It seems that each generation of Hollywood leading men is a response to the one that came before. Between the conflicted everyman anti-heroes of the 1970s and the six-pack touting Adonises of the superheroic present came a wave of actors ill at ease with their preternatural good looks, determined to appear slipshod at every available opportunity. Out of this crop, the quintessential masquerading movie star is surely Johnny Depp, who has been hiding himself beneath costumes, outlandish props and layers of makeup since his brooding breakthrough performance as the eponymous topiarist in Edward Scissorhands (1990).
This predilection for production design grew in concert with his box-office success: in the years following his Oscar-nominated role in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), the sight of Depp unembellished all but disappeared from screens. Inevitably, this has produced diminishing returns: as daring independent features were replaced by distended-but-lucrative blockbusters, he has increasingly given the impression of someone playing dress-up rather than actually acting, each new role bringing another implausible accent and elaborate costume festooned with knick-knacks and gewgaws. (His Tonto in The Lone Ranger  was just the latest in a long line of OTT get-ups.)
At first glance, Scott Cooper’s true crime drama Black Mass, based on a screenplay by Mark Mallouk and British playwright Jez Butterworth, suggests more of the same. As the infamous mobster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, Depp is once again recognisably unrecognisable: chill blue eyes and damaged teeth sit beneath a balding pate on a wan horror show of a face. Starting in the mid-70s and continuing over two decades, the film follows Bulger – ruthless head of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang – as he attempts to become the city’s leading crime boss. In an incredible real-life twist, he was substantially aided in this ambition by his relationship with two men: his younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), president of the Massachusetts Senate, and childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who persuaded the bureau to recruit Bulger as a major informant. Bulger, unsurprisingly, exploited this position to brutally eliminate his rivals as law enforcement officials consciously looked the other way. With his fingers clasped around Boston’s throat, it’s notable that Bulger himself doesn’t change a significant amount in the film, but instead causes a deep spiritual rot to take hold in those close to him.
Although he has always been drawn to outsiders, narcissists and grotesques, before Black Mass Depp has never played anyone quite so visually repellent. Where his recent screen visages have felt like affectations, here his appearance is in service of the character. Bulger’s ghoulish presence causes tangible discomfort in the people he meets, which the character employs to excruciating effect as a way to assert control through intimation. In one of the film’s stand-out scenes, he has a conversation with Connolly’s wife Marianne (Julianne Nicholson) that manages to be both calculatedly innocuous and completely threatening at the same time: despite his amorality and utter lack of empathy, Depp’s Bulger understands human behaviour all too well, aware that touching someone’s face can be as distressing as a brutal act of violence.
Any sprawling American film about organised crime produced today, even a richly satisfying one, finds itself at the disadvantage of standing within a long cinematic shadow. Escape comes only with some distinguishing element; in this case it is Depp’s complicated, vampiric performance – one of his strongest in years. In recent interviews, the actor has downplayed the idea that he’s doing anything different in Black Mass, but that’s not quite true: he’s palpably trying. It’s certainly a better look for him than face paint and a dead crow strapped to his head.
Published in Curzon Issue 53.
You might notice something familiar about the poster for Stephen Frears’s upcoming Lance Armstrong biopic The Program. To the left of Ben Foster’s face are the words “CHAMPION HERO LEGEND CHEAT,” and while this effectively articulates what makes the disgraced cyclist such a compelling figure, the inspiration for the tag line is instantly recognisable. Like so many other efforts from recent years, The Program arguably owes a debt to the most surprisingly influential movie poster of the past decade: Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg was likewise represented on the poster for 2010’s The Social Network as “PUNK PROPHET GENIUS BILLIONAIRE TRAITOR.”
The Social Network poster was the work of Neil Kellerhouse, the go-to graphic designer for Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher, noted for his minimalist technique and unconventional use of type. Although The Social Network didn’t invent the GOOD THING GOOD THING BAD THING tag line format – examples can be seen in the promotional materials for Abel Ferrera’s original Bad Lieutenant (“GAMBLER THIEF JUNKIE KILLER COP”) or 24 Hour Party People (“GENIUS POET TWAT”) – Kellerhouse’s striking design rippled throughout the increasingly homogeneous world of movie posters. It is a world, incidentally, where the disembodied heads of movie stars float menacingly over landscapes for no particular reason.
