Sharing a House with the Never-Ending Man: 15 Years at Studio Ghibli

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Synopsis

This highly entertaining business memoir describes what it was like to work for Japan’s premiere animation studio, Studio Ghibli, and its reigning genius Hayao Miyazaki. Steve Alpert, a Japanese-speaking American, was the “resident foreigner” in the offices of Ghibli and its parent Tokuma Shoten and played a central role when Miyazaki’s films were starting to take off in international markets. Alpert describes hauling heavy film canisters of Princess Mononoke to Russia and California, experiencing a screaming Harvey Weinstein, dealing with Disney marketers, and then triumphantly attending glittering galas celebrating the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.

His one-of-a-kind portraits of Miyazaki and long-time producer Toshio Suzuki, and of sly, gruff, and brilliant businessman Yasuyoshi Tokuma, capture the hard work and artistry that have made Ghibli films synonymous with cinematic excellence. And as the lone gaijin in a demanding company run by some of the most famous and influential people in modern Japan, Steve Alpert tackles his own challenges of language and culture. No one else could have written this book.

Review

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy in return for an honest review.

This is a truly fascinating book and one I would recommend for anyone interested in either Japan or the film industry. Alpert has a knack for anecdotes and the book was better written, linguistically, than I thought it would be being a business memoir. There was a great mix of behind the scenes drama and general information about the animation industry that was told in an interesting and easy to understand way for people outside the field. It’s also probably one of the best looks at what Japanese work culture is actually like (for both Japanese and foreigners) and a must read for anyone thinking about working in Japan in any capacity.

However, there were some downsides that prevented me from giving this four stars. First, most of Alpert’s stories are very good, but sometimes they veer off onto tangents or just end without a clear reason or punchline to the story. Also, while not often, he would sometimes drop down sentences that were so unnecessary that I had to stop reading to figure out why the information was even there. This was for things like randomly giving the recipe for a mojito or long descriptions of women (only women) who weren’t even part of the story but who he really needed the reader to know how beautiful they were.

Then there was one line regarding the Harvey Weinstein business. I fee like someone must have told Alpert that since he talks about working with Weinstein (it would have been unavoidable to mention him since he ran Miramax at the time Princess Mononoke was released) that he must address the crimes he committed. I think Alpert would have been better off saying nothing about it since he retired years before everything about Weinstein came to light, instead of just casually dropping in “this was before the me too allegations” and then moving immediately on.

The word “allegations” in a book being published after Weinstein has already been found guilty really threw me and it unfortunately colored all of the stories that involved Miramax later on – many of which mentioned incredibly unhappy Miramax employees. So why mention this at all if not to condemn what Weinstein did? Why casually give the impression that you don’t believe his accusers but then also later give the impression that Weinstein was a nightmare to work with? Alpert himself didn’t seem to care much for Weinstein, so why not just condemn him in accordance with what a jury of his peers already found and move on?

This was one of my two major problems with the book, which is deeply unfortunate because it was literally a single throw-away sentence that should have been caught in editing.

The other problem I had, and which I am still really confused by is where was Isao Takahata during the 15 years this book spans? He is very rarely (and only in passing) mentioned throughout the book. He is the 4th founding member of Studio Ghibli, was responsible for some of their biggest films (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko), and was notoriously difficult to work with. There is no way, being the head of international sales and press for so many years, that Alpert would never have worked with him. However, to read the book you would come away with the impression that Miyazaki wrote and directed every film Ghibli has ever made. Takahata was such a major part of the studio until his death that this would be like writing a book about The Beatles and pretending the entire time that there were only three members.

I suppose that I’ll never get an answer about this, but it was definitely the most glaring issue the book has. If there had been a few stories were Takahata was involved or an explanation of why he wasn’t written about, I would have given this memoir four stars.

Overall though, I really enjoyed this book and will be buying a physical copy for my collection. It is a must read for any Studio Ghibli fan.

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