REVIEW: Kazuo Oga: Ghibli’s Image Artisan (2007)

kazuooga_posterOr, to give its full translated title: Kazuo Oga: Ghibli’s Image Artisan: The Art Who Made Totoro’s Forest. This is a 75-minute documentary focused on Kazuo Oga, who has worked since the mid-1980s as an art director and background painter for prestigious animation house Studio Ghibli. Originally broadcast on Japanese television in 2007, and written and directed by Maiko Yahata, it was produced to coincide with an exhibition of Oga’s animation work.

One of the key features that established Ghibli’s reputation as one of the world’s finest animation studios was its beautiful and deeply evocative background art. Not only did they establish such a vivid sense of place, they evoked enormous nostalgia in Japanese audiences and heartfelt wonder among international viewers. While these backgrounds have been the work of a number of hugely talented artists, it is arguably Oga who most contributed to the company’s signature style. Making his company debut with Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, Oga’s art has helped to shape Ghibli’s aesthetic ever since: in Kiki’s Delivery Service, Only Yesterday, Whisper of the Heart, Pom Poko, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Spirited Away.

The film takes a broadly chronological journey through Oga’s career, starting out on anime productions for TV and film including Harmageddon, Barefoot Gen, and Wicked City, before being picked up and hired by Miyazaki to be art director on Totoro. (‘Oh, is that the best that you can do?,’ Oga recalls the famously irascible filmmaker asking him when first viewing his portfolio.)

Clearly fans of anime and specifically Studio Ghibli are going to be proverbial ‘pigs in poo’ with the documentary’s content, which is rich with examples of Oga’s work and comparisons between the original art and how it was incorporated into the finished films. The film is oddly light on commentators: Oga himself is clearly a regular fixture, and there are comments included by former colleagues and Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki, but both directors Miyazaki and Isao Takahata are curiously absent save for some valuable behind-the-scenes footage from the 1980s and 1990s. It is this archival footage that seems a particular highlight, and includes sequences of Takahata escorting his art team on Only Yesterday on a safflower-picking expedition as well as Oga and Miyazaki reviewing background designs on Princess Mononoke.

For anyone not already inducted into the cult of Ghibli, the documentary is obviously going to be a harder sell: it is a remarkably sedate affair, and mostly consists of narration over still images of Oga’s work. While there are some valuable sequences demonstrating the mechanics of background animation, they only comprise a small part of the overall film. Everything else is likely going to feel a little too specialised to be that engaging. A superb alternate option for these viewers is Mami Sunada’s excellent 2013 documentary The Kingdom of Dreams & Madness, which takes a much broader view of the studio and its filmmakers.

Ultimately this is a film that has a very specific remit, and a similarly specific audience. It is fascinating to see one aspect of the animation process get so much attention, and Oga’s own art is absolutely beautiful to observe free of moving characters in front of it. Sadly distribution is limited: there was a subtitled Japanese DVD released at the time of its original broadcast – a copy which allowed this review – but it does not seem to have been made available anywhere else since. It would be an absolute shoe-in for a collector’s edition re-release of Totoro.

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