Miyazaki Goro’s New Biography Sheds Light on Ghibli’s Successor

Miyazaki Goro’s New Biography Sheds Light on Ghibli’s Successor

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The son of Studio Ghibli's famous founder talks in a new book about the strange path he took to directing - and about his often strained relationship with his father.

It can’t be easy being Miyazaki Goro.

This isn’t exactly a new concept. Goro is the son of Miyazaki Hayao, the world’s most beloved living animator and one of Japan’s greatest cultural icons. He’s long been the subject of public attention and asymmetrical ire.

Set aside simply growing up in his famed father’s shadow. The sudden announcement in 2005 that Goro, a former landscape architect, would be helming Studio Ghibli’s next film put the young man on a direct collision course with his father’s reputation. The movie in question, Tales from Earthsea (ゲド戦記), is essentially the studio’s single critical dud – cementing, perhaps unfairly, Goro’s long-lasting reputation as someone less-than – an up-jumped layman coasting off his father’s reputation.

Goro’s two subsequent works, 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill and his CG-animated TV series Ronja the Robber’s Daughter, have had greater critical success. Nonetheless, within the public imagination, Goro just can’t seem to catch a real break. Indeed, the online outpouring of opinions on Goro has seriously ramped up in recent weeks with the release of the first trailer of his upcoming film, Earwig and the Witch (アーヤと魔女). The movie is the first for Studio Ghibli since the company shut down production in 2014. It’s also the studio’s first TV movie since 1993’s Ocean Waves (海がきこえる).

Ghibli Announces Miyazaki Goro’s Third Film: Earwig and the Witch

After a six-year-long hiatus, the legendary animation studio is entering a real revival. See the details on Miyazaki Goro’s new film, Earwig and the Witch!Ou…

For more information, watch our video essay on Ghibli’s announcement of Earwig and the Witch.

However, it’s another unique aspect of the film that’s caused so many to train their outrage squarely at Goro: Earwig is Ghibli’s first-ever to employ wholly CG animation, eschewing the hand-drawn artistry for which Ghibli is so beloved. Stylistically, it couldn’t be farther from Ghibli classics like Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, or Grave of the Fireflies. While some commenters have expressed interest in the new style, for many the use of CG seems close to sacrilege. The soon-to-be-released movie is already becoming the target of major online derision. Comments sections are filled with people mocking Goro’s track record with Earthsea. (When the quality of Poppy Hill and Ronja are brought up, many admit to never having seen them.) Right now, Miyazaki Goro is not a popular man.

Cover Story

It's another aspect of the film that's caused so many to train their outrage squarely at Goro: Earwig and the Witch is Ghibli's first-ever to employ wholly CG animation. Click To Tweet

Online rage aside, Goro is a major person of interest, now more than ever. This is not a fact lost on Ghibli company president and constant hype man Suzuki Toshio. Suzuki has ascertained that people want to know more about the younger Miyazaki. The director kept a fairly revealing blog during the creation of Earthsea which showcased much of the rocky relationship he’s had with his father. Outside of that, however, he can be a bit quiet during interviews.


So, what better time to put out a new book on the director? The result is the newly-released 「どこから来たのか どこへ行くのか ゴロウは?」(Goro: Where Did He Come From, Where is He Going?). The book has been billed as a biography. In reality, it’s more of a combination of a photo book with a long-form interview. Either way, it’s an interesting look into who exactly Goro is. I was lucky enough to get a copy to review.

The better part of the book’s slender frame is taken up by glossy photos. Thai photographer Kanyada has managed to bring out Goro’s charm, which (according to Suzuki) is so often hidden away under a serious facade. Shots show Goro posing with puppets of the characters from the upcoming Earwig; he drinks tea and cuts wood and architectural locations of his own creating (the Mei and Satsuki House in Aichi and the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo). Finally, about two-thirds of the way in, the interview begins.

The interviewer in question is none other than Ueno Chizuko, easily one of the most well-regarded feminist thinkers in Japan. Chizuko, known for her analysis and pointed critique of the Japanese family unit, is a fine choice to interview someone like Goro, whose familial relationships seem to be the focus of most media attention and a constant theme within his work.

