Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli are probably the most famous representative of Japanese anime both inside Japan and overseas. The Japanese film with the highest domestic box-office revenue is Spirited Away (30.4 billion yen total). However, ‘Miyazaki anime’ and ‘Ghibli anime’ were not that highly regarded by the public when they started screening in theaters. Anime films were seen as odd at first, and many people thought that anime are just for otaku (although the term ‘otaku’ didn’t exist back then). It wasn’t until years later that these movies started becoming more popular with the public. This is a brief history of Hayao Miyazaki and the success of Studio Ghibli.
1984- 1988: Before ‘My Neighbor Totoro’
Many people know that Hayao Miyazaki’s first position in anime was with Future Boy Conan, but I wonder how many of are aware that the first film he directed was Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro.
LUPIN THE THIRD THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO pic.twitter.com/9z3s173jHX
— タッド星谷 (@tadcomix48) January 22, 2017
After The Castle of Cagliostro, he started working on original films. His first original movie was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Studio Ghibli wasn’t founded yet then, and a production studio called Topcraft worked on its animation. After the success of Nausicaa, Miyazaki and one of the sponsors, Tokuma Shoten, became so close that Studio Ghibli was founded with funding from Tokuma Shoten.
The Tokuma Shoten anime magazine ‘Animage’ has a lot of information on Miyazaki’s creations and Ghibli works. Miyazaki himself drew a Nausicaa manga for the magazine.
However, Miyazaki was not so highly regarded back then as a movie director. Anime was not considered to be mainstream, and he was looked down by the movie industry. There weren’t many theaters showing anime films and they couldn’t expect many viewers either. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, and My Neighbor Totoro may be now widely known as Miyazaki’s early works, but there weren’t many people who knew about them back then.
Let me list the statistics of the viewers and box office revenue below. You will probably find a few differences compared to the numbers today. Up until 1999 it was not standard for Japan to release gross box office revenue figures. Instead, they posted ‘haikyuu shuunyuu’, the income for the distribution companies. This is a certain percentage of the gross revenue, so the figures for the older Ghibli films may look much lower than they actually are. Japan began publishing gross revenue figures (the total amount made from cinema tickets) in the 90s to match the standard in the US cinema industry. For the purposes of the article, I will mark distribution income with ‘D’ and gross income with ‘G’.
Title // Income // Tickets Sold
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984) // 740 million yen (D) // 910,000
Castle in the Sky (1986) // 580 million yen (D) // 770,000
My Neighbor Totoro (1988) // 590 million yen (D) // 800,000
1989 – 1995: ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ and Understanding the Box Office Hit Formula
Miyazaki’s brand was finally established with Kiki’s Delivery Service. Major advertising agencies cooperated to promote this film with frequent commercials on TV, mainly on Nippon TV.
Toshio Suzuki, who was the then-chief editor of ‘Animage’ and an associate producer, is said to be the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the promotion actions. After Kiki, Miyazaki as a director and Suzuki as a producer started working as a team to create many Ghibli films and made many hits.
Kiki’s Delivery Service was their turning point; it was supposed to be their last chance because the previous films didn’t earn enough money. If it failed, they wouldn’t have had the funds to produce the next one.
Studio Ghibli has drastically changed the environment for subsequent anime productions. There are still many issues regarding the horrible working conditions for animators and those involved in anime production, from excessive working hours to super-low income, but Ghibli managed to employ their animators properly as permanent workers (most animators elsewhere are on contract) and to offer them basic salaries and welfare programs. In other words, they created a legitimate environment for them to feel secure and settle down so they could produce good anime. Many contemporary creators believe that the recent decline in anime quality is due to those conditions.
Title // Income // Tickets Sold
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) // 2.15 billion yen (D) // 2,640,000
Only Yesterday (1991) // 1.87 billion yen (D) // 2,160,000
Porco Rosso (1992) // 2.8 billion (D) / 4.76 billion (G) // 3,040,000
Pom Poko (1994) // 2.65 billion (D) / 4.47 billion (G) // 3,250,000
Whisper of the Heart (1995) // 1.85 billion (D) // 2,080,000
1997 – 2013: ‘Princess Mononoke’ and the Creation of a National Brand
Miyazaki and Ghibli grew into a national brand for anime with Princess Mononoke, released in 1997. It was a critical and commercial blockbuster a record attendance of 14,200,000 that brought the highest up until then total box hit revenue of 19.3 billion yen. Many argue about their box hit formula, but I’d like to say that it believe it was achieved as a result of the multiplier effect between Miyazaki’s unique world building and Suzuki’s scheme as a producer. Three reasons I identify behind its success are:
・Casting popular celebrities as voice actors
・Aggressive promotions through media, especially on TV (particularly on Nippon TV)
・Great music composed by notable composers (such as Joe Hisaishi)
The movie managed to imprint the mental image of the ‘national brand’ with the general public. I believe that Nippon TV helped the audience to share the idea that anime is not only for otaku but for everyone by repeatedly broadcasting Ghibli films on their ‘Friday Road Show’ program slot.
More people started watching Studio Ghibli films without being anime fans. There were people who actually said, ‘I don’t watch anime but I watch Ghibli films’, and as a result more people started lowering their resistance toward other anime series or anime itself. Studio Ghibli works are considered classics not only because of their quality, but also because of their effect on the anime industry and their help in spreading the medium worldwide.
Title // Income // Tickets Sold
Princess Mononoke (1997) // 19.3 billion yen (G) // 14,200,000
Spirited Away (2001) // 30.4 billion yen (G) // 23,500,000
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) // 19.6 billion yen (G) // 15,000,000
Ponyo (2008) // 15.5 billion yen (G) // 12,000,000
The Wind Rises (2013) // 12 billion yen (G) // 8,100,000