The Roots of Ghibli

With Hayao Miyazaki emerging from retirement to make one more film, maybe it’s time for James Moar to take a look back towards the origins of Studio Ghibli.

Though the company was founded in 1985, its roots reach back many years earlier. Its founding directors Miyazaki and Isao Takahata both began their animation careers during the early 60s, working on film and television productions for Toei Animation. They started collaborating with Takahata’s debut as a film director, 1968’sThe Little Norse Prince.

This piece considers the four TV series which were Miyazaki and Takahata’s main output between 1974 and 1979, a period where they began to gain artistic independence and to make key developments in what would become the Ghibli style.

Heidi, Girl of the Alps

Little Norse Prince was a financial failure, but Takahata and Miyazaki continued to work together on projects for several different companies. These included a stalled attempt to adapt Pippi Longstocking, co-directing on the short-run first series of Lupin the 3rd (which would later provide the characters for Miyazaki’s first film, The Castle of Cagliostro), the two successful Panda! Go Panda! short films, and the TV series Heidi, Girl of the Alps.

Takahata directed the series, while Miyazaki provided layout and scene design throughout — as Takahata was unusual among animation directors in not drawing, Miyazaki’s role was a major one.

It aired as the 1974 series in the anthology Calpis Children’s Theatre (later renamed World Masterpiece Theatre), which had run since 1969, but changed direction here entirely. Every story before Heidi had fantasy elements, while all but two of the stories in World Masterpiece Theatre’s remaining twenty-three year run would be adaptions of Western children’s nonfantasy literature. Heidi, Girl of the Alpsis still fondly remembered — only last year, it spawned a parody version based on its chatroom messaging stamps, and it helped to drive Japanese tourism to the Alps for decades after airing. So, what about the show gave it that impact?

Heidi isn’t a story of grand incidents, and doesn’t become one in the adaption. The text is quite closely followed, but expanded with new incidents and character moments that portray the detail of day-to-day life, in particular fleshing out Heidi’s introduction to the Alps and her growing friendships there. The series succeeds in combining a sweet, gentle tone with enough lively humour and specificity of observation to prevent it from cloying. It’s notable that the Frankfurt section in the middle of the anime, which introduces the sort of character conflicts it might seem an ongoing story needs, is actually the weakest section of the show overall, and Heidi’s quiet return to the Alps afterwards is the most powerful.

Adapting Western children’s literature would become a Ghibli staple, running all the way down to Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (from the author of Pippi Longstocking) and When Marnie was There.

From the Apennines to the Andes

Miyazaki and Takahata undertook more minor work on the direct followup to Heidi, 1975’s A Dog of Flanders — which Miyazaki later described as “trash” — before they reunited in their prior roles for World Masterpiece Theatre’s 1976 series. From the Apennines to the Andes (Haha o Tazunete Sanzen Ri, lit. “3000 Leagues in Search of Mother”) was based on a short story within Edmondo de Amicis’ novel Cuore. Marco, a young Milanese boy, is parted from his mother when she goes to Argentina for work, then follows in search of her after her letters stop arriving.

Overall, this is the least of the three Takahata WMT series, largely due to the necessity of spinning out the short story’s thread of suspense to a great length. The often slow rhythm of these series reaches an extreme here, with Marco’s departure from Milan at the beginning of the short story postponed to the 15th episode of 52. But it’s full of local colour in both its settings, and surprisingly effective in sustaining its simple quest. The character design diverges somewhat from the emerging Ghibli look, with a less slick style and an odd fondness for long-chinned faces.

Perhaps it’s noteworthy what this adaptiondoesn’t do with the story. Marco’s travels through Argentina seem like an obvious canvas for boy-hero adventures. Instead, there’s a strong emphasis on the help Marco needs, and often receives, on his journey, with indifference, natural dangers and sheer isolation nearly always taking the place of overt threats. At heart, it’s a slice-of-life interpretation of the adventure genre.

Anne of Green Gables

After From the Apennines, Miyazaki did key animation on its followup, Rascal the Raccoon. He then directed Future Boy Conan (see below), before returning for what would be his and Takahata’s final World Masterpiece Theatre series, 1979’sAnne of Green Gables. It’s often regarded as the peak of WMT as a whole.

This is an extremely close adaption, very often line-for-line — in a couple of early episodes it even veers to the over-literal in talky scenes without much stage business. The voice of the book, with its highly verbal humour resting on deadpan absurdity, is retained, and allowed to override the softer tone of other WMT productions. Because the book is funny, full of incident and attentive to character, as a result the anime is too.

It’s distinguished from earlier Takahata series by its increased visual slickness, and the subtlety of its character animation, used to particularly good effect in the exchanges between Anne and Marilla. It handles character aging well, letting subtle changes add up while keeping characters recognisable.

Miyazaki did layouts on the first 15 episodes, before leaving to makeCagliostro. His exit doesn’t actually have much visible effect on the production, though there is a decrease in the use of fantasy sequences to represent Anne’s imagination.

Future Boy Conan

Future Boy Conan (1978) was Miyazaki’s first project as solo director (and would be the only TV series he directed beginning-to-end). A generation after a man-made disaster that drowned most of the world, Conan lives with his grandfather on a tiny island. The arrival of a girl called Lana from the agrarian land of High Harbour, with soldiers from a land recreating past technology in pursuit, draws Conan away from his home and into the middle of a growing war.

Conan is based on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide, but as with future Miyazaki adaptions it reworks its source quite freely. In particular, the book’s grim post-apocalyptic landscape is reconfigured as one of nature in recovery, and the anime takes a light-adventure approach similar to Cagliostro. Many of Miyazaki’s trademarks are already present here: beautiful landscapes, the power of nature, complex villains, the effects of war, and aircraft both believable and unbelievable. Nausicaä in particular is prefigured here, with Lana an early form of Nausicaä’s more messianic figure, and the ambivalent villains Monsley and Dyce close to Kushana and Kurotowa.

Despite Miyazaki’s long collaboration with Takahata, the approach to animation here is further apart from his than it would be in their Ghibli works. The character designs here are looser, and they move differently — instead of keeping to the careful realistic action of the WMT series, action scenes will burst into exaggerated movement, and the laws of physics are defied. At times this even jars a little with the genuine peril the plot says the characters are in.

The first half of the series shows a slight early weakness in developing a story of this length, in overusing capture/escape/rescue tropes to keep the plot spinning, but the variety and confidence of plotting increases as the show goes on. The moment when an occupation force is broken simply by the tsunami they’ve refused to believe is coming is a twist which prefigures both how Miyazaki will use the forces of nature in future stories, and the sidewise construction of their plots.

A few more productions would come before the founding of Studio Ghibli — Miyazaki’s Cagliostro, Sherlock Hound andNausicaä, and Takahata’s Jarinko Chie andGauche the Cellist. But with Heidi, From the Apennines, Anne and Conan, they had already developed a style and laid down a body of work that made them ready for their later successes.

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