Studio Ghibli – the legendary Japanese animation studio behind classics like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle – seems like a wondrous dream factory. Founded in 1985 by visionary directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, the studio has become beloved by children and adults alike for producing magical and emotionally resonant animated features.
But what is it like behind the scenes at Studio Ghibli? How do these films make their way out into the world, particularly across the sea to the US? Steve Alpert is the man with the answers.
For fifteen years, starting in 1996, Steve Alpert was a senior executive at Studio Ghibli. The only gaijin (foreigner) at what was a “very traditional” Japanese company, Alpert was responsible for international sales and worked closely with both Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki, the head of Studio Ghibli and the producer of nearly all of its films. Alpert was the man largely responsible for orchestrating Studio Ghibli’s rise to global recognition.
In his recent memoir Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man, Alpert recounts his time at Studio Ghibli (the “Never-Ending Man” is a reference to a 2016 documentary about Miyazaki). We caught up with him to chat about the memoir, Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, and Japanese work culture.
Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man is the story of your time as Head of International Sales at Studio Ghibli. Our first question has to be – how did you land what has to be a lot of people’s dream job?
To begin with, I will agree that yes, it was in many ways a dream job. In my book, I probably said more about the things that made it a dream job and less about the things that made it less dreamlike. Part of my job did involve arguing about contract terms with American entertainment lawyers (more nightmare than dream).
Landed the job isn’t exactly the right way to put it. More like landed in the job. I’ve had a meandering career, 30 years of it in Japan. I’ve worked in finance, been a tax consultant, a bank vice president, a financial controller and the head of operations for a movie company. I have an MBA in finance. I studied Japanese literature at Columbia University under Donald Keene (but didn’t finish the degree). And I was an art major in college (and watched a lot of Japanese films while I was there). I speak English very well (Japanese less well, but adult-functional).
All of this made me perfectly qualified for a job that I didn’t even know existed at the time. Studio Ghibli was looking for someone to help them navigate their new relationship with the Walt Disney Company and (most of) Ghibli’s films had never been distributed outside of Japan. Toshio Suzuki, Ghibli’s president and the producer of most of its films invited me to help him do that.
When did you first meet Hayao Miyazaki?
My boss at Ghibli, Toshio Suzuki, believed (insisted) that in order to do my job properly I had to understand every aspect of how an animated film was made, from concept development to post-production. That included getting the studio’s directors, Takahata, Miyazaki, and Kondo, comfortable enough to talk freely with me (Yoshifumi Kondo was the directorial heir-apparent to Miyazaki and Takahata before his sad and untimely death in 1998).
Suzuki told me that working with Hayao Miyazaki meant that Miyazaki had to get used to you before he would talk to you. I met him in the studio a few times, but the first time I met him to speak to at length was when we were about to begin dubbing Mononoke Hime in English and I went over to see him at his then atelier/private office in a run-down apartment building in Mitaka. It was a discussion about what kind of voices he wanted for each of the major parts in the film and some of the things he wanted us to be aware of in the translation.
Later on when we travelled to promote Mononoke Hime in Toronto, New York and California, Suzuki made me sit next to Miyazaki on the trains, airplanes, limos and minivans we used, so that Miyazaki would get used to me. It was a little awkward at first, but he did eventually get used to me. Once he gets used to you he talks and tells you things. Whatever happens to be on his mind. Amazing.
Eventually, Miyazaki designed and built his own atelier around the corner from the studio which we variously referred to as the Butaya or Nibariki. Originally he shared the truly special. unique, and wonderful space with the people who were then designing, supervising the construction of, and planning exhibits for the Ghibli Museum. That turned out to be a problem for him because the museum planners had a constant flow of people coming and going, and there was more traffic and hubbub than he probably expected. The Butaya/Nibariki was where Miyazaki would go to think about his next film and to draw the storyboards for the film currently in production. So he needed a more serene environment.
But Miyazaki did want to share his atelier with someone, in part to not let the very special space go to waste and be unappreciated, and in part not to let the ambiance inside the building grow cold for lack of ongoing human activity (Miyazaki spent most of his time at the Studio itself when in production). Miyazaki wanted the right balance of shared human activity, relative quiet, and privacy. For this, me and my staff of two (later three) were perfect. One or two of us was on the road and out of Japan about half the time. Our work tended to be quiet. I only yelled at people on the phone early in the morning before Miyazaki got in.
That’s where the title of my book comes from, because sharing Miyazaki’s atelier with him was very, very special. He often dropped by to chat. Sometimes he showed us what he was working on or what he was thinking about for his next film. Sometimes he would share something that had nothing to do with his films, like the time he came in and spent an hour or so explaining (and illustrating with improvised drawings) how the Monitor and the Merrimack, iron warships from the American Civil War, had been designed, how they functioned, and why the Merrimack was the superior ship (apparently once battle was engaged the Monitor’s crewmen were pinned down in their turret).