Chizuko is able to ask meaningful questions, probing deeper than some other interviewers might. She’s interested in really getting to the bottom of why someone like Goro would even want to follow in his father’s footsteps; when children have a parent who is so eminent in their chosen field, they tend to purposefully walk down very different paths in life, hoping to avoid comparison or direct competition. Why would Goro want to volunteer to be measured up against his giant of a father, a man essentially known as a god of animation not only in his home country but in the world as a whole?

Growing Up Goro

Earwig and the Itch images
Scenes from Earwig and the Witch. (Pictures: Studio Ghibli)

Goro’s mother, Miyazaki Akemi, features prominently in the interview. A former animator who met her husband while working together at Toei Animation in the 1960s, Akemi attempted to dissuade Goro from a young age of following in his father’s footsteps. “The work your father does is terribly hard,” Goro quotes her as saying. “Even if you have the talent for it. It’s a lifestyle that’s impossible without a great deal of personal resolution and strength… No matter what, don’t become someone like your father.”

Miyazaki Sr., on the other hand, is portrayed as he often has been – as a largely absentee father, coming home late at night after his son was already asleep and providing little in the way of life advice or guidance. Goro has often described his father as gruff, almost unloving. Sadly, nothing in this book does much to change that image.

In accordance with his mother’s wishes, Goro’s initial orientation in life was not one which would usually have placed him anywhere near the world of animation. Goro was a landscape architect, having joined up with a Tokyo firm in 1989, just at the very peak of the bubble era. Public investment quickly faltered as the economy went into a tailspin, and projects dried up; even still, Goro kept with the company for over a decade.

Drawn to Ghibli

In 1995, while still employed in landscaping, Goro designed the rooftop garden that sits atop the Studio Ghibli building in Koganei, Tokyo – a relaxing space that famously features a false dinosaur skull. This was his first foray into working with his father’s company; he could put his own skillset to use in creating something useful for Ghibli, while still remaining far away from the world of animation. Nothing in his professional trajectory signaled that this would change.

Goro has often described his father as gruff, almost unloving. Sadly, nothing in this book does much to change that image. Click To Tweet

Goro seems to have enjoyed working with Ghibli. In 1998, he left his job at the landscaping design firm and became a full-time Ghibli employee. This happened to be the year that planning began on the nascent Ghibli Museum, located in Mitaka, Tokyo. Soon, Goro was working with his father on the new project. Miyazaki Sr. provided the overall design for the museum space, which strives (and, in my humble opinion, succeeds) at capturing the feeling of stepping into a fantastical Ghibli-esque setting. But Goro played an important role as well. In 2001, with its opening to the public, Goro became the first director of the Ghibli Museum. It seemed that he had managed to find an important role within Ghibli. And he had managed to honor his mother’s wishes that he not become a directory.

As we know, this wasn’t to last.

Landscape to Cinescape

In 2005, following the release of Howl’s Moving Castle, the producers at Ghibli decided on their next project: an adaptation of Ursula K. Le Guin’s fantasy series Earthsea. Suzuki Toshio wanted to give the project to a young director. (The studio was chronically on the lookout for successors to its two Old Master, Miyazaki and Takahata Isao.) At the time, Goro was still the head of the Ghibli Museum. He had overseen a great deal of the construction of that now-beloved and terminally sold-old institution.

From the book, pictures of Miyazaki Goro working on the Ghibli Museum.

With the museum opened and most of the hard work complete, Goro breathed a sigh of relief. But he began to feel a sense of emptiness. It was then that Suzuki suggested Goro consider observing the production of the studio’s new film, for which he hoped to place a new director. Suddenly, Goro was in competition for the director’s chair. Still, according to him, he was far from a shoo-in. Two others were also being considered, both around the same age. However, Goro recalls that the other main contender insisting on full control of the film.

At the time, Goro was in Aichi Prefecture, working on Ghibli’s contribution to the 2006 Word Expo. “Mei and Satsuki’s House” was a full reconstruction of the iconic countryside home from his father’s 1988’s classic My Neighbor Totoro. (A film which, interestingly, his mother had also worked on.)

In the book, Chizuko argues that Goro’s jump from park designer to chief architect of the Ghibli Museum was understandable. For someone like Goro, being able to create that space in whatever way he wished must have been very appealing. Comparatively, the shift from designing the museum to directing a full-length animated film was a more puzzling one. Goro explains that it was never his intention. Suzuki simply asked him if he wanted to observe the initial production process, which seemed like fun.

