Ghibli Goes Digital

We celebrate the explosion in Studio Ghibli activity on Letterboxd with Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham from the Ghibliotheque podcast.

Listen to David Jenkins (Little White Lies), Tasha Robinson (Polygon) and Adam Kempenaar (Filmspotting) nominate their most magical Studio Ghibli moments in this episode of The Letterboxd Show.

For all the ways that the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered the film industry, one coincidence that’s worked out extremely well for Studio Ghibli fans old and new is the roll-out of 21 of the famed studio’s films on streaming services.

It started in February for Netflix subscribers outside Japan and North America. Then in late May, HBO Max launched in the US with the Ghibli films as part of its offering. Finally, Canada got its turn with twenty titles available on Netflix right now, and The Wind Rises coming on August 1. For film lovers sheltering in place, the timing is as soothing as a nap on a Totoro’s belly; as wondrous as a Takahata sunset.

株式会社スタジオジブリ (Studio Ghibli) was founded in 1985 by directors Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki, and producer Toshio Suzuki, upon the success of Miyazaki-san’s 1984 feature, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Huge acclaim, an Academy Award, and growing fandom followed, but the studio has long shied away from making its catalog available for digital consumption, preferring the films to occupy a larger canvas.

And then, all of a sudden, Suzuki-san announced the digital streaming plan—starting with the whole catalog being made available to own (via download) last December. “We’ve listened to our fans,” Suzuki-san said at the time. “In this day and age, there are various great ways a film can reach audiences.” This turn of events has been a very big deal—both for long-time fans and Ghibli newbies—and we’ve run the numbers to prove it:

The above chart shows the daily number of entries logged on Letterboxd for each of the Ghibli films, and clearly depicts the February, March, April and late May spikes as groups of titles were released to the two aforementioned streaming platforms (and mini spikes coinciding with weekend watches).

The Ghibli films included in the streaming deals stretch over four decades of the studio’s output, and include big-hitters like the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Howl’s Moving Castle and the whole-family favorite My Neighbor Totoro. All of those films appear in the Official Letterboxd Top 250; Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service also made it onto a list of Letterboxd members’ top twenty favorite comfort films in a recent survey.

To get a sense of what this all means, we went to Letterboxd members Jake Cunningham and Michael Leader, hosts of Ghibliotheque, a podcast dedicated to the studio’s filmography, about the Netflix deal (“none of us could quite believe it when it happened”) and the clues Ghibli films offer us for how to have adventures inside our own homes.

Earlier in the pandemic, when we were all figuring out how to stay home, you hosted a joyous My Neighbor Totoro watch-along. What is it about the fuzzy, mythical creatures that feels so helpful right now?
Michael Leader: In some ways, the world’s mum is in hospital right now. We’re all working from home. There’s the bit halfway through the film where the dad is trying to get on with his work in the study, and [his daughter] Mei is coming up and putting little flowers on his desk. That’s what everyone is doing right now, is trying to get on with their work whilst their kids are milling about, full of imagination and adventures.

With Totoro, I go back to a guest we had on the show, Helen McCarthy, who wrote the book about Miyazaki. And she described Totoro as something like “kindness and acceptance made furry”, and that’s really what it is. The idea of this creature being there for you, coming out of the surroundings that you live in, allowing you to not only come into a new space that you’re maybe scared of going into, but also dealing with tricky situations that you’re in.

You’re both deeply embedded in the London film scene, but the dynamic of your Ghibliotheque podcast is that Michael is the long-time Ghibliophile, while Jake is the novice. How did that come about?
Jake Cunningham: Michael and I actually work together, and it came up that I hadn’t seen any of the films and then it happened to come up that Michael was one of the UK experts of these films and was having a go at me for never having watched any. This was the perfect opportunity to work on something with each other, and my ignorance has finally paid off, because all I need to do is watch the film and then I get this amazing history lesson.

Jake Cunningham with his Only Yesterday poster, and with Michael Leader at the Ghibli Museum.
Jake Cunningham with his Only Yesterday poster, and with Michael Leader at the Ghibli Museum.

ML: It was really fun for me, because by that point—this is nearly two years ago now—I’d been writing about Ghibli on and off for almost a decade. There aren’t really many outlets to write about anime, Ghibli and animation in particular, in the monthly film magazines. Jake is the novice we can take through the library and invite people to join us on that journey. We have listeners who are so engaged, sending us comments every week. They had no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.

That’s something that was personally for me quite important about the show. We want to show that this is one of the few studios that has ten five-star films. They had this amazing streak from the late 80s through the 2000s, just innovating on every film at the highest level, with multiple voices working in their own different worlds. We’ve really managed to show this whole world and invite people into it.

What did you make of the Netlix flex, and the subsequent explosion in Letterboxd activity around Ghibli films?
JC: The graph is amazing! I was expecting a boost but not so big. They must be very happy with how well the deal has done for them. I think it’s a good place for Ghibli for sure. I want so many other people to be in the position that I was in two years ago. It is a whole world of pleasure to delve into for audiences.