Miyazaki would sometimes make us coffee downstairs in the kitchen of the atelier. A very precise process yielding very delicious coffee. We would sit at the counter watching him grind the beans and make the coffee while he talked. He was very talkative when making coffee or when traveling outside Japan to promote his films. I was extremely privileged to have gotten to know him in this way. And of course, I also sat with him in many, many press interviews outside Japan, in some of which I served as a translator, and I was with him, along with other members of our travel group, when he visited his good friend John Lasseter in the San Francisco Bay Area, also a very special experience. But sharing his private studio with him was the most exceptional of all.
In the book, you talk about learning and observing the Studio Ghibli animation process start-to-finish. What were some of the things you found most surprising about how Ghibli and Miyazaki worked?
Miyazaki’s process I would say is like a performance by the very best jazz musicians improvising the music as they perform. Once the film is decided on, and then announced, all that exists of the proposed film are some exploratory images, concept art, and a rough idea of what the story will be. Then Miyazaki begins drawing the econte, which in English we translate not entirely accurately as “storyboards”. The econte is really much more. It’s like a recipe for making the film with the detailed timing of each cut, camera angles and placements, dialogue, effects, and other miscellaneous notes.
The econte is divided into parts A through E. Each part isn’t structured like the act of a play, but more of a rough guess on Miyazaki’s part of 20% of the completed film. Parts A and B are carefully and lovingly drawn. In his later films Miyazaki even adds watercolor touches. The background artists begin filling the walls of the studio with gorgeous images based on Miyazaki’s drawings which are transformed into production backgrounds. Once Parts A and B are released in the studio (everyone would get Xeroxed copies, including me), the animators begin to work. When Part C is completed the animators are in full production mode. Miyazaki splits his time between drawing the econte in his atelier and meeting with the animators to give direction and correcting completed drawings back at Ghibli.
Part D proceeds slowly and the drawings are done more hastily and with less detail and definition. A feeling of existential angst begins to form in the studio. The animators have almost caught up with the unfinished econte. If they finish part C before Part D is ready, they will be idle and the overall production schedule will be jeopardized. Miyazaki’s films are so popular that when his new film is officially announced in December, the theaters that will screen it are already booked for July a year and a half later. July is the very best time to release a film in Japan (or was, before the pandemic).
Part D is completed and the studio breathes a sigh of relief. But the feeling of existential angst returns as word gets out that Miyazaki can’t decide how to end the film. He diverts his attention by doing things unrelated to filmmaking or unrelated to the film he is supposed to be making. Someone he knows has cut down some old-growth trees and has delivered the massive logs to Miyazaki’s atelier. Miyazaki supervises the cutting of them up into smaller, fireplace-sized logs with a chain saw. Then he spends time splitting the logs into firewood for the Vermont stove in his atelier. He encourages others to take up the axe and chop wood. A contest begins to see who can split a single log with only one perfect stroke of the axe, and how many times in a row they can do it. Miyazaki himself wins.
Suzuki sends people over to get Miyazaki to stop chopping and get back to work on the econte. The film is falling dangerously behind schedule. Completing the film on time is looking impossible. But then there’s an epiphany and Miyazaki has his ending. The animators go into high gear. Some of them stop going home to bathe or change clothes. The department of labor visits the studio and threatens to penalize Ghibli for violations of Japan’s labor code. Suzuki tells the animators they are to adhere to the legal workday. Most of them pretend to go home but sneak back into the studio and work 20-hour days. Miyazaki himself is also in the studio well into the wee hours of the morning. The film is completed on schedule. Miyazaki has often said that this is the best and for him the only way to work. He says the stress and uncertainty of it allow everyone to do their best work. If you don’t think there’s a danger of failure, he says, you can’t do your best work. So far he’s been right about this.
Much of Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man talks about the differences in Western and Japanese work cultures – what were some of the preconceptions you had about working in Japan that were subverted, and what were some of the most striking differences?
So many things! This is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book.
When I joined Studio Ghibli my first office was in Shinbashi at Studio Ghibli’s then parent company, Tokuma Shoten. Tokuma Shoten was a really, really, really Japanese company. It was a midsized company, a collection of smaller companies connected to publishing, the arts, and entertainment in general. Shinbashi itself was one of the last bastions of the famed Japanese salaryman, the subject of song and satire and very far from the image of efficiency, seat-of-the-pants innovation and hard work that most (non-Japanese) people have of Japanese company employees.
