Negotiating with Miyazaki: An Insider’s Account of Studio Ghibli

Former Studio Ghibli exec Steve Alpert’s book covers his time working with Hayao Miyazaki, and his business dealings with Disney

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After two years of laboriously negotiating the contract that gave Disney international distribution rights to Studio Ghibli films, a meeting was held within the stoic confines of Tokyo’s Okura Hotel that would all but formalize the agreement.

At one side of the table was Michael O. Johnson, Disney’s head of global operations. At the other was Yasuyoshi Tokuma, chairman and sole owner of the Tokuma Shoten Publishing Company, Studio Ghibli’s parent company.

“We certainly didn’t expect him to do that”

Steve Alpert, the head of Tokuma International, wasn’t just a fly on the wall during the meeting, but more like Alice attending a tea party hosted by the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. As Alpert writes in his book, Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man, for which the English-language version is set to be released this month, when Johnson stood to propose a toast, he was stopped by Mr Tokuma. 

Swirling a glass of expensive Bordeaux, Tokuma, who Alpert describes as having the savvy of a politician and the cunning of a yakuza don, calmly told Johnson he was not satisfied with the agreement. Negotiations needed to start over from square one. Chaos ensued.

“Mr Tokuma was a man who often said, ‘Never let anyone else write the script of your life,’” the retired Alpert explains via e-mail from his Connecticut home. “You always knew he would do something interesting. But we certainly didn’t expect him to do that.”

The Never-Ending Man

Studio Ghibli and Disney obviously straightened everything out (mainly by adding small print to the contract they knew Tokuma wouldn’t read), and continue to enjoy a fruitful business relationship. But it is the period leading up to and immediately following the contract finalization that Alpert covers in his book. The book is also about Alpert’s relationship with Studio Ghibli’s co-founder, Hayao Miyazaki: the never-ending man.

After 10 years at Disney, in 1996 Alpert was hired by Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki, known as the only person who could get Miyazaki to complete a film on deadline, to lead Tokuma Shoten’s new international division.

Alpert, a senior executive and a member of the studio’s board of directors, was also the only non-Japanese employee of the company. At that time Miyazaki was finishing Princess Mononoke. The film was released in theaters in Japan in 1997, holding Japan’s box office record for Japanese-made films until Miyazaki’s Spirited Away in 2001.

“For anyone in the entertainment industry in 1996 it was really boom times,” says Alpert. “The energy level was high.”

Studio Ghibli’s Heyday

Shinbashi, where Alpert’s office was located, was also growing at an immense rate, with construction cranes and iron bones of skyscrapers a constant sight. Alpert says it was a time when Tokyo salarymen were paid in wads of cash and “the streets on payday night were flooded with comically drunk, very happy men.”

“Something new was on the way,” Alpert says. “Changes of all kinds were coming.”

There have been other books that detail Miyazaki’s eccentricities and notoriously demanding work ethic. But rather than aggrandize these stereotypes, Alpert’s book humanizes the creative genius.

“In person Miyazaki is humorous, warm and funny”

The English version of the book is titled after the short Japanese documentary about Miyazaki called The Never-Ending Man. While Alpert says the documentary accurately depicts what it was like to spend time with Miyazaki, he says the portrayal of the animator is darker than he knew him to be. “In person Miyazaki is humorous, warm and funny,” Alpert says.

Alpert traveled and dined with Miyazaki, sharing intimate moments that allow readers to gain more depth of character for the man that could determine the vintage of a wine after one sip and who would only attend the Berlin Film Festival so long as he could also visit buildings designed by architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Alpert does reveal some truths behind the stereotypes. He writes that Miyazaki believed the process of making a film should be stressful. If a voice actor is directed to deliver the same take more than 50 times, it is a sign of respect as Miyazaki believes the actor has the ability to do better.

Alpert once asked Miyazaki why so much effort was devoted to capturing a few pieces of roof tile crumbling to the ground in the background of a scene, to which Miyazaki replied, “You feel it though you’re not aware that you feel it, and it does make a difference.”

Inside the Disney Boardroom

While most readers will come to Alpert’s book for the insider stories about Miyazaki, the real value is the insight into one of Japan’s most recognized companies, and its business dealings with Disney. Alpert attended meetings with Michael Eisner, the man most associated with the company whose last name isn’t Disney.

Alpert managed negotiations with Miramax, the subsidiary company Disney delegated with the job of distributing Princess Mononoke. This meant Alpert was in close contact with Miramax co-founder, the convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein.

“It actually felt like a scene from a movie”

Alpert was once told by Weinstein that he would essentially never work in Hollywood again. “It actually felt like a scene from a movie,” Alpert says of the heated exchange. “I’d worked in New York and I suppose I was used to that kind of behavior.”

Through his book, Alpert takes readers inside Disney and Pixar studios. He takes us to the 75th Academy Awards, where he represented Studio Ghibli since Miyazaki refused to attend. (Miyazaki “felt that standing up and receiving awards and prizes meant you were at the end of your career,” writes Alpert.)

While Alpert didn’t go on stage to accept the Oscar for Spirited Away (Cameron Diaz did), he was at the bar with Pixar’s John Lasseter when they tried to call Miyazaki to inform him of his win (Miyazaki was sleeping).

The Future of Ghibli

The book ends with the funeral for Yasuyoshi Tokuma, an event that signified Tokuma Shoten’s climax, and precluded its eventual decline. The book doesn’t cover Studio Ghibli’s separation from the Tokuma Group, or Miyazaki’s multiple retirements or provide much insight into the studio’s future. 

It is a snapshot of one of the film industry’s most exciting times, and an intimate portrayal of the people making the movies we love. 


Win a Copy of the Book 

To win one of two signed copies of Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man by Steve Alpert, send an email with your name and address to editor@tokyoweekender.com by July 1, 2020.

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