If there’s any awards show categories to find disappointing, if not outright frustrating, it’s Best Animated Feature.
Historically speaking, it’s one of the most predictable competitions for the Academy Awards or Golden Globes. Since DreamWorks Animation’s Shrek received the first Oscar in the category in 2001, it’s received 14 more nods, yet with only one additional win. Instead, Pixar has taken the win nearly every year the studio has been nominated—17 times, with 11 wins. Pixar’s parent company, Disney, has collected the next-most awards, with 13 nods and 4 wins. But following Dreamworks’ pair of Oscars, no other animation studio has racked up more than one win—with many multiple nominees failing to win even once.
This predictability is not only boring for animation fans, but it also paints an inaccurate picture of the medium. Yes, animated films are most commercially successful in North America, and both the Oscars and Golden Globe are North American awards shows. But the Asian and European markets are similarly booming, with the East Asian audience for animation reportedly the fastest growing worldwide. But it’s not just about which audiences are attending these movies; European and Asian studios have been pumping out widely acclaimed, commercially successful animated films for decades.
Among the most reputable and recognizable animation studios in the world, for instance, is Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985, the animation house has released 21 feature films. (The latest, Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, earned two nods at this year’s Globes; more on that in a moment.) Ghibli also follows DreamWorks with most Oscar nominations in the category, at six—and only one win, for 2002’s Spirited Away.
Ghibli’s regular losses at the Oscars and Globes—where The Boy and the Heron is its first nomination since the category began in 2006—are one thing. That Ghibli remains one of two anime studios to ever earn nods in that category, the other being Studio Chizu with 2019’s Mirai, is another thing entirely. It’s indicative of the voting body’s homogenous taste, perhaps; if those annual features about anonymous Oscar voters’ ballots are to be believed, it’s also reflective of their general disinterest in the medium.
The Globes has a slightly better track record to this end, however. Last year, an anime received one of five Globe nominations for Best Animated Feature: Inu-Oh, directed by Masaaki Yuasa. Yuasa, whose entire filmography has been collected in a beautiful new box set, now on sale, has become one of anime’s biggest names.
As fans know and the box set elegantly provides, Yuasa is beloved for his stylistically fluid, highly absurdist romps. These span both movies, like the fast-paced Night Is Short, Walk on Girl and fever dream Mind Game (both highlights of the box set), and TV shows; among Yuasa’s most internationally popular work is the Netflix anime Devilman Crybaby. While Yuasa has stepped back from day-to-day operations at the studio he co-founded, Science Saru, his stylistic spirit still finds its way into the house’s latest project, Netflix’s Scott Pilgrim Takes Off.
That Inu-Oh, a wildly inventive rock opera set in 14th-century Japan, broke into the pack among films produced by Netflix, DreamWorks, and Pixar was understandably huge for the director.
“When I was nominated, I was excited and happy about it,” Yuasa told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed in a recent interview, ahead of the career retrospective package’s release. But he also offered insight as to why, despite Inu-Oh marking his fifth major film release, neither he nor the majority of popular anime releases get mainstream, North American awards recognition.
“I do have to think about the hurdle of the production difference [between North American and Japanese films],” he said. “It’s hard to go against big-budget films when Japanese animation is treated as independent [filmmaking].”
The difference between production budgets for anime and North American films is vast. The most expensive North American animated film ever made reportedly is Disney’s Tangled, budgeted at $260 million for various production reasons. (2019’s The Lion King remake, which many people erroneously refer to as a live-action film, also cost around that same price tag.) But Tangled raked in nearly $600 million globally, more than making its money back. In the United States, many modern animated films, especially those from Disney and Pixar, cost upward of $200 million to make.
By contrast, the most expensive anime ever produced is reportedly Studio Ghibli’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya, Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata’s final film before his death in 2018. Reportedly budgeted at around $53 million, Kaguya is a gorgeous, hand-drawn work that looks like a watercolor painting come to life. (It did not receive a Golden Globe nomination, and it lost the Oscar to Disney’s Big Hero 6, a $165 million film which has mostly faded into obscurity. But I digress.)
There are no reported production costs for Inu-Oh or any of Yuasa’s other features, but anime film budgets rarely break seven figures. So while these studios, in their home country, don’t necessarily carry an “independent” status, financially speaking, Inu-Oh and many other anime are the little indies to Disney and Pixar’s big Hollywood blockbusters.
That said, anime is highly successful worldwide, with many of Japan’s biggest box office hits being animated. Eight of the top 10 highest-grossing films ever in Japan, in fact, are anime. The success of films like Demon Slayer: Mugen Train and One Piece Red, both huge box office hits in their home country—Mugen Train became the highest-grossing film in Japan of all time—was exciting for Yuasa to see. But even so, he says, these are “rare to come by.”
Still, when an anime can make it on the North American stage, whether it’s by topping the box office—as The Boy and the Heron did last weekend—or picking up award nominations, it’s a meaningful step.
“Getting those big hits do make me realize, ‘Oh, there are opportunities to get that recognition in the United States.’ It does give me a little bit of hope and motivation to try to reach that.”
It does seem like, since Inu-Oh’s Globes nod, awards voters are paying a little closer attention to the breadth of animated work released across the world. This year, two of the Best Animated Feature contenders at the Globes are animated. Alongside The Boy and the Heron is Suzume, the latest film from director Makoto Shinkai (Your Name). It was a huge success in Japan, and it received warm reviews in the U.S. It’s Shinkai’s best work, featuring a Ghibli-esque female heroine on a journey to quiet the supernatural forces causing major earthquakes across the region.
And, by the way, as for The Boy and the Heron’s second nomination at the Globes? Best Original Score, a hugely belated nod to Joe Hisaishi’s stellar compositions for nearly every Ghibli film. It’s also the first time an anime has received a nomination in another category at one of these awards shows—baby steps, but we’ll take ’em.