Working at Tokuma Shoten was in many ways like being in a Tora-san movie by Yamada Yoji (Otoko wa Tsurai). It’s chairman, Yasuyoshi Tokuma, was an extraordinary individual, unique for his time but maybe not so 100 years ago (or more). I like to think that if you ever actually met Hideyoshi or Oda Nobunaga (the 16th century warlords credited with unifying Japan into a single country) this is what they would have been like. Without Tokuma-shacho there would have been no Studio Ghibli.
The way business meetings in Japan are conducted was one very big surprise to me. In my experience, in an internal business meeting at a Western company, a meeting is usually about discussion of some specific problem and aims to arrive at some solution or outcome. Japanese meetings seem to be more about happyo, that is to say, announcing or reporting to the group “new” information that everyone already knows. All of the arguing, discussing and decision-making has already taken place behind the scenes between individuals before the actual meeting (the term is nemawashi). The meeting itself then becomes a kind of acting out or pantomime of what has already been discussed and decided, with no objections or arguing of the point(s). No one ever challenges anything a speaker says at such meetings, no matter how far off in left field.
When an outside company comes to visit to make a proposal in Japan, they bring a lot of people. In a Western company, an ad agency or a consulting firm, might show up to present or make a proposal with maybe one to three people. The Japanese equivalent arrives with no fewer than 12 people. One of my functions at Ghibli when we travelled to visit Disney for example, was to try to explain who all the people with us were and why they were there.
But one of the reasons the Japanese company shows up with so many people is to give younger employees the experience they need to eventually do the business themselves. Japanese companies still operate under the assumption of employment for life, so they place a premium on training the next generation. American companies allow (or encourage) their employees to leave, seeding their competitors with the ability to overtake them in the marketplace and wasting valuable resources (time spent training employees and giving them experience).
The process of hiring employees in Japan is different to what I experienced in America. In Japan you can ask an applicant all kinds of personal questions that would be illegal in the US. How much money do you have in the bank? Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend? If not, did you break up with him/her or did he/she dump you? What are your religious beliefs? Once a secretary being interviewed for a position with us was accompanied by her agent who sat in on the interview. Once a secretary applying for a position with us was accompanied to the interview by her mother who sat in on the interview.
In a Japanese company, everyone works longer hours than they should. Or at least, they stay in the office longer. I used to get into the office very early, at around 7:30 or 8, partly to avoid Tokyo’s rush hour and partly to make calls to LA when the time difference was a factor. But when I got up to leave the office to go home at around 7 pm, there would be looks of disapproval and comments (“Oh, Arupaato-san, leaving for home already?”).
Sometimes I would have early breakfast meetings in Tokyo with distributors who were in Japan from the US, Europe, or Australia. Once or twice when returning to the office from a breakfast meeting at some fancy Tokyo hotel and having been caught in Tokyo’s notorious rush-hour traffic, Hayao Miyazaki took me aside to remind me sternly that work at Ghibli started precisely at 10 am and that arriving late for work would absolutely not be tolerated. It wasn’t until he read my book (in the Japanese version) he told me later, that he actually understood what it was that I did at Ghibli.
What is your fondest memory of working with Studio Ghibli?
So many! These are some:
Winning the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival (Spirited Away).
Winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature (Spirited Away).
Driving from Shinbashi to Studio Ghibli in Higashi Koganei with Suzuki-san in his car and hearing what was really going on at Tokuma Shoten in all those meetings I attended but failed to be able to read between the lines.
Visiting John Lasseter at Pixar when they were still in start-up mode in Richmond.
Visiting Aardman Animation in Bristol to invite Nick Park to Japan and getting to watch a scene of a Wallace and Gromit film being made.
Meeting Ursula Le Guin with Miyazaki and Suzuki to ask for the rights to make Gedo Senki (Tales from Earthsea).
Screening Howl’s Moving Castle in Bristol for Diana Wynne Jones.
Having ice cream with Tokuma-shacho on the 12th floor of the Tokuma Building in Shinbashi.
Seeing how the 3-D zoetrope at the Ghibli Museum was created and then seeing it work!
Doing the voice of Castorp in Japanese for The Wind Rises.
Having Hayao Miyazaki make coffee for me and then spend a half-hour of his time sharing his thoughts. Exactly like being the camera in the documentary The Never-Ending Man.
Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man is available now via Stone Bridge Press.
Steve Alpert studied Japanese Literature at Columbia University under Donald Keene and Edward Seidensticker. He speaks Japanese and Chinese fluently, having lived in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Taipei for a combined total of over 35 years. Alpert worked in Tokyo as a vice president at a major bank, as president of an American TV animation company, and as head of international sales at Japan’s premier animation studio, Studio Ghibli, co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. He has translated more than a dozen Japanese films and several short works of Japanese fiction. His book in Japanese about his experiences working at Studio Ghibli was published in 2015 by Iwanami Shoten. He lives near New Haven, CT.