Most of the Ghibli fans in Asia come to know its works through small screens, like TV sets, PC screens, or maybe smartphones. Now, Ghibli animations – from 30 or 40 years ago – are hitting theaters in China for the first time.

The year was 1984. The Japanese movie market was dominated by animations for small kids, and ‘aidoru’ flicks for teenagers, plus the biannual ‘Tora-san’ movies. The blockbuster of the year was “Legend of the Seven Samurai (里見八犬伝, 1984)” grossing 2.3 billion yen. The movie was produced by Kadokawa, cashing in on popularity of Hiroko Yakushimaru, the most enigmatic ‘aidoru’ of the era. But the bigger craze was storming in the TV arena. Day after day, people were glued to tabloid shows reporting “Los Scandal”, the alleged contract murder of a Japanese woman in Los Angeles by her husband. And there was the Glico-Morinaga Case, an extortion case perpetuated by a mysterious individual. Amid all these fiasco, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (風の谷のナウシカ, 1984)” was released in March. The movie was a modest success, grossing less than 800 miliion .

Trailer for “Legend of the Seven Samurai (1984)”, directed by Kinji Fukasaku

The year was 1988. TV was still the king. In 1980’s, NHK TV documentary series “The Silk Road” created a new standard in TV production. Visually stunning and intellectually stimulating, the program also aroused viewer’s interests in China, especially in its long history. Naturally, the movie producers tried to win big with this fad. “The Silk Road (敦煌, 1988)“, one of the biggest Japanese movie production ventured in China to date, earned 4.5 billion while “The Last Emperor (1987)“, directed by Bernardo Berrolucci, gathered 2.4 billion. The most popular anime character also traveled to medieval China: “Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West” was another Silk Road fantasy, earning 1.4 billion. Again, Ghibli was at odds with the current of the time. Instead of chasing horizons in the vast land in China, Hayao Miyazaki went on searching the ethereal being in the realm of neighborhood. The initial theatrical release of “My Neighbor Totoro (となりのトトロ, 1988)” was below expectations: only 590 million in box office sales.

This was the time when the general public considered animation as entertainment for preschoolers, and the studios regarded theatrical animation movies as marketable extension of popular TV anime shows. Unquestionably, repeated TV broadcast of these Ghibli movies and VHS release in the following years greatly contributed the popularity of “Nausicaä” and “Totoro”. Four decades later, while the Ghibli works are ever popular and almost all titles are available on Blu-ray, many of us, especially younger Ghibli fans, have never seen these works on the big screen. The experience has always been on a smaller screen, sometimes with compromised visual quality. Because that has been the only mode of experience we had access to, we have never questioned its authenticity.

In recent years we begin to see theatrical screening of the Ghibli works in retrospectives, film festivals or, in some cases, commercial distribution.

In 2018, “My Neighbor Totoro” was finally released theatrically in China, followed by “Spirited Away”. In Hong Kong, five films were screened to commemorate Isao Takahata in last June. In January 2019, OMSI in Portland held Studio Ghibli Retrospective, including the “Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki (2016)”, the documentary about the legendary filmmaker. GKIDS, the north American distributor for Ghibli works, is running Studio Ghibli Fest since last April. There was one retrospective in Paris in 2018, and another one in Brussels last year. In the age of video streaming, the Ghibli’s works are revived in theaters more frequently than, say, Disney.

Toys of Horned Owls. A folk tale passed down in Zoshigaya area from 19th century tells a story about a girl and her sick mother. One of the visual inspirations for Totoro is said to be this horned owl.

These Ghibli works are unquestionably popular across all age groups. Does watching these works on the big screen provide different experience from those of TV, DVDs and Blu-rays? If it does, how different? Since the Ghibli works, early ones in particular, were meant be appreciated in theaters, we wonder if the big screen presentation can reclaim aspects of visual and audio elements that might have been lost in TV broadcasts. In the era of Netflix, Apple TV and all the other digital streaming services, what incentives does the big screen presentation of the movie, especially the animes, have?

These are the questions I asked Yu Kawa Shizuka and Ryunosuke Goji, who have just experienced “Nausicaä” and “Totoro” on the big screens for the first time. In Part II of this series, we will start the discussion about their experiences.

Note: About the Digitized Masters in Theatrical Releases

Yu Kawa and Goji saw “My Neighbor Totoro” in Shanghai (2018) and “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” in Chofu, Tokyo (2019).

“Nausicaä” screening in Chofu was a part of “Chofu Cinema Festival 2019″, presented by the Foundation for the Promotion of Chofu City’s Culture and Community. Daiei-Kadokawa was one of the committees of the Festival, and Daiei, before the merger, had been a part of Tokuma Shoten Group. Studio Ghibli had been a subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten Group. That connection helped to realize this screening, according to the Foundation [1].

The DCP master for the “Nausicaä” was created by Studio Ghibli, using 4K scan from the original negative. According to the essay by Toshio Suzuki [2], the team in the Ghibli Studio carried out the digitization process very cautiously. They consulted Miyazaki himself, who had been rather critical of digitization of old movies in general. Miyazaki particularly disliked the “cosmetic” aspect of the restoration process, where the old material is “resurrected” through over-color-correction or over-saturation and the look becomes “glittering” and “vulgar”. Then, the Ghibli team decided to go simple: remove specks and scratches, but do not correct the color errors in the original material.
The sound was monaural, because the DCP material had the single-track mono sound. This is due to the fact that the soundtrack for “Nausicaä” was mono during the original theatrical release. In fact, even the “Nausicaä” Blu-Ray contains only mono sound, even though it is 2 channel audio. Of course. In Chofu screenings, they used only one speaker in the middle of the screen, rather than using multiple speakers for monaural sound.

The DCP master for “Totoro” in China was the newest digital transfer created in 2017, according to the CRI online article (Japanese).

GKIDS, the U.S. distributor of the Ghibli’s entire catalogue, has been a great advocate of independent, hand-drawn animation films, and successfully brought Ghibli’s works on screen. It is known that Disney, the global distributor of Ghibli’s works since ’90s, was not so enthusiastic about bringing them to market to say the least, let alone on screen. Though Disney did release the major works like “Nausicaä”, “Totoro” on DVD and Blu-Ray and made them accessible to wider audience, they were not interested in resurrecting them in theaters. Disney brought GKIDS into the Ghibli deal in 2011, and GKIDS acquired theatrical distribution rights. And in 2017, Disney offloaded the distribution rights for disks to GKIDS, except “The Wind Rises” and “The Grave of Fireflies”.

[1] Private communication between Yu Kawa and the Foundation for the Promotion of Chofu City’s Culture and Community.^

[2] From the leaflet included in Japanese “Nausicaä” Blu-Ray.^