Tokyo, Japan – The weather in Japan’s capital was characteristically hot and muggy on Friday, but that was no obstacle to Yoko Watabiki.
The 22-year-old college student would normally avoid Tokyo’s bustling city centre and steer clear of big crowds in the heat of July. But even as sweat glistened on her forehead and her skin felt prickly on her walk to the cinema from the train station, the discomfort was worth it: Soon she would see How Do You Live, the latest masterpiece from her favourite director, Hayao Miyazaki.
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“Since this movie was announced in 2016, I’ve been waiting to see it on the big screen – I have no idea what to expect,” Watabiki told Al Jazeera.
“Like a lot of Japanese people, I grew up watching Miyazaki’s films. I’m thrilled to see what this new movie could be about,” she added. In the meantime, she was avoiding all social media in fear of spoilers, she said.
Like Watabiki, hundreds of people across the country joined the queues to be among the first to see the newest creation from Miyazaki, the accomplished 82-year-old director and co-founder of the animation company Studio Ghibli. Regarded as one of the most talented animators in history, Miyazaki has won international acclaim for his works, which are unmistakable for their pastel colour themes and fantasy storylines.
But unlike his previous movies, this cinematic marvel emerged without the usual fanfare.
With no enticing trailers, tantalising cast lists or plot revelations, fans were left with only a solitary movie poster adorned with a bird. The film reportedly derived its title from a famous Japanese novel penned in 1937 by Genzaburo Yoshino. Although the book is about a teenage boy and his uncle experiencing poverty and spiritual growth, Miyazaki’s movie is very different, according to Toshio Suzuki, longtime Studio Ghibli producer and current president of the studio.
A film to savour
But the shroud of mystery that enveloped this film has only fuelled the anticipation among fans. It will also be Studio Ghibli’s first IMAX film and Miyazaki’s final creative endeavour, a promise he made when his last film, The Wind Rises, was released in 2013.
That is all the more reason to see Miyazaki’s new work on the big screen, said Terumasa Seto, a photographer based in Japan’s central prefecture of Shizuoka. “I want to savour what could be Miyazaki’s last creation; that’s why I’m heading to the theatres today,” he told Al Jazeera.
The decision to withhold information and let curiosity build added to the allure for Seto. “It’s a testament to Miyazaki’s unwavering confidence and pride in his craft—only someone of his calibre could take such a bold approach,” he said.
As a photographer capturing portraits and landscapes, Seto said Miyazaki’s previous works have inspired his photography. He often thinks of his favourite Studio Ghibli work, Spirited Away, when considering colour balance and composition. Seto said How Do You Live would undoubtedly leave a similar lasting impact on Japanese people.
The decision to refrain from pre-release publicity was not Miyazaki’s, but that of Studio Ghibli producer Suzuki, as revealed at a June press conference.
Suzuki believes that in an era saturated with information, the absence of detail itself becomes a form of captivating entertainment. “I don’t know if it will work, but I believe in this decision,” he said.
During the press conference, Suzuki declined to answer questions from reporters, emphasising that the element of mystery heightened the enjoyment and excitement for fans. But he admitted that Miyazaki himself was slightly concerned about how successful the movie could be without any promotion. Still, Miyazaki chose to trust him, Suzuki said, laughing.
Studio Ghibli has earned a prestigious reputation through masterpieces like My Neighbor Totoro or the 2003 Oscar-winning Spirited Away. Over the years, the studio’s timeless classics and family-friendly films have also touched on societal issues: The poignant Grave of the Fireflies shed light on the struggles and hardships faced by many in Japan after the second world war.
The studio’s films have also been box-office hits. Spirited Away earned 31.6 billion yen ($229m), the second highest-grossing anime film in Japan’s history. Princess Mononoke is seventh, grossing 20.1 billion yen ($146m).
Studio Ghibli’s influence also extends beyond animation. Last November, the company unveiled a theme park in central Aichi prefecture, paying homage to Ghibli’s iconic works. Created by the local government, the park stands as a testament to the animation studio’s legacy and the enchantment it has brought to life.
Despite the possibility of Miyazaki going back into retirement, producer Suzuki firmly emphasised that Studio Ghibli would continue to produce films. “Ultimately, we are an animation studio,” he said.
Referencing the title of Studio Ghibli’s latest work and considering recent global events, the photographer Seto expressed his hope for Miyazaki’s film to tackle significant societal issues. To experience such monumental changes – from the global COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine—can shake up how we live and perhaps make us more empathetic towards others, Seto said.
“I hope this movie changes the way we think – that’s the true power of movies,” he said.