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The studio Hayao Miyazaki co-founded might be shutting down. Here's why it's important.

My Neighbor Totoro
My Neighbor Totoro

There's been a rumor making its way around the nerdier recesses of the internet for the past few days: Japan's Studio Ghibli is shutting down. Here's what you need to know about that rumor, and why it matters.

1) What is Studio Ghibli?

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation studio. It was founded in 1985 by two Japanese animators named Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki. Their first feature, Castle in the Sky, was released in 1986, and it shot them straight to the top of the animation world. Since then, they've made such beloved films as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Graveyard of the Fireflies, and Spirited AwayThe studio has won numerous awards, including the 2002 Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film for Spirited Away. That film was a massive box office success, grossing $274.9 million worldwide.

2) What does Ghibli mean?

That's an Arabic word that refers to "hot air blowing through the Sahara Desert." As many point out, Miyazaki's father worked in the aviation field, and so his son probably learned the word because that was what aviators called Ca.309 planes. Ghibli was chosen because the animators wanted to blow fresh air through the Japanese anime industry.

3) What are the studio's most famous films?

Studio Ghibli has made 20 films — even though Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind is often thought of as a Ghibli film, it was actually produced one year prior to the studio's opening. The studio's most recent film was When Marnie Was There. Its most recent US-release was the critically acclaimed The Wind Rises, which was the last film Miyazaki made with the company before his retirement.

Here are some of the most well-known and highest-grossing Ghibli films.

  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Spirited Away
  • Graveyard of the Fireflies
  • Princess Mononoke

4) What are some of the defining themes of Ghibli films?

Ghibli films place a special emphasis on the beauty of childhood innocence. The protagonists (often female) are misunderstood, but remain cheerily determined. Environmentalism is also an important theme in Ghibli films, as is the tension between older, simpler ways of life and newer technologies.

Another topic taken up in these films is the exploitative evil of war, and its displacing effect on the innocent. In fact, when Miyazaki's film Spirited Away was nominated for an Academy Award, he didn't show up to the ceremony, because, as he later explained, he "didn't want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq."

5) Why is Ghibli so important, and why does it matter if it closes?

Studio Ghibli is arguably one of the most important film studios in the world. Many think that Miyazaki is the greatest living animation director. Studio Ghibli shutting its doors would mark the end of an era. For almost two decades now, animators have looked to Ghibli to learn from its knack for telling stories that appeal to children and adults alike. John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer at Pixar, has often spoken very highly of Ghibli, and more specifically, of his relationship with Miyazaki. In fact, the cuddly Totoro has a cameo in Toy Story 3 precisely because Lasseter wanted to show just how important Ghibli was to them: "We do little homages in our films," he told MTV in 2010, "and we thought it was a very appropriate homage to let Studio Ghibli know how much they mean to us."

There's another, subtler trend that Ghibli's closing fits into — the steady decline of Japanese population, and along with it, certain forms of cultural dominance. Japan was once more powerful than it currently is, second in economic infrastructure only to the US. In recent years, however, Japan's economy has fallen behind China. Studio Ghibli, once a signifier of Japan's ever-growing aesthetic influence, may now serve merely as a faint memory of a distant greatness.

6) So is the studio closing its doors?!

This rumor began circulating last year based upon something Miyazaki said during an interview he gave for the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. When opining on the future of his studio, Miyazaki said: "The future is clear. It's going to fall apart. I can already see it. What's the use worrying? It's inevitable. Ghibli is just a random name I got from an airplane. It's just a name." A few months later, Miyazaki retired (or at least said he was — he's threatened retirement many times before). Around the same time, Suzuki stepped down from his producer role. Then last month, as Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft reports, someone with "insider information" told a Japanese paper that When Marnie Was There would probably be Ghibli's last film.

This all came to a head over the weekend when Suzuki was interviewed on the Japanese television program Jounetsu Tairiku to discuss the prospect of "making a big change to the larger view of Studio Ghibli." But this morning, Ashcraft released another article for Kotaku arguing that Suzuki's comments were misinterpreted, and that the animation legend was simply noting that Ghibli was going to take a break to do some "reorganizing."

Of course, even if Ghibli continues, things look as if they could go differently for the animation studio, what with both Miyazaki and Suzuki no longer in their original roles. As Suzuki said last night on Jounetsu Tairiku, "big changes in all aspects of [Ghibli's] operations" are going to happen. As Variety notes, the studio took a big hit with the retirement of Miyazaki, whose last film, The Wind Rises, made about $120 million at the box office. Compare that with the $36 million box office gross for Ghibli's last film, When Marnie Was There, and you can see why the studio feels the need to restructure. Post-Miyazaki, Variety said, Ghibli has become "a more normal studio by local standards."