This journey from marvel to bore in less than half a decade demonstrates that movie posters are ultimately little different from the features they’re trying so very hard to promote: someone comes up with an original, well-executed idea, others attempt to replicate the formula with diminishing returns, someone else decides to reject the idea in favour of trying something new, and we start all over again. As depressing patterns of behaviour go, it’s strangely encouraging.
World leaders have been exploding a lot lately. In December North Korea brought Sony Pictures to its knees over their planned release of The Interview, a film that notoriously ends with Kim Jong-un’s head detonating when hit by a tank shell. Kingsman: The Secret Service concludes in similar fashion, but on this occasion the exploding head belongs not to a brutal dictator but the world’s most famous liberal politician. The scene, which takes place during a lavish montage of expiring dignitaries, acts as a grisly exclamation point at the end of one of the most sustained acts of right-wing film-making since its jingoistic 1980s action heyday.
Kingsman is the fifth feature-length effort from producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn, whose filmography also includes Layer Cake, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and a 2008 short film used as a party political broadcast for the Conservatives. Adapted from Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons’ comic book series The Secret Service – although given its prevailing interests it could have conceivably been based on a couple of old copies of FHM found in the woods – the film follows the talented but unvarnished youth Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as he vies to join the titular covert organisation, while being mentored by the agency’s top spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth).
Despite stealing much of its plot wholesale from Men in Black, Kingsman is a James Bond pastiche in its bones, teeming with quips, easily dispatched henchmen and umbrella-derived weaponry. Most crucial to completing the 007 look is a megalomanic villain, who takes the form here of Samuel L Jackson’s Richmond Valentine. A genius tech entrepreneur with a fondness for McDonald’s and limbless sidekicks, Valentine plans to use malevolent SIM cards to force most of the world’s population to violently kill each other, leaving only a select few to inhabit the Earth. The problem with this, other than it being ridiculous and making absolutely no sense, is his motivation. Rather than pursuing money, power, or any other capitalist goal traditionally desired by supervillains, his monstrous strategy is an attempt to halt global warming.
That last point demands to be repeated: the world-threatening villain of Kingsman is a climate change activist.
In the film’s most mortifying attempt at being self-referential, Hart and Valentine have a tense dinner together, with Hart expressing his distaste for modern Bond films, declaring: “Give me a far-fetched theatrical plot any day.” The depiction of Valentine’s plan as a throwback to a less serious era of spy movies is revealed as a feint, with the ulterior motive of undermining environmentalists: not only is the character amoral and dispassionate, but his methods are buffoonish, the doomed-to-fail scheme of a lisping, squeamish eccentric.
Everything about Kingsman exists to disguise the fact that it is solidly conservative – even the theme song is by Take That, presumably recorded as part of some elaborate tax-avoidance scheme. If the film is a throwback, then it’s a throwback in the worst manner: not a carefree romp, but James Bond shooing away a female masseuse with a smack on the bottom, telling her it’s time for “man talk”. It is an unpleasant, carelessly violent cartoon, in thrall to the establishment and utterly contemptuous of women and the working class.
The extent of Kingsman’s troubling moral viewpoint is matched only by the determination of reviewers to overlook it. “Just try not to think too much,” suggests Time Out. This curiously disengaged sentiment runs throughout a surprising number of the film’s overwhelmingly positive reviews. Call it the Blurred Lines defence, where the unsavoury message of a work of popular entertainment doesn’t matter so long as it’s catchy. And in filmic terms, Kingsman is catchy: the action is well staged and attractively shot, Firth is an engaging presence as ever, and the whole thing thrums along at a steady clip. Vaughn is an undeniably talented director, but he is also a deeply reactionary one, a fact mostly ignored in light of his enjoyable, seemingly flippant output.
Is it meaningful that Kingsman’s genocidal villain is an environmentalist, or that it features a leering, lengthy scene involving the brutal massacre of dozens of innocent people, or another scene in which Taron Egerton’s hero will rescue an imprisoned woman he doesn’t know only if she agrees to kiss him, or that most of the working-class people it depicts are violent layabouts, or that it ends by killing the most notable left-wing political figure in modern history, who is shown earlier to support the antagonist’s plan to decimate the Earth’s population? Yes. These things are very meaningful: just because a film acts as if it doesn’t take itself seriously isn’t an indication that this is the case. Kingsman is the cinematic equivalent of Nigel Farage, hiding its unpalatable political convictions beneath a studied affectation of cheerful irreverence. It may as well be holding a pint, in tweeds, grinning with just its mouth.
