curious medium for decades. When Disney first released Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, the world was in awe by the beauty and the odd mimic of life the artists were able to capture and put into motion. The designs for Snow and Prince Charming have obviously fallen to the history books, but the character designs of the Evil Witch and the Dwarves have become iconic templates for how a Disney film should look and feel and move.

Hayao Miyazaki saw those Disney movies. You can see his love of the classic Disney style in his early works, like Lupin the Third. He took those animated films and molded the ideas into his own designs. He went to worlds and places Walt Disney could have never dreamed of. In all respect, Hayao Miyazaki is this generations Walt Disney. That’s not to say he’s managed to monopolize an industry and art form; no, he’s just the spiritual successor of an idea that revolves not around living things, but things that appear more alive than we, the living.

The works of Ghibli have gone on to challenge us more than any of the Disney animated features. Ghibli has taken us on journeys through wastelands, a decimated Japan, through ancient worlds where gods roam, all the way to the simplicity of new city waiting for their witch to arrive. Ghibli has even taken us to the same seas as Disney, but through their respective lenses we’ve seen two completely different worlds.

But the challenge of the films is not what is at stake is Ghibli takes the final bow. What will be lost is 2D animation itself.

The last film Disney produced inside the medium of traditional 2D animation was Winnie the Pooh in 2011. It has been three years and they have yet to return to the medium. The Princess and the Frog, in 2009, was the last time they made a film that was not a remake, and before that the last traditionally animated feature they produced was Brother Bear in 2003. The rest have been computer animated. Disney has relinquished the reigns of leadership in the world of hand drawn animation.

Thus the burden fell to Ghibli. And they produced a slew of stellar films from Spirited Away, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arrietty, From Up on Poppy Hill, and The Wind Rises. From 2001 to 2014 the studio has released eight feature length films, while Disney released but six theatrically released films from their animation studios, most of which were released before 2003. Thus it has been almost a decade since Disney has lent a serious hand in the world of traditional animation.

Disney has opted to produce computer animated films. Why? Not because they hate the older medium, but because computer animation draws in more profits. When Pixar released Toy Story in 1995, Disney saw the potential. As a multi-billion dollar corporation, we have to accept that they will do what brings in cash. Their recent forays into the territory of computer animation have brought them great success, accolades and box office receipts both. Ghibli, on the other hand, has not fared well with Western audiences at the box office. Although it broke more than 130 million in the box office, the US release of The Wind Rises saw it released in select cities, and a “wide” release that did not reach as far as many had hoped.

It appears the cost of a Ghibli film is too much to bare. What’s worse is that if the studio rests on its copyrights and chooses to abstain from making more films, the world of traditional animation will have to look elsewhere for deeper material than the Saturday morning lineup. China has promised an epic film in 2016, Master Jiang and the Six Kingdoms, created by artists Li Wei and Pei Fei. But even that film has been mixed with computer animation. Cell animation has been left to the college grads looking to impress. You can find hundreds of animated shorts online through Vimeo and Youtube, but those shorts seem to be stuck right there on the internet. What is most saddening is that when Wreck-It Ralph in 2012, there was a short cell animation that played before it. Paperman won Academy Awards for both Short Animated Subject and Short Film. It was comprised of 3D and cell animation, but its character, hand drawn, evoked more empathy and emotion than any computer animated character I have yet to see. It shows that the art is still worth exploring.

But if a studio like Ghibli, one that has been nominated for hundreds of awards, many of which they have won, for both storytelling and artistic triumph, then how can we expect the art form to survive beyond the short subject? Anime is one option, but even so that is relegated to the serialized short rather than the standalone feature length. If the rumors are true and Studio Ghibli does close its doors, hopefully it will not mean the closing of the chapter on 2D animation in the book of cinema history.

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