Drawing ahead: Suzuki Toshio on the future of Studio Ghibli

With Miyazaki Hayao working on a new feature, his son Goro set to release Earwig and the Witch, and big streaming deals on its back catalogue, Japan’s animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli is in rude health. Its co-founder and mastermind tells us how he has kept it relevant in a world of changing tastes.

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Earwig and the Witch will be released in UK cinemas this spring.

From our April 2021 issue

This interview features in the April 2021 issue of Sight & Sound, alongside Adam Curtis on the world we've made (and can remake), Lee Isaac Chung on Minari, two new spy-thriller documentaries, a history of the ‘cursed film’, and a look back at Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express. Available in print and digitally.

Find out more and get a copy

In 1978, Suzuki Toshio walked blindly into the animation world. A budding journalist, he was hired to help edit Japan’s pioneering anime magazine Animage, despite knowing so little about the subject that he had to be briefed on the basics by a bunch of teenagers. Learning fast on the job, he became acquainted with the directors Miyazaki Hayao (Spirited Away, 2001) and Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies, 1988), whose works he championed in his pages. The trio went on to co-found Studio Ghibli, which Suzuki joined as a full-time producer in 1989.

Suzuki ToshioNobuyoshi Araki

A few decades on, Suzuki, now 72, can be counted as the most successful producer in anime history, having held this role on almost all the hallowed studio’s films (three of which sit in the Japanese box-office’s all-time top ten). He initiated many of these films, pointing directors toward this or that idea, and masterminded most of their epic, sometimes counter-intuitive marketing campaigns. He has never left the company’s operational nerve centre, steering it to giddy success, through a brief hiatus, and into its current phase of brand-building and creative stock-taking. Ghibli’s new film, Earwig and the Witch, is perhaps its boldest experiment yet: a feature fully produced and rendered in three-dimensional CGI, in a style only distantly related to the lavish hand-drawn animation for which the studio is known. The choice of medium, too, was Suzuki’s.

I consider my job as a producer to push the directors to challenge themselves.Toshio Suzuki

Something of the journalist lives on in his raconteur’s way. Far from the shadowy backroom fixer some characterise him as, Suzuki is a very public figure in Japan. A fixture on TV and podcasts, he is, to a great extent, personally identified with the Ghibli brand. Via interviews and press conferences, he keeps the public updated on progress at Ghibli Park, a theme park due to open near his home city of Nagoya. When the studio recently published a trove of hi-res stills from its films online, the files were presented alongside his signature. Then there was that viral early-pandemic video in which he demonstrated how to draw the titular creature from Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988). The character is Miyazaki’s most iconic, but in the video Suzuki drew it himself (and with good reason: he’s a deft caricaturist).

Best of all for the avid Ghibli researcher, Suzuki has lately put out several breezy, anecdotal books about the company’s history. “I feel that talking about the studio is a part of my job,” he tells me over Zoom, accompanied by a giant plush Catbus from Totoro. “For the past ten years, I’ve been telling the story of Studio Ghibli. However, I’ve received a lot of criticism, too. Most of it surrounds the fact that I don’t talk about myself.” In response, Suzuki has authored a new book, which he holds up to the camera: the title is All About Toshio Suzuki, and his unusual career path is delineated in its image-heavy pages.

The son rises

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

Earwig and the Witch is produced by Suzuki and directed by Miyazaki Goro, son of Hayao. A trained landscape architect and former director of the Ghibli Museum, Goro moved into film directing with the studio’s 2006 feature Tales from Earthsea, an adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books; he followed it up with the nostalgic romance From up on Poppy Hill (2011). His pivot to filmmaking was orchestrated by Suzuki, who recognised his drawing ability and talent for managing people. Yet Goro found himself under pressure from the public to live up to his surname – and undermined by Hayao himself, who had reservations about his son’s arrival on his turf. Some journalists and viewers have shown more interest in this Oedipal meta-narrative than in Goro’s films themselves, which have often been unfavourably (and, I think, unfairly) compared to his father’s works.

After From up on Poppy Hill, Goro directed Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (2014-15), a TV series co-produced by Ghibli and made in CGI, albeit with cel-shading – a technique that emulates a 2D style. By adopting this medium, Goro distanced himself a little from Hayao, whose experience lies overwhelmingly in hand-drawn animation. He was so happy with the process that he wanted to return to it for his next film, Earwig, but Suzuki coaxed him into dropping the cel shading. “Goro didn’t want to alienate the existing Ghibli fans by going full-on 3D CG,” says Suzuki. “I consider my job as a producer to push the directors to challenge themselves.”

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

The result is a curious blend of Ghibliesque designs with solidly three-dimensional models and sets. What anchors Earwig in the Ghibli canon is its story, in which a spunky orphan explores her latent magic powers after being adopted by a witch and her demonic partner. This premise is vintage Ghibli – the film is in fact based on an eponymous novel by the English author Diana Wynne Jones, whose writing also inspired Hayao’s 2004 feature Howl’s Moving Castle. The elder Miyazaki considered directing Earwig himself, but Suzuki convinced him to continue with his current project, a feature inspired by Yoshino Genzaburo’s novel How Do You Live? (Hayao’s contribution to the development of Earwig is reflected in his “planning” credit.)

