So now that you've seen Umi and read a little about it, you want to pick up a copy and watch it on your new big-screen TV. Will there be any chance of it being released here in the US? Hmm. To be honest, I can't say, but if I were a betting man, I'd say our current chances range somewhere between "not likely anytime soon" and "fat chance." To understand, we'll have to look at the distribution deal between Ghibli and Disney.
In 1996, Disney signed a distribution deal with Tokuma Shoten, the publishing company that financed Studio Ghibli. According to the deal, Disney would sell the Ghibli catalog on video and DVD, and distribute theatrical films around the world. For Ghibli, this was a very profitable deal. They retained creative control over the DVD's, and released their entire catalog in excellent condition, and to great success. Disney's involvement also meant global exposure, which obviously is a very good thing (otherwise I'd be fast asleep instead of writing this).
There were some conditions to the deal, however. Rule Number One: no cuts. Rule Number Two: see Rule Number One. This was the deal-breaker. A number of Hollywood studios came courting, but wouldn't accept Ghibli's terms. Disney, however, agreed to the terms, and walked down the aisle.
Rule Number Two: Disney has to release all of the studio's movies in the American market (with the exception of Grave of the Fireflies, which was taken by Central Park Media), and they would get distribution of later theatrical films. And while they could not remove a single frame from any movie, they could rescore and re-dub the soundtracks for the US versions.
Despite signing on the dotted line, the Disney suits were never very happy with these terms. In all liklihood, they just wanted to get the rights to some of Miyazaki's more kid-friendly movies, like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service (these were the first movies to appear here on VHS, and they remained the only Ghibli movies on video for a number of years). It's also just as likely that Disney signed with Ghibli to prevent the other studios from getting their hands on the catalog of a rival animation studio - a studio that had cranked out one masterpiece after another, something that the Disney corporation hadn't done since Walt's glory days of the 1930s and '40s.
Disney was hoping Miyazaki would churn out another Totoro. Instead, his next film turned out to be Princess Mononoke - a dark, bloody violent meditation on conflict and the human condition, a grand opera on par with Kurosawa's Rashomon and Ran. Not exactly Mickey Mouse. The suits didn't like the picture one bit, but they were bound by the contract, and were later suckered by a second movie trailer, assembled by Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki, that sold it as a romantic damsel-in-distress adventure.
Mononoke was handed to Miramax, where Harvey Weinstein tried to chop the picture apart, as he often has with foreign movies. Miyazaki and Suzuki's response was almost like something out of The Sopranos. Suzuki greeted Weinstein with a samurai sword. On the sword was the incription: no cuts.
Miramax's response was the standard response of every Hollywood boss who doesn't like the movie the director handed him - they buried the picture. Despite spending over a million dollars on the Mononoke dub, employing Hollywood stars, and the writing talents of Neil Gaiman (whose original translated script was chopped to ribbons almost immediately after he handed it in), Mononoke played in a handful of major markets and was then shelved.
In the intervening years, there have been two major efforts by Pixar's John Lasseter to give Miyazaki's films a wider theatrical release. It's no bit of exaggeration to say that Lasseter is the one responsible for Miyazaki's Academy Award. Both Pixar and Ghibli have become remarkably close over time; Ghibli regularly helps to promote Pixar's movies in Japan (particularly with prized exhibits in the Ghibli Museum), and even released a DVD, "Lassater-San, Arigatou," as a thank-you for the Oscar.
Still, despite all the hard work, despite the stellar results (easily the two best American dubs of any foreign film), Disney buried Spirited Away, and then buried Howl's Castle. The two highest-grossing Japanese films of all time were never shown on more than a few hundred screens. Most high-profile releases are shown on several thousand screens.
The DVD front has been more successful, but it largely depends on where you happen to live. Buena Vista's Japanese DVD's are magnificent, wonderfully packaged, with superb picture quality and extras that include making-of videos, interviews, extensive trailers (the Mononoke DVD includes 26 minutes of movie trailers around the world), the e-konte storyboards, and English subtitles.
In America, Disney has finally released the bulk of Ghibli's films, but they've only done so kicking and dragging their heels every step of the way. The DVD's for Castle in the Sky and Kiki's Delivery Service were literally shelved for years, only to be brought out after Spirited Away won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. These first DVD's are generally terrible. Nearly all of the extras, save the storyboards, were excised (the Mononoke disc doesn't even include that), the packaging is terrible, and the Disney-dubbed soundtracks were just awful.
To Disney's credit, the later DVD releases have improved somewhat, coming closer to the Region 2 originals (and in the case of Totoro, matching them). At least the packaging includes a cardboard slipcase, at least when you can find a store that stocks them. The cynics among us may complain that Disney has steadily swept the Ghibli movies under the rug, but at least they're improving. Well, sometimes. It's best not to go into detail just now. Unless you want to read another 10 or 20 paragraphs without blinking.
I'll come back to Disney's American Ghibli DVDs, but chew on this one for a minute: they don't put the movie's title on the main menu screen.
So now we're back to the beginning of this never-ending essay, and the main question at hand: will Umi Ga Kikoeru be released in the US? The answers, again: "not likely anytime soon," "fat chance." Choose your poison.