September 11, 2019

"Mixing Work With Pleasure" by Toshio Suzuki

As I wrote the other day, it seems like pretty much any huge artist you can think of has a pragmatic business-minded figure at their side. In Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's case, it's Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. I just read his autobiography Mixing Work with Pleasure. Here are some notes on things I found interesting...

Obviously Ghibli makes great films, but that alone doesn't explain their longevity. Most studios, even the best ones, falter in half of Ghibli's lifespan--creatively, financially or due to personality conflicts. Their track record is amazing & I think Suzuki deserves a lot of credit. In the book, he demystifies both his role and the studio itself, sharing stories of having to beg for funding, dealing with Miyazaki's moodiness, labour problems and other unglamourous aspects of running a successful studio for 30 years.

I've been told Suzuki is a bit of a glory hog. I didn't pick up on that reading the book because he does share some of his mistakes too, but it's always hard to tell with autobiographies. A few things do feel a bit glossed over-- for instance, Studio 4C's Eiko Tanaka was a producer on a few early Ghibli films but gets no mention here.

One of my favourite sections covers Suzuki's relationship with Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the head of Tokuma Shoten Publishing. In the mid-80's Suzuki approached him about setting up Ghibli as a sub-company. Tokuma agreed to the idea quickly, and is described as an eccentric, mercurial man less interested in how much money he had than in what it could be used for. He was a powerful ally early on when Ghibli was financially rocky, willing to go to bat for them many times.

It's funny how Totoro became Ghibli's mascot, because that film flopped in its initial release-- a questionable double-feature alongside Grave of the Fireflies that was only allowed to happen because of Tokuma's unquestioning support. He told distributors they would only get his prestigious live-action drama Tonko if they also took the Ghibli double-feature. The studio did well critically but struggled financially for a few years until the one-two punch of Kiki's Delivery Service becoming a hit, and Totoro doing very well in TV repeats. At that point they created a new office building from scratch, put their staff on salary & started a training program... Still using borrowed money, again largely thanks to Tokuma's commitment.

Suzuki and Tokuma's relationship seems to have gotten rocky later on, after Tokuma grew resentful of Ghibli's movies stealing the spotlight from his own pet projects. Their relationship reached a nadir around 1999 with the failure of My Neighbours the Yamadas. Suzuki blames Tokuma, which doesn't seem totally fair given that it's one of Ghibli's most oddball films. Tokuma was fighting with their usual distributor, so they went with another one who couldn't book as many screenings and the movie made much less than Ghibli had hoped for. I'm sure this distribution drama didn't help, but even in ideal circumstances I can't see Yamadas doing as well as their other films. It seems like the kind of film Japanese audiences love at times, but not what they expect from Ghibli.

One of Suzuki's big jobs is in advertising the films. He helps decide on titles and considers the potential for marketing (ie compelling ad copy, promos and trailers) early in production as the story is being figured out... but those considerations are not allowed to dictate the content.

After Spirited Away was a hit, Miyazaki became worried that it was only because of aggressive advertising. Suzuki responded by suggesting a minimal ad campaign for their next film Howl's Moving Castle, based around the simple phrase "Howl is coming."

Suzuki's day-to-day role seems to vary-- he does whatever is needed to keep things going smoothly. He runs the studio and its productions holistically, balancing out the directors' necessarily myopic visions as they focus on making their individual films. I like that Suzuki, Miyazaki and Takahata all seemed to regularly write essays as internal documents for Ghibli staff, to share ideas for advertising campaigns, production progress and just general musings. I haven't really heard of other studios doing that with their crews, except to address major problems.

The studio's goal is simply to be able to keep making good films, rather than infinite growth/ profits or Disney-style domination-- a few times in the book, Suzuki explicitly states that they don't want to expand past a certain size, because it can become a hindrance to creativity and risk-taking. I really like this.

Miyazaki & Suzuki agree that the key to their strong working relationship is the fact that they don't 'respect' each other:
"It is the freedom to criticize unreservedly that produces good work."
"Respect means to hold back, to be reserved in expressing one's opinion."
"There must be trust, but not necessarily respect."
I would add that this freedom to criticize each other only works because both truly share the same goals. If Miyazaki only wanted to make great art & Suzuki only wanted profits, they'd be arguing about much bigger things and reaching no consensus. They both care about making a good AND profitable film.

Suzuki's history as a magazine editor informs his work as a producer. He has even referred to himself as an "editorial-type producer." His approach with Miyazaki is similar to how a manga editor might engage with an author-- casual conversations leading to decisions in an organic, indirect way, rather than discussing production in concrete terms. He says this is the "archetypical Japanese approach."

Miyazaki is more blunt:
"He keeps your nose to the grindstone while pretending not to.”

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