A very important quality in a director is to direct people, and to be able to make different kinds of films… That is really needed nowadays.Suzuki Toshio

Having never produced a CG feature before, Ghibli had to assemble the necessary resources and personnel more or less from scratch. With the production of the hand-drawn How Do You Live? unfolding next door, Suzuki explains, the studio found itself split into two camps: “Team Hayao” and “Team Goro”. He adds, “I’ll be very honest with you: I felt that Team Goro was better. We had younger and more talented people on the team.”

The crew reflected the demographics of the CG industry not only in age but also in its international makeup. The film’s animation director Tan Se Ri is Malaysian, and there were also people from the US, France, Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere. “They were very straightforward with me,” says Suzuki of the foreign artists. “Whereas a lot of Japanese staff would hesitate to talk to me, the non-Japanese people would just come up to me and talk. It was a very friendly vibe… That kind of reminded me of the early days when we first started Studio Ghibli.”

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

In this sense, then, Ghibli may be coming full circle, for CG animation is set to remain on its agenda. In recent months, Goro has been pronouncing with new confidence on the studio’s direction, telling the press that he believes it ought to go on making both CG and handdrawn films. Suzuki tells me he agrees that the company should continue with CG features.

I ask him what Goro’s qualities as a director are, and his answer is revealing: “There’s a lot of focus on storyteller-type directors, but a very important quality in a director is to direct people, and to be able to make different kinds of films… That is something I think is really needed, especially nowadays.” The word Suzuki uses for ‘storyteller’, sakka, can also be translated as ‘auteur’, and he has often employed it to refer to Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata. “Goro is like a producer-slash-director,” he continues. “He’s someone who can decide on what he wants to make, and make that happen.” I suggest that, coming from a producer, this is a compliment. “He has the talent to be a producer too, and then it’s [a case of] how he can figure out when to use what talents.”

Bringing it all back home

Earwig breaks the Ghibli mould in another way. In Japan, it was shown not in cinemas but on public broadcaster NHK (which co-produced the film). This is only Ghibli’s second made-for-TV movie, after Ocean Waves (1993). “I really felt that the film industry here in Japan has changed a lot,” says Suzuki. “Theatrical release is not the same as it used to be: fewer people are going to theatres to see films.” By chance, the decision to go with TV shielded the film from the vagaries of Covid-era theatrical exhibition.

Suzuki’s words remind me of an arresting comment he made in a book in 2017. He argued that cinemagoers were starting to lose appetite for fantasies and fables – precisely the sorts of films at which Ghibli has excelled for decades. When the studio temporarily closed in 2013, he wrote, the immediate cause was Miyazaki Hayao’s – albeit short-lived – retirement, but Suzuki’s concern about changing tastes was also a factor. Does he still hold this view? “People nowadays want to see a fantastical world that’s connected to the real world in one way or another,” he says. “Whereas before, it was like you’re taken to a completely different world and immersed in it, and once you’ve experienced it you come back to the real world, and you’re inspired by that experience. But it seems that it doesn’t work that way now. People need something that’s more familiar.”

Earwig and the Witch (2020)

I can see how Earwig meets that criterion: the story, magical as it is, unfolds almost entirely inside a house in a cookie-cutter English village. But my mind also turns to another recent animated release in Japan: Demon Slayer – Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train, a film that has met with success as big as its title. Its supernatural action takes place mostly around a train in a concrete historical period (the Taisho era of 1912-26). It is quite different from the voyage-and-return high fantasy of, say, Spirited Away – which it replaced in December as the highest-grossing film in Japanese history, defying the pandemic. Suzuki hasn’t seen Mugen Train and doesn’t plan to.

What of How Do You Live? Details about Miyazaki Hayao’s next film are scarce, although Suzuki has described it as a “big, fantastical” work. When Miyazaki told Suzuki he wanted to come out of retirement, the producer insisted that he justify his comeback by trying something new. The result is that, exceptionally, the director is working at his own pace, exempt from the usual constraints of deadlines and budgets. Around half the film’s 125 minutes are now animated and Suzuki doesn’t expect a release for another three years. This open-ended approach clearly doesn’t make for a sustainable business model, but it is novel. How Do You Live? may come to be seen as Miyazaki’s swansong, a recapitulation of the things he does best. Yet it is also another grand experiment from a creatively restless studio.

Beyond that, Ghibli’s near-term future seems secure: it has another film in development, although no details have been announced. Rather than a second hiatus or even closure, the studio may be facing a changing of the guard. Takahata passed away three years ago. Predicting Miyazaki Hayao’s next move is a fool’s game – he never makes good on his vows to quit filmmaking – but he is 80 years old. And when I ask Suzuki about his own remaining ambitions, he laughingly replies, “I think it’s time to retire.” It’s simple enough to debate what Ghibli might look like without its two founding directors. Somehow, I find it much harder to picture the studio without Suzuki.

Further reading