Jeff Wexler, Chief of International Division at Studio Ghibli, oversees the process that takes each Ghibli picture – including their most recent, The Wind Rises – overseas and accessible to foreign audiences. Speaking to us direct from Japan, Jeff talks about sticking to the director’s original vision, casting stars like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and how the studio’s newest effort sits with classics like Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro.
Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Studio Ghibli?
The studio creates films with the Japanese market in mind; they don’t adjust their films for foreign markets. So I get to see the film as the director wanted to make it for Japan, and we bring that film to other markets, staying true to the director’s original intent – which can be hard, because the Japanese language doesn’t really line up exactly with most languages, and we do our best to stick as close to the original as we can. So that’s kind of my personal mission; I want foreign viewers to feel that they are watching something as close as possible to the original.
Have you experienced any problems in getting audiences to latch onto the film?
In some countries, audiences are very open to dynamic animation and the media, and storytelling, while in other countries, animation is primarily viewed as a storytelling medium for kids. We believe that our films appeal to all ages, including adults – who really enjoy our films. The Wind Rises is not a film made for kids; I really think the adults will enjoy it. As you gain experience in life, you make choices in difficult situations, you pursue your dreams the best you can – I think that’s a big part of this film. That’s a pretty adult message. One of the challenges we face is having adults view animation as a medium for children, and in some countries that’s very common, and in other countries it’s not. The other challenge we have is we have diehard fans who insist that they only want to watch the dub; they might want to watch the subtitled version, because they believe that they’re watching the original, and I totally respect that. But I also encourage that you also watch the dubbed version, because if you watch the dubbed version, you’re watching the film. If you’re watching the subtitled version, you’ll spend your time reading as opposed to watching the art of the film. So that’s a kind of personal challenge, to make sure that the dub is true to the director’s intent, so the fans can feel they’re watching something close to the original. If you’re reading the subtitles, you’re reading something that’s always one step away – unless your speak Japanese.
In casting your films, how do you go about assembling a cast that will appeal to many different countries?
So, the Japanese cast is cast here [Japan] by the director – the only cast that we’re directly involved with is the English cast. With the English cast, we’ve been fortunate that a lot of very talented actors are interested in our film. We also have voice actors who do great work, too – so it’s a real interesting combination.
Did you have the final say when Joseph Gordon-Levitt was cast? And what did you see in him?
Yes. Several things; first of all, he is by all accounts an excellent actor. I thought he had a terrific presence, he comes across as very intelligent, and the character of Jiro (who Gordon-Levitt voices) is a very intelligent character. He’s also very courteous, very polite, and I didn’t know until I met him that that’s the truth. And that’s also a very important part of Jiro’s character. So it was really a great match. He also was very interested in our film; to me, he conveyed an intelligence and courtesy on top of very good acting skills. I hope you agree!
I’ve only seen the subtitled version, but I want to get round to seeing the dubbed version too.
I think you’ll be pleased. He’s quite an even, well-centred character who Jiro is. Jiro handles crises very well, he handles threats to his livelihood in a very strong manner. I think Joseph plays that very, very well. And then the other characters, we had Emily Blunt as Nahoko as the love interest, John Krasinski as (the best friend) Honjo – and I think that combination is excellent.
Where do you personally think The Wind Rises sits in the Studio Ghibli canon?
I think it’s a terrific addition to the Ghibli canon; it’s quite different than any other film in that it doesn’t have that appeal to the younger children as much. As far as the blend of real-life and a little bit of fantasy, most importantly and artistically it’s just a beautiful, beautiful film – and beautiful to watch. They’re hand-drawn, hand-painted unlike other films, and I think it’s a combination of many years of filmmaking. It has elements of all his (Miyazaki’s) films, and then some; there are moments in there that are a step ahead. So I think it fits in very well. It has a wide variety of themes and styles, if you look at it critically. I think it’s terrific.
It certainly feels more ‘grown-up’, for want of a better phrase.
I think it’s a great phrase. If you look at Ponyo, Ponyo was definitely aimed at the younger child. And then you come to this film, and it’s very, very different. I said to them, in the nicest possible way, well the kids can go home and watch Ponyo, and we can watch this. (Laughs)
The Wind Rises is out on May 9th.