Miyazaki Hayao’s The Wind Rises is now playing, and Takahata Isao’s The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no Monogatari) is due out this fall.
Wanting to know how Suzuki Toshio, the Representative Director of Studio Ghibli and the producer of these two works, handled these two geniuses named Miyazaki and Takahata, Suzuki’s longtime acquaintance, Shibuya Yoichi, the President of Rockin’ On, interviewed him for over ten hours. While you should read his latest book, Kaze ni Fukarete if you want the entire interview, we share part of it here.
Suzuki: Actually, I didn’t really think about who the movie would be targeted at, be it adults or kids. I just thought that I would regret it if I didn’t have Miya-san [Editor’s note: Miyazaki] make a movie with a war theme. Having known him for so long, I knew I was the only one who could say that to him. Miya-san clearly said in the press conference that when I said I wanted his next movie to be The Wind Rises, he thought I was out of my mind; that we couldn’t do an animated film on those kinds of subjects. But after many discussions, we ended up doing it. I just wanted to see it as a viewer. I mean, he knows war so well. He loves fighter planes, but hates war. I realized one day that Miya-san’s not the only person like that. So many Japanese people have thought that way since the war. I thought if he could make a movie like that, it would give him a clue about how to live the next era. That was my grand deceit.
Suzuki: Yes, I was. And I am very satisfied. I really think so. Whatever your fate is, you can only do what you can with the talent given to you. I can really understand that idea.
This is the first time in twenty-five years that works from Miyazaki and Takahata have been released at the same time: My Neighbor Totoro (Tonari no Totoro, directed by Miyazaki) and Grave of the Fireflies (directed by Takahata) both came out in 1988. Back then, Suzuki was editor-in-chief of Animage magazine at Tokuma Shoten, and was involved in the production of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) and Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa, 1986) during his years as editor. Both films enjoyed box office success, with Nausicaä drawing 910,000 viewers and Castle in the Sky 770,000. Suzuki helped to found Studio Ghibli in 1985.
Suzuki: I was taking it fairly easy—I thought any project plan that was submitted would pass. But Totoro was rejected. I mean, it was set in 1950s Japan, and was about a child’s interaction with a ghost, right? The people who were putting up the money didn’t like 1950s Japan. That surprised me. So I met with Miya-san, Takahata, and Yamashita (Tatsumi), who was in charge of movies at Tokuma at the time, and Ogata (Editor’s note: Ogata Hideo, first editor-in-chief of Animage) over dinner, and tried asking Yamashita again. A managing director at the time, Yamashita said that a movie like the one we were going for was frankly pretty difficult. He wanted us to do things like Nausicaä or Castle in the Sky —movies with foreign names.
Suzuki: Well, Takahata went ahead and “translated” this to Miya-san, saying that Yamashita was likely right. What foreign names like Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä meant was that the movies were adventure stories. And that’s what Miya-san was best at, and what viewers probably wanted. Takahata said that, in that sense, fans don’t necessarily want Totoro. But then—and this is where Takahata chimed in—he said in front of Miyazaki, “Could we never make a Totoro?” That had a big impact on Yamashita. Perplexed, Yamashita said, “Okay, then maybe we could try it as a video.” The meeting ended on that note. Everyone, including President Tokuma Yasuyoshi, was against it, and just as we were looking for a way, a man by the name of Hatsumi (Kunioki) of Shinchosha sent word through a friend of mine that he wanted to see me, and visited my home. He said that he came by the order of Shinchosha’s president at the time, Sato Ryoichi. Sato wanted Shinchosha to do manga or animation. Hatsumi was told that he was in charge, and he had to come up with something. So he said to me, “Suzuki-san, I don’t mean to criticize what you folks do, but I am against Shinchosha doing animation or manga. I hate to say this, but I am here to ask you how I could convince our president to give this up.” [Laughs]
Suzuki: As he was telling me this, I remembered Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no Haka). I had read the book when I was eighteen, and had loved it. So I said to Hatsumi, “Then how about Grave of the Fireflies? We’ll do that as an animation.” If Tokuma does Totoro and Shinchosha does Grave of the Fireflies and we release them at the same time, we’ll create a buzz. While I wanted to do Totoro, I also wanted Takahata to direct something. So I suggested it to him; he ultimately agreed, and we produced it together. And that was where Ogata butted his head in again. [Laughs] After the success of Nausicaä and Castle in the Sky, Ogata turned to Takahata and asked if he would do a film, since he was a director, after all. This Ogata guy really had no thought for others, and went on to say, “Let’s do a film that goes something like, ‘Japan lost the war and the adults lost all their confidence, but the kids were full of energy’.”
