Entertainment giant pales against Japanese feminist father and son.

By Tasman Richardson

Sitting in the dimly lit silence of the theater, I saw every age, every nationality, and every one of them was teaming with anticipation. It was the kind of mix bag you might expect on a morning commute, but this wasn’t a mainstream cinema. The Bell TIFF Lightbox were premiering the latest creation of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli. By now, most animation fans will be familiar with the studio that produced the academy award winning Spirited Away.  If you haven’t heard of them here’s their timeline in a nutshell:

Co-founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki the studio has been releasing hit after hit in the Japanese market. Hits that are so popular that they’ve spilled over into the western market. During this critical time, western distributors recommended editing the films to give them more mass appeal. The response came in the form of a couriered package containing an actual samurai sword and the simple note “no cuts”.

Aside from the more traditional hand drawn approach to animation, Ghibli has maintained the same formula for its heroines from day one. Long before Disney caught on, Ghibli were crafting progressive female leads confronted by painful, but valuable lessons. Their films may leave you feeling good but they’re not exactly “feel good” movies in the Disney sense. Unlike the Disney princess model, Miyazaki’s heroines don’t charm their way out of trouble with flowing hair, winning smiles, and catchy dance numbers. Villains don’t always get their due and happy endings are never guaranteed (I dare you to watch Grave of the Fireflies without shedding tear).

On the flip side, Disney has steadily sought to innovate new ways to appease audiences. The jokes are targeted at parents more than kids in the hopes of keeping them engaged.  Drawing characters has been replaced for the most part by cutting edge computer generated graphics, and 3D is the new standard for Disney cinema releases.  All this novelty is well, novel, but smacks of a desperation that comes from trying to please all of the people, all of the time. The result is, predictable while at the same time, lacking in any feeling of craft or tradition. If you’re not feeling it, talk to me in 10 years when Cars 7 is rolling out. Having exhausted every kind of talking animal, Disney seems willing to throw a mouth on just about anything.

All this newness aside, it’s worth noting that Walt Disney’s core inspiration and much of the studios best known films are retellings of age old fairy tales. Timeless stories which are predominantly public domain aka free of charge and belonging to everyone although you’d never guess it looking at their iron clad copyrights.

The passing of Walt Disney effected a profound change in the company so it follows that one day, the passing of Hayao Miyazaki will have the same impact. Except that Hayao’s son Goro Miyazaki has been studying with his father this whole time! His directorial debut was a beautifully told story which captures in every way, the feeling of Ghibli’s roots. This passing of the torch from father to son has managed to maintain a consistent brand delivering an uncompromising product for another 30 years.

Disagree? Have a favorite heroine from either of these animation giants? Root for your favourites in the comments section below or ‘splain why I’m wrong. Thanks for reading!

Further reading:

Great Geek Debates: Disney Princesses vs. Hayao Miyazaki

What Disney Could Learn From Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli: Leave the boys behind

No cuts