One of the most significant milestones in recent cinema history occurred in a film you’re probably still trying to forget. Towards the end of The Matrix Reloaded, the Wachowski’s infelicitous follow-up to their 1999 original, waistcoat aficionado and coloured pill dispenser Morpheus has a sword fight on top of a speeding lorry. Like most of the brawls in the film there’s little reason for its existence beyond it looking cool, but it’s tempting to imagine that producer Joel Silver had the superfluous scene in mind when he infamously boasted, “We’ve raised the bar so high, there is no bar.”
Just because something has been said in some mad fit of coked-up hyperbole doesn’t mean that it can’t also be true. The Matrix sequels mark the precise spot where the barrier of technology for live-action cinema was finally and irreversibly removed. Once it was possible to stage convincing sword fights on the roofs of heavy goods vehicles there were no limits to what could be depicted on-screen. Silver was right: the bar had been raised so high that it no longer existed. Providing that they had a large enough budget, film-makers were able to make whatever they wanted.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
The concept of the modern blockbuster was born in 1975 when a film starring a malfunctioning shark and an insufficiently large boat became the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. In the nearly four decades that have passed since Jaws’ unprecedented box-office achievements (swiftly dwarfed by Star Wars two years later), blockbuster movies have become the “tent poles” around which major film studios construct their production schedules.
While an increasing emphasis on spectacle was inevitable – Jaws, after all, doesn’t even fully show its selachian villain until 81 minutes into the film – over the past fifteen years this has gone hand in hand with a systemic bloating of both content and running times. Where the average length of the top 10 highest grossing films of the 1990s was 132 minutes, the average for the 2000s was 154 minutes. A sea change has taken place: to get a project green-lit with the sort of budget demanded of a big summer blockbuster the film must now boast a running time that would have once required an intermission. Lean, efficient blockbusters like Men in Black (98 minutes) and the first X-Men(104 minutes) are almost unimaginable today.
The rapturous critical and commercial success of Titanic in 1997 can shoulder a little of the blame for blockbuster film-making’s descent into exorbitance, but the real catalyst was The Lord of the Rings. Formula-repeating, money-vacuuming sequels have always been a predilection for studios, but after Peter Jackson’s three-film opus grossed nearly $4 billion worldwide a movement towards monster-sized trilogies began.
Without rich source material like J.R.R. Tolkien’s twelve hundred pages of Middle Earth follies to draw upon, however, the power of satisfying one-offs like Pirates of the Caribbean were diluted by overlong sequels and bogged down by convoluted plotting and endless action sequences. Jackson himself fell prey to the temptation to expand unnecessarily when his adaptation of the 310-page children’s book The Hobbit unfathomably bloated into three enormous films in an attempt to emulate his earlier accomplishments.
As the films have become bigger, the possible forms they can take have narrowed. A blockbuster that can’t potentially birth a franchise has little value, irrespective of its other qualities. Not only is any picture with a budget over $200 million expected to be an epic in length, such films are now also required to anticipate at least two potential sequels, regardless of whether the story (inevitably pulpy and genre-based) can support this or not. While it’s understandable that a well-received and financially successful film might spawn a follow-up, the amount of effort many blockbusters put into world-building makes them feel like feature-length advertisements for their own sequels rather than distinctive pieces of popular entertainment in their own right.
This trend seems likely to burgeon further still as the major film studios – emboldened by the enviable profitability of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – look for ways to tie properties together in a similarly gargantuan, synergy-promoting manner. Even though there has been an undeniable pleasure in watching Marvel Studios skilfully weave the warp and weft of its epic superhero tapestry over multiple franchises, their use of intensive serialisation and rigid commitment to an enjoyable-yet-cautious house style (this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy proving a joyful exception to the rule) makes it very difficult for their films to be genuinely surprising. Creating nine motion pictures that are mostly good-to-excellent is commendable, but their consistency can’t disguise the creeping sensation of exhaustion.
The tendency to engorge blockbuster films beyond their natural size has only been exacerbated by the strides made in CGI over the past twenty years. Once genuinely astounding, sequences like the battle that opened The Fellowship of the Ring are now commonplace. A few of the Harry Potterfilms aside, it’s difficult to think of a major blockbuster from this millennium that hasn’t featured either a gigantic battle or a city being destroyed, often at the same time. Such sequences provide diminishing returns as the sight of computer generated figures waging war against each other rapidly loses its attraction. In trying to top each other with their bombast and magnitude, such films become less distinctive, their impact dulled by visual noisiness. Accordingly, the third acts of many modern blockbusters are largely interchangeable: does it really matter if the CG buildings are being destroyed by Superman or some Transformers; by a crashing starship or one of a dozen Marvel superheroes?
