It is difficult to overstate the legacy of storytelling and artistry that Hayao Miyazaki has built over the years as a director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio. Miyazaki has an incredible ability to manifest the vague, mythic textures of fantasy into the concrete vocabulary of animation. He and his team did with pencil and gouache what Italo Calvino did with words in Invisible Cities—the flash of perfect symbols render worlds so full it’s almost heartbreaking. But Miyazaki is now 80. When he retired in 2013, after his Oscar-nominated The Wind Rises was released (it lost to Frozen), Studio Ghibli put its production arm on hiatus. So when Miyazaki’s son, Goro, announced he would be making Earwig and the Witch, expectations were high.
Yet the film prompted “horror” the moment the trailer came out. Ghibli’s first foray into fully computer-generated three-dimensional graphics was instantly trashed, likened to the uncanniness of early American computer animation, video-game cutscenes, and the bizarre automatically generated children’s YouTube videos observed by the artist James Bridle. Though these comparisons are a bit harsh, the movie was made for television and the quality reflects that. The characters and objects were all rendered with the same unnatural smoothness, their movements a bit jerky. Earwig and her mother had the look of Mattel dolls, plastic with a swoop of eyeliner painted on, a little texture for the lips and no nose bridge, just a fleshy sprout beneath the eyes. While Western studios have often succumbed to same-face syndrome, their characters at least possess fluidity of expression after decades of refinement. Ghibli has no history with the medium and so Earwig toggles between a few expressions: cross-eyed, devilish, or sweetly attentive.
Earwig and the Witch is an adaptation of a Diana Wynne Jones novel, as was Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki. A young orphan, Earwig, grows up as a beloved ward in St. Morwald’s Home for Children after having been dropped off in a basket by her mother as a baby. Earwig is transparently manipulative in a way that is more annoying than plucky; unlike other beloved Ghibli protagonists, she fails to mature. When the movie’s coupled characters Bella Yaga and the Mandrake come to “pick out” a child, Earwig does her best to avoid being adopted but is nevertheless chosen. The couple soon reveal themselves as magical creatures and entrap the child in their cottage to do chores all day long.
Earwig’s story is, from this point on, completely confined to their home as she tries to figure out ways to charm her captors. The movie is billed as musically focused, with a kind of ‘70s British rock aesthetic lurking in the world building, though this never really develops. The narrative progresses in stops and starts and ends rather abruptly, leaving fans wondering if the film is supposed to be continued as a sequel. Sadly, the animation doesn’t make up for the lack of coherent plot.
Goro Miyazaki’s choice to go full three-dimensional when he has access to some of the best animators in the world was puzzling, but given that Goro has spearheaded Ghibli’s made-for-television animation, he likely didn’t want to invest in using these renowned animators for a low-budget project. Paying animators has been a consistent issue in the anime industry. Despite the legions of underpaid, hardworking animators in Japan, the profession has been prey to outsourcing. Even Ghibli, which has made the top-grossing films of all time in Japan, has been criticized for underpaying workers after a call for animators in 2017 revealed animators would only receive something like $430 a week on a three-year contract, a salary below Japan’s minimum wage. The struggle to pay animators a fair wage after Ghibli budget cuts probably kickstarted the decision to go full computer-rendering, though it goes somewhat against the studio’s legacy.
Goro Miyazaki ended up working with animators in Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and France. Goro expected that computer rendering would make high-quality acting easier to achieve, saying, “With hand-drawn animation, you first have to get the drawing right, and these proper drawings have to seamlessly convey the detailed acting. So creating good acting requires finding an artist with the right technique, experience and sensibilities, which is very difficult.” Because rendering allows many artists to work on the same frames, provided they have access to the same software, Goro thought crowdsourcing each moment of the film would result in better performance for less money and less time. This international approach is quite literally the antithesis of how Ghibli movies are typically made, that is, under one roof—the Hayao Miyazaki auteur theory.
When Hayao would direct, his vision could be consistently checked against the work the artists were producing. One example stands out in particular from the documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. When making his last film, The Wind Rises, animators were struggling to bring to life certain jet planes. Miyazaki didn’t want these planes to fly like their real life counterparts—Miyazaki wanted them to fly as he saw them fly. Imagining these subtle movements is difficult, and rendering them in detail even more so, but it’s that kind of artistry that makes Miyazaki special, achieving a level of artistic coherence that only seems possible with traditional animation, unbound by software.
What makes two-dimensional animation so special is the ability to transform characters, objects, and landscapes frame by frame, characters’ expressions stretching and bodies morphing. Thomas Lamarre, a Japanologist scholar of animation, pinpoints “kenotophilia” and “plasmaticness,” delight in movement and a fascination with plasticity, respectively, as the core of our enjoyment when watching animated films.
In three-dimensional animation, however, movement works a bit differently. The artist first makes a model and then rigs it with different points of movement. Then animators select the different gestures of movement they want, with the software filling in the points between. After that it’s a matter of camera work, like which angle you are viewing the model from. Because of this rigid structure, it’s difficult to have three-dimensional characters do the impossible movements that traditional animation is so famous for. Of course, it can be done and often is, but it’s a different kind of art, and it’s not one the Ghibli studio was ready to take on—especially since computer-rendering was brought in to save money rather than usher in a new artistic standard, as Pixar once did.
You can see this play out in the movie itself. Here, the phantasmic Mandrake character looms over a room of prospective adoptees, all cowering and hoping that the terrible couple won’t take them home. His body stretches and extends, like dragging and stretching an image on your laptop. There’s some hunching of his shoulders, but you can also see how the rendered smoke makes it seem like the character’s body is changing even more than it actually is:
In classic Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away, real transformations happen all the time. The characters are livelier, more dynamic, and give a sense of authenticity to the magically unreal:
The comparisons between Goro and his father would be unfair if not for the fact that Goro was working off of the prestige of his father’s work, pulling in nostalgic loyalty while muddying Studio Ghibli’s legacy. The classic Ghibli style is indeed sprinkled into Earwig and the Witch: a garnet-studded ring and a door with stained-glass windows remind us of the extravagance of Howl’s trinket-studded room in Howl’s Moving Castle or Yubaba’s horde in Spirited Away; a shot of a cobbled street, rendered with a painterly touch, is reminiscent of the lovely background work Studio Ghibli is famous for. Then, there are the narrative similarities: the plucky witch with her little black cat brings to mind Kiki’s Delivery Service. It’s almost Ghibli pastiche.
Yet what’s ultimately frustrating is that Goro Miyazaki isn’t the right heir to this great legacy; without much artistic vision of his own, Studio Ghibli is just taking on these lower-budget projects. After Hayao Miyazaki retired, talented producers and animators left Ghibli to form Studio Ponoc; perhaps they could have been the true successors to Hayao’s work had nepotism not won out. At least we can rest easy: Hayao Miyazaki is working on one last film, How Do You Live. The rate of frames is so high that they’ve only been able to produce one minute of the film per month. Suffice it to say that Miyazaki is not cutting corners.