When the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli announced an indefinite hiatus in 2014, it was mainly to regroup after the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, the director who co-founded the studio and was responsible for some of its biggest successes. The statement prompted huge speculation about whether Miyazaki’s retirement would mark the end of Studio Ghibli’s output, and since then the studio has suffered another loss to its core team: the death of key animator Makiko Futaki.
Born in Japan in 1958, Futaki started her career at the Private Animation Festival before working as an in-between animator on Miyazaki’s Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. After impressing Isao Takahata, the other half of Studio Ghibli’s founding partnership, with her work on his feature adaptation of Jarinko Chie, she was brought on board as one of the studio’s earliest employees in 1981.
Named after a north African wind, and set up with the aim of ‘blow[ing] a new wind through the anime industry’, Studio Ghibli has been described as Japan’s answer to Disney. The company’s work is characterised by hand-drawn animation with a fantastical bent, rich imaginative detail, and courageous female protagonists: as anime scholar Helen McCarthy put it, ‘[Miyazaki’s] career has been a very beautiful building of an idea that the feminine doesn’t preclude the heroic’. The Ghibli style is varied and unpredictable, but consistently blends the everyday and the dreamlike to create its signature variety of magical realism.
Futaki served as key animator on most of Studio Ghibli’s films, including all of Hayao Miyazaki’s: her filmography includes Spirited Away (still Japan’s highest-grossing film ever), My Neighbor Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke. Her role saw her draw the main poses in the animation to capture the movement and facial expressions of characters, whilst more junior animators filled in the background and the interim stages of a motion. The animation moves seamlessly from exhilarating chase scenes to the gentle breathing of a sleeping forest spirit, as in My Neighbor Totoro. The same film also sees a giant camphor tree grow up as fast as Jack’s beanstalk, a flight on an umbrella in the manner of Mary Poppins, and a bus appear to grow legs and morph into a twelve-legged Cheshire cat with headlights for eyes. Futaki was permitted had a great deal of autonomy as key animator, and her delicate touch helped to create the shimmering fairytale ephemerality for which Studio Ghibli is so well-loved.
Makiko Futaki continued to work with Studio Ghibli right up until 2014, and animated its most recent release, When Marnie Was There. Since she worked alongside a handful of other animators on each film, it is impossible to pin her contributions down to the frame or even to the scene, although many have tried. Studio Ghibli’s output has been analysed time and again by Reddit connoisseurs as well as industry insiders, who have coined a term – sakuga – simply to describe the moments in a film when the animation improves drastically. Many of these moments have been attributed to Futaki, and indeed Miyazaki’s memoir confirmed her involvement in iconic scenes such as the opening of Kiki’s Delivery Service, and the tree’s dramatic growth in My Neighbor Totoro. In a sense though, it is the collaborative spirit running through Studio Ghibli’s films that lends them their charm, and indeed wins Futaki respect as a true team player.
Aside from her work with Studio Ghibli, Makiko Futaki is known for animating 1988 cyber-punk feature Akira, which is adapted from a manga by Katsuhiro Otomo to present a dystopian vision of Tokyo in 2019. The film is notable for its spiky, coarse style of animation, in contrast with the rotund creatures of Totoro, released the same year. Akira was the first animation to use pre-recorded dialogue and match the movements of the characters’ lips to the pace and sounds of the words, and remains remarkable for its visual detail even today.
Hayao Miyazaki was keen to encourage Futaki to pursue her own projects outside of Studio Ghibli, on the grounds that she had a greater potential that remained untapped. He said in his memoir:
‘I think the excellence of Futaki-san’s animation lies in her effort to express not only the visual but also the tactile effect. The imbalance of her sensibility – her strong caring and keen observation powers for creatures other than human – can be seen as both her strength and weakness. But there is no mistaking that for our films these qualities make her a valuable asset.’
Makiko Futaki died at the age of 57 in May 2016, after a battle with an unknown illness. Although little is known about her personally, her professional reputation lives on not only in the films of Studio Ghibli but also in the anime community’s tributes.