Takahata ran with the idea and brought in a book, and the two discussed it, but it wasn’t quite right. Takahata started muttering, “Maybe it’s not going to work after all,” when I asked him, “Do you know Grave of the Fireflies?” He said, “I never read it, but I know the plot.” “Do you think it would work?” I asked, and he said he’d go and read it. He did, and told me he would do it. That’s why I threw that out when I met Hatsumi. I knew Shinchosha had the rights to the original novel.
Suzuki: I guess I was one right there. So I went to Yamashita and said, “If Totoro alone won’t do, then how about tagging it with Grave of the Fireflies?” Well, that really fueled Yamashita’s anger. He said, “As if ghosts weren’t enough—you want a grave as well?” [Laughs]
Suzuki: Still, I knew it would be very difficult to get a go on Totoro, so I asked Hatsumi to do me a favor. “While I’ll do my part to tell our president about this, could you have President Sato give President Tokuma a call?” I thought that would make Tokuma give us the green light. In other words, the plan was for Shinchosha and Tokuma to join hands and each create a movie that they would release as a double feature. Shinchosha has a longer history than Tokuma, and since that’s the kind of thing that presidents of publishing companies really care about, President Tokuma would have to accept if the president of Shinchosha requested it. Well, Hatsumi actually went through with it, and the rest was quite easy.
Suzuki: Miya-san had drawn a picture as an image for the Totoro project. It’s that famous one with Totoro standing at the bus stop. I had said to him, “This would make a fun movie, wouldn’t it?” But Miya-san had some regrets about it. About ten years before that, he had proposed the Totoro plan for a special program for NTV and had been rejected. So Miya-san was hesitant about Totoro. I knew that, and that’s why I told him we should do it now. And that’s why we didn’t have a story yet when I said we should go with this. We only had that one picture.
Suzuki: I just loved it, period. I thought it would make a fun movie.
Suzuki: Crudely, something like E.T. And then Grave of the Fireflies might have been Forbidden Games. Sort of like a layman’s idea of, “Hey, a double feature of E.T. and Forbidden Games might work.”
Suzuki: That’s how I explained it to the two of them. Miya-san too, was like, “You think we can do this?” We wanted to do it if we could, but we simply didn’t have a story yet. It ultimately turned into what it is now, but we took some time to get there.
Suzuki: Yes, I was. I had seen the work he did in the past, and was convinced he was totally talented. I was really happy to have this opportunity to have him make a movie. I was also starting to understand so much about the relationship between Miya-san and Takahata, so I felt that if the two competed against each other, they would create exciting stuff.
Suzuki: No, not at all. Just a real novice. Really, it wasn’t until much later that I began considering myself as a producer. I felt that I was simply helping out with spare skills. I had to get to Only Yesterday (Omoide Poroporo) [Editor’s note: Directed by Takahata, 1991] to really feel that I had to take this producer job seriously.
Suzuki: No, I didn’t think of that either. I don’t think of those things. I mean, having no vision is what characterizes the three of us. We have no vision. For thirty-five years we’ve been going head-to-head together on so many different opportunities, but we’ve never talked about our past. We always talk about the present. There was never a single discussion like, “Wasn’t it so-and-so back then?” And don’t ask me why. The three of us are all just like that. Miya-san’s an odd guy himself, you know. Two or three years ago, he came running up the stairs and stumbled into the room, panting, “I figured it out! I figured out why Pak-san [Editor’s note: Takahata], me, and Suzuki get along so well.” I was like, “What’s wrong with this guy?” but I said, “Why?” and he said, “None of us respects the others!”
Suzuki: Well, in a way, Miya-san had been monitoring the production progress of Grave of the Fireflies, just so he could keep a little ahead of it. I’m always sorry to say this, but Grave of the Fireflies was never finished. That was really, really tough.
Suzuki: It was a man named Hara [Editor’s note: Hara Toru]. But in all practicality, and particularly with Grave of the Fireflies, I was the one who had to face up to Takahata. A movie not being completed is an emotionally difficult thing. But I believe the reason why I was able to overcome it was because I was a reporter. In other words, I was an onlooker. Reality was unfolding in front of me, but I was able to observe it as an onlooker even though I was part of it, and I had somehow acquired that skill at a certain point in time. Without it, I couldn’t have survived.
Suzuki: No, he didn’t.
Suzuki: Absurd, isn’t it? That’s why he had established himself as a director.
Suzuki: Well, in the final days, he didn’t even show up to work.
