Blog: Video Games and the Studio Ghibli Shakeout

Blog: Video Games and the Studio Ghibli Shakeout

The legendary animation studio reorganizes in the wake of its leader's retirement.

Studio Ghibli announced yesterday that it will be undertaking a massive reorganization, a change that includes the shuttering of the company's internal production department. While the legendary anime studio won't be going out of business, the high-quality animation for which it's known and loved will no longer be produced in-house.

The news stunned many, though it hardly came as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The company's head and lead animator, Hayao Miyazaki, announced his retirement last year. Since putting the wraps on his directorial swan song, The Wind Rises, he seems thoroughly committed to the idea of hanging up his hat.

Miyazaki has seemed decidedly fatalistic about the studio's prospects in his absence — in a widely circulated interview GIF set that's been making the Internet rounds over the past few weeks, he rather bluntly states Ghibli is "going to fall apart," and it's not hard to see why. Historically, film enthusiasts have loved Miyazaki's projects while viewing other Ghibli productions as decent but rarely great. You have to look back to the '90s to find highly regarded non-Miyazaki Ghibli movies, such as Whisper of the Heart and Pom Poko. In a sense, the studio's collapse seems inevitable in the vacuum left by Miyazaki's departure.

The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki's swan song.

Yesterday's news wasn't entirely doom-and-gloom, though. Ghibli won't be shutting down or necessarily even exiting the film production business, at least not yet. The company's plan to outsource animation will simply put the studio's processes more in line with industry standards. Animation outsourcing has been a widespread practice for decades, and by most accounts Ghibli's refusal to follow suit mostly had to do with Miyazaki's tendency toward micromanagement; he had a legendary habit of personally drawing and redrawing frames and sequences of animation to suit his high standards for the company's output.

Without Miyazaki at the helm, Ghibli needs to regroup. His unique combination of visual genius and get-off-my-lawn crotchetiness (Spirited Away is basically an extended treatise on the selfishness of the generations that came after him) gave the studio its distinctive personality, simultaneous full of wide-eyed wonder and surly dourness. At its best, it led to films like The Wind Rises, which rhapsodized the creative process behind the development of the Zero assault fighter that became Japan's trademark in World War II without losing sight of the fact that this genius engineering project existed for the sole purpose of killing. The movie went on to become Japan's top grossing theatrical release for 2013, but there's no escaping the doubt over the future that hangs over the company now that its visionary has left the building.

It's not as though the Ghibli name can work miracles on reputation alone. Gamers can attest to this fact through last year's Ni no Kuni, the grand, sweeping Level-5 role-playing game for which Ghibli provided animation and visual designs. The game looks great, but sales were generally mediocre at best; the DS version, exclusive to Japan, continues to clog clearance racks years after its release. It's something of a black eye for the studio: After avoiding video games altogether for decades (allegedly due to Miyazaki's resentment over an '80s PC game based on Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind that completely missed the movie's point), their first real foray into the medium turned out to be an artistic success and a commercial dud.

Game fans may also recognize that Ghibli has much in common with one of the medium's most significant publishers: Nintendo. Like Ghibli, Nintendo insists on doing things its own way, even when their approach becomes unfashionable. And as with Ghibli, Nintendo's most impressive creations have been the brainchildren of an idiosyncratic, larger-than-life personality, Shigeru Miyamoto. While Miyamoto isn't nearly as much of a keystone for Nintendo as Miyazaki was for Ghibli, it's difficult not to look at the latter and not see the parallels.

Pom Poko, a Ghibli film about tanuki, and Tanooki Mario. Coincidence?

In doing so, you also have to wonder how things will shake out at Nintendo once Miyamoto and his legendary peers from the 8-bit days — folks like Takashi Tezuka and Koji Kondo — hit retirement age. As these men are in their 50s and 60s now, that day isn't too far away. And the mere prospect of Miyamoto retiring has proven sufficient of sending Nintendo stock prices spiraling into a deep well of depression. Add to that the recent rumors — seemingly spurious, but nevertheless resounding with the ring of truth — that Nintendo executives and investors are dissatisfied with the company's current direction to the point of rebellion and you can easily envision the company experiencing a similar shakeout as personnel changes in the coming years.

Nintendo's likely saving grace? Unlike Miyazaki, who responded to suggestions that he empower his underlings to imitate his approach with dismissal, Miyomoto has spoken frequently about the "new blood" at Nintendo and his veteran peer group's efforts to pinpoint new talent to keep the company going strong even after the people who created Mario have settled down to enjoy their retirement. These efforts have already yielded excellent results, with the likes of Yoshiaki Koizumi and Koichi Hayashida heading up excellent Mario sequels that gleefully embody the franchise's spirit of invention and effortless fun. Still, as Nintendo struggles to convince the world of the Wii U's worth, the prospect of the company someday taking a page from Ghibli's book and regrouping to cut loose a distinctive portion of their business — say, hardware, for example — doesn't seem entirely impossible.

It's not just Nintendo, though. Ghibli's internal overhaul is emblematic of media production at large, especially video games. The old way of doing things, of hiring talented people and owning the creative process from top to bottom, makes little sense these days. Miyazaki's retirement marked the end of an era, and the changes at his former studio simply put punctuation on it. It puts me in mind of gaming, already a more volatile business than film. The medium's longstanding institutions have already begun to fade away as key personnel retire and the fixtures and processes of the past cease to make sense, and as Ghibli's troubles demonstrate, sometimes that's just the way it goes.

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