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.
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.