It came as no surprise to see The Tale of the Princess Kaguya lose out to Disney's Big Hero 6 at the Oscars (the real Japan loses to the fake one, as the memage put it), but "unsurprising" doesn't mean "painless". No one really expected the Academy to not pass up Disney, with all of its omnipresence; by and large the Oscars recognize only the movies that have a certain degree of publicity and mindshare attached to them anyway. But the loss stings all the more, because it means one of the ostensible last chances for Studio Ghibli to receive that kind of recognition — and the absolute last chance for Isao Takahata himself to receive that recognition — is gone. What that recognition consists of, though, is worth a closer look.
Let us dispense, first and foremost, with the silly idea that the Oscars deserve to be taken seriously as any kind of metric apart from the Academy's ability to congratulate itself. There are no end of examples where the Academy ignored great things and chose instead to laud what was easy and obvious. My favorite example remains how in 1968 the Academy passed up the chance to recognize 2001: a space odyssey and instead gave the Best Picture nod to Oliver!. Maybe this seemed less ridiculous at the time, and we have the luxury of the perspective provided by time, but I'm sure even then that seemed boorish. (See Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars for some more fun discussion on that score.)
But Kaguya getting snubbed feels less like an instance of short-sightedness that in time will correct itself, and more like another example of how the Oscars are institutionally incapable of seeing animation on its own terms. The few times they do, it's always in the context of something safe and approachable — Disney or Pixar, both of which again have such strong marketing muscle that lauding them with awards feels like a constant gilding of the same lily. And while foreign animation occasionally makes it to the nomination stage — not just Ghibli, but maverick titles like The Triplets of Belleville -- it stalls there, in big part because it can't get past the wall of mind-share created by the more conventional domestic productions.
We all remember the one time that script was flipped: the 2001 Oscars, when Spirited Away walked off with Best Animated Feature. It was, however, not so much a harbinger of things to come, where anime (and animation generally) would become a respected member of awards circles, etc. It was more of a fluke of novelty, and once the novelty passed, things quickly returned to business as usual: animation is a way to sell toys to kids. Miyazaki himself was honored more recently with a lifetime-achievement award, but I have never been able to see such things as anything but an attempt on the part of the bestower to assuage its own guilt and stave off criticism.
That Kaguya lost is not really an indictment of the Oscars per se, because the Oscars are only a reflection of the industry's existing self-aggrandizement. They exist less to identify the works of quality in its midst than to remind everyone of what they already know in some form. That, in turn, is why having Kaguya even nominated at all is so frustrating: it's half of a recognition, which in some ways is worse than none at all. It's limbo, neither obscurity nor success — and that success consists of a nod from an authority that is more notable for its inertia than for its vitality.
(As others have pointed out, if "Foreign Animated" was its own category, Ghibli would have swept that handily — but I can't see the Academy, with its current mind-set, bothering with such a category. They have enough trouble recognizing anything that's not in English to begin with; setting up a second category for animation would just seem to them like a waste of breath.)
Explanations about why sophisticated animation draws such a small audience typically falls back on the idea that animation still comes with a whole cartful of expectations attached to it about its audience. It's not as if people are unaware of the idea that there is animation that's not necessarily for kids; it's that by and large such distinctions only matter to the minority of viewers who bother to train themselves in such things. It seems like this shouldn't persist as thoroughly as it does — not with smart, sophisticated animation of all stripes on prime-time TV and video platforms (Bojack Horseman, Bob's Burgers, the omnipresent and now multigenerational Simpsons). With animation clearly no longer kid's stuff, why should it still be so hard to get audiences to pay attention to examples of the medium at its most far-reaching and envelope-pushing?
Stated like that, I realize the problem isn't about animation at all. It's that any film along those lines has a hard time finding any audience, no matter what it looks like or what country it comes from. The fact that it's animated is not even the biggest strike against it, although it certainly doesn't help. Kaguya lost because, time and again, the Oscars simply have no idea what to do with genuinely great films — and, in turn, only because most everyone else doesn't know what to do with them, either. A film like Kaguya has to be pigeonholed as "animation" (as 2001 before it was "science fiction" and — one of the few times the Oscars got it right — Silence of the Lambs was "horror"), because most people are not in the habit of approaching their entertainments without a label, or treating such things as anything but entertainments.
Maybe the real problem is expecting justice where nothing of the kind inherently exists. We like the idea of the true greats among us getting something like proper recognition in their lifetime, and we want it to come most of all from those who are not already being preached to in the choir. We like the idea that it's not just some elite few who recognize that someone or something is great, but that it is a universal fact, as unimpeachable as water being wet. But that's a delusion of longing, and a harmful one. It makes even less sense to expect the Oscars, an institution notorious for its short-sightedness, to dispel such delusions.
Why get so bent out of shape over something that we all know in a few years is going to be widely regarded as a goof? Not because Kaguya doesn't deserve an Oscar, but because Kaguya, and the audience for it, deserve better than a feeling of frustration. Let's stop looking for validation in all the wrong places, and start cultivating it in the right ones.