When Hayao Miyazaki retired last year at the age of 73, animation lost one of its most accomplished and dedicated practitioners. His work, comprising 11 features and numerous shorts, needs little introduction: films such as My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle have long since etched themselves on the minds of audiences all over the world.
Miyazaki's final film, The Wind Rises, was a bravely individual parting shot. A drama about the designer of the legendary Japanese fighter plane, the Mitsubishi Zero, it felt like a final, heartfelt statement from a truly great artist - and a fitting capstone to a remarkable career. But with Miyazaki having set aside the painstaking work he put into animating his films over the course of some 48 years, the inevitable question arises: what will become of Studio Ghibli, the company he co-founded with fellow animator Isao Takahata in 1985? Can it survive the absence of its most famous and prolific animator?
Worryingly, perhaps, Takahata has also made his final film. The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, based on a well-known folk tale, came out in Japan last year and was screened at Cannes in March. Warmly received by critics, Princess Kaguya serves as the swansong for the 79-year-old animator of Grave Of The Fireflies and Pom Poko.
So what does Studio Ghibli's future hold? It's important to note that, unlike Disney Animation Studios, which has several hundred artists working on its feature films at any one time, Studio Ghibli is a relatively small operation - as few as 30 animators are said to have worked with Miyazaki, for example, on The Wind Rises. When Telegraph film critic Robbie Collin visited Studio Ghibli earlier this year, he spoke of a "strange atmosphere," and floated the sad possibility that "Miyazaki's retirement might be the first step to a broader winding down."
Toshio Suzuki, another Ghibli founder and producer, seemed uncertain as to where Studio Ghibli might go next. "We have no future plans," he told Collin. "We just want to take some time off."
More worryingly still, Hayao Miyazaki was talking about shutting down his studio four years ago:
"Suzuki-san is making a dissolution program for Ghibli," Miyazaki told Cut Magazine. "No joke, we talked about it the other day. For example, Ghibli should be able to continue with about five staff members as a copyright management company even if we smash the studio. So, Ghibli can say ‘We stop film production. Goodbye’. I do not have to be there."
At the time of writing, Studio Ghibli has only one film in its pipeline, called When Marnie Was There. All other projects, according to the Telegraph article published in May, are currently suspended. If Studio Ghibli does have a long-term future, and it isn't to be wound-down as is feared, then it surely lies in its younger animators.
Hiromasa Yonebayashi is one of them. A relatively spry 40-something, Yonebayashi has been at Studio Ghibli since the 90s, and like so many of its artists, has steadily worked his way up through its ranks over the course of several years. His first work appeared in Princess Mononoke, where he drew the in-between frames which give each animated scene their fluid movement. From there, he worked his way up to the level of key animator on such films as Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle and Ponyo.
It was in 2010 that Yonebayashi finally rose to the position of director, and The Secret World Of Arrietty was his first film. An adaptation of The Borrowers by Mary Norton, it bore the hallmarks of a film directed by Miyazaki himself: a resourceful heroine, a gentle, nostalgic atmosphere, and a keen eye for the wonder of the natural world - the depiction of falling rain drops, as viewed by a tiny person mere inches high, were pure Miyazaki.
Although criticised as being a little too lightweight by some reviewers, Arietty was nevertheless an assured debut from Yonebayashi, and from a visual standpoint, a worthy bearer of the Studio Ghibli banner. When Marnie Was There is the director's second feature, and while it's recognisably a Ghibli film, it's tone is subtly different from Arietty.
Again based on a children's novel, this one by Joan G Robinson, it's about a lonely young girl who befriends Marnie - a girl who turns out to be a ghost. With its supernatural theme and melancholic atmosphere, it's a step away from the breezy Arietty, and could give Yonebayashi the chance to put his own stamp on the style of animation established by his former mentor. The first trailer certainly hints at a film as quietly captivating as we'd expect.
Yonebayashi isn't the only director of promise at Studio Ghibli, either. There's also Hayao's son, Goro Miyazaki, who may yet emerge as another creative light in his father's absence. Goro Miyazaki's debut Tales From Earthsea, a dramatic fantasy adapted from Ursula K Le Guin's novel, was regarded as a disappointment by some, and even its author suggested that its less convincing moments were due to "too much responsibility was shouldered by someone not equipped for it."
Goro seemed on much firmer ground with his next film, the gentle period drama From Up On Poppy Hill (2011). Both rich in visual detail and intelligently written, it felt like the work of a director in firm control of his craft. Should he get the chance, Goro may have the creativity to make even better features for the studio in the future.
When it comes out in Japan later this month, When Marnie Was There will be Studio Ghibli's 20th feature-length animation, and despite Toshio Suzuki's suggestion that he has "no future plans", we hope that it isn't the last. Ghibli's recent films, Arietty and From Up On Poppy Hill, not to mention its beautiful work on the videogame Ni No Kuni, point to a studio still capable of flying the flag for the increasingly neglected art of hand-drawn animation, even without the creative might of Miyazaki and Takahata to lead the way.