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Spreading the Studio Ghibli bug in Indonesia

Japanese animation house in year-long campaign to promote its films locally

Kevin Nikolas leads Ghiblinesia, an Indonesian fan community that sometimes perform songs from Ghibli film soundtracks. (Photo by Marcel Thee)

JAKARTA -- Indonesia's appetite for Japanese pop culture has grown steadily since the 1980s, with one notable exception -- the works of animation house Studio Ghibli have not been hits. Now, a year-long promotional campaign is seeking to change that.

While other Japanese entertainment exports, such as the AKB48 all-girl musical group or the Doraemon manga-anime series have taken off in the southeast Asian country, Ghibli's traditional approach to animation and the measured tone of its productions seem to require Indonesians to don a different set of viewing goggles. Steeped in allegory and symbolism, Ghibli's mostly hand-drawn films run at a very different pace from most of the computer-generated animated movies from major U.S. studios that find success in Indonesia.

The "World of Ghibli" promotional drive, in connection with Indonesian production house Kaninga Pictures, will involve multiple screenings at major theater chains, as well as a film festival and exhibition. The organizers are banking on two presumptions. First, that the studio's consistent critical acclaim will attract viewers, even if its most famous animated film titles (1988's "My Neighbor Totoro,"1997's "Princess Mononoke" and 2001's "Spirited Away") are more than a decade old. Second, that Indonesians' consistent passion for Japanese pop culture has conditioned them to overlook the films' particularly Japanese nuances.

Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki signs a poster during World of Ghibli's launch in Jakarta in April. (Courtesy of World of Ghibli)

"We feel like Indonesian audiences will be able to relate to the characters in Ghibli movies because of the similarities between Indonesian and Japanese culture, in comparison to the animation fare that comes from the U.S. or other Western countries," said M. Shahriza Rijadi Putra, Kaninga's chief of staff. Putra pointed to "simple things like caring about your family or friendship and loyalty, to bigger issues like environmental sustainability and female empowerment."

Beginning with the 1980s mega-robot series, Indonesians have grown up with a great deal of Japanese entertainment; everything from globally known anime/manga titles (such as "Dragon Ball," "Naruto" and "Saint Seiya"), so-called "J-rock" and "J-pop" music groups like L'Arc-en-Ciel and AKB48 (which has an official Indonesian equivalent in JKT48), to a steady stream of movies and drama series.

"The many Japanese-themed festivals and manga/anime/cosplay conventions celebrate these obsessions on a regular basis," said Alvin Bahar, a journalist who covers such events and has gone on the road with members of JKT48. Cosplay stands for costume play, a form of entertainment in which people dress and accessorize to represent fictional characters.

Curiously, while Ghibli's most popular characters, such as the large, rabbit-like forest spirit Totoro, make regular appearances on merchandise, the studio itself has been one of the most niche exports of Japanese culture in Indonesia, not yet reaching a level of popularity that would place it in the local lexicon. Meanwhile, some words have been integrated locally: "Oshin" (the title of a 1984 Japanese drama series) is used as a jokey term for a housemaid; "Kawaii," which represents the Japanese culture of cuteness; and the Indonesian translations for "Take-copter" (bamboo-copter) or "Dokodemo door" (anywhere door) from the Doraemon cartoon.

Niche fan base

If it is a success, the campaign could do a lot to popularize Ghibli in Indonesia. While its fan base in the country is limited, local Ghibli fan communities are embracing the process. "This has really excited the fan base here," said Kevin Nikolas, a graphic designer and musician who heads Ghiblinesia, a community for Indonesian Ghibli enthusiasts. The group meets once a month, often to watch the ensemble that Nikolas and other musicians and Ghibli aficionados have put together to perform songs from the film soundtracks.

Most of the tracks were composed by Joe Hisaishi, who is idolized by Nikolas. "We finally have a legal way of channeling our love for Ghibli, watching their movies in theaters and buying official merchandise," Nikolas joked, referring to the illegal streaming and downloading to which local fans of the animation studio have resorted in the past.

Yusuf Adrai, a communications student at Universitas Indonesia in Jakarta, has been holding free screenings once or twice a month at his campus for a year to indulge in his passion. Along with friends, he arranges the hire of projectors, screens and sound systems for the events. Slowly but surely, the screenings have turned his fellow students into Ghibli fans. He admits to feeling that the campaign is stealing some thunder from old-school Ghibli fans such as himself. But Adrai does not deny that showing the films in cinemas will mean that more people catch the Ghibli bug.

"After all, we've studied the movies hard, connecting them with our studies and holding informal discussion forums (about their meanings) afterwards," he said, showcasing how much Ghibli's works have become a part of his life.

Kaninga and Ghibli began screening some of the most popular titles at the two main Indonesian theater chains, Cinema XXI and CGV Cinemas in April. Until September (skipping the Muslim fasting month of June), the cinemas will screen one title for seven days through the first week of each month, starting with "Spirited Away" and following up with "My Neighbor Totoro," "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea," "Princess Mononoke" and "Howl's Moving Castle."

The screenings will then continue until March 2018 with two titles a month, though no fixed dates or titles have been released for this stage of the campaign. In addition, from Aug. 10 to Sept. 17 this year, 21 Ghibli feature films and one of its shorts will be screened as part of the "Ghibli Film Festival," to be held at the CGV Cinemas branch at Pacific Place mall in Jakarta.


Over the same 39-day period, Kaninga and Ghibli will also hold "The World of Ghibli Jakarta Exhibition" at the Ritz Carlton hotel, also located at Pacific Place, showcasing original stills and sketches, replicas of popular Ghibli architecture and characters, including the bathhouse from "Spirited Away" and the Catbus from "My Neighbor Totoro." The exhibition will also include a replica of the animation room and work desk of the studio's famed co-founder and director Hayao Miyazaki.

For the people at Kaninga, the campaign is personal. Many members of the production house are fans, and they are convinced they can spread the Ghibli bug in their homeland.

Shin Hashida, Studio Ghibli's event and exhibition division's manager and chief producer, said that the studio heads were encouraged by the strong reception they received last year at a limited screening for "Spirited Away." It sold out quickly, with more than 3,000 people vying for the 150 available seats.

Hashida admitted that the studio did not really know anything about the Ghibli fan base in Indonesia, but was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who came to the screening and the "warmth and enthusiasm" of the crowd. "It was very impressive," he said.

The campaign has already attracted more than 2,000 volunteers, who have signed up through the World of Ghibli website and will assist the event in various ways, from promotional to administrative. "Kaninga's biggest surprise was to learn that you are never a 'casual' Ghibli fan. You either really love Studio Ghibli or know nothing about them," said Putra.

Still, for Ghibli fans who have waited years to see how their favorite characters look on the big screen (after countless viewings on laptops and televisions), the news feels like a dream come true, which they are eager to share with their loved ones.

"I will finally be able to take my son with me to watch '[My Neighbor] Totoro' in the cinema," said Randy Apriza, who has bought tickets to watch the film in May. "Previously, I couldn't share my Ghibli love and joy with anyone. Now I can."

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