Lately I’ve been binge-watching anime films as I still haven’t seen several influential films that I probably should have by now, especially with 200+ anime series now under my belt. Specifically, I’ve started catching up on Ghibli movies, as they’re the ones I’m lacking from my anime background the most. I’m already a huge fan of Makoto Shinkai and seeing how popular Your Name. is in sales, even surpassing some classic Ghibli films, I wanted to find out why Ghibli has always been popular among Western fans while directors like Shinkai are only finally breaking into the market. While Your Name. is most likely an excellent film (please no spoilers), it’s very tonally Shinkai in both art style and narrative, yet it’s gotten so much more hype than his other works. If it is so stylistically Shinkai, then why is it that very few works of his, minus arguably Five Centimeters Per Second, are not even mentioned by most well-versed anime fans, yet almost every Ghibli film is known even to those who just dabble in Japanese animated films?
If I had to guess as to why based on my personal knowledge of the situation, it would be because of audience, marketing, and availability of Ghibli films compared to many other popular animated directors.
Now, this isn’t any particular critique on the Ghibli films or anyone that enjoys them, as the films I’ve seen are definitely worthy of the praise everyone gives them, even if I’m not the hugest fan. This is mostly because of their extreme focus on their worlds of fantasy, which are always hard for me to get into, but I would still recommend them to anime fans if they wanted a good film, especially if they enjoy fantasy. Makoto Shinkai may be my go-to director if I want to watch an anime film, as he focuses on highly emotional character-driven narratives with his films, which I enjoy. However, I understand those sorts of stories can be hit-and-miss because of the varying emotional impact from person to person. This is most likely one reason Ghibli films rely on adventure and world-exploration as it’s relatively consistent among all viewers since everyone will have similar experiences as the world is revealed.
This may also have some relation to the popularity for Ghibli films among Western fans, as according to MyAnimeList’s Most Popular Anime, almost half of the most popular anime in the Top 50 are of the fantasy genre. This is only part of it though, otherwise other films such as Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children or short films such as Little Witch Academia by You Yoshinari would also be well-known on near the same level as Ghibli, even if both of these films are semi-popular among the general anime populace.
One of the core differences between Ghibli films and the two I listed above, however, is their target demographic. Wolf Children and Little Witch Academia have a much narrower audience, mostly geared towards teens and adults, while Ghibli films are more geared towards a family-oriented audience, taking into account that children could just as easily get into a Ghibli film as an adult could. For example, adults may be interested in Miyazaki’s portrayal of characters shifting from standard good and evil alignments throughout the film, or they may just want to relive the nostalgic desires from their childhood of wanting to be in a fantasy world such as the ones he portrays so well. Children, on the other hand, can also stay interested in the story because of understanding the simplistic concept of good vs evil alignments and the overwhelming fantasy elements of these unique and strange worlds. Several other factors influence this target demographic area as well, such as Miyazaki’s disinterest for some of the more “otaku” aspects of anime and having iconic animation and directing of outstanding quality.
Because of these factors, it also makes it easier to market towards those particular demographics, especially when there are so many positive aspects of these films that everyone can enjoy. Although, many other popular Japanese filmmakers and directors are successful in their own demographics, even if their works differ heavily from Miyazaki’s style and approach to animated films. While this means that the demographics for other non-Ghibli films may be smaller, that doesn’t make them bad movies; it just makes them underexposed to the Western market. Studio Ghibli has been well-established in the anime film business for quite some time (31+ years), while even some of the older Japanese filmmakers like Satoshi Kon didn’t even begin their filmmaking careers until almost 10 years after Ghibli already had several productions, around the same time when Ghibli was about to enter into an international distribution contract with Disney.
This was overwhelmingly positive for Ghibli, as they could extend their demographic appeal to more people using well-made dub tracks for those that preferred them and also make these films widely available to the general consumer market, increasing these films’ popularity. Ghibli’s contract with Disney was likely one of the key factors in their popularity among the West. While anime may have still been a niche market at the time, these films appealed to much more than the stereotypical anime demographic.
