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2017-05-01

Miyazaki's Next Feature Film Delayed Past 2019


Hayao Miyazaki's upcoming feature film, officially revealed on NHK's The Never-Ending Man, will no longer meet its original 2019 release date. This is according to Toshio Suzuki, who made the announcement at this weekend's Niconico Chokaigi 2017 convention in Japan. The film was planned to be released ahead of Japan's Summer Olympic Games in 2020, but this deadline may no longer be possible.

According to Suzki-san, Miyazaki-san has currently finished storyboards for the first 20 minutes of the movie project (title and details have yet to be revealed). This has caused some concerned among Western anime sites such as Anime News Network, but I assure everyone that this is fully in keeping with Miyazaki's directorial style. Unlike most animation directors, he does not wait until storyboards or script are finalized before beginning production. Instead, only the first of five acts, roughly 20-30 minutes, are completed once the machine starts running. From that point on, everything moves full speed, a desperate race to finish the story just ahead of the animators.

This is a habit born from the legendary TV productions of the 1970s like Heidi, Girl of the Alps, 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother, Future Boy Conan, and Anne of Green Gables. The stories are being created during the productions themselves, lending a freewheeling, almost improvisational groove to Miyazaki's films. The sole exception was 1979's Lupin the 3rd: Castle of Cagliostro, which was fully written and storyboarded before production began. In every other instance, the stories, and the endings, remain a mystery to everyone, including Miyazaki himself.

You will notice that Miyazaki's feature films often don't "end" as much as they "stop." The true climax will be several scenes earlier, such as Spirited Away's scene of Sen riding in the train, or Howl's Moving Castle's flashback scene where Sofie witnesses Howl's childhood. Sometimes, the endings can feel a bit abrupt. There's a great line at the end of Howl, where Suliman, watching the heroes, sarcastically quips, "What? A happy ending?!" It's always very funny, because that's what the audience is thinking, too (it also reminds you of Charlie Chaplin's original ending to The Gold Rush, which was similarly self-conscious of its movie conventions).

For now, I wouldn't worry about the status of Miyazaki's storyboards. The main pressures on the new Studio Ghibli production will be budget, staffing, and the stamina of the director himself, who turns 76 this year and will be nearly 80 when his movie is finished. The strain of hands-on working on The Wind Rises, personally approving or editing key animation drawings (a practice he retired from after Spirited Away, but was forced to revive under the pressure of staff shortages, as Isao Takahata's The Tale of the Princess Kagua was also in production).

With a normal two-year production cycle, Studio Ghibli could meet their orginal Summer 2019 release date. But with an aging Miyazaki at the helm, greater care will be needed. And that means more time.

In addition, the question of personnel is a major challenge for Ghibli. When the studio dismissed their longtime animation staff, they lost their best available talent. Many are now working at the nearby Studio Ponoc, working quietly on Hiromasa Yonebayashi's Mary and the Witch's Flower. The two studios maintain a very warm relationship, like a parent and fully-grown child. Would some of those animators return for one final Hayao Miyazaki movie? It's a welcoming idea. However, if this is not possible (Ponoc no doubt has future plans already in place), then staffing and talent will prove more challenging. And that means more time.

Finally, the issue of money. Financing is always the bane of filmmakers, even famous studios and directors. The ever-rising production costs of feature film animation, coupled with diminishing returns at the box office (as audiences reject hand-drawn in favor of computer animation), means that even Hayao Miyazaki must struggle to pay the bills. The Wind Rises earned a spectacular amount of money at the Japanese box office, yet still failed to turn a profit (Paku-San's Princess Kaguya only earned half its total budget). And that means more time.

Time...tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Hayao Miyazaki is 76 years old, and his tomorrows are drawing short. The question of whether he even lives to complete his latest project is no trivial matter. This issue may influence all others.

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