Suddenly, however, he had become much more than a mere observer. How little did Goro realize that soon he, like his erstwhile film, would become the observed.

Director Ex Nihilo

The other person in competition for Earthsea’s director’s chair dropped out. He refused to take the job unless given full creative control. Suddenly, Goro, a man with exactly no experience in animation, was directing a major animated motion picture.

Goro, at least, was aware of how animation studios worked – but not because of any experiential activities at Ghibli. In fact, he says he’d essentially never stepped foot inside of the vaunted studio until they hired him. Rather, growing up, his father’s work had fascinated him from afar. He read anime magazines, learning the methods of animation and the various jobs within a studio via the written word. This combination of privileged proximity and the aloof distance of his father seems to have made for a strange combination. Goro was both more prepared than the average person, yet still dismally far from an experienced animator.

None of this seems to have mattered to Suzuki. 「見様見真似、」the producers had said. “Learn by imitation.” Goro would pour through page after page of his father’s e-conte, his storyboards, trying to adapt his father’s method into his own. More than anything, Goro says he relied on the dozens of professionals at the Studio.

“We had animators who could make the images move, artists to draw the backgrounds, videographers… At the time, I had absolutely no technical know-how or detailed understanding of things. I’d just consult with Yamashita-san about how I imagined the art would look, and he’d say ‘we can just put it together like this.’ In the end, he’d turn those ideas into storyboards. In other words, it’s not like I did most of it myself. I feel I was really rescued by those around me.”

Generational Clash

Suddenly, Goro, a man with exactly no experience in animation, was directing a major animated motion picture. Click To Tweet

Someone Goro didn’t receive any direct help from was, famously, his own father. The rift Goro’s placement as director caused between father and son is perhaps a better-known story than the actual plot of Earthsea. Goro has explained it before, in painful detail as it occurred during his public production diary/blog from back in 2005/2006, and he describes it again here in brief.

“He was in complete opposition to [my becoming a director], so we had some yelling matches, and then he stopped talking to me for some time… In short, he said ‘do you even understand what it means for someone with no experience or base to become a director?’ He would say, ‘do you have any idea how much hard work and suffering I had to put in to get where I am? There’s no way someone like you could do it.’ It was tit for tat at the time, and I ended up saying ‘I can do it because I have people by my side who can help me.’ There was the slamming of fists on desks, and we just screamed at each other. (Laughs).”

Goro further explains that his father was in no way trying to slyly test his resolve. There were no hidden encouragements behind his words. Miyazaki Sr. truly believed his son was not up to the job, and such was the extent of their quarrels that they didn’t speak “for around three years from the completion of Tales from Earthsea.”

His father wasn’t the only elder at Ghibli Goro had problems with. The experience of jumping into the director’s chair, commanding dozens of pros without having proved himself in the least, was a daunting one. “The stares hurt… I felt like I was constantly being evaluated.” The young director felt the object of both disdain and jealousy from many of the veteran staff. One memorable incident included an older subordinate chewing him out for making an unreasonable demand of his animators; the older man lectured the director for three hours straight, making Goro sit in seiza position the whole time. Despite these problems, Goro felt he couldn’t go to his father for advice – even if Hayao was willing to help (questionable at the time), if he was seen to be relying on Daddy, he’d never be respected.


Somehow, Goro managed to successfully complete his first film. In 2006, Tales from Earthsea opened to great fanfare and box office success, although reviews and public opinion were less kind. I was in Japan that summer, living in peripheral but beautiful Shikoku with a local host family as a high school exchange student. I remember well just how much Earthsea took over that summer; displays featuring art and character costumes were set up in malls, and snatches of the film’s most lasting legacy, Therru’s Song, filtered through gas station and konbini loudspeakers. The radio seemed to play nothing else. Earthsea became the second film I ever saw in Japanese theaters; the multiplex I saw it at in downtown Matsuyama was absolutely packed, but I worryingly noticed middle-aged men snoring through half the movie.

Goro had gained a markedly mixed success. Earthsea received some recognition, being nominated for the Japan Academy Film Prize for Animation of the Year (losing out to Hosoda Mamoru’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time); the film also, famously, received the equivalent of a Golden Raspberry award for worst film, with Goro personally receiving one for worst director. After wrapping the film and dealing with both its difficult production and subsequent backlash, Goro thought about leaving Ghibli behind. However, thinking of his family, he decided instead to hide away at the museum for some time.