Suzuki: He was really consistent there. I called his wife on the third day of his no-show and told her I wanted to go see him, and she told me that he wanted me to wait at a coffee shop in front of Oizumi Gakuen Station. So I went in the coffee shop and waited, but he didn’t come. I didn’t feel like calling him, either, so I decided not to do anything, and he finally showed up at 8 p.m. that night. And I went there at lunchtime.
Suzuki: You bet it was. He probably thought a lot during that time. He abruptly asked me if I was familiar with [Paul] Grimault’s animated film, La Bergère et le Ramoneur. “No, I’m not,” I said. Then he said, “Well, the producer of this film procured the funding and tried to make it, and Grimault spent about three years on it but couldn’t complete it. He spent another two years on it but couldn’t get it done. The producer couldn’t wait any longer, so he took the unfinished film, edited it a little and released it, and Grimault sued him. And this is how the French court responded at the time: It is perfectly logical that the producer, who has invested money and spent years delaying release to no avail, would want to release the film to get a return on his investment. But it is also understandable that the director doesn’t want to release an unfinished work. So why not include that whole story in the beginning of the film and release it as it is? Now, can you do this to our movie?” And so we went into this “No, I can’t” “You have to” “No, I can’t” kind of quarrel. Finally, just around closing time for the coffee shop, Takahata suggested that we do this and that to the two sections that would be whited out on the screen, to which I said, “Okay, let’s do that.” And that’s how we went ahead and released an unfinished work.
After further twists and turns, they finally released Grave of the Fireflies, but together with My Neighbor Totoro, box office revenue was only 588 million yen.
Suzuki: It was terrible in terms of box office records.
Suzuki: Not even close. The release date wasn’t good either, and this was a project that we initially tried to sell to Toei but were refused. Even Toho did it reluctantly.
Suzuki: You know, we did what we could, so I was fine with the poor attendance. Not feeling down; nothing. I mean, we made the movies on our own, fully confident of ourselves, so I thought, “What does it matter if people don’t come to see them?” But I would realize that that’s not right come Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyubin). This time it was Toei that released it for us, but there was one person who I actually appreciated—or, should I say, who made me want to make a hit movie for the first time in my life. He was called Harada, and he was in charge of distribution and he said two alarming things to me. One was when we were in the midst of production; he said, “Suzuki-san, what’s this? We decided to distribute this movie because Yamato Transport agreed to a tie-in. But why isn’t Yamato buying any advance tickets? This wasn’t what we agreed on.” The second was, “Suzuki-san, I’m sure Miyazaki-san’s going to end his career with Kiki. Yeah, I’m sure of it. ’Cause he’s done Nausicaä, Castle in the Sky, and Totoro. So Kiki should gross much lower. And that’ll really be the end.” That really got on my nerves. So I went straight to NTV after hearing this, and asked for funding. Because I wanted to make it a hit. “Teaming up with a TV station should make a hit”—that’s about all the wisdom I had, really; that was it.
Kiki’s Delivery Service became a major hit, grossing over 2.1 billion yen. The rise of Studio Ghibli afterward is history. Princess Mononoke (Mononoke Hime; directed by Miyazaki, 1997) and Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi; directed by Miyazaki, 2001) in particular recorded record revenue for Japanese movies.
Suzuki: This latest opportunity for Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao to work together was really exciting. With The Tale of The Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no Monogatari) and The Wind Rises (Kaze Tachinu) offering that opportunity, it has been truly fulfilling for me for the last year or two. It was so much fun. Although I unfortunately wasn’t able to immerse myself quite as thoroughly in both works as I had before. And as of now, Kaguya isn’t finished yet, so it’s very interesting.
Suzuki: In terms of how much money went into it, there’s one thing everyone involved keeps telling me. Some may not be telling it to me, but they are feeling it in their gut. Everyone thinks we definitely can’t make a profit this time.
Suzuki: No, with both. For the last two movies, I didn’t go for individual contracts. In other words, the contract was about how much money the two movies would need, and how we would sell them. So the reasons why I thought about releasing them on the same day was—although there are actually many reasons—one, that we could save quite a lot of money that way (doing two together is a lot easier); and two, was what we requested of Toho—let’s not announce how much each movie grossed. Only how much the two of them grossed. I had always wanted to do it that way. Because people compare movies based on how much they grossed, and I hate that; it hurts. I wanted the two works to record a figure that no one had ever seen before. Well, unfortunately, Kaguya is delayed now.
Suzuki: It’s still too early right now to be sure; you never know what might happen. It’s a rough ride. But that’s what’s good. It makes me happy for some reason.
Suzuki: That’s right.
