File: Legendary director Hayao Miyazaki is known for films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away (right), which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

Story highlights

Studio Ghibli co-founder: Firm needs to "think about its future"

Retirement of legendary director Hayao Miyazaki leaves future in doubt

Expert: Ghibli must figure out how to carry on with younger talent

CNN  — 

Watch a movie from acclaimed Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, and you might see a boy turn into a flying dragon, a deer morph into a monstrous god, or a fish transform into a young girl.

But with the retirement last year of Hayao Miyazaki, the studio’s legendary co-founder, signs suggest the venerable and inimitable company is headed for a transformation of its own.

In a Japanese TV interview last Friday, Ghibli co-founder Toshio Suzuki said the firm needed to “think about its future,” and would be “changing the way we make (animation).”

He also speculated that Miyazaki might “make something again,” though it might be a no more than a short film for the Studio Ghibli museum.

Suzuki’s comments followed his own remarks from early last week, when he said Studio Ghibli would take a “brief break,” leading to panicked online speculation that the studio was about to close.

A Ghibli representative told CNN the speculation was untrue, saying “Studio Ghibli has decided nothing officially for the future of the studio.”

Yet after concluding nearly three decades with Miyazaki at the helm, the fate of the company suddenly looks uncertain.

The secret to Ghibli’s longevity

The studio has been producing hand-drawn animated films for decades, sticking to old-school, painstaking frame-by-frame methods even as other studios have long embraced computer-aided animation and CGI.

Every one of Studio Ghibli’s hits – from “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) to “The Wind Rises” (2013) features a signature artistic style – delicately rendered characters, exquisitely crafted environments, and an effortless sensation of movement.

Anime expert Helen McCarthy says Ghibli has been able to perfect its hand-drawn tradition because it has employed the same animators for a very long time – unlike many other studios, which rely on per-project contracts and short-term piecework.

File: Hayao Miyazaki attends the opening of his film "Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea" (2008).

“This means Ghibli can be sure of a consistent quality of artistry and craftsmanship,” she said.

But as Ghibli’s staff ages, the firm must figure out how to carry on with younger talent.

McCarthy says the Japanese studio has focused for decades on “the personal visions of two remarkable directors,” Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata – both now in their 70s.

“(Studio Ghibli) is like a great violin, a Stradivarius maybe, in the hands of two great musicians. But when those musicians retire it has to be passed on to new players or else falls silent, because its structure is expensive to maintain.”

What’s next?

The big question: Can anybody succeed Hayao Miyazaki?

File: Studio Ghibli director Goro Miyazaki is the son of Hayao Miyazaki.

“Studio Ghibli has young creators, Goro Miyazaki and Hiromasa Yonebayashi,” Studio Ghibli’s representative told CNN. “They are continuing to work for the studio.”

But the films of Goro Miyazaki, – Hayao Miyazaki’s 47-year-old son – and Yonebayashi, 41, have yet to achieve anywhere the success of the elder Miyazaki’s work.

Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 epic, “Spirited Away,” grossed a record-breaking $274 million worldwide and took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. In 2013, Miyazaki’s swansong “The Wind Rises,” made over $117 million.

By contrast, the studio’s newest film, “When Marnie Was There,” directed by Yonebayashi, is only expected to make $36 million. Goro Miyazaki’s 2013 “From Up on Poppy Hill” made about $61 million.

That’s why the studio must now perform a sober self re-evaluation after enjoying years of steady success.

Visitors at a Studio Ghibli exhibit in Hong Kong walk by a wall of artwork.

“We wanted to make a dream company,” said Suzuki. “We were able to realize (that dream) to some extent and we’re very happy about that. But now we’re at a point where we’ve got to think about what we’ll do next.”

Should fans be worried? McCarthy says Ghibli’s tradition of hand-drawn animation should survive, as long as audiences “accept the high costs and the demands it places on the workers involved.”

“Art is viable as long as people are willing to make it and buy it.”

CNN’s Junko Ogura contributed to this report.