This contract, however, may have caused other independently animated films from Japan to be overshadowed due to Disney’s massive influence in the West, even if the directors of those films were attached to well-known anime studios. Because of the effectiveness of Disney’s marketing and the lack of effective distribution methods for anime films at the time, it wouldn’t be an outrageous claim to say that Ghibli films gained a lot of their popularity solely because of being well-marketed and well-distributed compared to other Japanese animated films.
This isn’t to say that Miyazaki’s or other Ghibli films aren’t good enough to reach the current level of popularity on their own, as they easily could, but disregarding Disney’s contract as a factor could result in certain biases that Westerners may gather about Japanese animated films. It’s rather unusual for an entire studio and/or director’s works to have almost half of their entire library of works influential enough to be on the Top 50 Most Popular Anime films on MyAnimeList, and is especially surprising when people have to make separate film recommendations excluding Ghibli just to make other animated films even noticed by the general populace. While I’m sure there are many outside factors contributing to this, the sole fact that there are no equivalents to the popularity of Ghibli is telling in its own regard.
Films made by Ghibli may be more popular than other well-known Japanese animation filmmakers, but this also is assisted by Disney’s contract with Ghibli in terms of distribution and availability of these movies to general consumers. Because of Disney being partnered with Ghibli film releases, the Blurays and DVDs are readily available for an affordable price to those who would want to purchase them. This is unlike other anime films that may be obtainable through a licensor such as Funimation and Sentai Filmworks, which may be more expensive than Disney-licensed Ghibli films, and there are a number of influential films that this isn’t even a practical option for. That is, unless you feel like paying an upwards of $50+ for Bluray editions of films like Perfect Blue or Five Centimeters per Second.
Films like these may not even be licensed in specific countries in the West, making them not available and also expensive to those who would want to obtain them via legal means. For non-legal means, this requires for a release to have English subtitles come with the Japanese edition of a Bluray, for another licensor to pick up the series in another English-speaking country, or for a fansubbing group to translate the film.
While all of these scenarios happen often, the films selected are seemingly random and scarce compared to the amount of animated films available. Many films have gone unnoticed and unwatched for a lack of any translation for English-speaking viewers, whether those options be legal or illegal. Because of Ghibli’s license with Disney, almost every film is near guaranteed that they will have an English release of some sort, while other directors and studios cannot guarantee this luxury to occur, and therefore lessening the exposure and popularity of their work.
However, the distribution problem is becoming less of one, with distributors now picking up lesser-known films, and in some cases, even giving them theatrical releases, which is an absolute positive for the exposure of these films. As licensing Japanese animated films for English-speaking audiences becomes more prevalent, we may see more theatrical releases of these films, similar to how Your Name. has both a scheduled Bluray release and a theatrical one, just a couple of months after Japan finished their theatrical showings of the film. Eventually, I hope to see animated films from Japan in the same state as simulcasted anime series, with almost all having a subtitled release for the English audience, and hopefully, even options for other languages as well.
I feel that Ghibli films will always remain popular, and I have no real issues with this being the case. The films produced by Studio Ghibli are an influential part of animated filmmaking and allow for the viewer to explore fantasy lands unlike many other animated works. My concern is that other directors’ films are lacking in exposure because of the multitude of factors unrelated to the quality of the Ghibli films. A multitude of anime viewers may be missing out on the experiences provided by films of other iconic directors such as Satoshi Kon, Makoto Shinkai, and many unknown others that may be out there.
I would like to see other directors such as those gain more exposure than they have now, as I feel that it’s because of Ghibli’s overwhelming market influence that many other amazing and spectacular films get overshadowed and unfairly compared to them without considering these unique factors. As the market continues to expand and encompass more animated films, I think most of these problems will also begin to disappear, as exposure is a large factor in all of the points I mentioned above. These subliminal factors influence our viewing habits more than we may think they do and are always something to be considered when looking at series popularity, especially in a world where simulcasting, Bluray releases, and theatrical screenings in the West are growing at a rate that the anime industry has never seen before. I hope that by exploring the reasons behind why certain media may be popular, we can better understand why viewers may like them and expose them to more media that they may potentially like as well.