The troubled state of contemporary blockbusters doesn’t deprive them of value. There remains a number of incredibly talented film-makers who manage to create interesting work despite being unable to entirely break free from dominant conventions. Until its skirmish-heavy, building-destroying conclusion, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is bleak, thoughtful, intelligent and gripping, while Godzilla director Gareth Edwards’ lengthy withholding of the eponymous reptile’s first appearance overtly channels the work of Steven Spielberg.
Even 2012’s Avengers Assemble is a good example of a contemporary blockbuster that works despite being a colossal mess. Regardless of that film’s many positives, however, it could have undoubtedly been improved by a tighter narrative and less generic action. It’s not insignificant that the most memorable moments take place in the comic interactions between characters rather than any individual set pieces. An interesting thought experiment: aside from Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, what do the other enemies in Avengers Assemble look like? Would you be able to draw one from memory? What actually happens in any of the action scenes, beyond people flying or hitting each other?
Confronted by widespread piracy, the terminal decline of physical media sales and attendant rise of streaming options, ever more sophisticated home entertainment systems and a booming era of television, the appeal of supersized blockbusters for film studios is obvious. Keen to discourage the growing allure of home viewing, studios focus their efforts on producing films best experienced in a cinema, ideally by purchasing a more expensive 3D or IMAX cinema ticket. This means that the major film studios are making fewer films and the ones they are making are aimed at as broad of an audience as possible.
The problem with this strategy is that as the studios spend hundreds of millions of dollars making and marketing a handful of films, the risk increases exponentially: Disney’s underwhelming John Carter had a budget so gigantic that it had to become one of the highest grossing films of all time in order to make its money back. When a film has to earn over a billion dollars to avoid being considered a flop then something in the industry has gone wrong. This level of risk incites predictable caution, leading to the exclusion of original screenplays in favour of a near-talismanic dependence on pre-existing properties with any semblance of audience recognition, from sequels to reboots to the adaptations of board games.
The propensity for studios to place all of their financial eggs into a couple of cinematic baskets each year also has ramifications across all of film-making, as the diverse range of mid-priced pictures that studios used to make now struggle to secure funding. If such films are made at all they’re often stuffed into a vicious few months at the end of the year, doomed to be ignored and forgotten if they don’t pick up immediate Oscar buzz.
For all the damage that this endemic bloating has had on the film industry, it’s the blockbusters themselves that have suffered the most. It takes the viewing of another of Spielberg’s superlative blockbusters to see how things have gone awry, and to contemplate a possible road back.
Re-watching Jurassic Park twenty-one years later, a dozen of them filled with increasingly distended blockbusters, what’s most striking is how elegantly constructed and efficient the film’s narrative is. It’s easy to imagine that if the film had been made today it would be a shapeless, three-hour-long muddle, lousy with subplots and gratuitous destruction. Instead, Jurassic Park spends its first half patiently establishing its world and characters before the park’s security system shuts down and hell breaks loose. Even after that cataclysmic event, David Koepp’s screenplay takes efforts to space out the action scenes, interspersing them with moments of character development and reflection.
By exercising restraint, Jurassic Park avoids the sort of fatigue that besets anyone trying to make their way through a Pirates of the Caribbean or Transformers film more than once. Aside from an unfortunate outdoor toilet no buildings are destroyed, there are no indistinct crowds, and each scene features only a handful of characters who spend much of the film in immediate danger. Populating its story with easily-injured humans rather than superheroes, Jurassic Park provides actual stakes: the world isn’t at risk, but the protagonists are.
Almost every aspect of Spielberg’s film seems to now stand as a rebuke to prevailing trends in blockbuster film-making. Despite being commonly seen as a turning point in the development of CGI, only 80 shots in Jurassic Park actually employ computer-generated effects – by contrast,Avengers Assemble features over 2,200 visual effects shots. In using the technology so sparingly, relying on animatronics, long shots and sequences set at night, the film’s effects hold up remarkably well. Even if technical limitations played a part in deciding how its threats were depicted, the austere usage of CGI enhances the audience’s sense of both wonder and fear: a single Tyrannosaurus Rex is scarier than hundreds of them.
