Hayao Miyazaki isn't just an animator, a filmmaker, or a director. He's a cultural institution. Japanese kids grow up on his films. They are part of the country's zeitgeist. Meeting Miyazaki must be quite an experience, even when you are the biggest game developer in Japan. Make that especially when you are a famed game maker.
Akihiro Hino, the founder and boss man at Level-5, worked with Studio Ghibli on Ni No Kuni. Level-5 is noted for its Professor Layton games as well as developing role-playing games like Dragon Quest IX. Studio Ghibli, of course, is famous for its anime, such as My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service. Ni no Kuni brings together the animation brilliance of Studio Ghibli with the gameplay power of Level-5.
Miyazaki is not a gamer. He's very much an analog person, who apparently doesn't use computers. In a recent roundtable interview in Tokyo, Hino described Miyazaki as "wary" of video games. "Wary" might be too gentle of a word: Miyazaki once compared using an iPad to masturbation.
While a Studio Ghibli and Level-5 collaboration might seem like a match made in heaven, Hino describes the collaboration as hardly unusual. A mutual friend of Hino's was Toshio Suzuki, the renowned Ghibli producer, and Hino and Suzuki gradually became friends. They talked, went out to eat, and eventually thought about doing a game with the two companies.
Early in the planning stages for Ni no Kuni, Hino met Miyazaki a couple of times. Miyazaki was hard at work on Howl's Moving Castle.
"He's a director that I really look up to," said the game developer. "I even got my picture taken with him."
Hino described Miyazaki a being "very strict as a director", while adding, "as a person, he's a very kind man." Hino was very happy that the two of them were able to have causal conversations as well.
While Miyazaki wasn't necessarily overseeing Studio Ghibli's involvement in Ni no Kuni, the studio worked very closely with Level-5 on a daily basis. What impressed Hino was Studio Ghibli's attention to "creating a live-in world".
Normally, Hino pointed out, in role-playing games everything looks perfect. However, Ghibli really wanted the world of Ni no Kuni to look like people inhabited it.
According to Hino, Ghibli focuses on small movements, such as how a character picks up a cup, drinks from it, and puts it down. It's from these small moments that the "theatrics" come to live and the world becomes real. "What is normal in the RPG world is not normal in the Studio Ghibli world," said Hino. "It was a wake-up call."
Hino said if there were the possibility to work with Studio Ghibli again, he'd definitely like to. He's even keen to turn Miyazaki's movies into video games—though, that's not likely to happen.
"Personally, I want to adapt their movies into games," said Hino. "However, those are Ghibli properties," he added, noting that obviously Ghibli has final say over what happens to its own films. "I'd like to pursue and negotiate it."
If Studio Ghibli were interested in allowing its movies to be turned into video games, which Ghibli movie would Hino want to adapt? "For me, I'd like to do Castle in the Sky." One of Miyazaki's best.