I did think it was so funny that they spent fifteen years going “We’re never going to be streaming, this is never going to happen, stop asking us”, and then out of nowhere the announcement that they’re going to be online in two weeks! I think none of us could quite believe it when it happened, but what it’s meant is people are going back to the start of the podcast and listening along, because they can finally watch the films that they hadn’t seen before.

And it’s so exciting that people might watch Totoro, or Spirited Away, or Howl’s Moving Castle, these bigger tentpole releases, and that’s going to change their algorithm and they’re going to get presented with Isao Takahata’s My Neighbors the Yamadas or Tomomi Mochizuki’s Ocean Waves. The under-appreciated Ghiblis are suddenly going to get dragged out again.

ML: I’m really excited about it. It’s an interesting thing: it shines a light on what I think is more of a fandom problem, where something becomes rarified or scarce or special to a certain subculture, and that becomes part of its appeal. Sort of ‘Oh, Miyazaki doesn’t believe in streaming, he will never sell out’, and going on about how Netflix somehow cheapens it—but really they are completely accessible films that should be available in a mass market.

Also, and this is something we wanted to tease out in the podcast, they are business savvy. They’re not crazy geniuses who live in wooden shacks in the middle of nowhere. They’re a real company that needs to keep the lights on. There are so many ways to speculate on what this deal means. I think on the one hand they were happy because in the Japanese market they sell enough merchandise, they have a real home entertainment churn going, that they never really needed to do an international release.

There’s a really good book just out by Steve Alpert, who was their first international division lead. He was hired in the 90s to sort out their penetration into western Europe and America. Before the 90s, there were a couple of home entertainment releases and small theatrical runs, but they suddenly saw the business benefits in going global. In some ways I’m very happy for it because it’s a business deal that makes these films more available. They’ll always be special because they’re great films.

JC: The films streaming is extremely exciting, but something that’s gone under the radar a bit is that all of the music is now on Spotify. There are some of Ghibli’s shorts that you can only watch in the museum in Japan, but the scores for those films are now on Spotify, and everything is there. After having the melodies of some of these stuck in my head for months and months, you can finally actually go and deal with the earworm once and for all.

Is it possible for you to sum up for us the thematic essence of Ghibli films, and make a case for why Letterboxd members should introduce their children to the catalog? For me, in the context of the pandemic, it’s the corn on the window-sill in My Neighbor Totoro: the idea of presence despite distance; connection through gesture; the significance of nature.
JC: It’s a lot to do with leaving things in an ambiguous space. Having kids watch things where there’s not a binary answer to everything. The studio moved away from the earlier films where a villain is a villain. In Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, it’s less clear what a ‘bad person’ is and what a ‘good person’ is. I think it’s important that kids are gonna see that. Even with something like Kiki’s Delivery Service, on the surface it’s one of their simpler films. Kiki goes on an amazing journey and she meets amazing people, and at the end, she learns about who she is and what she can do. I think in a Western kids’ film that would be the end note. But there’s that note at the end of the film where she says that she still feels sad, and she still feels homesick, but that’s okay and that’s part of being alive.

ML: I think Miyazaki’s real magic touch across his films is that he’s able to really look at the world through children’s eyes. I’m not the first person to say that. It tends to be one of the first things that people say about him. The magical things about My Neighbor Totoro are when they’re just walking through the house, cleaning the house, cooking together. And for Kiki, when she gets her own [apartment], sweeps up and cooks herself pancakes. It is just as much about the magic of the everyday, about the world that you can see around you, within the four walls of the home.

JC: Now that you say that, I’m thinking about Ponyo, a key scene where the storm is hitting, and Sosuke and Ponyo and Sosuke’s mum just hunker down in their house and they have a generator going and they make instant ramen noodles, and the mum slips in little bits of ham. They also have some honey tea. Even though he’s a fantasy filmmaker, and he makes grand statements about geopolitical situations, these are the sequences now which will play most poignantly to people.

ML: Ghibli offers escapism, right now.

We got a glimpse of the next Ghibli film, Gorō Miyazaki’s fully-CG Aya and the Witch (see picture below), via the online version of the recent Annecy International Animated Film Festival. What are your thoughts?
JC: Regarding the new images, I’m not as petrified as some fans have been. On the podcast I’ve mounted my defence for Gorō’s Tales From Earthsea, which is very much the black sheep of the family, and I don’t think I’d be doing him justice after that if I didn’t stand in his corner on this one as well. Until we see the style in motion, I think it’s unfair to judge, but it certainly is… different.

Jake, are you now a true Ghibliophile, or are you still just following along with what Michael’s got you into?
JC: I would say I am now. I could definitely bore people in conversations with production stories! A lot of people will, I’m sure, have seen a lot of the films, but doing the podcast is the only thing that would have made me watch all of them.

Michael, how proud are you of this achievement?
ML: Turning Jake into a new Ghibiliofile is really something. When we went to Japan in November last year—we managed to find change down the back of the sofa, and take the team out and visit the museum, visit Studio Ponoc, who are the spin-off studio founded by veterans from Ghibli—the thing that made me most proud was seeing how excited the rest of the team were. I think just out of shot of Jake’s webcam is a poster of Only Yesterday that he bought in Japan. It’s the only thing he wanted to find, was an original 1991 poster of that. There’s a picture of Jake just absolutely beaming with this poster.

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