We recently made the trip to our local theater to watch Kaguya Hime no Monogatari, the latest full-length feature from anime powerhouse Studio Ghibli. But while we felt the film delivered the same high-quality we’ve come to expect from the studio, we were also struck by how different it is in style and tone from what audiences have become used to in Ghibli’s anime.

As a matter of fact, the shift from the norm seems to be a little too jarring for many fans, who aren’t filling seats in the same droves they ordinarily do for Studio Ghibli’s offerings. The situation is severe enough that one Japanese film critic is already condemning the movie’s opening weekend box office numbers as a financial failure.

Movie journalist Hiro Otaka recently tweeted the following to his followers:

“Over the weekend of the 23rd and 24th, Kaguya Hime took in 284,250,000 yen (US$2,842,500). For most movies in Japan, that would make it a hit, but with a total production cost of five billion yen, this is an unimpressive opening.”

So just what makes Kaguya Hime different from other Ghibli films? For starters, there’s the visual style. With subdued colors and sparsely sketched backgrounds, it’s a far cry from the lush, vibrant scenes of clouds and forests that grace films such as My Neighbor Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service. For that matter, Kaguya Hime’s thick, trailing outlines make it unlike the works of any animation house in Japan, where the move to all-digital artwork has resulted in precisely defined line work in all other contemporary anime.

Kaguya Hime also marks Isao Takahata’s first time in the director’s chair for Studio Ghibli since 1999’s My Neighbors the Yamadas, which came and went from Japanese theatres with so little fanfare it’s often forgotten even by self-proclaimed Ghibli devotees.

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Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1994’s Pom Poko for Takahata’s next most-recent direction job for Ghibli, meaning that for many people in the audience, this is their first time seeing, in the theatre, how Takahata handles direction. Viewers expecting or demanding that Takahata make the exact same choices as now-retired Hayao Miyazaki, director of Ghibli’s biggest hits, may be in for a disappointment.

Speaking of Miyazaki, it’s possible that Kaguya Hime’s (comparatively) poor performance is simply a result of over-saturation. Earlier this year, Studio Ghibli also released Miyazaki’s directorial swan-song, The Wind Rises, and a documentary on the inner workings of the production house was also released to theatres this month.

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On the one hand, Ghibli’s numerous runaway successes ensure that even a sub-par showing by Kaguya Hime isn’t going to bankrupt the studio. That said, history has shown that when things don’t reach Ghibli’s understandably lofty expectations, there may be repercussions. 1993’s Ocean Waves was Ghibli’s first made-for-TV project. The 72-minute anime was helmed by a young staff, and was envisioned as the start of a youth movement at Studio Ghibli, with up-and-coming artists getting a chance to show their stuff on television, before stepping up to theatrical features. Unfortunately, Ocean Waves went way over-budget and finished in the red, making it the first and last time Studio Ghibli would sign off on such an experiment.

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Likewise, Tales from Earthsea, the first project directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro, failed to impress audiences in Japan, viewers abroad, or even the original author of the novels the film was based on. Goro would have to wait five years before being given another chance with 2011’s From Up on Poppy Hill, another less-than A+ success that has left the future of his directorial career murky.

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That said, it’s been less than a week since Kaguya Hime’s premiere, and there’s still plenty of time for it to pick up momentum should there be enough positive word of mouth. So if you’d like to see more anime like it, be sure to buy a ticket, and if you could talk a friend into going too, Studio Ghibli’s finance department would really appreciate it.

▼ Don’t cry, Princess Kaguya. It’s not over yet.

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Source: Hachimakiko, Twitter
Top image: Wikimedia
Insert images: Amazon Japan, Jugem, FC2, Exblog, YouTube