The idea of animation maestro Miyazaki Hayao retiring has been a bit of a meme for well over a decade. Think back to 2013, when, at the age of 72 and hot on the heels of the release of his film The Wind Rises, he announced his retirement; his third such declaration. At the time, many reacted with a wry sense of disbelief. Net users in Japan and the world over made comments along the following lines: “How many times is this now?” “I’m looking forward to his next film post-retirement.”
Still, the general assumption has been that Miyazaki’s recently released The Boy and the Heron (君たちはどう生きるか, lit. “How Do You Live”) would be his real-and-actual swan song. After all, the director is now 82 years old, and Heron took him nearly a decade to make.
But you know what they say about assumptions.
Unlike in 1997, 2001, and 2013, Miyazaki has made no actual announcement regarding retiring. And now, following Heron‘s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, we have word that Miyazaki is already toying with ideas for a potential new film. What exactly does that signify? And what can expect from Ghibli over the coming years? Let’s discuss.
Miyazaki’s Never-Ending Story
The long-awaited The Boy and the Heron premiered here in Japan back in July, still wrapped under a veil of mystery. Studio Ghibli, the globally beloved animation studio founded by Miyazaki, director Takahata Isao, and frontman Suzuki Toshio, had taken the unprecedented step of producing no marketing materials for the film, save a simplistic teaser poster. This enigmatic promotional strategy only intensified anticipation for the film’s international release. For some lucky viewers in North America, the first chance to see Miyazaki’s new epic finally came on September 7th, at TIFF – the Toronto International Film Festival.
The director was not on hand for the premiere. While Miyazaki used to undertake a certain amount of overseas promotional legwork in the days of Spirited Away (2001) and Howl’s Move Castle (2004), he now eschews most public appearances. (Famously, he even skipped out on the Oscars the night Spirited Away took home one of the golden statues.) In his place was Nishioka Junichi, Ghibli’s VP for international distribution. Nishioka has been with Ghibli for decades, usually in a public relations capacity. He took the stage before the screening began, saying “I hope this will be a wonderful two hours for everyone.”
His more notable statements, however, came at the TIFF red carpet. There, the following Q&A with a CBC reporter has sparked great interest:
A Few Words; A Great Deal of Speculation
Reporter: It’s been reported that this is Miyazaki’s last film. Is there no way of convincing him to continue? Is he really finished now?
Nishioka: The public has been spreading rumors of that nature. Miyazaki himself doesn’t think of it that way at all. Even now, he’s coming up with ideas for his next animation following this new work. He still comes into the office every day, talking about what to do for our next animation. So, he’s not going to be making any retirement announcements this time around.
Nishioka also added the following during an interview with Reuters:
Nishioka: “For the last 20 years, after finishing a movie, he would say I’m done… but this time, he didn’t mention anything about retirement… There is nothing concrete on the table yet, but he shows the willingness to create something new.”
What Can We Expect?
Nishioka’s statements have resulted in a flurry of articles that stop just short of implying Miyazaki’s imminent return to film production. Of course, as Nishioka said, things are a bit less “concrete” than that. The exact state of Ghibli itself post-Heron is a bit up in the air; the movie was extremely expensive to produce, and while theatrically successful, hasn’t been as big of a hit as previous Miyazaki films. Its current box office sits at a bit over $52 million, making it only the 5th biggest Japanese film this year. One Piece Film: Red ($151,698,023), The First Slam Dunk ($106,020,671), Makoto Shinkai’s Suzume ($104,682,979), and even the newest Detective Conan film ($96,400,730) have all made significantly more. Notably, however, Ghibli likely saved a major portion of the film’s budget by not engaging in promotion.
So, is the financial return big enough to finance another decade-long, hand-animated Miyazaki production? The question is if that really matters to Ghibli. The company now has a large library of beloved films that continue to sell, and a massive merchandising income. Both the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo and the Ghibli Park in Aichi are major tourist draws. Miyazaki and Suzuki, now essentially elder statesmen running a company whose leadership isn’t getting any younger, seem to be content with keeping Ghibli creating for creation’s sake. Hard as it may be to envision, profit may not be a major motivating factor.
A Mystery Film Still in Production?
Ghibli is also supposedly working on yet another film as we speak. Years ago, they announced a mystery second film in production – although no details have emerged regarding its director, content, or intended release date. The assumption at the time was that it would likely be another film by Miyazaki’s son Goro. This was coming hot on the heels of the release of Goro’s much-maligned CG Ghibli television film Earwig and the Witch (2020). Given the dearth of information regarding the status of this obscure production, could it be that the negative reaction to Earwig has scuttled the project?
It’s hard to know for sure, and amidst the excitement over The Boy and Heron, few reporters have thought to ask. The exact state of the animation department at Ghibli remains a bit of a mystery.
Also worth questioning is whether the senior Miyazaki’s next hypothetical project would indeed be a feature-length film. Often forgotten in Miyazaki’s body of work are his short films for the aforementioned Ghibli Museum. Only available for viewing at the Saturn Theater located within the museum itself, these 10-15 minute-long features are no slouches in terms of production quality; despite their diminutive length, they match Ghibli’s theatrical films in terms of animation and music design. Miyazaki has directed nine of these short films since 2001, including 2018’s surprisingly scatological Boro the Caterpillar – his first piece of animation since his “retirement” in 2013. Working on a new short film could make for a more, shall we say, realistic output for Miyazaki’s unending creativity.
We’ll likely have to wait some time to find out what, if anything, Miyazaki decides to direct next. However, Nishioka’s statements echo what has long been known about Miyazaki – that his drive for creation seems inexhaustible. Earlier on in life, burnout (like that following the intense production of Princess Mononoke) has gotten the better of him, but now, wisened, he seems to know that retirement isn’t really something that appeals to him. Even at 82, it does seem to make sense that Miyazaki would keep working on his craft as long as humanely possible.
Miyazaki’s two most recent films, The Wind Rises and The Boy and the Heron, share focuses on end-of-life-oriented themes. Specifically, they have to do with the lifecycle of creation and imagination, and what legacy a creative can leave behind. Both movies have felt very final. But, in the end, they may not be the final word for Miyazaki Hayao. And for many the world over, that idea is cause for happiness.