Like its dinosaurs, each of Jurassic Park’s action sequences are memorable and distinct: the night-time T-Rex attack, the race to turn the security system back on, climbing the fence, the raptors in the kitchen. Excluding Hitchcock there has probably never been a director more gifted at staging set pieces than Steven Spielberg, and their impact throughout Jurassic Park serves as a reminder of how much more effective a blockbuster can be when it isn’t just lurching from one giant fight to the next.
After twenty-one years of unrelenting technological advances Jurassic Park has inevitably lost some of its capacity to astonish, but regardless of how far CGI develops the film will remain a fulfilling undertaking because it’s a good story, well told. Disappointing sequels were to follow but the film itself is completely self-contained: the heroes escape, the dinosaurs commandeer the island, and that’s it. There is no need for a post-credits tag.
The impetus for film studios to make blockbusters is – and has always been – to make a lot of money, but that doesn’t mean there can’t also be something beautiful about the idea of populist entertainment. Are there many cinematic enterprises more enjoyable than rounding up a group of friends to see an eagerly anticipated blockbuster, or cramming onto a sofa with your family at Christmas to watch that same film, out of your gourd on Quality Street? There’s a reason why blockbusters are often the first films people fall in love with. At their best, they provide a communal experience that combines spectacle with a satisfying narrative. As the spectacle overtakes the narrative, that unique joy is in danger of being lost.
A pig is strolling along a beach in Tynemouth, thinking about the dead. Still weary after his lengthy flight from Japan, he decides to rest on a nearby bench for a moment. It’s here that he’s accosted by the ghost of the late author Robert Westall, who has taken the guise of a terrier. The pair discuss literature, aeroplanes and World War II, and before they go their separate ways they head to a nearby pub for a drink; they’re in Newcastle, after all.
The visitor’s name is Hayao Miyazaki, and when he not assuming porcine form he’s considered Japan’s greatest living filmmaker, beloved for co-founding Studio Ghibli as well as writing and directing many of its finest pictures, from My Neighbour Totoro to Spirited Away. For most, turning into a pig would be noteworthy, but Miyazaki has made a career out of extraordinary acts of transmogrification: in Ponyo, the eponymous goldfish starts to become human after eating an errant piece of ham, while the fighter pilot protagonist of Porco Rosso is changed into “The Crimson Pig” by a curse, and the Boar God Okkoto-Nushi in Princess Mononoke becomes a demon after a corrupting gunshot wound.
Miyazaki’s encounter with Westall takes place in his short manga, A Trip to Tynemouth. It is one of many such efforts in which the animator appears in his printed comics – known as manga, as opposed to the animated medium, anime – as a moustachioed swine with bottlecap spectacles, reflecting upon the influences and obsessions that have shaped his work.
Like an aging prizefighter, Miyazaki has had a tendency to erroneously retire from his chosen profession. Indefatigably hard working – he has typically drawn or redrawn by hand thousands of frames on each of his films – his assorted retirements have usually been greeted with a reasonable degree of scepticism. Recently, however, he announced that the forthcoming historical epic, The Wind Rises, would be his last film. At the age of 73 it’s probably wise to finally take him at his word. As his cinematic career draws to a close, then, it is worth contemplating, as Miyazaki himself often has through manga, not just his body of work, but how he became the filmmaker that created it.
With Studio Ghibli’s output widely admired and the tree-growing narcoleptic Totoro a burgeoning global icon, it can be easy to forget that the company’s cultural eminence is a relatively new development: not only did Miyazaki not form Studio Ghibli until 22 years into his professional life, but several years passed subsequently before any of the studio’s films were actually seen in the west, outside of the illicit, battered videotapes that circulated amongst communities of anime enthusiasts. Even today, when Studio Ghibli’s films are dubbed by Hollywood actors and aggressively distributed internationally by Disney, being a western admirer of Miyazaki means that one is still exposed only to a small segment of his work: his superlative Studio Ghibli films represent merely the part of the iceberg that we’re able to see.
What’s missing from our understanding is the underberg, comprising Miyazaki’s mangas and early television serials that have largely evaded English-language release. Momentarily putting aside their own merits as ragged, vibrant works of art in themselves, it is possible to trace the beginnings of ideas, motifs and characters that found fuller expression in his films. A panel in a 1969 manga anticipates an identical image that occurs a decade later in his theatrical debut, while a story Miyazaki struggled with in 1980 about a boy-turned-giant-mountain-lion was reconfigured into the very different historical fantasy Princess Mononoke seventeen years later.
