Yes, "Ghibli/Miyazaki anime" is great, but is that why it is so popular?

Studio Ghibli Shiro Image

Curator's Note

Amidst the growing academic and popular interest in Studio Ghibli and its creators, the focus is often on the content or style of their films. However, the pitfall of the approach is that it often assumes the existence of some sort of essential artistic value in these films. I do not deny that their technical and textual quality is (if not always) exceptional. However, we should be aware that the fame the studio and its creators now enjoy did not stem automatically from recognition of such quality by critics and audience. Instead, at least in the Japanese context, the image of the studio, its creators and their films being exceptional was built up by Toshio Suzuki, the producer of the studio and its media in the early 1990s. Also importantly, the process is closely linked with promotional strategies and resultant commercial success.

As I have detailed elsewhere1, after the commercial failure of Castle in The Sky (1986) and the double bill of My Neighbor Totoro and The Grave of Fireflies (1988), from Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) onward, Suzuki organized an all-out promotional campaign making full use of media, especially TV. He established a strong connection with national TV station NTV. Miyazaki appeared in many of its programs, and his previous films were shown to coincide with the release of the new film (this was how the popularity of Totoro caught up in Japan). With the massive success of Kiki and Porco Rosso (1992), for which Suzuki adopted the same strategies but on a greater scale, Miyazaki and Ghibli’s image as a creator of quality animated features for a broad range of audiences was firmly established. In other words, their films were no longer “mere anime” for teenagers or anime fans. From around this time, Miyazaki began to appear in media, making comments on topical issues including the Gulf War, thus turning into a public intellectual. He also began to have roundtable discussions with well-established literary and film figures, including Akira Kurosawa, as seen in the image. The association with these figures further strengthened the image of Miyazaki and Ghibli as being more “serious” than “ordinary” anime.2

1 Yoshioka, Shiro. Toshio’s Movie Castle: A Historical Overview of Studio Ghibli’s Collaboration and Promotional Strategies. Journal of East Asian Popular Culture 4(1), (2018), 15-29.

2 For more details on the process, see: Yoshioka, Shiro. "Princess Mononoke: A Game Changer." In Princess Mononoke: Understanding Studio Ghibli’s Monster Princess, ed. Rayna Denison, London: Bloomsbury. (2018), 25-40. In Road to Fame: Social Trajectory of Takahata Isao. Arts 2020, 9(3), 81;, I have also discussed how the image of Takahata as a distinctive auteur of animated feature was established in the first half of his career.


Before getting to your piece, I just wanted to pass along that when I taught a class on auteurism and animation in the works of Miyazaki Hayao last year, I had my students read your "Toshio's Movie Castle" article as a counterpoint to viewing Miyazaki as the auteur behind Ghibli's notoriety.  It definitely lead to some engaged discussion! 

There and here you argue compellingly about how invaluable Suzuki's promotional acumen and deal-making has been in soldifying the studio's reputation and longevity.  I'd be curious to know if you have any insight on how integral Suzuki has been in pushing for the studio to license its works out to streaming platforms (HBOMax and Netflix internationally) as well as negotiating those deals?  I know Miyazaki has famously been against the digitization of his work in the past, so I have to assume Suzuki has - as he often does - coaxed the great director into putting aside his reservations, especially since Ghibli was recently facing an unknown future after Takahata Isao's passing and Miyazaki's "retirement."

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