Disney's first wave in the new format included Hayao Miyazaki's classics My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Castle in the Sky pressed and repackaged in association with the DVD and Blu-Ray release of Ponyo. While I certainly had my criticisms of the disks, the beautiful presentation made for a handsome collection that left one excited for future releases. Those releases are now here, diminishing this excitement.
Wave two consists of only two films, the first of which is Goro Miyazaki's Tales from Earthsea. As a fantasy film loosely adapting books from Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea saga, Tales from Earthsea was sharply criticized in its home country. Though not a poor film in itself, it does lack a certain emotional pull and dramatic presentation that relegates it to "adequacy". Unfortunately, when you are the son of Hayao Miyazaki, an "adequate" film surpassing most of what is made in the United States is still an act of treason. Furthermore, Earthsea was overshadowed by the increasingly public face of the familial issues between father and son. It is hard not to draw parallels between Goro's comments about his oft-absentee, workaholic, difficult, perfectionist father and Earthsea's opening scene of a young prince assassinating the king.
Before getting too carried away, Earthsea did top the domestic box-office on its opening weekend, stayed there for five weeks, and became the fourth top-grossing Japanese movie of 2006. It is, I think, also worth mentioning that Earthsea landed in Goro's lap because Hayao was called off to pick up the pieces of Howl's Moving Castle, itself being Hayao's least-inspired picture. Still, critical opinion decried that Miyazaki the Younger's first movie is not Miyazaki the Elder's Oscar-winner.
Probably out of contractual obligation, Disney ran a very limited theatrical engagement of Earthsea starting August 13th, 2010, limping along for three weekends and showing in only five theatres in the United States. Lacking a Miramax wing through which to distribute a PG-13 film, Disney chose to quietly bury it. Which brings us to the current DVD release, which is a surprising choice in itself. With father Hayao's whole catalogue open to them, they chose to quietly pump out Earthsea. Though it retains the price point of the previous Ghibli DVDs, we are only given one disk this time. We have been spared the superfluous second disk of storyboards, but nothing of value and no savings were added in its place.
The second release of the second wave was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on Blu-Ray. Earlier this month I already wrote my observations on the film and the manga from which it was adapted. Similar to the Ponyo release, this includes a Blu-Ray packaged with a DVD and a digital copy. Unlike Ponyo, this Nausicaä is not being supported by a straight DVD copy in the new format. This is an obvious frustration for those who invested in the new format, replacing pricey copies of Totoro, Castle in the Sky and Kiki with their new versions, only to see themselves stuck at Nausicaä. Furthermore, reports have exposed that the Blu-Ray version suffers only limited circulation, being quite difficult to find in many locales.
Suffice it to say, with only Tales from Earthsea on DVD and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on a Blu-Ray of limited circulation without DVD support, the future of Studio Ghibli DVDs distributed by Disney looks bleak. Why is this? Why is Disney choosing to do what looks to all intents and purposes like smothering the franchise?
Well, a US box office pull of just over $46,000 for Earthsea (0.1% of its worldwide gross, or roughly equivalent to my student loan) might have something to do with it. That is not a fair figure though: it is evident that Disney deliberately destroyed the film. Let's consider Ponyo instead, which did receive much wider distribution (927 US theatres) and more concerted advertising. Overall, Hayao Miyazaki's last feature film drew nearly $15,100,000, debuting ninth on its opening weekend. That was still better than Howl's Moving Castle, which made $4.7 million and debuted in 14th place across 202 theatres, on the heels of the goodwill inspired by Spirited Away. Still, Howl garnered the Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination that Ponyo missed.
In other words, Ghibli is not the golden ticket that Disney might have hoped for. The marketeers are doubtless aware that Studio Ghibli is a niche product in a niche market. By contrast, the franchise-tentpole film Tron Legacy did three-times better in its opening weekend than did Ponyo in its entire run. Figures and antics like these lend credence to the suspicion that Disney did not negotiate the rights to Ghibli's Region 1 distribution in good faith, but merely so that other distributors couldn't scoop up Totoro and Kiki for the home video market. Its probable that the arrangement between the two studios will only last as long as John Lasseter is there to blow the trumpet and Mickey's accountants can afford to indulge him.
My idle speculation is that Disney is going about the problem all wrong by trying to make this niche product appeal to a wide audience. In Japan, Studio Ghibli can get away with marketing their films simply as films. Spirited Away actually knocked Titanic off the top spot for highest grossing films in Japan, and in a country where animation is taken for granted as an art-form, it took Spirited Away to knock out Princess Mononoke as highest grossing Japanese animated film. In the west, on the other hand, Studio Ghibli is itself a niche within the niche market of anime. Therefore it needs to be marketed as anime, to that market.
That does admittedly open up another set of problems, as the anime market itself is suffering thanks to torrent downloading and poor choices of content. As old-styles of home video distribution drop like flies, the anime import business is in flux. Disney, inadvertently, contributes to the problem. If the Ghibli fan is already relying on bootleg collections or illicit fansubs to acquire the material that Disney will not release, why stop there? Why not just forgo the officially licensed DVDs and just get the massive bootlegged set that includes Totoro and Castle in the Sky as well as Ocean Waves and Grave of the Fireflies?
There is no guarantee to be made, bound in iron, but there are possible solutions. In the first place, Disney has to lower expectations and lower price points. The competition for Studio Ghibli sales is not from Tangled, Toy Story 3 or How to Train Your Dragon: it's from Full-Metal Alchemist and Death Note. Don't bother aiming for blockbuster returns; aim for consistent and modest profits.
Reach out to anime fandom and treat it right. Don't give something like Earthsea a perfunctory opening in five theatres. Rather, tour it around the anime convention circuit. Build up support in anime fandom by being there, by showing the films, by showering with freebees that make the Disney/Ghibli name visible, by setting up your booth and panels and talking about it. Yes, of course, advertise Ghibli films every which way, but make Ghibli movies an event with the audience most likely to come out and see them. Make the next Ghibli DVD a must-buy commodity.
Then give them something worth buying. To reiterate my criticism of the previous wave, don't phone in some attempt at bonus features that are a non-anime fan's idea of what an anime-fan might like. Pack the DVDs with the documentaries and short subjects already being made by Ghibli and being released as their own disks in the Land of the Rising Sun. The only problem in selecting bonus features is where to begin: Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli Museum, Ghibli Artisan Kazuo Oga Exhibition: The Man Who Painted Totoro's Forest, Iblard Jikan, Ghiblies, On Your Mark, Nights of Taneyamagahara, Lasseter-San Arigato, Doredore no Uta, Yasuo Ohtsuka's Joy of Motion, Imaginary Flying Machines, The Scenery of Ghibli, the trio of music videos for the band Capsule, and The Sky-Colored Seed, amongst others, are all ripe for the plucking. Feed a hungry audience something they can really chew on.
Or, someday when the licence runs out, turn it over to someone who can.
Despite my complaints, Disney is owed a debt of gratitude for making available what they have. Without them we might not have had the reasonably good and widely available versions of Miyazaki's classics sitting on our shelves, let alone having the auteur's name be as well-known in the West as it is. Nevertheless, my faith seeing the remaining Hayao Miyazaki films migrate their way over to the new format, let alone the films of Isao Takahata and Yoshifumi Kondo, is dwindling.