Privileged Pariah

Goro says his father wasn't slyly testing his resolve. There were no hidden encouragements behind his words. Miyazaki Sr. truly believed his son was not up to the job Click To Tweet

Goro had to deal with the unwanted pressure of being his father’s assumed successor, and one who wasn’t particularly popular at that. Commentators wondered if he’d ever make another film; Goro wondered the same. In her interview, Chizuko manages to coax out some valuable insights on these topics from the often-taciturn Goro:

Chizuru: What I’d really like to ask you is, if you didn’t intend to become your father’s successor, then with what intention did you decide to become an animation director?

Goro: I wonder what my intentions were, exactly. I have this strong feeling that I was just doing it because it was my job.

Whether simply a job or not, Goro was now a world-famous (occasionally infamous) film director. Goro recounts some rare words of insight from his father about what it means to take a seat in the director’s chair:

“When it was decided that I’d be directing Earthsea, my father said something I still remember well. ‘Whether a movie director makes one film or however many, that one time is enough to make you a director forever. Do you understand what a difficult thing this is?’ I could only answer, ‘I have no idea.'”

Up on Poppy Hell

Goro’s direction in life had indeed been permanently changed. Soon, Suzuki was asking Goro to return for a second film. This time, however, Suzuki did not want family disunion to take up all the headlines. Instead, father and son would be creating a film together; Goro would be directing based on a script penned by his father. He recalls how the ice between them finally began to thaw:

Goro: The truth is, my first child was born just between Earthsea and Up on Poppy Hill. To put it simply, the birth of [my father’s] grandchild served as the impetus to take us from our three years of silence to talking a fair bit with each other. I imagine how this happened is pretty understandable. (Laughs.)

Chizuko: So, if his grandchild hadn’t shown up, the silence between you might have continued?

Goro: There is indeed that possiblity.

Chizuko: Would you say that, thanks to the cushioning provided by his grandchild, he finally started listening to you?

Goro: That’s basically it. It’s not like we couldn’t let him see his grandson. (Laughs.)

Father and son were now on speaking terms. Together, they created From Up on Poppy Hill, a nostalgic look at student culture in 1960s Tokyo in the lead up to the Olympics. The film was much more widely praised than Earthsea. But Goro remarks that its production was actually a worse experience for him. Constrained to his father’s script, he felt he had lost much of his creative freedom. (Chizuko wryly asks if he felt like “a director-for-hire.”) She also discusses how the film represents his father’s thematic interests more than his own; the movie deals with the mass student movements of the 1960s, anti-war sentiment, and topics which Miyazaki Sr.’s baby-boomer generation would be more aware of than younger Goro.

CG for Me, Not for Thee

Despite Poppy Hill‘s success, Goro fell into another funk. Suzuki, wisely, suggested he get out from under Ghibli’s thumb, at least for a time. A chance soon arrived, thanks to an invitation from another studio to make a TV series. Now, Goro would have the chance to make something he truly wanted to create himself. He chose Astrid Lindgren’s Ronja the Robber’s Daughter as his source material.

Ronja marked a departure for Goro, not just from the direct auspices of Ghibli, but also from hand-drawn animation as a whole. The idea had first come to him while he was still head of the Ghibli Museum, when he’d handled an exhibition about the films of Pixar. Dealing so closely with materials from the world’s most beloved CG animation studio, Goro came to feel that CG was the wave of the future. Ronya was his chance to challenge himself to make a long-form CG anime for TV in the vein of shows from other parts of the world. This involved enlisting a production team of “gaijin” – foreigners, although Goro pointedly mentioned that in this case, it was more like he was “the foreign director.”

Goro’s work on Ronya only increased his appreciation for CG animation. “I had this preconceived notion that movements in CG animation looked strange, but the reality is that you have more of a chance to control ‘acting’ within CG than with hand-drawn animation. With hand-drawn, you have to be a skilled drawer to animate anything. If there’s potential in the use of CG animation, it has less to do with the fancy camerawork that’s usually mentioned; rather, I came to understand the potential for persistently bringing forth a sort of acting from the CG models.”

