At its best, anime is diverse, vibrant, unfettered and unpredictable. Look through the history of Japanese animation, and you’ll find stories about baseball, cooking, friendly ghosts, ancient myths, dog detectives and robot cats from the future. You’ll find sci-fi and horror, fantasy and comedy, erotica and historical drama. Just about every country on the planet produces animation of some kind; few broach subjects as varied as the Japanese.
In recent years, however, anime has faced threats from multiple angles. First, there’s the threat that will catch up with all of us eventually: time itself. In 2010, Japan lost one of its great storytellers, Satoshi Kon, who made such stunning animated movies as Perfect Blue (one of the greatest thrillers of the 20th century), Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers, and the TV series, Paranoia Agent. Kon’s work was intelligent, sophisticated, weird and disturbing, and it’s tragic that he died so young. He lost his battle with cancer at the age of just 46; a feature film was working on at the time, called Dream Machine, was left unfinished and may never emerge.
In 2014, directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata announced their retirement, leaving Studio Ghibli – arguably Japan’s most famous animation house – without its founders and its leading creative forces. Miyazaki and Takahata’s films, among them My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away, Grave Of The Fireflies and Princess Kaguya, demonstrated to the world just how rich and beautiful anime could be. As inevitable as it was, given their advancing years, their decision to step back from filmmaking felt like another sad loss.
Couple all this with the threats of piracy, the rising costs of animation – it’s a notoriously time-consuming and expensive thing to produce – and the increasing popularity of CG animation, and things begin to look rather gloomy for hand-drawn anime.
Yet there are a few breaks in the clouds if you know where to look. The recent news that the animated film Mary And The Witch’s Flower has been picked up for a cinematic release in the UK is one glimmer of light; not just because it’s always exciting to have anime on a British cinema screen, but because it represents what might be a new phase in Japanese animation.
The Witch’s Flower is the first film from Studio Pinoc, a company set up by Yoshiaki Nishimura. Nishimura was a producer at Studio Ghibli for several years, and helped shepherd the movies Howl’s Moving Castle and When Marnie Was There – what might well be Ghibli’s final feature – to the finish line. Most commendably of all, it was Nishimura who guided, encouraged and cajoled Takahata through the process of making Princess Kaguya through its unfathomably difficult production; Takahata was reluctant to make the film in the first place, and it was subject to numerous delays. In a revealing documentary, The Kingdom Of Dreams And Madness, Nishimura joked that Takahata didn‘t really want to finish the film at all; there’s a possibility that he wasn’t joking.
Nishimura is, therefore, a producer with considerable experience, and he’s brought a similarly experienced director with him to Studio Pinoc. Hiromasa Yonabayashi previously made the delightful Arietty (based on The Borrowers series of books) and the aforementioned When Marnie Was There for Studio Ghibli. Like those films, Mary And The Witch’s Flower is based on a British children’s novel – The Littlest Broomstick, by Mary Stewart – and also like them, it looks bold, gentle and colourful.
Just as Studio Ghibli was formed by a group of animators wanting to strike out on their own, so Studio Pinoc is formed from animators and other members of staff from Studio Ghibli. While the latter’s still going (more on them later), it’s pleasing to see a new animation house form in the wake of so much uncertainty. Studio Ghibli’s founders may have retired, but there are still younger generations of artists intent on keeping 2D animation alive – both at Studio Pinoc and beyond.
Take Makoto Shinkai, who scored a huge hit with the animated fantasy, Your Name. Shinkai’s previous movies included 5 Centimeters Per Second and The Garden Of Words, yet it was Your Name, released to huge critical and financial acclaim last year, that brought Shinkai to wider attention – it even became one of the rare non-Ghibli movies to get a cinema release in the UK. Critics have often compared Shinkai to Hayao Miyazaki, which feels a bit wide of the mark; for this writer, they’re about as similar as Scorsese and Spielberg – they swim in the same medium, but the work they produce is very different. Yet Shinkai is another storyteller who uses 2D animation to powerful effect; his fantasy romance about a pair of teenagers united by disaster is, in light of the earthquake and tsunami that engulfed Japan only a few years ago, bewitching and incredibly moving.
Shinkai’s also one of a younger generation of animators who are unafraid to mix traditional techniques with CGI. Far from diluting or corrupting hand-drawn animation, computers can be used to extraordinary effect in the right hands, and also help to reduce the costs in a ferociously expensive medium. Another animator who’s unafraid to mix techniques is Mamoru Hosoda, the director behind such superb films as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars and Wolf Children. Steeped in sci-fi, fantasy, romance and youth culture, Hosoda’s films are both accessible and contemporary; Summer Wars, in particular, is a satisfying mix of 2D and 3D animation – a teen thriller about the web and AI, like a 21st century WarGames.
There’s also plenty of interesting anime on Japanese television, which is gradually filtering over to the west. Thanks to Amazon and Netflix, we’ve been able to sample the delights of gloriously retro Space Dandy and the ferocious Attack On Titan. A crowdfunded anime short, Little Witch Academia, helped widen the exposure of animator Yo Yoshinari, and what began as a labour of love is now a full television series – the light-hearted fantasy series should eventually make its way to our shores courtesy of Netflix.
It’s currently unclear whether we’ll ever get another feature film from Studio Ghibli, but the company has at least given us Goro Miyazaki’s TV series, Ronia The Robber’s Daughter. A co-production with Polygon Pictures, Ronia is a cel-shaded CGI series rather than hand-drawn, but it’s another example of how western streaming services are helping to bring anime shows out of Japan – the series is currently on Amazon, and while it may be a little too gentle for some tastes, its characters are thoroughly disarming.
Beyond all the talented artists and storytellers working in Japan, there’s the now well-established appreciation for anime in other parts of the world. Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon are vocal in their love for Studio Ghibli, and there are traces of Miyazaki in their wonderful feature films, The Secret Of Kells and Song Of The Sea. Laika Studios’ stunning stop-motion feature Kubo And The Two Strings was a love-letter to Japanese culture – and its director, Travis Knight, is clearly a fan of Hayao Miyazaki.
A Hollywood adaptation of Ghost In The Shell may have led to accusations of whitewashing, but the happy outcome is that more people are likely to seek out the classic animated film on which it’s based. Over the past few months, Manga Entertainment have screened the seminal Akira and Ghost In The Shell in select UK cinemas; far from fading into obscurity, these movies are being recognised as the important pieces of cinema they really are.
Like any medium – like cinema itself – anime is having to evolve and change. But with directors like Yonabayashi, Shinkai, Hosoda and many, many others, anime still has a bright future ahead of it – as long as it gets our support. If we buy the DVDs and Blu-rays, seek out the cinemas where anime features are showing when we can, and support new animators on crowdfunding websites, then the spirit of hand-drawn animation can thrive.
Diverse, unfettered, unpredictable; one thing’s for sure – the world would be a far less interesting place without Japanese animation.