The inimitable director and animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement late last year, when he revealed that The Wind Rises would be his last film ever. What people didn’t expect, though, was the subsequent announcement of halted production and the possible end-all demise of Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio inseparable from Miyazaki and his decades-long leadership.
At 73, Miyazaki hasn’t exactly short-changed the world in his contributions to animation, since several of his films remain among the top-grossing in Japanese history, and 2001’s Spirited Away became the first Japanese-style animated film to win the Academy Award. But even he has revealed an inkling of the greater pessimism that permeates through much of the animation world. The truth is, traditionally animated films just don’t promise the financial rewards now reaped by 3D animation and industry juggernauts like Disney and Pixar (which, ironically, have both admitted Miyazaki and the work of Studio Ghibli as major influences in their own production).
If the voice of the Internet is to be believed, the exit of Miyazaki from the world of animation means the end of hand-drawn films as we know them—perhaps the end of a certain quality we’ve come to expect, whether in aesthetics of storytelling.
But another truth remains: traditional animation may not hold as heavy an influence over the film industry as it once did, but it is not, by any means, dying. The end of Miyazaki is not the end of the art form, nor is it the end of foreign markets making claims on America’s preference for homespun films. Perhaps the retreat of 2D-animation from the popular market might in fact force more creativity from those who still choose to produce hand-drawn pieces, thereby offering an expanded view on what can be done—and done best—with traditional animation and increasingly non-traditional storytelling.
One strong possible contender for the 2015 Academy Awards, for example, comes from Oscar nominee Tomm Moore, who brought the beautiful The Secret of Kells to American audiences in 2009. His next film, Song of the Sea, promises everything that Kells did, and more. Inspired again by ancient Irish legends—this time not of forest deities, but of the seaside myth of selkies, women who transform into seals—the film also uses 2D animation to its unique advantage, showcasing visuals simply unmatched in the lexicon of animated films typically catered to modern audiences.
Every background seen in the film is hand-painted, an increasingly rare feat in animated films, and draws heavily on the style of crisply-detailed, cyclically-natured illuminated manuscripts recurrent in Irish art history. Like Miyazaki’s films when they first hit the scene, Moore’s films illustrate worlds little seen in any type of cinema. And based on the reviews already written for the film, Song of the Sea also isn’t afraid to offer morally-ambiguous characters (like its Yubaba-esque “Owl Witch”) often left out of animated features, especially those aimed at children.
The point is, departure from Japan and its familiar powerhouses doesn’t mean the end of 2D animation. The medium’s options are literally limitless, given that every shape, movement, and color comes directly from the artist’s imagination.
Perhaps traditional animation might even gather some strength from its minimization in the grander field of cinema. Farther and farther away from the guiding hand of corporate legacies, social politics, and recycled design (*cough*Frozen*cough*), maybe 2D animation might emerge again as one of the most innovative, provocative forces in the future of entertainment.
To gauge for yourself the steadfast integrity of 2D animated film, check out the trailer for Song of the Sea below.