Ronya was a satisfying enough experience for Goro that, by the time it finished, he wanted to move on to yet another production. Gone were the days when he considered leaving animation to return to his life as a museum director or park designer. He knew he wanted to continue with CG. Satisfied with his time away from Ghibli, he returned to the studio. Years later, Ghibli announced Goro’s new film, Earwig and the Witch. Goro had brought CG to the world’s most famous purveyor of hand-drawn animation.

Earwigging Out

With Earwig and the Witch being a full-CG film, the possibility of interference from the old guard (and, we assume, his father) was greatly reduced. Click To Tweet

Discussing these points, Chizuko asks Goro what so many Ghibli observers and fans have been thinking: doesn’t this focus on CG animation detract from the legacy of Ghibli’s true “house style” of hand-drawn animation? And doesn’t it represent a break from the past, one which those of the older generation will be unable to overcome?

Goro recognizes this, but reveals that this, in a sense, was his plan. With Earwig and the Witch being a full-CG film, the possibility of interference from the old guard (and, we assume, his father) was greatly reduced. The result was a feeling of much greater freedom in the creation of this film than his other two. Still, he had a sense that he was doing something “heretical” within the context of Studio Ghibli.

Discussing the upcoming film, Chizuko touched on some interesting aspects. The main character, Earwig/Aya (depending on your language of choice) is an orphan, abandoned by her parents. Meanwhile, the adults that surround her are from “the Beatles generation”. Chizuko wondered if this could be another of Goro’s sarcastic attempts at confronting his parents’ generation. Interestingly, Goro explains that what most intrigued him about the original novel (the second by Dianna Wynne Jones adapted by Ghibli, and one suggested to Goro by his father) is what he felt resembled the experience of today’s youth in Japan.

Earwig is a lone child who has to contend with a bevy of adults. Similarily, with Japan’s low birth rate and its preponderance of aging citizens, the youth of Japan must now do the same. Goro recalled family gatherings in his own childhood, where the young cousins would often outnumber the adults. “There are just so few children today. If you go to grandpa and grandma’s for New Years’, you can end up with a single child with everyone else an adult…. It’s the opposite of how it used to be.”

Perhaps most promising is Goro’s mentioning of his parents’ reactions to the film. Miyazaki Sr., upon first viewing, said it was “fun” – a notion echoed by his wife. Given Miyazaki’s usual reaction to “fun,” this seems like fairly high praise.

Hayao’s Past; Goro’s Future

Chizuko and Goro’s discussion within the book becomes wide-ranging towards the end. They both express a great deal of worry about the future of the world. This serves as a launchpad to talk about what role Goro can play as a director for the next generation. His father was a voice for the post-war generation, and all its worries and excesses. Goro can become one for the children who exist “after the coming calamity.” Theirs is a generation that does not expect to live a better life than did their parents.

The theme of parents, of course, is consistent across this whole book, and throughout Goro’s films and sole TV show. It makes sense that quotes on these themes stick with the reader the most after reading. For example, we get a glimpse into Goro’s thoughts about his father’s work from when he was younger:

“I recognize that, at this moment, the best animation in Japan is that which my father creates. You know, I was basically a Miyazaki Hayao fanboy.”

In fact, Goro recounts that 1984’s Nausicaa was his only initial disappointment. He’d loved his father’s original manga enough that the anime version had left him cold. He’d also been so worried over its production that his grades had slipped that semester in high school.

Most heartening, however, is that Goro has taken his mother’s advice to heart; not in terms of avoiding the animation industry, but perhaps in regards to something more important. Goro has tried his hardest to not be the absentee father Miyazaki Sr. was to him. Even during the busy and stressful years of production on From Up on Poppy Hill, Goro made sure to come home in the evening, give his young children a bath, and tuck them into bed.

Then, he’d head back to the office.

There’s no rest for an animator – especially one so in the spotlight as Miyazaki Goro. But, it seems, Goro has learned how to take it slow. And he’s learned how to avoid making some of the mistakes he may resent his father for. He’s found a way to create in the way he wants to create. In this sense, Goro has become a success – no matter what fans, like myself, think of Earwig and the Witch.

Book reviewed:

上野千鶴子, Kanyada. (2020.) どこから来たのかどこへ行くのかゴロウは? 徳間書店。ISBN: 9784198652128

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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