It shouldn’t be expected that mangas like Air Meal (a comic rumination on the history of in-flight food) or For My Sister (a graphic poem about a boy taking his terminally ill twin sister on a flight around the world) will provide a Rosetta Stone to fully understanding Miyazaki any more than his cinematic efforts do. Like any complicated, prolific artist, his artistic identity is multi-faceted; a fact illustrated by the Japanese critical reaction to The Wind Rises. An embellished biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, chief engineer of the notorious A6M “Zero” fighters in World War II, Miyazaki was criticised by both the country’s left and right for his nuanced and contradictory portrayal of his protagonist as a brilliant, sensitive man whose exceptional talents nevertheless contributed to widespread destruction.
Miyazaki’s non-film work rebuffs reductive suppositions. Instead, it shows how despite his enduring interest in supernatural elements, Japanese folk tales and British children’s literature, everything he creates is deeply personal, regardless of scale or content. Daydream Data Notes, for instance, is a collection of illustrated essays on pre-WWII military vehicles contributed to the hobby magazine, Model Graphix. Miyazaki had grown up during World War II, when his father’s manufacturing company was producing rudders for Japanese fighter planes. The essays demonstrate how his childhood obsession with sketching such vehicles developed into the persistent reoccurrence of similar aircraft throughout his films. A thoughtful pacifist, his early passion for aircraft was counteracted by witnessing their devastating potential during the firebombing of Utsunomiya. From this perspective, the tension in his films between wonder and horror at what technology can do becomes more comprehensible.
The unique and specific combination of Miyazaki’s creative obsessions and personal history conspire to render his progressive values – feminism, environmentalism, pacifism – in ways that are visually exciting, original and moving. Miyazaki’s storytelling instincts, honed by the thousands upon thousands of images he has personally drawn in his lifetime, have always tended towards depicting complex ideas through vivid imagery – hence his early discovery that supernatural metamorphosis was an elegant way to portray on the outside what’s happening on the inside. While his narrative reliance on forms of transmutation can be partially attributed to its place within Japanese literary tradition, the process exists as a useful visual metaphor for man’s ruinous treatment of the environment, a theme he has been exploring for decades.
For all of the marauding demons, wood spirits and dust creatures that find their way into Miyazaki’s films, the key to their lasting appeal is the humanism imbued in them by their creator. Where most of America’s animated feature films, for example, are created in industrial parks in Southern California, Miyazaki has maintained a genuine connection with nature, spending much of his time in a remote mountain cabin. His emphasis on the importance of the natural world stands in stark contrast even to Pixar at their peak—a company whose films, perhaps by virtue of their use of computer animation as much as their environment can’t help but be relentlessly modern, even as they eschew the lazy pop culture references of their peers. While Studio Ghibli have also incorporated the use of computer animation into their filmmaking, their work is still mostly produced using traditional cel animation. Even if the paint is digital, their features are still largely drawn by artists, one image at a time. This increasingly anachronistic approach finds an affinity with the films themselves, which allow for moments of stillness and beauty largely absent from comparable animated films emerging from other studios.
Studio Ghibli’s reputation has been built almost entirely on the creative brilliance of two men: Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – the studio’s other co-founder and director of Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko and Only Yesterday. While the studio has released appealing films from other directors, increasingly so as Miyazaki and Takahata have slowed their work-rate, their imminent departure can’t fail to have an effect on its fortunes. Based on the principles instilled by Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli will doubtlessly endure, and continue to produce excellent work. Even so, the unavoidable fact remains that a significant era in the history of animation is ending.
In searching for an appropriate way to consider Miyazaki’s departure, it is perhaps best to look to the man himself. As a developing artist, he made a conscious decision to eschew the influence of seminal manga artist Osamu Tezuka in favour of developing his own style. Writing in his memoir Starting Point, he recalls: “When I was finally forced to admit that my drawings actually did look like Tezuka’s, I took out the sketches I had stored in the drawer of our dresser and burned them all. I burned them and resolved to start over from scratch.”
Miyazaki would inevitably be the first to argue that his retirement should herald the arrival of something new, rather than inspiring pale imitations of his own work. His career breakthrough came when he and Isao Takahata co-directed fourteen episodes of a popular television series about the master thief and scoundrel Lupin III. But after achieving enormous success with Lupin III on film and television, Miyazaki decided to leave him behind to pursue fresh ground. In his memoir, he bids farewell to the character, whose time had come: “I often think of Lupin fondly, for he was hungry in those days; he was a bit lecherous, fastidious, scattered, and headstrong, and he was crazy about mini-car races.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty