Sharing A House With The Never-Ending Man (15 Years At Studio Ghibli) by Steve Alpert (book review).

Studio Ghibli has produced some of Japan’s most popular anime, with probably their most well-known film, ‘Spirited Away’, earning ¥30.4 billion, making it the highest grossing film in Japanese history. So for anime fans a book written from inside the generally secretive ‘Japanese Disney’ is definitely of interest.

To make things clear from the outset, this is not an exposé of the perfectionism of studio director, Hayao Miyazaki, and doesn’t dig into his apparently troubled relationship with his son, also a director at Ghibli. Instead, ‘Sharing A House With The Never-Ending Man’ is the memoir of Steve Alpert and is a gentle, amusing and often fascinating look into the studio, how business is conducted in Japan and the wider movie industry.

Alpert worked at Studio Ghibli for 15 years and was involved in getting films like ‘Princess Mononoke’ and ‘Spirited Away’ released worldwide. His anecdotes jump between a wide range of topics, from meeting etiquette and attending the Oscars and Chinese piracy, all told with a dry wit that reminds me of Bill Bryson. This isn’t a book that has you clutching your sides with laughter but it frequently raises a smile and occasionally an eyebrow.

There were several occasions when something Alpert wrote made me go ‘wait, what?’ but he was already off onto the next subject. For instance, a section on public speaking starts with ‘The Japanese in general are still fairly open about how they consider blacks and gay people to be inferior’, before moving on to how western men speak like Japanese women and how a 16 year-old’s breasts made him forget his speech. There were quite a few occasions when I would have liked more detail on a throwaway line, about the attitude in this example, not the breasts, but the book just continues rolling onto the next story.

Because he spoke both Japanese and English and because Miyazaki refused to travel overseas, Alpert collected most of the 58 awards ‘Spirited Away’ won so, as well as a look at Japanese life, we get the wider movie industry. This includes an amusing section at Cannes, where Alpert nails the utter disdain of French waiters so accurately that it’s easy to accept everything else he says. Another major topic covered is the convoluted localisation of the movie Princess Mononoke, which Pixar and Neil Gaiman come out well, but Disney and Harvey Weinstein do not.

Despite the breadth of topics covered, this book does a good job of providing insight into both Hayao Miyazaki and some of the unseen, at least to only a dabbler in anime like myself, personalities behind the studio. For instance, the section on Miyazaki not knowing how his films will end until halfway through making them goes a long way to explaining why Ghibli’s films often start strong but have poor endings. I’m looking at you, Howl’s Moving Castle.

All of which means this is an easy book to recommend to fans of anime or Japanese culture, anyone interested in the movie industry or anyone who just likes amusing ‘stranger in a strange land’ type travel memoirs. Where else are you going to get a book that features the Japanese military, Aardman’s toilet and Gillian Anderson playing a middle-aged transvestite?

Stuart Maine

November 2020

(pub: Stone Bridge Press. 296 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61172-057-0)

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