By Marty Mulrooney
I recently reviewed the wonderfully comprehensive Studio Ghilbi: The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (Kamera Books) by Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc, awarding it 9 OUT OF 10 and declaring it to be ‘the authoritative English language text on Studio Ghibli.’ It was therefore a great pleasure to be able to catch up with the authors and discuss this seminal work for a special interview exclusive to Alternative Magazine Online.
Thank you for your time! Can you tell me a bit about yourselves please?
We’re a husband and wife team who are both passionate about movies. We met at university – we were introduced to each other as “liking weird films” – and have been watching films together for over 20 years. We’ve been writing about cinema for over a decade. We live in the UK with our cuddly cat, Azumi.
You both also write for kamera.co.uk. Could you tell me a little about the site?
We started writing for Kamera.co.uk in 2001. It’s a great site that describes itself as a ‘film salon’ and is dedicated to covering art house, independent and world cinema, aiming to provide intelligent, interesting and thought-provoking features and reviews. What we really like about kamera.co.uk is the eclectic subject matter which often points us in the direction of some good viewing experiences.
Kamera Books publish your physical publications as well, is that correct?
That’s right. As well as Studio Ghibli, we’ve written Kamera Books about David Lynch and Horror Films. We also authored books about Vampire Films, Jackie Chan and Tim Burton for the Pocket Essentials series.
I enjoyed your latest book very much! Studio Ghibli is obviously a passion for both of you. How much research was involved?
Thank you. We’re really glad that you liked our book. This was a project we’d been wanting to write for a long time. We spent several months researching the book and also made trips out to Japan. We were particularly interested in the origins of Ghibli’s works so, for example, we made a trip to the Miyazawa Kenji (who wrote Goshu the Cellist) museum in Hanamaki. It would also be a crime to go to Japan and not visit the wonderful Ghibli museum in Mitaka, Tokyo. It’s a truly magical place and the ticket price includes the viewing of an exclusive Ghibli short film that screens throughout the day. We have been several times! Another purpose of the trip was to see Ponyo before its release over here.
How were you both introduced to the studio’s work?
We saw Laputa in 1992 and were entranced by both the quality of the animation, the wonderful characterisation and the rip-roaring adventure story. We’ve been Ghibli aficionados ever since and made efforts to acquire their films as soon as they became available. This involved scouring tiny outlets in London for import DVDs and VCDs several years ago. Of course, they are easily available these days, which is a good thing.
Do you think some Western viewers are stubborn in the sense that they see any animation as aimed at children? Is the key to the studio’s success that they can appeal to an audience of any age?
You’re correct that many Western viewers still think of animation being cartoons aimed at children. That is a shame because there’s a whole world of wonderful animation out there. Of course some are made specifically for children but anime covers as wide a breadth of subject matter as live action films do. The Japanese attitude to manga and anime is very different to that of the west– you will see comic books covering such diverse areas as cookery or sports and there are even golf manga aimed at salary men.
Studio Ghibli’s films generally appeal to a broad audience but some are less family-oriented than others. Princess Mononoke and Grave of the Fireflies are less suitable for younger children, whereas Ponyo and My Neighbour Totoro are clearly aimed at a youth market, although adults will certainly enjoy them too.
Pretty early on in the book you refer to the animation of Studio Ghilbi as art, a pretty bold statement yet one I agree with completely! How would you explain this concept to somebody who had never seen a Studio Ghibli film before?
Cinema is one of the newer ‘arts’, certainly when compared with painting, theatre and literature as it’s just over 100 years old. Films still seem to be perceived by some as entertainment for the masses and somehow inferior or less worthy than other artforms. Ghibli films are extraordinarily popular but are not simply disposable entertainment. If art is about the creation of works of beauty and special significance then Ghibli’s films can, without doubt, be defined as art – the films are both beautifully crafted and speak volumes about the world we live in. They are soaring flights of imagination that elicit genuine emotion within the viewer.
Would you agree with my comments when I reviewed the book that this will be enjoyed mostly by academics and long-time fans of the studio? It certainly gives a very comprehensive history.
