'Spirit' fades for famed Japan animation studio after Miyazaki signs off

Sun Sep 7, 2014 6:12pm EDT
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By Megumi Lim

TOKYO (Reuters) - The artistic legacy of Hayao Miyazaki, the reclusive and bearded Academy Award-winning director and animator sometimes called Japan's Walt Disney, has never been more certain.

Yet at the same time, the commercial future for Studio Ghibli, the privately held Tokyo studio he left behind in retirement, has never been more in doubt.

Under Miyazaki, Ghibli became famous for intricate, hand-drawn animation and imaginative coming-of-age story lines that made films like 1988's "My Neighbor Totoro" into an international hit. A dozen years later, he masterminded what remains today as Japan's highest grossing film, the Academy Award-winning "Spirited Away".

In recognition, Hollywood is about to add its ultimate honor by giving Miyazaki, 73, a lifetime achievement Academy Award.

But the animation studio is finding that life after Miyazaki, who retired last year, is tough going.

Ghibli's first release since the legendary animator's departure, "When Marnie Was There", has failed to catch fire with Japanese moviegoers over the summer.

Besides the gaping hole left by Miyazaki, Ghibli, like Japanese companies in other industries, faces a range of challenges: high payroll costs, low productivity and the rise of new and cheaper hubs for production elsewhere in Asia.

In six weeks, "Marnie," the story of an asthmatic high school girl sent off for what becomes a summer marked by an unexpected and mysterious friendship, has taken in just $28 million at Japanese theaters. The mediocre takings comes as Ghibli’s fans and critics debate how and whether the studio will survive without the commercial magic of its founder.   Continued...

Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki poses at a special screening of the animated movie "Ponyo" at El Capitan theatre in Hollywood, California, in this July 27, 2009 file picture.        REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni