Ruminating on Toshio Suzuki’s Studio Ghibli Memoir

Happy Birthday, Suzuki-san! たんじょうび おめでとう!!

Today marks film producer Toshio Suzuki’s 72nd birthday. Suzuki is best known as the producer of the majority of the films made by Studio Ghibli. (For the first several features, he was credited as being on the production committee–it wasn’t until 1991’s Only Yesterday did he first receive a credit as producer, and would do so on every film (some times with a co-producer) until The Wind Rises (2013).

And I just so happen to finish reading his 2014 memoir yesterday, titled Mixing Work with Pleasure: My Life at Studio Ghibli, only to learn his birthday is today (August 19, 1948). I picked this book up on a whim, as I’ve been in a Studio Ghibli rewatch mood lately (if my last blog post is any indication), and was pleasantly surprised by it.


While I knew about Suzuki was before this through other books and articles, and documentaries, such as The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), this was the first thing I read centered on him (and of course written by him). Normally, of course, the spotlight with regards to Ghibli is most often on Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, the two directors the studio was set up soley to accommodate.

That singular goal–to create a studio specifically for these two artists to make films–is one of the obvious but so startlingly impressive things I learned in this book. While it was clear that that was the studio’s goal after each film was hit after hit, it was amazing to learn that this idea was at the very core of its founding. Having worked at a US feature studio that was very much filmmaking by committee and none of the ideas were original stories created by the directors, it was refreshing to hear about this truly artist-driven endeavor.

It was also interesting to see how their business model had to change when both directors made what were presumably their last films. (Takahata passed away in 2018; his last film was The Tale of the Princes Kaguya (2013). Miyazaki’s last feature was 2013’s The Wind Rises, but is reportedly working on another feature.) It’s been largely Suzuki who has shepherded the studio though its decades and these newer and larger changes.

Brief Career Recap

After graduating from university, his first job was at Tokuma Shoten Publishing, where he worked in various departments and magazines before being given the impossible task of launching a monthly animation magazine in 3 weeks. His research and quest for experts (he knew nothing about animation when given this assignment) put him in contact with Takahata and Miyazaki, who were working together at Toei Animation. He strikes up an honestly bizarre yet charming friendship with them both. It was really fun to read about this early part of their relationship, and how trust was slowly built. Suzuki commissioned Miyazaki to produce a serialized manga in the animation magazine, called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which of course became the basis for his second feature film of the same name.

With each new film, Suzuki became more involved as Studio Ghibli took shape as a subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten, with Suzuki quitting his job there to come on to Ghibli full time as company director in 1990. He was there for all the ups and downs, the development and opening of the Ghibli Museum, their decision to break away from Tokuma Shoten in 2005 and become independent, and everything in between and beyond. It’s absolutely amazing to learn about so much of these stories, developments, and various relationships that formed and grew over these decades.

Studio Ghibli Could Never Be Replicated

As a massive Studio Ghibli fan, this book is of course a must-read. There are so many funny stories and anecdotes that had me chuckling into the book, so many moments that felt like inside jokes based on what we know about characters like Miyazaki and Takahata and hearing things being confirmed by someone who worked so closely with them for so long.

As someone in the animation industry, and who has worked in production management with intent to be a producer, it is also a worthwhile (if not frustrating) read. It’s only frustrating because of how much…freedom isn’t really the right word, but freedom Suzuki had in his career and decisions. That’s not to say he wasn’t constantly answering to other people and stressing about budgets and deadlines and what not. I was jealous of his career of course. I was jealous of his mindset and the studio’s overall mindset which I mentioned earlier. Suzuki is very clear about the things he feels are his role as a producer, and they are the total opposite of Western ones. Towards the end of the book, he himself ruminates on this difference, citing American producers as the head honchos and often involved too much creatively compared to his role that while having many creative elements, he stressed was secondary to the director. That’s how it should be, but in my limited experience this is often not the case. And that’s also just the difference between a place like Ghibli and a big US feature studio–that creator-driven storytelling vs project-driven. Usually, it’s a producer that has an IP–a script or a graphic novel and they find suitable writers and directors. Even at a studio like Pixar which one might argue as the US equivalent has had a significant number of their films replace their directors partway through the productions (i.e. Brave, Ratatouille, The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 2 and 4, Cars 2). It can happen, and there were times it happened or almost happened at Ghibli too, as Suzuki discusses throughout the book.

It would be remiss of me to acknowledge of course that these films need to make money. And if a story isn’t working, there are times where replacing a director is the right call. Creator-driven filmmaking can only truly work if the creator is given the time and freedom, and that usually unfortunately isn’t as feasible in this day and age.

I’m just trying to say it’s more complicated than I am explaining of course. That I am not even saying that one style is better than the other. And that there are so many factors with filmmaking and earning back the budget–marketing and distribution partners (as detailed by Suzuki) can play a big role.

Another big difference between Ghibli and the US is the development period and process, that also of course affects the overall production, budget and timeline. The general MO at Ghibli was having the directors boarding their films, (some times there’s a script written before that). But the boards are what guide the film. Once the first 20 minutes of the film are boarded out, production started. And again, that sort of trust and thinking I feel are the result of that implicit creator-driven filmmaking we just don’t see in animation.

And that’s because animation is expensive! And time consuming! Most studios are not set up specifically to fund two creators films. That sort of patronage is rare. It’s rare to find a US feature animation director who’s made more than 5 films–again Pixar is the closest example we have to this with people like John Lasseter (gross, sorry), and Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird (including their live-action films). (Also, also, consider this a tiny content warning in the book: Suzuki mentions Lasseter a few times in positive ways as a supporter of their work (this book was first published in 2008, with an extra chapter in 2014). It was bittersweet as it was Lasseter’s admiration and persistence that really helped put Ghibli on the map stateside for many people, but he had to go and be a creep.

Because animation is expensive and time consuming, feature films tend to get watered down so they are appealing to the widest audience. We’re talking all four quadrants (boys, girls, men, women–I know, super heteronormative, I didn’t make the dumb box office rules), and not too specific so it appeals to these quadrants on a global level. That, inherently, sounds incredibly illogical to me. To quote Hamilton, “if you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?” If you try to appeal to everyone, you end up with these cookie-cutter stale things with basic themes like “believe in yourself.” Even though like half of Ghibli’s films take place in fictitious European places, they are 1000% Japanese. They reflect the feelings of the director, when the film was made. They are not made by a massive committee and focus grouped to death and they have an actual point of view. They take risks, and do something different each time.

We are seeing that more and more over here, with films like Wall-E (2008), and more recently, Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse (2018). We are seeing studios take more risks, and create more nuanced stories. Because the fun thing about having a point of view is that even if I’m not the “target” demographic, I can still identify with aspects of any film, be it a character, theme, etc. Miyazaki is someone who always says that he makes films specifically for children (with The Wind Rises being a departure), and yet they have achieved massive appeal by people of all ages globally. His characters have a depth to them, they feel like they were going about their business before the film and continue to live long after the credits roll.


In general, a lot of Suzuki’s personal philosophy just sounds wonderful. It’s nice how he weaves little lessons and advice throughout his career. While a lot of it is pretty obvious or pretty unique to Ghibli’s unique situation, it was fun to hear his experiences. It was fun to hear him learning as he went, be it is various changing and expanding roles at the studio and how it was all in service to the films.

Because at the end of the day, Studio Ghibli’s model is not one that can be replicated. And that’s a problem they themselves went through after 2013 when the two men the studio was made for stepped down. That was when we saw them have to shift to being content-driven and find the right people for their projects. The first two examples we saw of that were The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011). These are both based on pre-existing works, which is pretty common for Ghibli (i.e. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Whisper of the Heart (1995). The big difference I am referring to was the projects being decided upon first and then them finding suitable directors for them, as well as the handling of the adaptation and development.

In Conclusion

I don’t really have a nice way to wrap this up. I could definitely keep rambling about everything in this book. Again, it was just a really fun read for me as a Studio Ghibli fan, someone interested in animation development and producing, and an animation history fan. There were lots of great stories and nuggets of information and wisdom. It really humanized him, a welcome departure from the stereotypes of film producers we often see.

It made me sad too–again the overall philosophy Suzuki embodies is what makes Ghibli Ghibli, and knowing it will never be like it was again makes me sad. Hearing his words made me forlorn for an animation industry that was better. Animation is more accessible to watch and create than ever before though, so I know I have to remain optimistic that there are so many artists like me who have been influenced by these films in so many ways. We need more execs and financiers to be inspired by them too. In so many ways the business has to change, and a leader like Toshio Suzuki is the perfect role model.

#52filmsbywomen

Mountain (2017)

My husband put this on in the background while he worked, and I was so intrigued by its experimental nature that I ended up watching the entire film. When the credits rolled, I saw that this film was directed by a woman.

Jennifer Peedom is a BAFTA nominated filmmaker from Australia. Judging by her other films (neither of which I’ve seen but would like to), she is dedicated to making films about the outdoor community. Her other films, 2008’s Solo and 2015’s Sherpa appear to be more traditional documentaries when compared to Mountain.

This is part of my #52FilmsByWomen challenge.

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Hail Satan? (2019)

Hail Satan?

Hail Satan.

I’ve been a fan of The Satanic Temple for a few years now after learning about them in the book Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive by Kristen J. Sollee. The Satanic Temple (TST) advocates for religious freedom, as well as other social issues like women’s rights. They use their religious namesake as a counterpoint to the ever-growing permissiveness of Christianity in the United States government. They’re an activist group–not to be confused with the Church of Satan, which is a religious group.

When our elected officials forget that separation of church and state is a thing, The Satanic Temple is there to remind them.

When conservative leaders want to erect a monument of the ten commandments on government property, TST argues that, for the sake of religious equality, they too should be allowed to erect a monument representing their religion–Satan! Well, technically, Baphomet. And while we’re at it, every other religious should have a statue too. If you’re going to break the rules for one, you gotta do it for them all.

They’re hilarious on Twitter, too.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

As a perpetual sucker for stories about writers, this film had been on my radar. It was all the more intriguing to learn that it was based on a true story by a woman named Lee Israel.

This is the third feature film by Marielle Heller. I’ve seen her first The Diary of a Teenage Girl and her third and latest A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and enjoyed them both. All three of these films offer very interesting and intimate portraits of their characters, but are films that, while I enjoyed and appreciated, probably won’t ever watch again.

Finally seeing this film, I completely understand why Melissa McCarthy was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. She completely disappears into this role in a way I can rarely recall. I watched an interview with Heller where she approached Hanks at a party and got him to read the Mr. Rogers script. I’m sure that played a huge part in securing financing for the film. It makes me wonder if the script was shopped around and then McCarthy got a hold of it. Fox Searchlight has always been the distributors that, in my opinion, take the most creative ‘risks’ with diverse casting/stories, so I truly hope that doesn’t change with the Disney acquisition…

Here’s a trailer, as I won’t be doing a synopsis, but rather just some of my thoughts on the film:

I appreciate this film because we so rarely see leads like Lee Israel–an older, not conventionally attractive woman who has a lot of flaws. She curses, she’s an alcoholic, her apartment is a mess, her finances are a mess. The only bit of her apartment that’s organized is her writing desk and research, which is a nice detail.

She’s a pretty unlikeable character, and she knows that about herself–it’s actually a bit of a plot in the film, as it makes her unappealing as an author who publishers are trying to market and brand. But she acknowledges that she’s not interested in changing, that her work is good and that should be enough, that she is a person who hates people and only loves cats. So damn refreshing. For me this is the classic ‘if she were a man, she’d be praised for knowing what she wants and not taking shit from anyone’ vs the dreaded ‘unlikeable’ label we see thrown at assertive women.

This is the first film I’ve seen where the two leads are both gay, with Israel meeting her friend turned accomplice Jack Hock at a gay bar.

The thing I enjoyed the most about this film (while also finding the most heartbreaking) was that Israel didn’t regret forging letters, and felt that her writing was at its best and she was the most alive while creating them. I loved that she took joy in inhabiting other people–characters–and creating stories around them, researching them and crafting these micro-narratives in their voices. But it’s so, so sad that she hadn’t felt like she had that in her without these external sources. All of her books and writing up til then were biographies–nonfiction, research-driven. I guess this was sort of the first bit of ‘creative’/fiction writing she’d done, as she didn’t think she could do that. Turns out she could, just maybe not with the best intentions.

This is film 2 in my 52 Films By Women 2020 challenge.

#52filmsbywomen

Little Women (2019)

My first film of 2020–and of the new decade–is possibly already my favorite film of the year. Most importantly, it’s the first film of my 52 Films By Women Challenge (#52FilmsByWomen), which I explained in my previous post. Holy moly did I love Little Women (2019). What a stellar way to kick off all of these new milestones.

Being familiar with the story, I thought I knew what I was getting into. And I suppose that’s where director Greta Gerwig truly outdid herself. Though apparently not enough for a Best Director nomination, bloody Oscars.

Here’s a trailer, as I won’t be doing a synopsis, but rather just some of my thoughts on the film:

Cinematography

Instead of a chronological story (like the book and subsequent adaptations), beginning with the March sisters as young girls and ending as adults, Gerwig opted to jump back and forth, inter-cutting their lives in fresh ways. Because of this, there were some fantastic match cuts and clever transitions throughout the film, as well as a lot of visual storytelling paralleling the character’s growth–how we change and mature regarding some things, but how other things stay exactly the same. This was especially fun to see in the actor’s performances as they shifted their candor, tone, mannerisms, posture, and more. This felt like it must have been one of the most fun films to act in, getting to inhabit a young girl’s imagination, and then having to carry that over into the older versions of said characters. When viewing the PDF of Gerwig’s screenplay, she writes the younger timeline in all red and the older, “present” in black, so it’s fun to scroll through and see those blocks.

Another clever way Gerwig helped distinguish the time skips was with the color palette. Childhood was warm, saturated. It was sunny days and green grass. The four sisters, who each clearly had a color “assigned” to their costuming throughout the film (and Marmee, the mother, whose wardrobe incorporated all four), was consistent, but the vibrancy also dulled with age.

The sequences that took place in adulthood were much more muted, and almost cold. That same contrast was present in the two main locations of the film–the March house, a warm, well-loved (read: worn down) cozy den vs the cold personality-less estate of Laurie’s grandfather.

This was also such a well-composed film, especially having to juggle such a big cast. I kept accidentally getting taken out of the film thinking about how nice a particular shot’s composition was, or how clever the framing was.

Amy, Meg, and Beth

The other three sisters were much better fleshed out in this adaptation, especially Amy. Because Amy starts out as the youngest, I’ve found she often gets permanently pigeonholed as a brat even in adulthood. Her immaturity is treated as a personality trait instead of a factor of her just…being a child. If I was 12 and the youngest of four sisters I’d be asserting myself and seeking attention just as much. This film gives her room to grow, and she does, allowing actor Florence Pugh to deliver the most devastating lines about the experience womanhood has been for much of history.

While Meg and Beth had smaller story arcs, I was still so pleased with their portrayals..their desires, vulnerabilities, and how those things play out for them. I felt that collectively the four sisters represented some very interesting facets of womanhood then and now, because, while it’s obviously a period film, films are always a reflection of when they were made.

Meta-Textual Ending

I think as a response to the current timeline, Gerwig crafted an amazing ending for this film that reflects 2019 and the plight of women creators perfectly. It was simultaneously a critique and an olive branch to author Louise May Alcott, whose hand had been forced when she wrote the ending of the original novel(s). I think it was also a callout to filmmakers at large, who have long viewed “domestic” or “women’s” stories as lacking the prestige for awards or worthiness to be made/told. To me, it isn’t a coincidence that the one woman to have won best director at the Oscars did so with a war film starring almost all men (Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker). And that’s not to invalidate that film, or its importance. That’s a whole other post.

The ending of Little Women also takes us into a third timeline, giving us an even more adult Jo arguing with her publisher about the events that unfold in her book as they are happening to a younger (but still adult) Jo. It’s also a moment where she’s arguing for her rights as a creative. It’s also worth noting that the final triumph of this film isn’t marriage, but it’s her watching her first published book literally get created on the assembly line. It’s her running her school with the help of her family. It’s her inner and outer coming together, finally being able to live both. I think Alcott herself would appreciate it.

Final Thoughts

For me, a girl who was a proud ‘tomboy’ who grew up very disdainful of being a girl (boys always did have all the adventures), never really expecting to find love, and working to be a writer, I was always a Jo March. Always. But now I know I am also an Amy, a Beth, and a Meg. Even a Laurie. Because women (people, really) contain multitudes. And I cannot wait to destroy my blu-ray of this when I rewatch it over and over when I need a comforting and familiar story.

Also. The score is the best writing background music I’ve ever had.

#52filmsbywomen

#52FilmsByWomen

Every year I watch a lot of films, and go to the cinema quite often. Last year I saw 49 films that were released in 2019. I saw 126 films total when counting older films and re-watches. Late in 2018, I started making more of a conscious effort to seek out women-directed films. At the theater, I’d go out of my way to see them opening weekend and pick them over wide releases. I always go into a film knowing if it was directed, written, or produced by a woman. But this year I’d like to document it and make it more intentional. That’s where the #52FilmsByWomen comes in.

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Review: Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet

The 2014 animated feature, Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet is one of those projects that seems so implausible that one can’t help but wonder how it got the green light. Thankfully, it was a passion project of actress Salma Hayek who, along with The Lion King director Roger Allers, created a truly beautiful and unique gift. Based around Lebanese-American poet-philosopher Kahlil Gibran’s book, “The Prophet,” the film follows Mustafa, an artist and activist who, after being held under house arrest is escorted through town to a dock where he will be sent back to his home country. Along the way, he encounters many locals who welcome his appearance with unbridled celebration and open arms, much to the displeasure of the local government. Mustafa advises the townsfolk, assists them with their daily problems in the form of poetic sermons, which break apart from the larger story, and visually, often to more effect than the main story.

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