We aimed to make the book as accessible to as wide an audience as possible and we hope that our enthusiasm comes through, because more than anything we want the reader to be inspired to experience the wonderful world of Ghibli. We wanted to make the book as informative and thought-provoking as we could because there are so many rich themes running through Ghibli’s works and we felt they deserved exploration. We also wanted to discuss elements of Japanese culture that Western audiences may not be so familiar with. It’s a difficult balance because obviously we wanted to appeal to a broad audience but also to produce something that is a bit different.
This book is definitely a must-read for anyone who has seen a few of Studio Ghibli’s films. However, if you had to choose one Studio Ghibli film for a new-comer to start with, what would it be and why?
Gosh, that’s a hard question as we genuinely love them all. We’re currently on a mission to introduce every 4 year old in the land to My Neighbour Totoro. It’s suitable for everyone and is utterly charming without being saccharine or patronising. It captures all the key elements of Ghibli’s films – an engaging story, believable characters, imaginative creatures as well as terrific animation and a wonderfully evocative soundtrack.
How do Miyazaki and Takahata differ as directors?
Miyazaki’s animations are generally more consistent in theme and style than Takahata’s and his personal interests (flying, the environment) do seem to shine through in his stories. He has a wonderful visual style and a tremendous imagination. A lot of Miyazaki’s films derive from Western sources – Howl’s Moving Castle for example – but remain resolutely Japanese.
Takahata tends to experiment with different styles – you wouldn’t think that Grave of the Fireflies came from the same director as My Neighbours the Yamadas. Takahata’s films are more likely to be grounded in the real world – e.g. Grave of the Fireflies or Only Yesterday – which as stories need not necessarily have been animated. His outlook seems to be more Japanese, for example My Neighbours the Yamadas is chock full of cultural references from typically Japanese customs to traditional folktales.
Are there any questions left unanswered about the studio that you would both still like to find out yourselves as fans?
We’d love to know when Takahata is going to release his next film! It has been over a decade since My Neighbours the Yamadas. He is meant to be in production with Taketori Monogatari at the moment and we can’t wait to see it.
What are you own personal favourite films by the studio and why?
We both have a deep love for My Neighbour Totoro, but we also really like Kondo Yoshifumi’s Whisper of the Heart. It’s a delightful film about young people on the cusp of adulthood, discovering what they want to do with their lives and showing a determination to try for it. It’s also a burgeoning love story that captures a truly gentle side to humanity. We also have a very soft spot for Takahata’s Pom Poko, about a group of tanuki (racoons) trying to save their environment from urban development. It’s warm and funny, but has an underlying tragic tone – a lament for a past that can never be regained.
One of my small criticisms of the book was the decision to ignore the English dubs, although I can see why this was done. Could you expand on this decision please?
It was a tough decision. We were on a strict word count for the book and our original draft was twice as long as it should have been! This inevitably meant that some elements had to be cut. Because we had wanted to focus on some of the aspects of Japanese culture, we decided that we would focus on the Japanese versions and let the English language dubs speak for themselves, which we believe they do very well. Also, discussing the English versions would open us up for having to comment on other foreign language dubs. Additionally there are multiple English dubs of some Ghibli films and no dubs of some of the others, particularly the earlier pre-Ghibli material, so it all gets a bit complicated. Hopefully it might encourage fans of the English language versions to try the films in their original language.
Do you feel the films should be enjoyed by English audiences with the original audio and subtitles, or the dubs?
Personally we prefer the subtitled prints as we feel they are closer to the director’s original intentions and meaning. Yes, it takes a bit of effort to get used to reading subtitles initially, but it becomes easier with practice and it just sounds “right”. That said, the English dubs mean that a much wider audience have access to the wonderful world of Ghibli and that can’t be a bad thing. Films like, say, Ponyo and Totoro are absolutely wonderful for children and it’s not fair to expect a 5 year old to read subtitles!
You are also both film critics. What other films do you both enjoy apart from Studio Ghibli?
We watch anything and everything! We view around 500 films every year (for pleasure as well as work) and they range from high art to trash, from all over the world, any genre and from any time after 1896.
What other projects do you have planned for the future?
We have a Kamera Book about sci-fi/horror director John Carpenter coming out later this year and are working on a longer term project about Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, exploring the cult influences on the film.
Thank you for your time! I am thrilled that you have written such a wonderful book about Studio Ghibli and it has been a pleasure to speak with you both.
Thank you. And keep up the good work with Alternative Magazine Online!