Suzuki: Really, I honestly thought that. I mean, here’s a guy who loves fighter planes and hates war. If he made a movie about war and fighter planes, what would it look like? That would be something that would be fun to see. I want to see it. And I guess I wanted to share what I feel is “fun” with an audience. That’s really it.
Suzuki: You’re right.
Suzuki: I wonder. I guess I’m impudent, huh?
Suzuki: I’m always like that. Even with Princess Mononoke; I mean, Miya-san didn’t particularly want to do it. I pushed it on him.
Suzuki: Yes. I wanted to see it.
Suzuki: I wonder if I’m possessed.
Suzuki: Really? I was the one who wanted to do it.
Suzuki: Normally, it would be.
Suzuki: You’re right. I wonder why I decided to do it.
Suzuki: I personally thought that after My Neighbors the Yamadas [Ho-hokekyo Tonari no Yamada Kun; 1999], that it would be extremely difficult to have Takahata make another one. But during all that, there was one project that Takahata really wanted to do, and that was Heike Monogatari (The Tale of the Heike). Deep down, I really wanted to see that. I mean, I was curious—in a different way than the action movies that Miya-san makes—as to what it would look like under Takahata’s direction. But the animator who was central to this project—a guy called Tanabe Osamu—said he didn’t want to draw people killing each other, so we were like, ‘What’ll we do now?” Then I remembered that I had once talked with Takahata about Japan’s oldest novel, called Kaguyahime, and that someone should really make a movie out of it someday, so I asked Takahata, “What do you think?”
In fact, this turn of events owes a lot to the presence of Ujiie-san. [Editor’s note: Ujiie Seiichiro, the former chairman of Nippon Television, among other posts. He passed away in 2011.] Ujiie-san simply loved Takahata’s works. And his favorite was Yamadas. Just after Spirited Away became a blockbuster hit, Ujiie-san was totally straight in telling Miya-san, “Congratulations on the success of Spirited Away, Miya-chan. It seems that it’s a work of great artistic value as well.” “It seems,” he said. Why? Because, in his words, “I don’t get it.” He was the guy who could say to Miya-san’s face, “My friend Tsujii Takashi (Tsutsumi Seiji) of Seibu was praising it hands down, and he really explained it to me. But you see, I had to hear it explained to know how good it is.” And he went on to say that he thought Takahata’s work was the best in Ghibli. He singled out My Neighbors the Yamadas as the one he loved the most. And then he turns to me and says, “Hear me, Toshi-chan. Make Takahata create another movie for me to take to heaven.” Takahata’s so blessed, isn’t he? So I tell Takahata to make Kaguya, and Takahata, in his usual way, says, “Why do I have to do it?” “Well, okay Takahata; I know very well that when you said someone should make it, you didn’t mean it should be you. But come on, Ujiie-san loves you so much, and that’s why I’m asking you to make Kaguya, so could you?” After all that talk, Takahata finally set his mind on it, and he’s been working on it endlessly ever since.
By the way, let me add that I felt that this Kaguya project was sort of fated. It goes something like this. Fifty years ago, back when Takahata was at Toei Animation, a live-action film director called Uchida Tomu came to the company to work on an animation project, and one of the plans was Taketori Monogatari (The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter). You’d have to ask Takahata for details of the time, but anyway, they had the young people submit plans on what perspective to take. Takahata turned in a report that suggested one. Well, this is the perspective Takahata has taken in making Kaguyahime today. Speaking from my personal film experiences, the first film that I saw as a child that really amazed me was Uchida’s. It was a film called Daibosatsu Toge. I later saw Kiga Kaikyo and many others, but of all the swordfight films that characterized Toei, this Daibosatsu Toge really stunned me.
Suzuki: I even read the novel later. Believe me, I watched all of Uchida Tomu’s films. They include great ones, like Yoto Monogatari: Hana no Yoshiwara Hyakunin-giri. So here we have a project that was planned under Uchida’s direction, that Takahata had worked on, that we’re doing fifty years later. Somewhere inside of me, I feel that this is sort of fate. Miyazaki Hayao also singles out an Uchida work, Tasogare Sakaba, as a film that shocked him. I loved this film, and Miya-san loved it too. Miya-san never watches films on video, but when he said he wanted to see Tasogare Sakaba once again, I brought in a video.
So, after this and that, we’re working on Kaguya. But in that sense, Takahata had to wait fifty years to do it.
Translated from “Special Interview: Miyazaki Hayao to Takahata Isao—Futari no Tensai wo Ugokasu Enjin toshite (Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao—Serving as the driver for two geniuses),” Chuokoron, September 2013, pp. 152–163. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [September 2013]