• ‘Earwig and the Witch’. (Studio Ghibli)Source: Studio Ghibli
Continuing the Japanese animation dynasty, Gorō Miyazaki talks about switching to computer animation, capturing the spirit of a magical YA novel, and learning from his dad.
Stephen A. Russell

8 Feb 2021 - 1:17 PM  UPDATED 8 Feb 2021 - 1:33 PM

The arrival of a new film from Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli is always cause for excitement. Responsible for such beautiful hand-drawn dreams as My Neighbour Totoro, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, they have been enchanting audiences young and old since 1985.

When revered director Hayao Miyazaki (temporarily) retired, folks held their breath, but luckily his son Gorō took up the baton, starting with a dreamy take on Tales from Earthsea, the dragon-filled stories of Ursula K Le Guin. We spoke to Miyazaki junior about directing their latest offering, Earwig and the Witch, about a headstrong girl who finds herself plucked from an orphanage to work as a potion-making assistant.  

You have adapted several novels now. What appealed to you about these stories, and how do you set about capturing their spirit on screen?

Original works that appeal to me are those that make me want to step into them myself. I think about what the author wants to depict, and what parts of the world I see that should be brought to life in films. Films are short pieces of work and can’t possibly depict everything found in the vivid novels. As such, while I am forced to make creative decisions, I always want to pay the deepest respects to the original works.

What was the thinking behind embracing computer graphics for TV series Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter and now, in an overt way, Earwig?

I decided to use CG in Ronja because I figured that it would also be necessary, in the search to expand my options in the future, if I’m to continue down the path of animation. Through my experience on Ronja, I also thought that we had to make Earwig in full 3D CG to explore the possibilities… I thought it was nonsensical that Studio Ghibli, a studio that prided itself on hand-drawn animation, would use CG with cel-shading [non-photorealistic rendering designed to make 3D computer graphics appear flat].

How did that change the way you work, and were you surprised by how much of a stir this decision caused online after Earwig’s trailer debut?

I don’t think it has really changed the way I work because, while some tools have had digital replacements, there aren’t any big differences between what I need to do when drawing by hand or using CG. It goes without saying that I had prepared myself for the different responses I would receive for my decision to animate in 3D CG. That’s why I try my best to avoid stepping too far into the online world.

Talk to me about Earwig’s antler-like pony tails. It’s a memorable look. How did it come about and what does it say about her spirit?

It draws direct inspiration from the forceps on earwigs. I think it depicts her defiant attitude, and her strong will, much like something that latches on and won’t let go.

Bela Yaga, the witch who adopts Earwig, and the demonic Mandrake are unusual housemates. What does their fractious partnership symbolise?

Perhaps the fact that everyone was once young and that everyone will grow old. The days where you shine unconditionally and are filled with hope will one day pass, and you eventually realise that your mind, body and personal relationships gradually harden over time. That’s something I’ve experienced myself. Also, no matter how rigid you become, there are just some relationships you can’t throw away.

It’s fun that Thomas, the witch’s familiar and a black cat, takes his time to reveal he can speak. “I’m not that talkative,” is my favourite line in the film. If you or your friends have pets, what do you think would be the first thing they would say to you if they could?

I like that line as well. Generally, cats watch humans quietly, and I think that Thomas is probably observing humans in much the same way. I had a dog when I was a child, but I don’t have any pets right now. If an animal were to say something to me, it would probably be, “Stop looking at me with that tired face of yours.”

The fun idea of a witches’ rock band is at the heart of Earwig’s narrative. How important is music to the magic of Ghibli, and how involved are you in the creation of a film’s score?

I think that music plays an important role in all films, and not just Studio Ghibli works. In fact, you could even say that music has the ability to convey the complete opposite impression to what is being shown in a finished cut of film. As such, I always pay close attention to how music is used. When it came to Earwig, the first image I had was that of 1970s British rock. With that image in mind, I held discussions with the composer Satoshi Takebe. For songs used in the film, I believe that lyrics hold the same meaning as lines in a film, so I made sure to write them myself.

What was the first animated film that truly captured your heart as a young man and what about it has stayed with you, influencing your filmmaking now?

I was obsessed with animations such as Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam as a child, but the ones that left a longer lasting impression on me were Hayao Miyazaki’s animations, such as Panda! Go Panda!, Future Boy Conan and The Castle of Cagliostro. The fact that Hayao Miyazaki is my father might be one of the contributing factors, but I truly do think it’s because those works have a certain charm that makes them timeless.

You pursued landscape architecture before following your father Hayao into the animated movie business. What inspired you to make the change, and what skills have you carried over?

An indirect nudge of inspiration was when I started working formally at Studio Ghibli to construct the Ghibli Museum. Shortly after the museum opened, I felt as though my role had ended. That was when the producer Toshio Suzuki suggested I try my hand at filmmaking. Creating scenes or landscapes is the same in both landscaping and in films.

What is the greatest advice you have ever received from your father?

Perhaps, “Don’t look at photos when you draw pictures.”

Leaving aside your own, which of Studio Ghibli’s films are your personal favourites and why?

I think it was Castle in the Sky when I was younger. In terms of hand-drawn animation techniques, I think Whisper of the Heart is a masterpiece. But what would be my favourite now? It feels like I don’t know anymore, possibly because I’m the one creating them now.

Earwig and the Witch is in cinemas now.


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